High Tide And Reaction: 1885–1930


After 1865 the United States thundered toward industrial leadership with the speed and power of one of the great locomotives that were the handsomest embodiment of the age of steam. That age peaked somewhere in the 1890s. By 1929 the age of electricity and petroleum was in flower. And the United States was the world’s leading producer of steel, oil, coal, automobiles and trucks, electrical equipment, and an infinite variety of consumer goods from old-fashioned overalls to newfangled radios. The majority of Americans lived in supercities, their daily existence made possible by elaborate networks of power and gas lines, telephone wires, highways, bridges, tunnels, and rails.

And the foreign-born were at the center of the whirlwind. Expansion coincided with, depended on, incorporated the greatest wave of migration yet. In the first fourteen years after the Civil War ended yearly immigration ranged from 318,568 in 1866 to 459,803 in 1873, slumping during the hard times of 1873–77, and rebounding to 457,257 in 1880.

Then came the deluge: 669,431 in 1881; 788,992 in 1882. Seven times between 1883 and 1903 the half-million total was passed. The million mark was hit in 1905 with 1,026,499—and exceeded six times between that year and 1914. The all-time peak came in 1907: 1,285,349.

All told, some 14,000,000 arrived at the gates between 1860 and 1900; another 18,600,000 followed between 1900 and 1930. Almost all of them came from Europe, a transoceanic transplantation unmatched in history.

Chicago once had more Germans than any of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cities except Berlin and Hamburg.

The “old” Americans—that is, the children of immigrants who had arrived earlier—watched the influx with feelings that ran from pride to bewilderment and alarm, for the “new” immigration was not from traditional sources. Until 1890 most new arrivals were from familiar places: the British Isles, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands. But now it was the turn of southern and eastern Europe to swarm. Of the roughly 1,280,000 in the record-setting 1907 intake, 260,000 were from Russia, which then included a goodly portion of Poland. Another 285,000 were from Italy. Almost 340,000 were from Austria-Hungary, a doomed “dual monarchy” that included much of the future Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and another part of Poland. About 36,000 were from Romania, Bulgaria, and what was left of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in Europe. There were modest numbers of Greeks and Portuguese.

These new immigrants were palpably different. There were Eastern Orthodox as well as Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Jews. There were, at a time when ethnic labels were taken with great seriousness, Magyars, Croats, Slovenes, Slovaks, and people generally grouped as “Slavs” and “Latins” and sniffed at in suspicion and disdain. In 1875 The New York Times said of Italians that it was “hopeless to think of civilizing them, or keeping them in order, except by the arm of the law.” A Yankee watching Polish farm workers was struck by their “stolid, stupid faces.” An American Jewish journal, offended by the beards, side curls, and skullcaps of Polish greenhorns, wondered what could be done with these “miserable darkened Hebrews.”

The immigration patterns had shifted with the course of modern European history. A rising demand for political independence in central Europe fed political turbulence. Russian nationalism spawned anti-Semitic outbursts and hard, impoverishing economic restrictions on Jews. Southern Italy was overwhelmed by agricultural poverty that was increased by policies of industrialization and modernization that favored the north. Europe was full of hopeful seekers of streets paved with gold.

And there were voices to entice them. The immigration bureaus of Western states distributed literature in several languages touting opportunities within their borders. Railroad companies with land grants wooed Russian and German farmers to come out and buy (on long-term credit) tracts on the Great Plains. The Great Northern line- which James J. Hill built without land grants—offered fares as low as thirty-three dollars to any point on the tracks that ran from Minnesota to Oregon, plus sweet deals on acquiring and moving machinery, livestock, lumber, fencing. Steamship companies were in the hunt too. Modern technology had reduced the dreaded transatlantic passage to ten or twelve days instead of months. Steerage accommodations were far from clean or comfortable, but they cost as little as twenty-five dollars, and passengers were no longer likely to die on the way.

So the immigrants came. For the most part this was an urban migration. Millions went to the middling-sized red-brick towns dominated by the factory chimney and whistle. More millions went to the big cities, where they grunted and sweated in the creation of the skyscrapers, the bridges, the subways and trolley lines, the sewer and lighting systems —the guts of the metropolis. Or where, if they did not swing a pick or scrub floors, they sold groceries to those of their countrymen who did.