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High Tide And Reaction: 1885–1930

June 2024
7min read

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.

In the 1890s Chicago had more Germans than any of Kaiser Wilhelm’s cities except Berlin and Hamburg; more Swedes than any place in Sweden except for Stockholm and G’f6teborg; more Norwegians than any Norwegian town outside of Christiana (now Oslo) and Bergen. Of some 12,500 laborers modernizing New York State’s Erie Canal, fully 10,500 were Italians rounded up on the docks by Italianspeaking padrones and furnished to construction companies at so much per head. By 1897 Italians made up 75 percent of New York City’s construction workers. Jews already dominated the town’s once-German garment industry.

In Pennsylvania in 1900 almost 60 percent of white bituminous coal miners were foreign-born. In three anthracite coal mines in a single county, more than three-quarters of the work force was Slavic. Twenty-five languages were spoken in the textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Ethnic monopolies of particular lines of work were established. In 1894 all but one of New York City’s 474 foreign-born bootblacks were Italian, and Greeks dominated the confectionery business in Chicago until past the end of World War II.

For most, life in the golden land was potentially promising but actually brutal. Wages hung at or below the cost of living and far below the cost of comfort. Some parts of Chicago had three times as many inhabitants as the most crowded sections of Tokyo or Calcutta. A New York survey taker found 1,231 Italians living in 120 rooms. Single toilets and water faucets were shared by dozens of families. Uncollected garbage piled up in alleys. Privacy and health were equally impossible to maintain, and pulmonary diseases raged through the tenement “lung blocks.”

Settlement-house workers took up residence in the worst neighborhoods, trying to teach the rudiments of hygiene. The American public school took on a new role. Authorities regarded it as their mission to teach immigrant children not only basic skills but civic responsibility, respect for the flag, and the proper use of the toothbrush. In fact, the schools did produce millions of competent citizens. One alumna, Mary Antin, said that born Americans should be grateful for their role in “the recruiting of your armies of workers, thinkers, and leaders.” But the precedent of having schools serve as agents of social policy—in this case of assimilation—would later haunt overburdened teachers and administrators.

The urban center of gravity of the new immigrants made it harder for them to be accepted. Most “native” Americans were encountering the basic problems of the big city- crowding, crime, graft, corruption, disease—for the first time. It was all too easy for them to associate these evils with the immigrants, who seemed always to be at the center of this or that dilemma. Sympathetic men and women like Jane Addams, Emily Balch, Hutchins Hapgood, and Horace M. Kallen did their best to explain immigrant culture to their fellow old-stock Americans and to guide the newcomers in acceptable American ways.

In the 1890s, old New England families rallied to form the Immigration Restriction League.

The immigrants themselves did not take on the role of clay awaiting the potter’s hand. They organized their own newspapers, theaters, social clubs, night classes, and self-help societies. These, while keeping the old-country languages and folkways alive, steadfastly preached and practiced assimilation and urged members and readers to rush into citizenship and respectability, which the great majority of them did. Single men skimped and struggled to bring over families. Families sacrificed to send children to school. And the children found different paths to Americanization. Some joined political machines and parties; some worked in the union movement; others forged their own steps to success in business. (And some never graduated beyond the streets and dead-end jobs.)

Regardless of what they did, they were caught in the center of a steadily sharpening American debate over the “immigrant problem” that began in the early 1890s. It was a reprise of earlier nativist struggles. As early as 1882 Congress was prevailed upon to exclude Chinese from entry and citizenship. In the 1890s an Immigration Restriction League was formed. Its leaders were from old New England families who shared the fears of the writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich that through our “unguarded gates” there was pouring a “wild motley throng” of “Men from the Volga and the Tartar steppes.”

Would the America of the future be populated, one restrictionist asked, by “British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant?” The call for an end to unchecked immigration was echoed by labor leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers (a Dutch-born Jewish immigrant from England in 1863), who complained that the “present immigration” consisted of “cheap labor, ignorant labor [that] takes our jobs and cuts our wages.”

Bit by bit, curbs were imposed—first on immigrants with contagious diseases or serious criminal records, then on those who were “professional beggars” or anarchists or prostitutes or epileptics. In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt got Congress to establish a commission to study the “problem.” Chaired by the Vermont senator William Paul Dillingham, it labored for four years to produce a massive report that loaded the guns of a restrictionism based on invidious distinctions between the “old” and “new” immigrations. Among other things it marshaled data to “prove” that the most recent immigrants were “content to accept wages and conditions which … native Americans … had come to regard as unsatisfactory.” It stated that “inherent racial tendencies” rather than poverty explained miserable immigrant living conditions and went on to say many other uncomplimentary things about the great-grandparents of some fifty million of today’s Americans.

No action was taken on the report when it appeared in 1910. But racist feeling was on the rise. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in 1915. A hysterical drive for 100 percent Americanism during World War I and the Red scare immediately afterward fed a popular belief articulated by one congressman: “We get the majority of the communists, the I.W.W.’s, the dynamiters, and the assassins … from the ranks of the present-day immigrant.”

In 1924 Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, which remained the cornerstone of national immigration policy for the next forty-one years. Starting in 1929, there would be an overall yearly limit of 150,000 on immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere. The 150,000 was to be divided into quotas, assigned to nationalities in the proportion that they bore, by birth or descent, to the total population as of 1920.

What that meant was clear. The longer a national group had been here, the more of its descendants were in the population and the larger would be its quota. When the first shares were announced, half of all places were reserved for British residents, whereas only 5,802 Italians, 6,524 Poles, and 2,784 Russians could be admitted. Groups like Syrians or Albanians fared worse, with fewer than 100 places per year. And Asians were excluded altogether.

The national origins quota system of 1924 was a landmark, ending centuries of open admission. It was also a victory for ethnic stereotyping. Yet it was not without its ironies. For one thing, it did not impose limits on a Hispanic ingathering from Mexico and Puerto Rico that was just gaining steam. Nor did it deal with the internal migration of Southern blacks into Northern cities. Anglo-Saxon superiority was therefore left unprotected on two fronts.

And in the next and newest phase of the story, covering the final years of the twentieth century, there were dramatic changes in the “racial” composition of immigration that went far beyond anything that the Immigration Restriction League could possibly have anticipated.

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