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.
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.
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.
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.