Emigration to the United States meant a radical break with the individuals’ life back home. Family and friends were left behind, and for the majority, departure was irreversible. Stepping aboard one of the big immigrant ships meant that most of them would never set foot on native soil again. However this didn’t mean all connections were cut off. Despite the vast distance and the lack of our modern means of communication, people kept connected by writing letters and postcards. Eventually, successful immigrants were able to visit their homelands. Others could pay the travel expenses for family members who had initially stayed behind, but now followed in the footsteps of their ‘American’ relatives.
Letters and Postcards
In a time without our modern means of communication, the written message was the most important one. In the era of the sailing vessel, it could take months before a letter from inland America reached its European destination. This improved with the coming of the steamship, but even then, it could still take weeks before one could read about the other’s experiences. It wasn’t just traditional letters that were sent; the 19th century also saw the introduction of the postcard, a popular and affordable way to keep in contact with home.
In Europe, a great number of local newspapers published letters from American emigrants. In that way, not only close family but also other villagers were able to hear about the new life in America. It should be said that the stories depicted in those letters did not always correspond with the actual situation of the majority of emigrants. It was mainly the success stories that reached Europe. Those who were less successful in their American life preferred to stay quiet or exaggerated their achievements, scared to be depicted as failed emigrants. Sometimes, collected letters were published as books or pamphlets, or emigrants wrote books and guides to share experiences and give advice on how to become successful in America.
Visiting the Homeland
For some emigrants, financial success made it possible to visit their homelands and family once more. In the first half of the 19th century, a return trip was unaffordable for most emigrants. With the innovations in the shipping industry, however, ticket prices dropped, and some lucky emigrants could afford a return ticket. When these ‘Americans’ arrived in their old hometowns, it sometimes created a wave of excitement. Others were not merely visiting but in search of a wife. For some emigrant communities, it was important to marry inside that same community, This, however, led to problems if the communities in America were short of women. Single men, therefore, visited their homelands in order to find a suitable wife and bring her home to the United States. Others in search of a spouse did not visit but arranged a marriage partner by letter.
There were also emigrants who returned to the European continent under less happy circumstances. When America joined the allied forces in 1917, many emigrants (or their sons) enlisted to fight in the trenches. They enlisted partly because they felt involved as a result of their origins, but also because serving in the U.S. Army was a way to show their loyalty towards their new homeland. This had happened before during the American Civil War and took place again in 1917 when, for example, thousands of Italian-Americans joined the war effort.
New Immigrants, Returning Emigrants
All these visits, letters, books and pamphlets familiarised people with America and resulted in new waves of emigration. Friends and family in the homelands, full of enthusiasm after hearing those stories, now also wished to start a new life in the United States. In some cases, this led to a real ‘America fever’, with emigration of complete families or even whole populations of small villages. Compatriots already living in America helped new immigrants by sending them pre-paid tickets for their Atlantic journey, and once they had arrived, finding them housing and employment. In contrast to these new emigration waves, there were also the emigrants who permanently returned to their homelands. Those were the people whose ‘American dream’ never became reality, or people who got homesick missing the land and culture in which they grew up. Their numbers vary greatly according to country and time period. It is estimated that of all Dutch immigrants during the period 1880-1920, around 15% returned. For Italians, at some period this rate was even higher, with estimations ranging up to almost 30%. For lots of others though, it wasn’t even possible to return. They either couldn’t afford the return trip or the situation in their homelands made this impossible because of raging wars and on-going persecution.