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Nativism, the act of protecting the interests of American citizens as opposed to immigrants, is a key factor of American history. Nativism has shaped America in many ways since American citizens first felt that their culture was being threatened by immigrants coming into their country in the late 1800s. Throughout much of American history, American citizens have had a belief that they are superior to most other cultures, resulting from a fear of immigrants becoming the majority (Aaronovich Hourwich 1912). Because America has always had significantly more freedoms than other countries and groups of people, Americans began to assume that they had the upper hand, thinking of themselves as superior to others (Higham 1958). This digital exhibition displays how nativism has progressed throughout history, showing how periods of mass immigration into the United States significantly increased nativist ideas in America.

My museum project focuses on nativism in the United States from the late 19th century to the early/mid 20th century as a result of immigration. Through various primary and secondary sources, my theme draws conclusions about the actions and opinions of nativist Americans in reaction to mass amounts of immigrants entering the country. My sources show different topics connected to nativism that can be seen through this time period, showing the effect that nativists’ close-minded opinions had on the way that citizens viewed immigrants. The topics that my sources touch on in regard to my overall theme are the “Gilded Age,” a rise in industry, nativist organizations, Americanism, and discrimination in the 1920’s.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the “Gilded Age” saw a dramatic increase in immigrants from Eastern Europe (Hing 1997). This rise in immigration rates was mostly due to many new advancements in technology and industry, which created thousands of jobs. With immigrants coming in search of better opportunities, most found themselves working for new industries, such as oil, steel, and railroads. This rise in industry and expansion of jobs directly relates to nativism by giving American citizens the idea that because immigrants were doing “dirty work” and getting paid very low wages, they were automatically inferior (Lee 2010). Furthermore, the increase in immigration and the working class created a problem, as Americans began to believe that immigrants were taking their jobs.

Hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the Immigration Restriction League, were direct contributors to nativism. While Klan members preached their white supremacist ideas, more and more people in America began to believe that immigrants and people from different cultures did not deserve what American citizens had (Decker 2014). While the KKK used more violent tactics than other nativist groups to preach it’s hate, they nevertheless contributed greatly to the views of American people, as they promoted ideas that were in support of the American people, advocating for “pure” societies. These ideas, known as reactionary populism, led American nativists to see immigrants and non-white protestants as inferior to them, leading people to side with the Klan and support its ideals (MacLean 1995). The Immigration Restriction League was also a key contributor to nativism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, preaching their beliefs all throughout the country. Where the Klan focused more on people in America who didn’t have the same views and ideals as WASPs, the Immigration Restriction League focused on legislation restricting immigration into the United States. The league’s views of protesting immigrants entering the country spread quickly, exaggerating nativist ideas throughout the United States, eventually resulting in legal action to keep immigrants out. (Decker 2014).

Americanization is the process of making immigrants “American” by teaching them the language and culture. By the end of this process, there are little to no remnants of immigrant’s native culture left. This process became very prominent towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when Americans tried to Americanize Native Americans and immigrants working in factories in order to get the most for their money (Baron 1990). As industries became more prominent in the 1920s, there was an increased need for immigrants to perform low paying jobs. However, factories were very disorganized, as people were unable to communicate efficiently with immigrants, therefore creating a need for Americanization (Baron 1990). This process is directly related to nativism by showing once again how American people believed that their culture was superior, trying to physically change people in order to make them “better.” By analyzing Americanization in comparison to nativism, we can see many similarities that show how nativism has evolved. While nativism is the basis of Americanism and shows attitudes of prejudice, Americanization is the action of trying to change immigrants to conform to American culture (Baron 1990). The connection here shows the many forms of nativism that are seen throughout history.

By the 1920s, there were nearly 20 million immigrants living in the United States (Hing 2004). The amount of foreign-born people that were coming into Ellis and Angel Islands everyday reached a point that concerned many “natives,” thinking that the immigrants would threaten their livelihood. In response, the government passed many immigration restriction acts to try and limit the number of immigrants coming into the country (Hing 2004). These acts, designed to only allow a certain number of immigrants from each country into America each year, resulted in immigration quotas, showing the effects of nativist beliefs. In addition to restriction, immigrants in this period faced harsh discrimination from native citizens in relation to jobs and living standards. There were many movements purposed to stop businesses from hiring immigrants in the hopes of keeping American companies pure (Higham 1958). Although Americans did not want to do the work that was given to immigrants, they nevertheless felt threatened by immigrants doing jobs that they felt were meant to be for American citizens (Higham 1958). In addition, immigrants were forced to live in tenements, as they couldn’t afford anything more, being pushed into small quarters with other immigrants that had nothing while American citizens thrived off of their fortunes from the companies in which immigrants did all of the work (Riis 1889).

Nativism has stayed consistent throughout American history, continuously proving that American citizens believe they have an advantage over people from other countries and cultures, resulting in a tendency to believe they are superior. This is an important factor of American history, because it sets up background for the way that many people think today. Nativism is still very prominent and has always been connected to white supremacy, as Americans were led to believe they were superior to other cultures from early on. These beliefs have led generations of Americans to assert their dominance over minority groups, creating the vast amount of social issues seen today. There have been many world conflicts, wars, and tensions that all stem from the belief that America is superior to others. This way of thinking has proven consistent and influential over hundreds of years of history, having detrimental effects on everyone involved.


Legislation Restricting Immigration

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921

In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act, which put a cap on the number of immigrants that were allowed into the United States based on country of origin (Hing 2004). This act also states that immigrants from certain countries were not allowed into the United States, showing nativist ideas by excluding large groups of people based on their native countries. The first of many pieces of legislation passed in the 1920s, this act begins the legal action taken to limit the number of immigrants in America following a long period of mass immigration. Due to this large increase in immigration seen, many Americans felt threatened by foreigners, thinking that they were going to take over the American culture (Hing 2004). This source relates to nativism by emulating the views of Americans in the 1920s, fed up and scared that their culture would be overtaken by immigrants.

That the number of aliens of any nationality who may be admitted under the immigration laws to the United States in any fiscal year shall be limited to 3 per centum of the number of foreign-born persons of such nationality resident in the United States as determined by the United States census of 1910.

Link to full source:

Joint resolution extending the Immigration Reform Act of 1921

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 was passed as a quick way to limit the number of immigrants coming into America, created by a rising fear from American citizens. The act was not meant to be long term, resulting in an extension of the original act which was passed in late 1921(Hing 2004). This extension continued the legislation passed in the original act until June of 1924, and states that anyone harboring or helping immigrants to illegally enter the country would be fined and have to face serious consequences. The extension further shows the beliefs of nativism by continuing to exclude foreigners to enter the country, additionally threatening American citizens to not help immigrants unless they were willing to pay the price (Hing 2004). By extending the act to three years in the future, the American government was attempting to show its power and dominance over the growing immigration population, believing that keeping foreigners out of the country would result in a solution to the many problems facing the country.

That the operation of the Act entitled “An Act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States,” approved May 19, 1921, is extended to and including June 30, 1924.

SEC. 3. That such Act of May 19, 1921, is amended by adding at the end thereof a new section to read as follows:

“SEC. 6. That it shall be unlawful for any person, including any transportation company other than railway lines entering the United States from foreign contiguous territory, or the owner, master, agent, or consignee of any vessel, to bring to the United States either from a foreign country or any insular possession of the United States any alien not admissible under the terms of this Act or regulations made thereunder,”

Link to full source:

Commissioner of Immigration v. Gottlieb

In 1924, the Emergency Immigration Act was still in effect, putting a limit on the number of immigrants that were allowed into the United States. This source is a supreme court case from the early 1920s debating whether or not a minister’s wife and child were allowed to come into the United States to be reunited with their husband/father, despite the quota for their country having already been reached. The court ruled in favor of the law, stating that they were not allowed to enter the country. This source shows the direct consequences of the acts listed above, showing nativism in the form of government power. This court case, and many others like it, show the effects that nativist beliefs had on families and their livelihoods, splitting people up and not allowing them to reunite in America. Additionally, it is also possible to see the extent to which people’s negative schemas about immigrants took a toll on everyone involved.

They were ordered discharged. – This judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 285 Fed. 295.

That court reached its conclusion by considering § 3. of the Act of 1917, c. 29, 39 Stat. 874, 875, in pari materia with § 2 (d) of the Act of 1921. Section 3 of the earlier act enumerates various classes of aliens who are excluded from admission into the United States, among them all persons from certain Asiatic territory with specified exceptions.

Link to full source:

Speeches About Immigration

Calvin Coolidge, 1923

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge made his first address to congress. In this speech, Coolidge discussed his views on every issue facing America, including immigration. Coolidge states that he believes that “America needs to stay American,” which was a very common belief at the time. Written two years after the passing of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, Coolidge’s speech depicts the feelings of most of America at the time. This speech shows nativism by expressing how Americans in this period believed that their country was superior, and that immigrants were not good enough for it (Hing 1997). By continuing to enforce the immigration acts, Coolidge showed his nativist views of foreign people. As the leader of the country, Coolidge was a very influential and prominent person. With the president continuing the cycle of nativism, American citizens agreed, and continued to express nativist views and actions to immigrants.

New arrivals should be limited to our capacity to absorb them into the ranks of good citizenship. America must be kept American. For this I purpose, it is necessary to continue a policy of restricted immigration. It would be well to make such immigration of a selective nature with some inspection at the source, and based either on a prior census or upon the record of naturalization.

Link to full speech:

Ellison DuRant Smith, 1924

As the extension of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 was set to expire in June of 1924, a debate was held in April of 1924 in order to discuss what was to be done once the extension was over. This speech, written by Senator DuRant Smith, argues against immigration, stating that closing the “doors” of America to outside countries was best for the survival of the nation. This speech, written only a few months after Calvin Coolidge’s inaugural address is consistent with the President’s remarks, arguing for greater restriction on Immigration. This source backs up nativist beliefs from the 1920s, expressing concern for the stability of America if immigration levels were to return to what they were prior to the passing of the immigration acts. This source shows a connection to nativism, and shows the beliefs of the people in power, the ones passing the laws (Wolfensberger 2007). Despite the beliefs of American citizens, the people in control were also struggling with the topic of allowing immigrants into the country, creating a national dilemma (Hing 1997).

The time has arrived when we should shut the door. We have been called the melting pot of the world…I think that we have sufficient stock in America now for us to shut the door, Americanize what we have, and save the resources of America for the natural increase of our population.

Link to full speech:

Political Cartoons About Nativism

Pacific Chivalry

This source is a political cartoon that depicts the way that Americans viewed Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, exposing the nativist beliefs and actions of people in regard to Chinese labor. At the time that this cartoon was made, there were millions of Chinese immigrants coming into the United States, one of the first examples of mass immigration in a long period to follow (Lee 2010). As the Chinese immigrants that came to the United States were being used as a form of cheap labor, American natives were led to believe they were superior, as they watched over the immigrant’s work on the railroads. This belief in white dominance contributed to a larger belief in American nativism. These beliefs can be attributed to the many nativist actions and controversies that are seen throughout the rest of history (Lee 2010).

Cartoon drawn by Thomas Nast in 1869, retrieved form Thomas Nast Cartoons.

The Only Way to Handle It

This political cartoon shows a funnel of immigrants coming into the United States with Uncle Sam “closing the gate” after a certain number of immigrants “came through.”  A direct reaction to the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, this cartoon shows the beliefs of the American people not wanting to let more immigrants into the country than they needed to. The high levels of immigration in the 1920s eventually reached a point where it was seen as a threat to the American population, leading officials to put a cap on the number of immigrants allowed into the country (Hing 2004). These beliefs evolved from thoughts about Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s, as the status of new immigrants led Americans to think that they were naturally superior  (Lee 2010). The restriction of immigrants was not as effective at keeping people out as it was meant to, however it was successful at closing off the views of Americans all over the country to immigrants.

“The Only Way to Handle It,” political cartoon taken from The Library of Congress.

Digital Files Depicting Nativism

Membership in the Ku Klux Klan

This source is an advertisement that encouraged people to join the Ku Klux Klan in the late 19th century, a time when immigration was beginning to become more apparent in the United States. Unlike other sources from this exhibition that show the influence of immigration on America and its citizens, this source shows another aspect of nativism, depicting hatred against Americans who were not white Anglo-Saxon protestants (Higham 1958). This advertisement speaks against “impure Americans,” not giving people who believed in different gods and faiths as many  opportunities and resources as those who were “pure” Americans. This source is somewhat of a pre-curser to the high levels of nativism seen in later years, as issues with ‘impure” American citizens evolved into worse views of people who were not from America at all (Higham 1958). The thinking shown in this advertisement that expresses nativist views towards people who are not American contributed to the nativist tendencies of Americans for decades to come.

Flyer from the Ku Klux Klan promoting “pure Americanism” in 1850, taken from Duke University Libraries .

No Irish Need Apply

This source is a song written and performed by Kathleen O’Neil. At the top of the lyric sheet, there is an advertisement for work, looking for a small girl that can cook and clean. However, it states that “No Irish Need Apply.” This song is a response to that line, saying that the writer fits all of the requirements for the job, has the time, and needs the money. However, she is an Irish girl, meaning she is not allowed to apply to the job. The song says that there is no reason for her not to be able to apply for the job, as she is in the “land of the ‘Glorious and Free.’” This song shows a direct form of nativism, as employers in the late 1800s did not want their businesses or jobs to become “impure” by having an immigrant working there (Decker 2014). At the time this song as created, there were millions of Irish coming into the America, which escalated nativism in the years to follow (Decker 2014). This source shows the discrimination and prejudice felt by immigrants as a result of nativist tendencies, contributing to less opportunities and resources for foreigners in the late 1800s.

Song written by Kathleen O’Neil in 1862 expressing one of the hardships of being an immigrant. Full image found at

How the Other Half Lives

This source is an image of immigrants taken by Jacob Riis in the late 1800s. At the time of this picture, millions of immigrants from Europe were coming to the United States for work and did not have enough resources to afford daily necessities. Because of this, immigrants lived together in tenements, paying nightly to sleep in crowded rooms with many other immigrants in similar situations. This picture is an indirect form of nativism, as big business owners in the United States exploited immigrants for cheap labor (Aaronovich Hourwich 1912). While immigrants lived in squalor with little to no resources available, the owners of these companies were living in extreme wealth (Aaronovich Hourwich 1912). Similarly to the messages conveyed in “No Irish Need Apply,” European immigrants living in tenements were not given the same opportunities as American citizens due to their ethnicities. This once again shows how American’s believed they were superior to immigrants, by believing that they deserved more than the immigrants did, solely based on the fact that they were born in the United States.

Immigrants stuffed into tenements, taken by Jacob Riis in 1889. Photo taken from San Francisco MoMA.

Ford English School

The 1920s were met with long periods of mass immigration into the United States due to a rise in industry. The creation of new industries and big business opened up thousands of blue-collar jobs, jobs in which Americans believed they were above. So, immigrants began to work for the new industries for low wages. As seen in the photos taken by Jacob Riis, these immigrants were living in very poor conditions, as the industries were paying them very low salaries to do their work. While these new workers were good for the business owners in the sense that they had unlimited cheap labor, things became difficult due to the fact that none of the immigrants spoke English, as well as the fact that the immigrants spoke different languages form one another (Baron 1990). One company, the Ford Motor Company, decided to open up an English school that would teach the immigrants working at the Ford company aspects of American culture and of course, English (Baron 1990). This process is known as Americanization and was widely used to “Americanize” immigrants in the 1920s. This source is a photograph of one class of immigrants graduating from the Ford English School, showing little to no remnants of their native culture.

The “Melting Pot Ceremony” at Ford English School in 1917, taken from The Henry Ford Collection.

Ku Klux Klan Letter Promoting American Businesses

This source is a letter written by the Ku Klux Klan asking store owners to put a “BUY CHRISTIAN” sign in their windows to ensure that only pure American citizens are allowed. This source was created due to the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan. In the 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced due to the large increase in immigration and industrialization seen in America (MacLean 1995). The reemergence of the Klan was a way for Americans to try to hold onto their culture in a time where immigrants seemed to be becoming the majority. As opposed to the source taken from the Klan in the 1850s, this source preaches hate on immigrants rather than natives that were not considered to be WASPs. This source was a way for Americans to try and reestablish themselves as dominant over the foreign people that were consuming America in the early 1900s (MacLean 1995). This source describes not wanting foreigners to be able to take over certain aspects of everyday life. There are very clear aspects of nativism in this source, as it shows how American citizens wanted their societies to be, free of foreigners. Klan members hoped that if they got enough people to refuse service and basic goods to foreigners, they would have no choice but to leave, making America a pure country once more.

Letter written by the KKK in the 1940s asking people to only “buy American” and not give money to immigrant businesses, taken from Collections at Georgia State.

Cultural Representations/Entertainment

The Immigration Gateway

This source is a small portion of a play that shows the experiences that immigrants had at Ellis Island and Angel Island when coming into the United States. When entering the country, immigrants were asked questions designed to see if they were “fit” to come into America (Hing 1997). They were asked if they could read, write, if they were healthy, if they had family here, and how much money they had with them upon arrival (Hing 1997). This information shows the difficulty immigrants faced in coming into the country, and the ways in which nativism exacerbated these challenges. This source can be seen as a pre-curser to the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, as it was already not allowing many immigrants to come into America based on their answers to the questions. This tactic was a way of limiting the number of immigrants that came into the country, once again giving power to American people. While many were let in, there were so many immigrants that were denied entrance based on one wrong answer. The people in charge of allowing immigrants in only wanted the best of the best, figuring if they had to have people enter their country, they must be able to contribute.

To whom are you going in Buffalo? I am going to my sister.
What is her name and address? Jane Brown, 1011Atlantic Ave.
How long has your sister been in the United States? Eight years.
What does she do for a living? She’s a governess.
Is she able to care for you in case you should be sick or out of work? Yes, she says so in her letters.
Where are you expecting to meet your sister? Here at Ellis Island.
I shall have to detain you until the arrival of your sister. If your sister is found to be a suitable guardian for you, you shall be admitted in her care.
(Inspector pins detention card on immigrant and orders:)
Guard, place this girl in the Detention room.

Some questions that immigrants were asked by people at Ellis and Angel Island in order to see if they were good additions to America. Full play found at:

Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You

This source is a song written right before the United States entered World War I, at a time where immigration was very prominent. The song describes “Uncle Sam” allowing people to come into the United States from their home countries to escape the problems they faced. At the start of the 1900s, there were a lot of political and social problems in Europe as World War I was beginning, which caused mass immigration to the United States, as seen in the previous source, as America had not yet entered the war. Because of this, many Americans were led to believe that their country was superior, as it was the place that many immigrants were fleeing to (Higham 1985). However, nativists believed that immigrants in this period were not respectful of the United States and did not appreciate everything that this country was giving them. This belief created a stronger nativist presence in the United States, as American citizens were unable to notice that many of the foreigners that came into the country were not complaining, further pushing the idea of American superiority.

Audio of “Dont Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You”.


Primary Sources

Breed, Reuben Leonard. The Immigrant Gateway: A Missionary Demonstration. (An Excerpt from a 1913 Play for Community or Church Groups to Stage about the Immigrant Experience.) | DPLA. Accessed October 24, 2018.

Coolidge, Calvin. “First State of the Union Address.” Address, December 6, 1923. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Commissioner of Immigration v. Gottlieb, 265 Library of Congress (May, 1924). Accessed November 9, 2018.

DuRant Smith, Ellison. “Shut the Door”: A Senator Speaks for Immigration Restriction. 68 Cong., Congressional Record. 1st sess., April 9,1924. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Joint resolution extending the Immigration Reform Act of 1921.  Sixty–Seventh Congress. Sess. II CHS. 186-188. 1922. Accessed November 11, 2018

“Melting Pot Ceremony at Ford English School, July 4, 1917.” Digital image. The Henry Ford. Accessed November 9, 2018.

“Membership in the Ku Klux Klan.” 1850 to 1900. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Morgan, Jimmie, Walter Van Brunt, and Thomas Hoier. Don’t Bite the Hand That’s Feeding You. 1916. Audio. Library of Congress. Accessed October 26, 2018.

Nast, Thomas. “Pacific Chivalry.” Cartoon, August 7, 1869. Thomas Nast Cartoons. Accessed November 9, 2018.

O’Neil, Kathleen. “No Irish Need Apply.” Digital image. Library of Congress. 1862. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Riis, Jacob. Five Cents a Spot. 1889. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco. In San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 1998. Accessed November 11, 2018.

Southern Labor Archives. Ku Klux Klan mailer asking reader to buy only American goods. 1940/1959. Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America. Accessed November 11, 2018.

The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921. Sixty-Seventh Congress. Sess. I. CH. 8. 1921. Accessed November 11, 2018.

“The Only Way to Handle It.” Cartoon. In Literary Digest. The Library of Congress, 1921. Accessed November 11, 2018

Secondary Sources

Aaronovich Hourwich, Isaac. Immigration and Labor: The Economic Aspects of European Immigration to the United States. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912.

Baron, Dennis. “Americanization and the Schools.” In The English-Only Question: An Official Language for Americans?,  New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990. 133-76

Decker, Robert Julio. “Citizenship and Its Duties: The Immigration Restriction League as a Progressive Movement.” Immigrants & Minorities 32 (2). (2014): 2-23.

Higham, John. “Another Look at Nativism.” The Catholic Historical Review 44, no. 2 (1958): 147-58.

Hing, Bill Ong. “A Nation of Immigrants, a History of Nativism.” In To Be An American: Cultural Pluralism and the Rhetoric of Assimilation, New York; London: NYU Press, 1997. 13-31.

Hing, Bill Ong, and Anthony D. Romero. “The Xenophobic 1920s.” In Defining America: Through Immigration Policy. Temple University Press, 2004. 62-70.

Lee, Erika. “The Chinese Are Coming. How Can We Stop Them?: Chinese Exclusion and the Origins of American Gatekeeping.” In Asian American Studies Now: A Critical Reader, edited by Wu Jean Yu-wen Shen and Chen Thomas C., 143-67. Rutgers University Press, 2010.

MacLean, Nancy K. 1995. Behind the Mask of Chivalry. [Electronic Resource] : The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan. Academic Complete (Ebook Central). New York : Oxford University Press, 1995.

Wolfensberger, Don. “Congress and the Immigration Dilemma: Is a Solution in Sight?” For The Congress Project Seminar, March 12, 2007, 1-15.

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