In the five decades after the Civil War, roughly 1865-1915, a flood of immigrants came to America. From 1865 to 1900, some 13.5 million immigrants arrived in America.
Wars, famine, religious persecution, and overpopulation were the four major reasons why people left Europe and came to the United States.
Major immigrant groups to the United States Italians Jews Slavs
From 1880 to 1924, more than two million Eastern Europeans, mainly Catholics, immigrated to the U.S.
Italian immigration to the U.S. reached its peak of over two million between 1910 and 1920.
During the same period, roughly two million Jews came to the U.S., seeking opportunity and fleeing the political massacre taking place in Eastern Europe.
Slavic Immigrants worked in the basic industries of America Steel mills of Pittsburgh and Chicago Coal mines of the Penn. Anthracite
Passage to the United States often cost a life’s savings. Because of this cost, entire families would often save enough money to send just one or two family members to America, hoping that eventually these members could afford to bring over the rest of the family.
The crowded steerage deck usually contained a diverse group of people. Many were poor farmers whose fathers’ or grandfathers’ land had been divided so often that the plots were no longer large enough to support even single families.
As for conditions below decks, an agent for the United States Immigration Commission described them as follows: “During the twelve days in the steerage I lived in…surroundings that offended every sense. Only a fresh breeze from the sea overcame the sickening odors. Everything was dirty, sticky, and disagreeable to the touch.” In such conditions, disease and even death were not uncommon.
In 1890, Congress designated low- laying, three- acre Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay as an immigration station. By the end of 1910, six million immigrants had come through Ellis Island.
The immigration inspection process was a humiliating and dehumanizing experience for many. Newly arrived immigrants were given medical inspections and asked 32 background questions. Immigrants with contagious diseases were shipped back.
With the huge numbers of immigrants, inspectors had just 2 minutes to complete the process and many immigrants had their last names changed by the inspectors because they didn’t have the time or patience to struggle with the foreign spellings.
Long lines of immigrants were tagged according to what language they spoke and marked with chalk according to the medical ailments they suspected of having and they waited for the inspectors to decide their fate.
Some native-born Americans feared and resented the new immigrants. Their languages, religions, and customs seemed strange. They also competed for jobs. Desperate for jobs, immigrants often accepted lower wages and worse working conditions.
The majority of immigrants settled in the big cities where factory jobs were available. By 1900, 4 out of every 5 people in New York City were immigrants or children of immigrants. Many immigrants lived in areas with people of similar ethnic background. Such neighborhoods provided support but separated the immigrants from the rest of Americans thus slowing their assimilation into US culture.
Cities Grow: 1890-1920 1920 – 1/2 of Americans lived in cities Factory jobs sparked an increase in the growth of cities after the Civil War. 1890 – 1/3 of Americans lived in cities
City Life Poor families struggled to survive in crowded slums living in tenements. Hine, Lewis W. NYC tenement 1910 Tenements were overcrowded, dirty and oftentimes had no windows, heat, or indoor bathrooms.
Many immigrants lived in crowded tenement buildings. Families shared living space and decent lighting & fresh air were scarce. **
Conditions were uncomfortable, crowed, and dirty. In New York, 1,231 people lived in only 120 rooms in one part of the city. In Chicago in one year, over 60% of newborns never reached their first birthdays. Many babies asphyxiated in their own homes.
Many immigrants had no home and slept in 5 cents a spot rooms where people paid for a small space to spend the night. Can you imagine sleeping crowded against strangers?
An immigrant himself, Jacob Riis was well known for his photographs documenting the lives of immigrants & the urban poor in his book How the Other Half Lives.