Immigration and Citizenship in the United States, 1865-1924

Hana Layson and Daniel Greene

What role has immigration played in the formation of America’s national identity and ideals? How have Americans understood and debated the social effects of immigration? How have immigrants portrayed their experiences and contributed to these debates themselves?

Introduction

Is the United States “a nation of immigrants,” a “land of opportunity,” and refuge for the world’s persecuted and poor? Is the country made stronger by its ability to welcome and absorb people from around the world? Or are the new arrivals a burden? Should the United States close its borders to immigrants because of their numbers, their countries of origin, their politics, religions, financial means, educational levels, or medical conditions—all of which have been factors in one or more immigration laws over the past 150 years? What does it mean to be an immigrant, to be born in one country and spend much of one’s life in another? What consequences does immigration have for the individuals, families, and communities who migrate?

Almost since the founding of the republic, Americans and their legislators have weighed the benefits of welcoming new citizens from around the world against the benefits of restricting immigration, monitoring the activities of the foreign born in the United States, and narrowing the path to citizenship.

Debates over immigration dominate today’s newspaper headlines and political campaigns. These debates may be new in some of their particular concerns (the border with Mexico, Islamist terrorism), but many of the questions raised and arguments presented would have been deeply familiar to a reader in 1900. Almost since the founding of the republic, Americans and their legislators have weighed the benefits of welcoming new citizens from around the world against the benefits of restricting immigration, monitoring the activities of the foreign born in the United States, and narrowing the path to citizenship. One line of debate has focused on the issue of political influence and, specifically, the fear that foreigners within the United States promoted political radicalism. With the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the U.S. Congress and President John Adams sought to limit the influence of the French Revolution by deporting certain immigrants and closing immigrant-owned, opposition presses on the grounds of treason. In the late nineteenth century, immigration laws specifically forbade entry to any suspected anarchists; Communists would be targeted later in the twentieth century.

Another line of debate over immigration has focused on its economic impact. U.S. policy makers have vacillated between accommodating agricultural and industrial employers, who demanded a broad, inexpensive, and often temporary labor pool, and workers, who objected that the influx of immigrant labor created too much competition and drove down wages. Immigration from Latin America, for example, may seem the overriding issue today, but was not restricted at all until 1965, largely because of the demand for Mexican agricultural labor in Southwestern and Western states. The Chinese, in contrast, became the first ethnic group specifically barred from entry to the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed under pressure from white workers’ organizations in the West that resented Chinese competition for jobs in mining and railroad construction.

Finally, debates over immigration often turn on understandings of cultural difference and on changing expectations of how foreign-born people should adapt to and participate in American society. There have always been two primary paths to U.S. citizenship: One is through being born in the United States. The other is through naturalization, the legal process by which individuals apply for and are admitted to citizenship. But beyond this legal process, what are the expectations of citizenship? What is the process of assimilation, or absorption into, American culture? Can immigrants retain the customs or languages of their countries of origin and participate sufficiently in American society or are these practices in conflict? And which groups—government officials, politicians, journalists, “native-born” citizens, or immigrants themselves—should be in a position to decide?

This collection explores the subject of immigration in U.S. history with particular attention to the two and a half decades from 1890 to the start of World War I. As historian Roger Daniels explains in Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy Since 1882, the late nineteenth century witnessed an enormous increase in the number of arriving immigrants. More immigrants—11.7 million—came to the United States between 1871 and 1901 than had arrived in the United States and the British North American colonies during the preceding three centuries combined. (The U.S. population was 76.2 million in 1900.) Between 1900 and 1914, 12.9 million new immigrants arrived. These turn-of-the-century immigrants came primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, and were largely Italians, Jews, and Poles.

This period also saw significant changes in the government’s management of immigration. In 1891, the U.S. Congress determined that the issue would fall, exclusively, under national control. Congress removed any power that state commissions had previously held and established a new federal Bureau of Immigration. In 1892, the Bureau opened the Ellis Island immigrant receiving station in New York, through which approximately 70 percent of all immigrants would pass over the coming decades. Federal laws proceeded to restrict immigration over the coming decades, culminating in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. This act imposed a national quota system based on the 1890 census. As a result, foreign countries were allotted a specific number of annual entries to the United States in proportion to their presence in the United States in 1890. The act favored nationalities such as English, Irish, and Germans who had arrived before 1890 and severely limited arrivals from Eastern and Southern Europe. No numerical limit was placed on immigration from North or South America. Asians were completely excluded as they remained ineligible for citizenship. Other categories of people were excluded because they were deemed criminals or otherwise immoral, paupers (very poor people), contract laborers, political radicals, illiterates, or physically or mentally unfit. In 1943, Congress repealed the exclusion acts and established quotas for people from Asian countries. But the 1924 law remained largely in effect until the Immigration Act of 1965, which ended the national quotas system.

The documents here approach the history of immigration and citizenship from several different angles: national and personal identity, the experience of immigration, immigrant life in the cities, and political debates over immigration.

Please consider the following as you review the documents

• What role has immigration played in the formation of America’s national identity? In what ways are immigrants central to American ideals and in what ways have they been seen as threats to those ideals?

• Identify the terms of debate regarding the social effects of immigration. What arguments have people made about the impact of immigration on American society? What have been the perceived consequences—positive and negative—of new arrivals from around the world?

• Consider the experience of immigration. How do writings by immigrants contribute to the debates over immigration? How do they reframe our understanding of both personal and national identity?

Nation of Immigrants

These three documents represent different moments in what is now a long tradition of defining America as a nation of immigrants. Crèvecoeur offers one of the earliest formulations of this idea—and of the metaphor of different races “melted” together—in this passage from Letters from an American Farmer, written at the start of the American Revolution. Crèvecoeur was born in France in 1735 and moved to the British colony of New York at the age of 24, where he bought a large farm and settled down to raise a family seven years before the start of the war. In Letters from an American Farmer, he adopts the persona of James, a Pennsylvania farmer, who writes to a friend in England to explain American ways. (Ironically, Crèvecoeur did not favor American independence from England and lost his family as well as his farm in New York in the violence of the Revolution.) “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner” appeared in the magazine Harper’s Weekly just four years after the close of the Civil War, as many Americans were trying to envision national identity in the wake of such a profound internal rupture. It also responds to early debates around restricting Chinese immigration. The poet Emma Lazarus grew up in New York in a Jewish family of Portuguese descent in the nineteenth century. After 1879, she became particularly concerned about the persecution of Jews in Russia and Eastern Europe. She wrote this poem in 1883 to help raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. This poem was installed on a bronze plaque inside the statue in 1903, after her death. [Please note: The old colossus mentioned at the start of the poem is the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The twin cities are New York and Brooklyn, not yet consolidated into one entity.]

Questions to Consider

  1. According to Crèvecoeur (or his narrator, James), in what ways does America differ from Europe? What is the character of an American? In what way is he a “new man, who acts upon new principles”?

  2. How does America benefit from its ethnic diversity? What happens to the different national cultures of European immigrants in America? Are distinct national identities preserved?

  3. Why do you think that Crèvecoeur created an ethnically English character to narrate his work and personify the “American farmer”? Why do you think African Americans and Native Americans are absent from his sketch of a representative American?

  4. Examine the illustration “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner.” Which ethnic and racial groups are represented? How are people arranged around Uncle Sam’s table? Is there a hierarchy or do they appear to be equals? Why do you think that Nast chose to include family groups? Who do the pictures on the wall behind them portray?

  5. Examine the captions within the illustration. What is the illustrator’s message? What do you think is the significance of the illustration’s timing, just four years after the close of the Civil War?

  6. Identify America’s characteristics, as personified by the Statue of Liberty. Which terms does Lazarus use to describe the Statue? Compare Lady Liberty to Uncle Sam. How does gender affect the meaning of each of these personifications of America?

  7. How are immigrants portrayed in Lazarus poem? What are their reasons for coming to the United States? What, according to Lazarus, is America’s role in the world?

“What Is an American?”

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. From Letters from an American Farmer, 1793.

Image of What Is an American?

French-born J. Hector St. john de Crevecoeur immigrated to the British colony of New York in the 1750s. He wrote this famous description of the American character shortly before the Revolution.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title What Is an American?
Short Title What Is an American? 1793
Book Title Letters from an American Farmer
Place of Publication Philadelphia
Publisher Mathew Carey
Creator J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Publication Date 1793
Pages pp. 46-47
Call Number Ayer 128.7 .C8 1793
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner”

Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, November 20, 1869.

Image of Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner

Harper’s illustrator, Thomas Nast, imagined this diverse group of people joining Uncle Sam’s dinner table just four years after the close of the Civil War, a time when many Americans were trying to re-envision national identity.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title Uncle Sam's Thanksgiving Dinner, 1869
Creator Thomas Nast
Publication Date November 20, 1869
Volume Vol. 13
Pages p. 745
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“The New Colossus”

Emma Lazarus. From The Poems of Emma Lazarus., 1889.

Image of The New Colossus

This poem celebrating America as a home for immigrants from around the world appears on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The New Colossus
Short Title The New Colossus, 1889
Book Title The Poems of Emma Lazarus.
Place of Publication Boston
Publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Co
Creator Emma Lazarus
Publication Date 1889
Pages pp. 202-203
Call Number Y 285 .L45
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Immigration Debates in Cartoons

These political cartoons from two popular nineteenth-century magazines both take up the question of whether specific national groups should be excluded from American life. The Harper’s illustration responded to a bill in the New York legislature that proposed to fine and imprison anyone who hired Chinese contract workers. The illustration accompanied a brief column describing the bill and dismissing the alleged threat of a “Chinese invasion” against which American workers must be protected. The columnist concluded that “A majority in this country still adhere to the old Revolutionary doctrine that all men are created free and equal before the law, and possess certain inalienable rights.” Eighteen years later, the Puck cartoon takes a quite different approach to the controversy concerning Irish immigrants. This cartoon accompanied an editorial that argued that the United States, like European countries, had developed “a national type… This type is strong enough to assimilate to itself all foreign types which fall fairly under its influence.” However, the editorial goes on to criticize supporters of Irish independence from England as “a class of voters who are American only in name, and Irish in feeling and conduct.” Both cartoons personify America as Columbia, a goddess-like embodiment of the nation who appears in art and literature from the eighteenth century forward.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the different figures in the Harper’s illustration—the Chinese man, Columbia, and the mob of white men on the right. What are their postures? How do they relate to each other?

  2. Examine the posters on the wall behind Columbia and the Chinese man. What arguments do they make against Chinese immigration? What do the posters as well as the representation of the white mob suggest about its class composition? What evidence do you see that the mob may resort to violence?

  3. The caption reads: “Columbia—‘Hands off, gentlemen! America means Fair Play for All Men.’” How do the caption and other elements of the illustration refute the anti-Chinese movement?

  4. In the Puck cartoon, the man on the rim of the bowl wears a banner that reads “Blaine Irishman” and carries a flag with Irish writing. How does the man appear? How does his appearance support and explain the caption? How does Columbia respond to him?

  5. What does the process of assimilation—or cultural absorption—involve, according to this representation?

“The Chinese Question”

Thomas Nast. From Harper's Weekly, February 18, 1871.

Image of The Chinese Question

This Harper’s illustration responded to a bill in the New York legislature that proposed to fine and imprison anyone who hired Chinese contract workers. It accompanied a column dismissing the alleged threat of a “Chinese invasion.”

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title The Chinese Question
Publication Title Harper's Weekly
Short Title The Chinese Question, 1871
Creator Thomas Nast
Publication Date February 18, 1871
Volume Vol. 15
Pages p. 149
Call Number folio A 5 .392
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element that Won't Mix”

C. J. Taylor. From Puck, June 26, 1889.

Image of The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element that Won't Mix

This cartoon appeared alongside an editorial criticizing supporters of Irish independence as “American only in name.”

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title The Mortar of Assimilation–And the One Element that Won't Mix
Publication Title Puck
Short Title The Mortar of Assimilation, 1889
Creator C. J. Taylor
Publication Date June 26, 1889
Volume Vol. 25
Pages p. 304
Call Number folio A 5 .7634
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Experiences of Immigrants

These documents represent various experiences that were shared by many immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1890 and 1924: being inspected at Ellis Island, performing or seeking work, getting lost or searching for relatives who have been lost in transit, and attending civics and English language classes. The photographs appear in Edward Alsworth Ross’ The Old World in the New. Ross, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, takes a fiercely anti-immigrant stance in his book. However, these photographs, taken by journalists and reformers, offer a compelling record of immigrant experiences and a counterweight to Ross’ rhetoric, examined later in this collection. Edith Abbott was an economist, social worker, and educator who helped establish the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at the University of Chicago and served 18 years as its dean. These documents are selected from a source book that she compiled from government records, scholarly articles, and other sources for the benefit of SSA students.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe the photographed women in line at Ellis Island. How are they dressed? What do their expressions or postures tell you?

  2. According to the essay “Line Inspection at Ellis Island,” written by a Bureau of Immigration inspector, what process did people go through when they arrived at Ellis Island? Describe the techniques that inspectors used to determine if a person was eligible for admission to the United States. How did inspectors sort the admitted people from those requiring further examination? Which physical and mental conditions disqualified a person from admission? What other attributes rendered a person “unfit”? How do you think you would feel going through this inspection?

  3. Describe the women at work in Chicago in the two photographs. What kind of work do they do and, as far as you can tell, under what conditions? How are they dressed? Compare these women to those in line at Ellis Island.

  4. According to Grace Abbott (Edith’s sister and a social worker and policy maker) in “The Unskilled Immigrant in Chicago,” what challenges did immigrant men face in finding work?

  5. Consider the photographs of people attending civics and English language classes. What is the purpose of these classes, especially tailored to immigrants?

“Immigrant Women in Line for Inspection at Ellis Island”

Edward Alsworth Ross, Lewis Hine. From The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

Image of Immigrant Women in Line for Inspection at Ellis Island

Lewis Hine was an American sociologist, reformer, and photographer who extensively documented conditions at Ellis Island between 1904 and 1909.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Immigrant Women in Line for Inspection at Ellis Island
Short Title Immigrant Women in Line for Inspection, 1914
Book Title The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Century Co.
Creator Edward Alsworth Ross, Lewis Hine
Publication Date 1914
Pages p. 6
Call Number J 383 .756
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Immigrant Girls Coming to Work… and Polish Girls Washing Dishes…”

Edward Alsworth Ross, Burke & Atwell, Townsend. From The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

Image of Immigrant Girls Coming to Work… and Polish Girls Washing Dishes…

Two images of immigrant life in America, the first depicting factory girls on their way to work at the Union Stockyards in Chicago, the second showing Polish immigrant girls washing dishes in a below-ground restaurant.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Immigrant Girls Coming to Work… and Polish Girls Washing Dishes…
Short Title Immigrant Girls Coming to Work, 1914
Book Title The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Century Co.
Creator Edward Alsworth Ross, Burke & Atwell, Townsend
Publication Date 1914
Pages p. 217
Call Number J 383 .756
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“YMCA Class… and Class of Foreign-born Women…”

Edward Alsworth Ross. From The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

Image of YMCA Class… and Class of Foreign-born Women…

Two images of immigrant education in Cleveland, Ohio. The first shows a YMCA class of Slovenian men observing a meeting of the City Council. The second depicts Austro-Hungarian women attending English classes held at their factory.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title YMCA Class… and Class of Foreign-born Women…
Short Title “Class of Foreign-Born Women”, 1914
Book Title The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Century Co.
Creator Edward Alsworth Ross
Publication Date 1914
Pages p. 277
Call Number J 383 .756
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Line Inspection at Ellis Island”

Edith Abbott. From Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records, 1924.

Image of Line Inspection at Ellis Island

This excerpt from economist and social worker Edith Abbott’s book on immigration provides a detailed description of the physical examinations intended to weed out physically or mentally disabled immigrants.

Image of Line Inspection at Ellis Island
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Line Inspection at Ellis Island
Short Title Line Inspection at Ellis Island, 1924
Book Title Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The University of Chicago Press
Creator Edith Abbott
Publication Date 1924
Pages pp. 244-247
Call Number J 383 .015
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“The Unskilled Immigrant in Chicago”

Grace Abbott and Edith Abbott. From Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records, 1924.

Image of The Unskilled Immigrant in Chicago

This essay by social worker and policy maker Grace Abbott describes how difficult it was for immigrants to find steady employment in 1920s Chicago.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Unskilled Immigrant in Chicago
Short Title The Unskilled Immigrant in Chicago, 1924
Book Title Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The University of Chicago Press
Creator Grace Abbott and Edith Abbott
Publication Date 1924
Pages p. 481
Call Number J 383 .015
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Immigrant Girls Traveling Alone Who Failed to Reach Destination”

Edith Abbott. From Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records, Circa 1924.

Image of Immigrant Girls Traveling Alone Who Failed to Reach Destination

Case records of European immigrant girls who failed to meet the friends and relatives waiting for them in the United States.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Immigrant Girls Traveling Alone Who Failed to Reach Destination
Short Title Immigrant Girls Traveling Alone, 1924
Book Title Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The University of Chicago Press
Creator Edith Abbott
Publication Date Circa 1924
Pages pp. 610-611
Call Number J 383 .015
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Neighborhoods and Tenements

The great majority of turn-of-the-century immigrants settled in cities, such as New York and Chicago. The two maps included in this section offer graphic representations of the distribution of immigrants at both local and national levels. Samuel Sewell Greeley’s Nationalities Map was published by Hull House in 1895 as part of a project to document and describe how people lived and worked in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Hull House was a settlement house established in Chicago’s Near West Side slum as part of a movement to redress the widening gulf between the poor and the affluent in America’s cities. Middle-class women and men lived at Hull House and provided services, classes, and organizational support to people in the neighborhood. In order to gather information to create this map and others, staff from Hull House and the federal Bureau of Labor went through the neighborhood house by house and asked residents about their ethnic origins, their work and wages, and the number of people in their households. Edward Alsworth Ross, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, saw the urban settlement patterns of immigrants as a problem. He argued that the new arrivals would overwhelm cities’ capacities to provide housing and other services. Ross created this map to illustrate the concentration of new immigrants in cities throughout the United States.

Indeed, the work of Jacob Riis vividly portrays the difficult living conditions that many immigrants faced in New York City. Riis was a Danish immigrant, who experienced severe poverty himself before becoming a celebrated photographer and social reformer advocating on behalf of the urban poor. In How the Other Half Lives, Riis documented conditions in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side—at the time, the most densely populated place on earth. Unlike Ross, who sought to address urban conditions by severely restricting the flow of new immigrants, Riis responded to these conditions by seeking to change them. He initiated a campaign to reform building codes and improve living conditions in the tenements, the dark, crowded, over-priced structures which housed three-quarters of New York’s population.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the Nationalities Map closely. Which nationalities and races are represented here and in what proportions? (Please note: Bohemian refers to people now known as Czech.) What criteria were used to define each group? On what basis do you think the map’s creator decided which color to assign each group?

  2. On the Nationalities Map, what patterns do you notice in the distribution of specific ethnic groups throughout the neighborhood? Are groups evenly dispersed? What do you find surprising about the neighborhood’s composition? How does it compare to the ethnic composition of your neighborhood?

  3. As illustrated in Ross’ map, where did recent immigrants settle in the United States in 1910?

  4. Study Riis’ diagram and description of the tenement building. Where are the windows and doors? What would the middle rooms of the tenement have been like? What do you think it would have been like to live in such a building?

  5. What do these photographs, taken by Riis himself, tell us about immigrants’ lives in New York?

Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago

Samuel Sewell Greeley. 1895.

Image of Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago

This map depicts the nationalities of each household in the neighborhood surrounding Hull House on Chicago’s Near West Side.

Image of Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago

Detail.

Metadata Details
Item Type Map
Title Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. to Twelfth, Chicago
Short Title Nationalities Map No. 1-4, Polk St. 1895
Creator Samuel Sewell Greeley
Publication Date 1895
Call Number map6F G4104.C6E2 1895 .G7 sheet 2
Location Special Collections 4th floor
Notes Detached from: Hull House maps and papers... New York : Crowell, 1895. (Library of economics and politics ; no. 5)

“Distribution of Foreign-Born Whites”

Edward Alsworth Ross. From The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

Image of Distribution of Foreign-Born Whites

This map shows where recent immigrants to the United States had settled based on data from the 1910 census.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Distribution of Foreign-Born Whites
Short Title Distribution of Foreign-Born Whites, 1914
Book Title The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Century Co
Creator Edward Alsworth Ross
Publication Date 1914
Pages p. 240
Call Number J 383 .756
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Description of Tenement Buildings”

Jacob A. Riis. From How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890.

Image of Description of Tenement Buildings

In this passage, social reformer Jacob Riis describes the cramped conditions of a New York City tenement, the type of apartment in which new immigrants and the poor typically lived.

Image of Description of Tenement Buildings
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Description of Tenement Buildings
Short Title Description of tenement buildings, 1890
Book Title How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Creator Jacob A. Riis
Publication Date 1890
Pages pp. 18-20
Call Number I 30851 .74
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“The Bend”

Jacob A. Riis. From How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890.

Image of The Bend

This photograph by social reformer Jacob Riis represents a notorious slum, known as “The Bend,” on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Bend
Short Title The Bend, 1890
Book Title How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Creator Jacob A. Riis
Publication Date 1890
Pages p. 59
Call Number I 30851 .74
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Bohemian Cigarmakers”

Jacob A. Riis. From How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890.

Image of Bohemian Cigarmakers

Jacob Riis’s photograph of Bohemian (or Czech) cigar makers shows the dire conditions under which entire families of immigrants lived and worked in late-nineteenth-century cities.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Bohemian Cigarmakers
Short Title Bohemian Cigarmakers, 1890
Book Title How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Charles Scribner's Sons
Creator Jacob A. Riis
Publication Date 1890
Pages p. 143
Call Number I 30851 .74
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Nativism

Edward Ross was a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the early twentieth century. He endorsed nativism, or the favoring of native-born inhabitants over immigrants, and advocated severe restrictions on immigration. In the preface to this book, he responds to people who see the welcoming of new immigrants as part of America’s democratic and humanitarian promise by writing, “I am not of those who consider humanity and forget the nation, who pity the living but not the unborn…I regard [America] as a nation whose future may be of unspeakable value to the rest of mankind, provided that the easier conditions of life here be made permanent by high standards of living, institutions and ideals…We could have helped the Chinese a little by letting their surplus millions swarm in upon us a generation ago; but we helped them infinitely more by protecting our standards and having something worth their copying when the time came.” He proceeds to argue that “the original make-up of the American people” was English Puritans, French Protestants, Germans, and Scotch-Irish. He laments that recent immigrants are predominantly Italian, Slavic, and Jewish.

Questions to Consider 1. How does Ross describe recent immigrants? Why does he believe that they pose such a problem for American society?

  1. Which groups of Americans are left out of his discussion of original and “new” immigrants?

  2. Do you believe that Ross’ arguments are simply a cover for prejudice against certain nationalities? Is there any legitimate basis for his claims? How would you respond to his arguments?  

“Social Effects of Immigration”

Edward Alsworth Ross. From The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

Image of Social Effects of Immigration

Edward Ross was a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who urged severe restrictions on immigration. In this passage, he vividly describes what he saw as immigrants’ negative impact on American society.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Social Effects of Immigration
Short Title Social Effects of Immigration, 1914
Book Title The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People
Place of Publication New York
Publisher Century Co
Creator Edward Alsworth Ross
Publication Date 1914
Pages pp. 228-229
Call Number J 383 .756
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Immigration and Identity

While the readings that open this collection address the issue of national identity, these texts by W. E. B. DuBois and Mary Antin explore questions concerning personal identity. DuBois was a prominent African American intellectual and civil rights advocate who, in The Souls of Black Folk, examined the history of African Americans and their place within American society. DuBois grew up in Massachusetts, relatively sheltered from racism, and earned a PhD at Harvard. But he lived in an America defined by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Supreme Court decision that introduced the doctrine of “separate but equal” and upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation. In this passage, DuBois considers what it means to be both black and American in a discussion that resonates with immigrant writers who wonder what it means to be both American and Irish or Italian or any other ethnicity. Mary Antin was born into a Jewish family in Polotzk, Russia, in 1881 and moved with her family to Boston when she was 13 years old. Although her father struggled to support the family, Antin received a strong education at the local public schools and grew up to become a celebrated writer and lecturer on the immigrant experience. Her autobiography, The Promised Land, portrays her childhood in Polotzk and Boston, contrasting the persecution and oppression that Jews experienced in Russia to the opportunity and success she found in America.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does DuBois characterize the experience of being African American at the turn of the twentieth century? What does he mean by “this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (p. 3)?

  2. How do you interpret Antin’s statement: “I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell” (p. i)? What does she mean when she writes of experiencing “more than one birth of myself” (p. xii)? What do these lines suggest about Antin’s relationship to the past?

  3. Consider how Antin develops the commonly used metaphors of Old World and New World to refer, respectively, to Eastern Europe and the United States. What does she mean when she writes, “I began life in the Middle Ages” (p. xiii)? What are the implications of conflating history and geography in this way?

  4. Both DuBois and Antin evoke an experience of double identity—DuBois’ “double-consciousness” or, in Antin’s words, being “of two worlds.” What do they mean by these phrases? In what ways are their formulations of African American and Jewish American identity similar and in what ways are they different? Do they have the same feelings toward their experience of doubleness? Do they seek the same sort of reconciliation? What, ultimately, are their feelings for America?  

“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”

W. E. B. Du Bois. From The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 1903.

Image of Of Our Spiritual Strivings

In this famous passage, African American intellectual and civil rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois describes the “double-consciousness” that results from being both black and American at the turn of the twentieth century.

Image of Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Of Our Spiritual Strivings
Short Title Of Our Spiritual Strivings, DuBois, 1903
Book Title The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher A.C. McClurg
Creator W. E. B. Du Bois
Publication Date 1903
Edition 2nd
Pages pp. 3-4
Call Number H 5837 .244
Location General Collections 2nd floor

The Promised Land

Mary Antin. 1912.

Image of The Promised Land

Mary Antin was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in the United States at the age of 13. In these excerpts from her memoir, she describes becoming an American as an experience so profound that it constitutes a “second birth.”

Image of The Promised Land
Image of The Promised Land
Image of The Promised Land
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Promised Land
Short Title The Promised Land, 1912
Place of Publication Boston
Publisher Houghton, Mifflin and Co.
Creator Mary Antin
Publication Date 1912
Number of Pages pp. i, xii-xv, and 364
Call Number E 5 .A629
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Selected Sources

Roger Daniels. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. 2004. pp. 27–58.

Mae M. Ngai. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. 2004. pp. 227–264.

Robert Siegel. Jacob Riis: Shedding Light On NYC’s “Other Half.” www.npr.org/templates/story/

Jewish Women’s Archive

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Digital collection produced in conjunction with Daniel Greene’s History Channel seminar, “Immigration and Citizenship in Modern American History,” on March 2, 2012. Cover image, “Towards the New World,” from Edward Alsworth Ross, The Old World in the New: The Significance of Past and Present Immigration to the American People, 1914.

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