Orchard Street Scene Photographic negatives of the New York City Tenement House Department, 1902-1914., New York (N.Y.). Tenement House Dept., NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain Mark

Introduction

The life of immigrants in America varied greatly, depending on when they arrived, where they settled, and the individual immigrant’s ethnicity, skills, and wealth. Most immigrants were poor and held the lowest jobs in society. Because America, unlike Europe, was periodically short of labour, they provided much-needed workers in the expanding areas of agriculture, industry and transportation. After the introduction of steamships in the mid-1800s shortened travel time from America to Europe, some immigrants returned to their homelands when the season changed or the work dried up, notably those who worked outdoors in agriculture, construction, or mining.

The American government did not provide any assistance to newcomers, so immigrant communities formed mutual aid societies to help their compatriots in times of need and to bury the dead. Immigrants tended to band together around religious organisations - churches, synagogues, and parochial schools - and formed labour unions, and political and social organisations. Immigrants who lived in rural areas were more isolated and often formed separate communities which often meant they assimilated less rapidly than city dwellers, who had to adapt to the American language and customs in order to survive.

On the Farm

Many newcomers in the early19th century earned a living by farming, as they had in Europe. Because land in America was inexpensive or free, they were usually able to own their own farms. Farmers settled in the Mid-Atlantic States and on the prairies of the Midwest, following shortly after the native pioneers who had cleared the land. Farming in America, however, was different from farming in Europe in terms of the weather, wild animals, and size. Some immigrants had to adjust to snow and treeless prairies; certain dangerous animals were unfamiliar, as were plant-eating pests such as deer, raccoons, and squirrels; and the larger size of farms in America meant farmers were more isolated.

 

Finnish American farm workers, William Hyrkas, husband of Anna Makela Hyrkas, stands next to a new case threshing machine in Sebeka, Minnesota, 1915. The threshing machine was powered by a gas engine. Hyrkas traveled around the area, threshing for farmers. Charlie Nokua, Mamie Mackie's husband, stands behind the machine, next to a young boy., Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA), In Copyright
Finnish American farm workers, William Hyrkas, husband of Anna Makela Hyrkas, stands next to a new case threshing machine in Sebeka, Minnesota, 1915. The threshing machine was powered by a gas engine. Hyrkas traveled around the area, threshing for farmers. Charlie Nokua, Mamie Mackie's husband, stands behind the machine, next to a young boy., Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRCA), In Copyright
Three generations of a Czech immigrant family, On their farm in Montgomery, Minnesota, Media Archive  University of Minnesota, Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright
Three generations of a Czech immigrant family, On their farm in Montgomery, Minnesota, Media Archive University of Minnesota, Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright

In the City

Many immigrants, especially those who came to America in the latter half of the 19th century, remained in the port cities in which they arrived because they could not afford to travel further or to buy land, or because they could find work and associate with fellow-compatriots, often living in the same areas, blocks or streets as them. In New York City, poor immigrants often clustered together in multi-storey apartment buildings called ‘tenements’. It was common for two multi-generational families - as many as 20 people - to live together in one apartment. Several apartments would share a single bathroom, and the apartments were dark, unventilated, and often unheated. Rubbish, which was thrown into the airshafts, smelled and attracted rats and roaches. To escape from the overcrowded and unpleasant tenements, newcomers would gather outside, sitting on the tenement steps, also called ‘stoops’, to socialise. They talked, or played cards or stickball. In other cities, such as Chicago, Illinois, immigrants were more likely to live in rundown one- or two-storey houses.

 

Italian family in Chicago tenement, Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940), NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain Mark
Italian family in Chicago tenement, Hine, Lewis Wickes (1874-1940), NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain Mark
Merry Christmas in the tenements., Hambidge, Jay 1897, New York,  NYPL Digital Gallery Century magazine, Public Domain Mark
Merry Christmas in the tenements., Hambidge, Jay 1897, New York, NYPL Digital Gallery Century magazine, Public Domain Mark

Work

Immigrants who didn’t farm worked for wages in mines and mills where they were paid more than they would be in comparable positions in their homelands. Unskilled immigrants also found employment extending the growing transportation systems of canals and later railways, paving streets, digging sewers, and building residential, commercial, or public buildings. Women served as domestics or washerwomen, and some immigrant women worked at home sewing clothing or assembling artificial flowers, for example, so they wouldn’t have to leave their children alone. Skilled immigrants worked as craftsmen. By the 1880s, as a result of industrialisation, most immigrants worked in cities, manufacturing clothing or operating small businesses such as barbershops, restaurants, and shoeshine parlours. To help make ends meet, children also worked - shining shoes, selling newspapers, or working in factories. Working conditions were severe, with long hours, low wages, and often unclean or unsafe work environments.

Bearded Irish clam diggers and a matronly companion on a wharf in Boston, Office of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries. Division of Statistical Inquiry. 1882 , NARA Online Public Access, In Copyright
Bearded Irish clam diggers and a matronly companion on a wharf in Boston, Office of the Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries. Division of Statistical Inquiry. 1882 , NARA Online Public Access, In Copyright
Mrs. Larocca making willow plumes in an unlicenced tenement., Department of Commerce and Labor. Children's Bureau.	(1912 - 1913), NARA Online Public Access, In Copyright
Mrs. Larocca making willow plumes in an unlicenced tenement., Department of Commerce and Labor. Children's Bureau. (1912 - 1913), NARA Online Public Access, In Copyright
Iron ore mining, Two miners operating a drill in an underground cavern,  Iron River Michigan., Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRC Archives) , In Copyright
Iron ore mining, Two miners operating a drill in an underground cavern, Iron River Michigan., Immigration History Research Center Archives (IHRC Archives) , In Copyright

Communal Life

When they first arrived, immigrants sought out relatives or others with a similar background. They joined fraternal organisations or mutual aid societies to help them make their way in a strange, new country. The New York Hibernian Society, for example, founded by Irish Americans in 1836, is the oldest Catholic fraternal organisation in the United States. Eastern European Jewish immigrants formed groups called ‘landsmanshaftn’ whose members came from the same European town. Most landsmanshaftn were typical mutual aid societies which were formed to assist the living in times of need and to bury the dead; however, some focussed on religious, political, or ideological activities.

Suspicious of American public schools that were thought to want to Americanise their children, immigrant communities founded schools to teach children the language and culture of their parents. Because of rampant anti-Catholic sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholics from various countries established schools that taught religion as well as language and culture. German Lutherans also started schools to educate their children and ensure the preservation of their language, culture, and religion.

7th convention of the National Slovak Society, Scholl's Studio, Participants in the 7th convention of the National Slovak Society, held on May 21-26, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. Included are portraits of the founding and leading members of the Society (established in 1890) such P.V. Rovnianek, A.S. Ambrose, A. Mamatey, M. Feriencik, I. Podkrivacky and others. The convention coinicided with a conference of a number of Slavic organizations held in Chicago on May 21-28, 1899 in which the NSS participated as well to promote the concept of unity among the Slavic peoples in America and also to build relationships with other Slavic nationalities, namely the Croats and Czechs., U Media Archive  Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright
7th convention of the National Slovak Society, Scholl's Studio, Participants in the 7th convention of the National Slovak Society, held on May 21-26, 1899 in Chicago, Illinois. Included are portraits of the founding and leading members of the Society (established in 1890) such P.V. Rovnianek, A.S. Ambrose, A. Mamatey, M. Feriencik, I. Podkrivacky and others. The convention coinicided with a conference of a number of Slavic organizations held in Chicago on May 21-28, 1899 in which the NSS participated as well to promote the concept of unity among the Slavic peoples in America and also to build relationships with other Slavic nationalities, namely the Croats and Czechs., U Media Archive Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright
School of St. George parish, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania., Circa 1925, U Media Archive  Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright
School of St. George parish, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania., Circa 1925, U Media Archive Immigration History Research Center, In Copyright
From Immigrant Ship to Citizenship,  North Bennet Street Industrial School," Publicity for Social Work, Leaflets & Folders 1922,  Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection, 3.2002.1875.40, In Copyright
From Immigrant Ship to Citizenship, North Bennet Street Industrial School," Publicity for Social Work, Leaflets & Folders 1922, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection, 3.2002.1875.40, In Copyright