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Category: Elea Lionnet

European immigration in the US since 1877

A newly arrived immigrant family on Ellis Island, gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty.

A newly arrived immigrant family on Ellis Island, gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty.

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM


The United States of America and its population are shaped by its complex history and particularly its immigration all along the years. Immigration has been essential to the development of the United States as the huge nation it is today. The discovery of this new land named the « New World », the creation of the 13 colonies in the beginning of the 17th century by people who left their country because of religious persecution, the birth of the United States as a country in 1776, the slavery period which occurred during 18th and 19th century and ended in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteen Amendment, the wars such as the American War of Independence , the American Civil War, all those events impacted the country and led to immigration. The country has experienced African, European, and Asian immigration. The United States is a land of immigration; immigrants were and still are coming from all around the world.

This museum exhibition is going to focus on European immigration in the US on one specific period which is from the 1880s to 1920-30s. The following sources which are images, texts, excerpts of reports, videos, articles or even laws illustrate many aspects of immigration in the US at this time: the diversity of countries of origin, the economic, the social and the political consequences, the impact on the country, the reaction of American citizens but also the one of the government.

First, the term immigration means the coming of people into a country in order to live and work there. In order to be in accordance with this museum exhibition and the period it corresponds to, the term can be adapted and explained in a more specific way: immigration can be the forced coming of people into a country in order to work and help the family who stay in the country of origin, it can also be the coming of people into a country in order to find a family member who previously settled in the host country. As well immigration can mean the coming of people into a country in order to run away from wars, economic problems, or even discrimination, in other words, a better life.

From the late 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, there were a lot of reasons to leave a country to settle in the US. The country was flourishing, the economy was good, there were opportunities for jobs, and so better living conditions. Westward expansion led to the industrial revolution which in its turn generated a rapid economic growth and a massive immigration. A period called the “Gilded Age” began during the 1870s. The wages were higher than in other countries especially than in Europe and so millions of immigrants came in the US during but also after this period. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, millions of people from diverse countries such as Italy, Poland, Germany, and Greece immigrated to the US. In the late 19th century, the arrival of millions of immigrants who were looking for jobs, better wages or their family members increased the wealth inequalities in the country and helped to create a more urbanized America. Many of those immigrants lived in poverty. Immigrants also endured forced assimilation nicknamed “Americanization”. They had to assimilate what was considered as the dominant values and ideals of the US at this period. For example, all immigrants who worked for Ford had to learn English language and besides their habits at home or in the public sphere were spying in order to make them adopt an American way of life and forget about their country of origin background and culture. We can qualify this custom by the term Cultural Genocide also employed when Native American endured the forced assimilation. In 1914, one of the most powerful examples of Americanization happened, the Melting Pot of the English School became compulsory for workers. The First World War that occurred in Europe affected European immigration during the beginning of the 20th century. Between 1870 and 1920, 25 million Europeans came to the US, 13 million of them came between 1901 and 1914. Ellis Island and Angel Island were the two immigration inspection stations in the early 20th century. While European immigration and immigration from another continent such as Asia increased, the country was changing. In 1920, 1/7 of the population was foreign-born. In Detroit, a city very urbanized, there was a huge Polish community of immigrants but also Germans, Russians, Italians. This massive immigration had many consequences on people’s lives. The conditions of immigrants were not as good as they hope to be, some never found their families, some did not find the job they needed to, a lot of immigrants were very sick. The fact that they were living in insalubrious, dangerous and crowded tenements was a deep disillusionment, the infant mortality rate was very high and a lot of immigrants remained poor. The US government reacted and handled the situation with different measures and laws such as the Immigration Restriction Act 1924 which slowed and limited the arrival of immigrants in the US by the use of a national origins quotas.

The following documents allow a better understanding of how people arrived in the US, how they lived during this period, how the US government reacted to the massive arrival of immigrants, what immigration provided to the US nation, what economic changes occurred, what laws and policies were created and more again.


An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887.

An illustration of immigrants on the steerage deck of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 2, 1887.

National Park Service, Statue of Liberty NM

Ellis Island, the gate to New World

This source’s content is one of the twenty-six pages of the report that contains the list of the immigrants who arrived in Ellis Island and were indexed from December 1, 1899, to March 31, 1900. This document was created to leave a trail of all the people who entered the US during this period. This report sheds light on the huge number of immigrants that arrived at this period and the diversity of countries they were coming from. This item is a good example to show and especially explain the diversity of origins of people who lived and still live in the US nowadays. Some phenomena such as Urbanization or Americanization are the consequences and results of the immigration. Having access to such a source may allow people to search for their family background or else find people thanks to the information which are in the report. The most common information is the nationality, the age, and the cause. There is some surprising information like « cause of detention » or even the variety of ages. Certain causes are gripping such as « one child in hospital » (p11) just as the last four pages, the case of the sixty-eight years old Italian man who wants to meet his son in N-Y. This report is interesting in many ways and well illustrate the theme of immigration during this period of history.|video_work|1790656

This video published in 1906 by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company depicts scenes of the arrival of emigrants at the dock on Ellis Island, as the title indicates it. First, they lined up but then the dock began to be very crowded. Then, another group is going on a boat. The quality is not enough good to notice if there is a difference between the two groups. This item permits to see for real what was and the journey of immigration at this period and how Ellis Island looked like. Many of the sources on the topic immigration are about Ellis Island. This source is important because it is related to the topic of immigration but also because a video gives reality to this museum exhibition, instead of texts which give details. The images of the video can help the people to identify themselves to all those immigrants. It is hard to imagine how people were dressed, how they behaved facing such a situation, this item gives some answers. It also supports the idea of massive immigration.




This document is an excerpt of a 95 pages report published by the Alliance of German societies of the State of Indiana. This report contained several pieces of information concerning the relationship between the two countries. This source shows the link between Germany and the US in 1911 and the complaints about Ellis Island’s administration. The practices of a commissioner are seen as an enemy to the immigration system. Ellis Island was an important place during the immigration period and was also a complex place where Europeans were arriving after their crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. For some, Ellis Island was a place of hope, the beginning of a new life but for some others, it was a place of abuses, violation of the law or more than that. Thanks to those type of documents, it is possible to see that people in charge often tried to solve problems related to immigration.




This document is an image published by The Maltine Company in a 30 images pamphlet in 1902. It was created to show the world in which conditions immigrants came in the US. This source depicts immigrants coming up the boardwalk from the barge, which is taking them off the steamship and transporting them to Ellis Island. In the background, there is the hospital, and in the middle, a ferry-boat is arriving. This item allows to understand that there were a lot of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island, most of them had a very long travel where the hope of a better life made them go through. This image shows immigrants who look exhausted, it also reveals how travel is hard for those people who are men, women, elderly people but also children. Immigration was a very hard period for millions of immigrants who completely changed their environment as well as their lives.

Living conditions in the early 19th century




Those items are excerpts of Ellis Island’s organization official document. It gives the number of immigrants who arrived in the US from 1902 to 1910 and delivers the list of the principal classes who are excluded. This source is very interesting because it permits us to understand how the arrival of immigrants worked, what sort of test they had to pass, the huge number of immigrants and their origins. It is also possible to imagine and visualize how Ellis Island was a crowded place during those years. This document offers us a view on how the US did the selection between their future citizens and the others.



This document is the excerpt of the report of the medical board of the New York hospital, it contains several pieces of information about the New York hospital. The report was created to keep archives about the year 1908. This item focuses on the number of patients and their diseases. The report provides a different point of view of immigration and allows to imagine how difficult it as for everyone to handle the situation in hospitals at this period. This is a good example of how immigration impacts the US economically and socially, especially in a huge city like New-York. Furthermore, knowing the huge number of immigrants that came to the US, this source enables to understand how and why the US government dealt with the situation and the changes that occurred during the early 20th century.


"Five Cent a Spot" Unauthorized Lodgings in a Bayard Street Tenement. Via Preus Museum

"Bandit`s Roost" 59 1/2 Mullbery Street. Via Preus Museum

Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance.

In New York … the boundary line of the Other Half lies through the tenements. … To-day three-fourths of its people live in the tenements, and the nineteenth century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them. The fifteen thousand tenant houses that were the despair of the sanitarian in the past generation have swelled into thirty-seven thousand, and more than twelve hundred thousand persons call them home. The one way out he saw–rapid transit to the suburbs–has brought no relief. We know now that there is no way out; that the “system” that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization. Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain.

What the tenements are and how they grow to what they are, we shall see hereafter. The story is dark enough, drawn from the plain public records, to send a chill to any heart. If it shall appear that the sufferings and the sins of the “other half,” and the evil they breed, are but as a just punishment upon the community that gave it no other choice, it will be because that is the truth. The boundary line lies there because, while the forces for good on one side vastly outweigh the bad–it were not well otherwise–in the tenements all the influences make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics that carry death to rich and poor alike; the nurseries of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts; that throw off a scum of forty thousand human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year; that turned out in the last eight years a round half million beggars to prey upon our charities; that maintain a standing army of ten thousand tramps with all that that implies; because, above all, they touch the family life with deadly moral contagion. This is their worst crime, inseparable from the system. That we have to own it the child of our own wrong does not excuse it, even though it gives it claim upon our utmost patience and tenderest charity.

What are you going to do about it? is the question of to-day. It was asked once of our city in taunting defiance by a band of political cutthroats, the legitimate outgrowth of life on the tenement-house level. Law and order found the answer then and prevailed. With our enormously swelling population held in this galling bondage, will that answer always be given? It will depend on how fully the situation that prompted the challenge is grasped. Forty per cent of the distress among the poor, said a recent official report, is due to drunkenness. But the first legislative committee ever appointed to probe this sore went deeper down and uncovered its roots. The “conclusion forced itself upon it that certain conditions and associations of human life and habitation are the prolific parents of corresponding habits and morals,” and it recommended “the prevention of drunkenness by providing for every man a clean and comfortable home. Years after, a sanitary inquiry brought to light the fact that “more than one-half of the tenements with two-thirds of their population were held by owners veto trade the keeping of them a business, generally a speculation. The owner was seeking a certain percentage on his outlay, and that percentage very rarely fell below fifteen per cent., and frequently exceeded thirty. . . . The complaint was universal among the tenants that they were entirely smeared for, and that the only answer to their requests to have the place put in order by repairs and necessary improvements was that they must pay their rent or leave. The agent’s instructions were simple but emphatic: ‘Collect the rent in advance, or, failing, eject the occupants.”‘ Upon such a stock grew this upas-tree. Small wonder the fruit is bitter. The remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscience. Neither legislation nor charity can cover the ground. The greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it, as far as it can now be undone. Homes must be built for the working masses by those who employ their labor; but tenements must cease to be “good property” in the old, heartless sense. “Philanthropy and five per cent.” is the penance exacted.

If this is true from a purely economic point of view, what then of the outlook front the Christian standpoint? Not long ago a great meeting was held in this city, of all denominations of religious faith, to discuss the question how to lay hold of these teeming masses in the tenements with Christian influences, to which they are now too often strangers. Might not the conference have found in the warning of one Brooklyn builder, who has invested his capital on this plan and made it pay more than a money interest, a hint worth heeding: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”

These sources are a mix of texts and photos also called documentary published in 1890 by Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant. Riis’s work documents and depicts the awful living conditions of immigrants in the tenements of New York by photos and articles. In his work, we can see photos of immigrants; children, women, men who came to a better life in the US but did not fully achieve their goal and are in a situation of extreme poverty. Jacob Riis created this source to denounce the alarming situation, open rich people’s eyes and make them aware of how other people are surviving while they are enjoying the growth of American urbanization. The book is also an artistic way to remember such an important period of US history. I chose this item for several reasons. It shines a light on real immigrants’ lives. The public can’t avoid and is aware of the situation. A work like this can impact the policies and create a movement of help. Jacob Riis’s photos are the perfect example of how to denounce the inequalities that came out of the massive immigration in the US.

Government’s laws and reactions

This document is the excerpt of a report of 14 pages from the Immigration Service send by the Office of District Director Chicago, Illinois. It contains information about aliens from 1917 to 1927 which is a large period. This source was created to leave a trace of those cases and use them if needed. This item is interesting because it shows various aspects of immigration during this period. The case is about a warrant of arrest which has been canceled. The alien is an Italian immigrant who had been arrested because of mistaken accusations on the fact that he is an anarchist and so violated the Immigration Act of 1917 which restricted the immigration of a particular category of people. The interview is full of information, the questions asked are very diverse, it goes from his name to his political belief by the way of the condition of his arrival in the US. This excerpt of the report is very interesting because it allows us to penetrate the history and to know how the immigrants were treated but also processed by the system. It also indicates the tension during the years 1917-1918, which are the last years of the First World War that occurred in Europe. This item rings the bells about the famous Sacco and Vanzetti case that became a movie. This film depicts the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italians accused and killed because of mistaken accusations but also mistrust regarding immigrants. The film revisits their history and how US population experienced the trial and faced the injustice.



This source is an excerpt of the Emergency Quota Act. The purpose of this act was to restrict the number of immigrants that arrived in the US regarding countries. World War I had devastated many countries in Europe and the good economy of the US attracted a lot of people who looked for a better life. In the early 19th century, millions of immigrants arrived in the US and the government started to react and create new policies to calm this huge arrival of aliens. Immigrants coming from specific countries such as Northern European ones were more welcomed and more numerous than immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Furthermore, this act was revised by the Immigration Act of 1924. In spite of this act, the European immigration was very intense before and after the WWI and the effect of this massive immigration still remains today in American society as a whole.

Comprehensive Immigration Law (1924)

[…] Now, therefore I, Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States of America acting under and by virtue of the power in me vested by the aforesaid act of Congress, do hereby proclaim and make known that on and after July 1, 1924, and throughout the fiscal year 1924-1925, the quota of each nationality provided in said act shall be as follows:


Afghanistan- 100

Austria- 785

Belgium (5)- 512

Bulgaria- 100

Cameroon (French mandate)- 100

China- 100

Czechoslovakia- 3,073

Denmark (5, 6)- 2,789

Egypt- 100

Finland- 170

France (1, 5, 6)- 3,954

Germany- 51,227

Great Britain and Northern Ireland (1, 3, 5, 6)- 34,007

Greece- 100

Hungary- 473

India (3)- 100

Iraq (Mesopotamia)- 100

Irish Free State (3)- 28,567

Italy, including Rhodes, Dodecanesia, and Castellorizzo (5)- 3,845

Japan- 100

Lithuania- 344

Muscat (Oman)- 100

Nepal- 100

Poland- 5,982

Rumania- 603

Sweden- 9,561

This source is the Immigration Act of 1924, also called the Johnson-Reed Act written by the US government to limit the immigration in the US. It depicts the characteristics of this law but also informs about the quotas. The US wanted to limit the number of immigrants who entered the country, they used a quota based on origins. They made distinctions between Europeans and Asians for example, this distinction can be perceived as racist. There is another aspect of US policies during the immigration period. This item permits a better understanding of the US policies at this period, it informs people about the law and what it produced but also helps understand why this law was signed. As the excerpt shows, the US favored the entry of white skin immigrants. The act limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. This quota provided immigration visas to a certain number of people of each nationality in the United States. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia. This item teaches us about inequalities and so tensions that some American laws created. This document is very representative of US laws against the massive immigration.



This document is an act that was voted after the creation of the bill to amend the law relative to citizenship and naturalization and to other purposes, 72d Congress. December 11, 1931. It deals with immigration but more specifically with the results and the reactions of US Congress. This document was created during the 73d Congress, the bill became an official act and the Congress make it public. This document shines a light on the reaction of the US government to immigration. In addition to this, this item offers a better comprehension of how the immigrants managed to become US citizens. This item allows showing all the aspects of immigration and the period that it belongs to. Being aware of how immigrants came and how many they were is important but the overall process is even more interesting and the bills about immigration still have an impact on the country nowadays. This source clarifies terms and answers a lot of the questions that I have about how an immigrant and a family become citizens of the US, about how long is the process and about the law regarding the children. The reading of this document provides more knowledge about the immigration policies in the 1930s.

Employment and Industry


This document is a photo of the English class 1914-1915 in the Ford Company taken by the Photographic Department of Ford. This item illustrates one aspect of what is Americanization after the immigration period. The school took pictures to keep memories but also to show and to affirm the progress and the benefits of those English school on immigrants. On the picture, there is a teacher and men who are seated on desks, they look very concentrated. A lesson is written on the board, and all the men look like children raising their hands in class. When Ford recruited immigrants with a lot of different nationalities, the language was the main issue. This source demonstrates that the companies, the government, the people invest a lot in massive immigration. It is also interesting because this photo only shows the good side of immigration and measures that were taken. In order to solve the issue of language, English classes were created. A lot of foreign-born workers experienced Americanization through language instruction.



This document is a newspaper article published on January 7, 1914, two days after the announcement by Henry Ford and his vice-president about the double wages. In fact, on January 5, 1914, Ford Motor Company increase wages from 2,30$ to 5$.  The poverty that immigration and other economic issues produced influenced the industry field. By increasing wages, Ford wanted better living conditions for his workers.  Immigration impacts the number of inhabitants, it provokes more demand and creates a better economy. The mass European immigration of the early 19th century impacted US economy, but also participate in the improvement of workers’ living conditions in US industries.



Changes in American society

This document is the report of Immigration Service by the Office of the Commissioner of Ellis Island. The two excerpts we are going to focus on are the list of disease and conditions, then the lists of the race of immigrants in the fiscal year ended on June 30th, 1909. This document is very valuable because it makes us aware of the huge amount of diverse health problem that the immigrants faced whether in their country of origin or even during their travel to Ellis Island. The document open eyes on the enormous diversity of origins, the list counts 40 distinctive races according to the Immigration Service. The document shows that in the early 20th century, people who wanted to reach the US to start a new life were coming from everywhere in the world. This item teaches how Immigration shaped and impacted American society of today.




This source is the extract of a debate in the House of Representatives in April 1921 that transcribes Lucian W. Parrish’s speech about immigration. In this document, Parrish is warning people of the Congress about massive immigration. He is worried about « foreign element » and wants a country « true to the American thought and the American ideals ». He proposes to stop immigration. This speech well represents the huge section of people who were against immigration for several reasons. This item exposes the fear that immigration generated and its consequences on certain citizens’ minds, especially after the war that devastated Europe. This source is very interesting because it enlightens many of the reasons why some people, from the government or not, were suspicious about Europeans immigrants arriving in the US after the First World War.


Primary Sources:

1. Office of the US Commissioner of Immigration. “Ellis Island detained immigrant report exhibits on statistics of detained immigrants” Dec 01, 1899 – Mar 31, 1900. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

2. Arrival of Emigrants, Ellis Island. G. W. Bitzer. American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, May 9, 1906. American History in Video.

3. Alliance of German Societies of the state of Indiana. Indianapolis, June 10, 1911. “Ellis Island conditions and investigation of application of immigration laws” May 01, 1911 – Jun 30, 1911. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

4. The Maltine Company, Landing at Ellis Island, 1902. Library of Congress.

5. Ellis Island: Its organization and some of its works. “Rules for Ellis Island U.S. Immigrant Station, divisional organization, and duties” June 01, 1909 – August 31, 1911. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

6. Report of the medical board of the New York hospital for the year ending December 31, 1908. Society of the New York Hospital annual report, 1908. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

7. Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890

8. U.S. Departement of labor. Immigration Service. Office of District Director Chicago, Illinois. “Immigration and Naturalization Service case file on subversive and illegal aliens” Dec 01, 1917 – May 31, 1927. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

9. US Government. “Emergency Immigration Act of 1921”. An Act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States. Wikipedia Images.

10. US Government, “Immigration Law of 1924” or “Johnson-Reed Act”. 1924. Web Archives.

11. US Government. An act to amend the law relative to citizenship and naturalization, and to other purposes. HR 3673.73d Congress. May 24, 1934. Official Website of the United States of America.

12. Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department. “Ford English School Classroom at the Highland Park Plant ” 1914-1915. The Henry Ford.

13. Newspaper Article, “Gold Rush is Started by Ford’s $5 Offer,” January 7, 1914. Ford Company Archives.

14. Department of Commerce and Labor. Immigration service. Office of the commissioner Ellis Island, New York, NY. “Race and sex of immigrants admitted to hospital during fiscal year ended June 30th, 1909. “Annual report of the Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration on the medical examination of immigrants. Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930. History Vault.

15. Parrish W. Lucian, Speech in Congress on Immigration. House of Representatives, April 1921. Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! : An American History. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Compagny, 2017. Chapter 20 (p792).

16. Richard Bak, The Melting Pot. In Detroit: 1900-1930. (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 1999). Images of America, A History of American Life in images and texts.

Secondary Sources:

1. “Sacco and Vanzetti ” Amy Carey Linton, fl. 1989 and Peter Miller, fl. 1990. First Run Features. New York, NY. 2006. American History in Video.

2. Joseph S. Roucek. “The Image of the Slav in U.S. History and in Immigration Policy. “The American Journal of Economics and Sociology “. Vol. 28, No. 1 (Jan. 1969), pp. 29-48 (20 pages). Waidner Spahr Library Dickinson.

3. Immigration to the United States, by Kyu-Young Park. Korean Americans in Chicago. (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003). pp.9-14 (p10). Images of America. A History of American Life in images and texts.

4. From Castle Garden to Ellis Island, by Barry Moreno. Ellis Island. (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003). pp.9-24 (p10). Images of America. A History of American Life in images and texts.

5. Ichioka, Yuji. “Amerika Nadeshiko: Japanese Immigrant Women in the United States, 1900-1924.” Pacific Historical Review Vol 49, no. 2 (May 1980) pp339-357. Waidner Spahr Library Dickinson.

6. Albjerg L Victor. “IMMIGRATION AFTER 1865.” Current History (Pre-1986). Vol 29, no. 000171. November 11, 1955.(p292). Waidner Sparh Library.

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