United States Immigration

Figure 1.--This photograph shows Italian immigrants on Mulberry Street in New York's Little Italy during the early 20th century. The boys wear flat caps with kneepants suits and long stockings. Also notice how the women were dressed.

No assessment of America would be complete without considering the immigrants that played such an important role in the American saga. All American except for Native Americans have immigrated from other countries. Most of the early immigrants came from the British Isles. Immigrants followed from every European country. Immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Svandinavia, and Africa played key roles. Blacks brought from Africa as slaves also played an important role. Immigration was primarily from Western Europe. This was initially because of cultural and commercial ties to Europe, but later American immigration laws restricted immigration to Europeans. Even so, important immigration also occurred from China and Japan and in more recent years from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The Federal Government changed immigration laws in the 1960s to proviode a more open immigration mix. While these immigrants played a major role in the building of modern America, we think that their influence on fashion was relatively limited. Most of the children wanted to wear American clothes and lear English so that they could fit in as quickly as possible.

Historical Assessment

The history textbooks provided to American 11th graders all deal with immigration. It is an importnt part of the American story. The account generally given to to the students is that immigrants were cramped into cramped, unhealthy tennaments and led miserable lives of privation and poverty. This is in part true, especially when comparing immigrnt living conditiins to modern America. What the textbooks generally omit, however, is that while the conditions were far below what we would now consider as acceptable, they were much better than the conditions that the immigrants left behind in Europe. This was the case because American capitlism was so efficent that it generated the wealth allowing companies to pay better wages than in Europe. and not only were conditions better, but there were far greater opportunities. This is clearly the case because immigrants came and continued coming in massive waves. If conditions were not better, the immigrant flow would not have continued. The only reason the flow ceased was first World War I (1914-18) and then restrictive immigrantion laws passed by Congress after the War (1924). Not only were Americn wages and living standards higher than in Europe, but American had a first class public school system to ease the immigrant assismilation and to provide the basic educational tools needed to suceed. But those who want to build the narative that America is not a nobel country that has done great good around the worls seek to deny the facts. The indisputable facts are the millions of Europeans who voted with their feet, Those who are intent on painting America and capitalism in negative terms come up with absurd cliams such as the immigrants were ignorant and fooled into coming here. And then once here were stuck unable to afford the passage home. Actually not every one succeded. Some indeed failed and returned home, but most suceeded and stayed. And it only took a postage stamp to describe their experiences to family and friends. And the immigrnts wrote home, describing in glowing terms their experiences. This is one reason why immigrants came in such numbers. Incomprehensibly, rarely do American history textbooks make this obvious point. The same is true today. The American left comes up with not existent issues like the war on womem, police brutality, homophobia, black lives matter, voter suppression, racism, Islamapobia, and much more. What they can not explain away, however, is why millions of people around the world of all races and religions are willing to go to such extent, often risking their lives, to get to America if it is such a cruel, unfair society.


The reasons that people came to America were quite varied. Various factors affected different ethnic and the factors varied over time. Religion was an important factor. Many of the early English settlers were religious disidents. Religion tended to restrict emigration from southern Europe for many years. Tsarist pgroms frove many Russian and Polish Jews to America. Political supression was a factor. The failure of the liberal 1848 revolutions caused some to dispair of political reform in Europe. Even more important, especially after the Civil war was the supression of minority ethnic groups was another cause of emigration. The first such group was the Scotts-Irish, but other ethnic groups supressed by Russians and Austro-Hungarians followed in their wake. For many subject eopl, avoiding compulsory military conscription was a strong motivating factor. Economic opportunity was another strong factor. The discovery of gold attracted some, but most emigrants came for more prosaic reasons. The American frontier offered land and after the Civil War, America's expanding industrry offered jobs. Famines and declining ecomomic conditions were another factor. Technological developments revolutionized oceanic travel, reducing the cost of reaching America. Both American indusrial corporations, railroads, and steamship companies promoted emigration. Many of these factors came together in the late 19th century explaining the sharp surege in emogration from Europe.


America as a result of the Revolutionry War gained independence from Britain in 1783. The first wave of immigration after independence occurred as a result of the disorders caused by the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic Wars. Europeans fled the economic distress and battlefield horrors by emmigrationg to America. The numbers in retrospect were relatively limited. Economic distress in Ireland, especially the Potato Famine of 1845-46, caused the first major wave of European immigration. Most immigrants during the first half of the 19th century came from the British Isles and northern Europe (Germany and Svandinavia). This gradually changed and during the second half of the 19th century immigration increased from Eastern and Souther Europe. During this period, immigrants from Austria-Hingary, Italy, and Russia constituted more than half of the total. The number of immigrants gradually increased during the 19th century,. By the early 20th century about 1 million immigrants entered Ameruican annually. This sharply fell off during World War I (1914-18). After the War, immigration began to rise again until restricted by Congress in 1921 and 24 with the National Origins Avt. Early immigration laws had primarily been aimed at the Chinese. The restrictive laws passed by Congress in the 1920s affected all countries.

National Origins

No assessment of America would be complete without considering the immigrants that played such an important role in the American saga. All American except for Native Americans have immigrated from other countries. Most of the early immigrants came from the British Isles. The Industrial Revolution in Britain had an impact on emmigration to the United States from Britain in the 18th century. Immigrants followed from every European country. Immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Italy, Svandinavia, and Africa played key roles. Blacks brought from Africa as slaves also played an important role. The immigrant experience could be quite different depending on the country they came from as well as their religion and race.

Nativist Groups

Nativism has been defined as a fear of outsiders along with the love of the homeland. Nativists tend to see patriotism as the highest ideal. They also commonly viewed people of certain religions and nationalities incapable of becoming what they saw as true Americans. More than anything the primary concenrn was religion when nativism became importnt in the mid-19th century was Catholicism. Natvists also feared that the new ideas the immigrants brought would undermine the American foundation. This tended to be a concern rising in the late-19 century as socialist and anarchist ideas began to percolate in Europe. Nativists wanted to limit immigration and even prevent particular groups should not even be considered for citizenship. Race was not an issue with nativist groups at first because most blacks were slaves and even many free blacks were denied citizensgip. This changed with the Civil War and emancipation and the enactment of the three civil rights amendents (13th, 14th, and 15th amendments). Anti-Catlocism never disappeard, but declined in importance as race became more important. Nativism arose early in American history with the passage of the Alien and Seditiom Acts (1798). Nativism has been an issue over time with many different societies. As a popular movement, it is particularly associated with America because the United States have allowed so many immigrants to enter the country. As a political and social movement in the United States iy became impotant, especially important in reaction to the wave of Irish Catholic immigrants from Ireland fleeing the Potato Famine (1845-49). Nativists in the mid-19th century believed that only Anglo-Saxon (British) Protestants were the ideal Americans. They feared outsiders and wanted immigration quotas to limit the influx of certain groups, especially Catholics. Even in the colonial era, Puritans and other Protestants saw the Catholic tradition as running counter to English/American ideals. The conflict began with Inquisition and the Catholic attacks on Protestants. The last Catholic English monarch is known as 'Bloody Mary'. But with the American Revolution and the end of the trcities of the relogious wars, American thouhy began to see oppoing Catholcism as the struggle between individualism and he authoritarian hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. Britain at the time struggled with Catholic enfrachisement Some states passed anti-Catholic laws. Nativists created organizations to promote their cause. They even formed a political party of some cosequence--the Know Nothing Party. The name of the party show that despite the popularity of their ideas, that many were alert to the fact that that nativist ideas challenged some basic American precepts. The Know Nothings were the only Nativist organization, but many groups more in the nature of fraternal orders formed. We see the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, Order of United American Mechanics, and others. The Immigration Restriction League became important in the 1890s. These groups were focused on Catholics. After the Civil War we see groups focused in race, like the Klu Klux Klan which proved more powerful than any of the earlier nativist groups. It wa formed after the Civil War, but with several revivals. Modern debate has changed in recent years with Civil Rights groups, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, equating enforcing immigrtion and border enforcemnt with racism. Important elements of the Democratic Party have come to the same conclusion.

Oceanic Passage

Crossing the Atlantic Oceam in the days of sail was both involved and expensive. As a result, those without means enduted themselves to pay for the passage. Of course the most harrowing passages were those experienced by Africans brught to the Americas as slaves. Technological advances in the 19th century made the pasage safer, quicker, and less expensive. As the number of emigrants rose, steam ship companies began to find carryng emigrants a lucrative trade. The emigrants who flocked to Ameica in thelate 19th and early 20th centuruy ctossed on 8-20 day voyages, depending on the route and ship. The cot was $25-35. Initially there was no real American comtrol on emigration As the U.S. Hovernment began to regulate immigration, the steamship companies began to restrict who they carried. The U.S. Government began fining the steanship lines $100 per individual denied entrance. Here the comncern was steerage passangers. Steamship lines began insisting steerage passangrs take a disenfecting bath, have their belongings fumigated, and submit to a medical examination.

Ellis Island

No site is more associated with immigration to America than Ellis Island in New York harbor. Immigration was at first largely unestricted, but by the 1890s new laws began to regularize immigration. The symbol of this was the grand brick and limestone buildings constructed on Ellis Islands where immigrants entering the United States through New York were processed. Between 1892 and 1924 over 22 million passengers and members of ships'crews came through Ellis Island and the Port of New York. The facility continued to operate until 1954, but Congress sharply scaled back immigration by establishing national quotas in 1924. While immigration was at its peak, thousands of immigrants daily were processed on Ellis Island. Each prospective immigrant was inspected for disease or disability. The station was structured and arranged, especially the steep stairs, so that inspectors could spot individuals that needed to be closely examined. Over 100 million Americans, about one-third of the population, can trace their ancestry to a man, woman, or child who passed through Ellis Island. Steamship manifest sheet were transferred to inspector's record book in the great Registry Room at Ellis Island. While Ellis Island was the entry point for millions. Substantial numbers never passed through Ellis Island to America. Rejected for a variety of reasons,they had to return to their country.

Living Conditions

The immigrants arriving in America during the late 19h and early 20th century mostly flocked to the cities, despite the rural backgrounds of many. New York was the the major city where immigrants flocked, but other important cities included Boston, Chicago, Philadelphias, and others of the mortheast and mid-west. Because they tended to seek out family and friends, there was a curious clustering of specific natianalitis in certain cities. Many were illiterate and arrived in Ameirica with little or no momey. They commonly moved into areas where others from the same country lived. Here they lived in tenments that were built in areas of the inner city to accomodate the huge number of immigranys arriving. The tenaments wer crowded and often filthy. Large families crowded into small apartments. Health care and nutrition were limited as the available money first went to pay the rent. Tennaments were fire traps. Fire escapes were nuilt which came to be used as estra rooms, especially during the hot summer weather.


Most immigrants arrived in America with very little money in their pockets and only a smll valise or bundle of possessions. In fact, however, they brought a great deal with them. Immigrants made a major contrubution to the industrial development of America because of their job skills and technical background. The same is true of those who homesteaded new farms. Many immigrants with professional skills were exemted from natiojal quotas. Many immigrants entered America with little education. Quite a number were illiterate. But they also did not arrive in America empty handed, they brought their cultures with music, food, social values, and other aspects which added to the American tapestry. America in the mid-19th century was still a largely Anglo-Protestant society. The America that emerged as a super-power from World War II was a vey different, more diverse society as a result of the late 19th and early 20th century immigration. While America emerged as a more diverse society, the British legal and political tradition was maintained and throughly accepted by the successive waves of non-Annglo immigrants.


Immigrants during the 19th century had little assistance when they arrived in America. The fortunate had family connections. Some ethnic groups, especially the Jews, organized groups to assist immiigrants. Political parties especially the Democrats organized efforts to attract the support of immigrants by helping them find jobs. For the most part 19th century immigrants, however, were on their own. Social reformers concerned about the poverty in urban America began to promote a variety of government and private charity efforts in the late 19th century. One of the most successful of these efforts were the settlement houses. The settle house was conceived by Jane Addams who began to work as a social reformer in the 1880s. Her idea was to acquire a large old house and convert into facilities that could assist immigrants. These facilities included classrooms, a shelter, and a refuge. Adam's first settle house--Hull House becamee the prototype for thousands of settlement houses established in cities throughout the United States.


Many American writers have stressed the important impact immigration has had on America in both the 19th and 20th centuries. The immigrants like Irving Berlin, Andrew Carnegie, Erickson, Ira Gerswin, Andy Grove, Oscar Hammerstein, Edward Teller, Werner Van Braun have imesurably added to the cultural, economic, and scientigic life of the United States. A huge list could be drawn up of the forrign-born Americans who have played an important role in American life. What is often not considered is the negative asoects of immigration. In fact some historians have even promoted the idea that to criticise immigration is nativist prejudice. This is not the case. There are negative aspects to immigratin. This is not to say that immigration is evil, only that there are negative consequences that should be considered in the making of public policy. A range of negative consequences include crime, disease, wage depression, and a host of other concerns. Many of these issues were especially pertinnt in the late 19th century when public officials were wrestling with public health and urban crowding. Normally studies of European emigration to America assess the impact on America. A poorly assessed topic is the ompact on Europe. Some authors suggest that emigration provided a safty valve that help to maintaiin social pressures below the level that would have resulted in rebellion or revolution.

Becoming Americans

Most immigrants came to America seeking a new life. Culture is, however, a poweful force. Some found that they were too attached to the life style of the old country. This was particularrly true of men. Many of those who could not adjust or make a living returned or tirnd to drink. Most embraced the new American ways they found. Immigrants came to America for a range of reasons. Many but not all came to stay, but others did not and this to an extent varied by country. Quite a number of Italians, for example, came to make money and return to Italy. But Italy was an indepedent country. Immigrants coming from Russia and Austria-Hungary were normally subject ethnic groups and were much less likely to return. This was especially true of Jews from Russia. These same factors also affected the tendency to persue naturalization. Age was another factor. While adults varies in their desire to become Americans, young people tended to very quickly decide they definitely wanted to be Americans. They wanted to dress like Americans and talk like Americans. And they quickly adopted American games like baseball. In some cases they even became embarassed of their parents foreign ways. Child immigrants had the advantage of attending the public schools. Many European countries at the time did not promote public education. This was especially true of Austria-Hungary which saw education as promoting national conciousness among the subject national groups within the Empire. America on the other hand embraced public education for all, even native Americans. The one exception here was blacks in the South where education was seen as potentially dangerous because educated blacks were more difficult to control. The public school taught the new immigrants English as well as the principles of American government and culture. Other important aids to becoming Americans were public libraries, settlent houses, and groups like the YMCA. Another important conduit to becoming American was the youths and women that worked as domestics.many Many of these women learned to be Americans by working in American homes. Here tey learned not only English, but American customs and manners. One surprising lesson they leaned was that it was against the law for men to beat therr wives.

The American Dream

James Tuslow Adams created the term "the American DreaM" in his classic study The Epic of America. Many authors have since tried to define that American dream. The dream came about well before Adams created the term. As another historian duscusses, there surely is no single American dream. [Cullen] Rather different pople have brought various dreams to the New World. The Conquitadores sought gold. The Puritans rligious freedom. And once here new dreams wer created. Lincoln's dream of upward mobility was shared by many. And modern Americans who put home ownership high on the list are constantly reinventing that dream.

Immigration Reform

The movement for immigration reforms began with the influx of Irish duringthe 1840s. Irish immigration came as a shock to many Americans. It was not just the numbers, but the Irish were the first Catholics to arrive in large numbers. This time the movement for immigration reform was largely identified with the nativist movement. The No Nothing Party was in large measure a response to Irish immigration. Later the major concern was tacist based--excluding the Chinese. The newspapers were full of concern over "The Yello peril". The debate in the late 19th century was muxh more complex. Immigration reform became part of the progressive reform movement. American labor led the demand for immigratin reform. Important Black leaders (Frederick Douglas, A. Philip Randolph, Booker T. Washington, and others) also advocated immigration reform. Urban officials and social reformers facing the problems of urban crowding also often favored reform. There was also the Xenephobic element and the Klan which promoted reform. Often the role of progressive reformers, however, in immigration reform that led to the National Origins Act (1924) are often not fully reported in the discussion of immigration. [Graham] The National Origins Act settled the immigration debate for several decades. That debate was reopened with the Civil Rights Movement and a new immigration law in 1965. The more diverse immigrant mix and illegal immigration from Latin America has given rise to new demands for immigration reform, but more importantly gaining control of America's borders..

Immigration Laws

Immigration was primarily from Western Europe. This was initially because of cultural and commercial ties to Europe. Immigration for much of the history of the united States was unregulated. Some states attempted to address the issue, but with little success. Some of the first American immigration laws restricted immigration to Europeans. The first U.S. immigration law prohibited American-flag vessels from transporting Chinese to America (1862). Congress eventually passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). Even so, important immigration also occurred from China and later Japan, in part because there were exceptions granted for the family of Chinese already in America. Today many Chinse have a small number of family names because many arrived using the family names of individuals already in America rather than their real names. Congress passed a series of laws providing for the examination of immigrants and the exclusion of specified groups (convicts, ill individuals (sufferers of specifed diseases), polygamists, prostitutes, personal likely to become public charges, and others(1875, 1882, and 1892). Gradually a movement built for immigration reform. Although not often mentioned, immigration reform was part of the progressive movement for social reform in the late 19th cetury. [Graham] Major reforms to the immigration system came after World War I with the National Origins Act (1921, 24). This act set limits on immigration, reducing it and adopting national quotas encouraging immigration from Europe. Much of the Congressional debate focused on cultural difference rather than nationality and race. [Graham]Another immigration issue arose after World EWar II with the entrance of large number of Hispanics from Mexico and other Latin American countries. The Federal Government changed immigration laws in 1965 to proviode a less restrictive immigration mix.

World War II: Refugees

The NAZI persecution of the German Jewish community and political opponents brought a wave of prominent individuals who made major contributions to America. Many described in gtaphic detail what was going on in Germany. There was long list of prominent individuals both from Germany and later the occupied countries that came to America, including Marlina Detrich, Peter Drucker, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, ??? Salard, Edmund Teller, and many more. These many destinguised individuals made great contributions to American arts, medicine, music, science, and many other fields. America is much the richer for their invaluable contributions. Others were just children when they emmigrated before and after the War, but would make valuable contributions of their own: Madeline Albright, Peter Drucker, Andy Grove, Henry Kisinger, Tivi Nussbaum, George Sorros, and others. The publicity certainly affected how Americans thought about Hitler. It did not, however, affect the stringly isolationist views of most Americans, it may in fact only strengthened them--at least at first. Also America and other countries had severe limitations on immigration, especially Jewish immigration. The Depression caused many countries to limit immigration, to save avaialble jobs for unemployed Americans. Anti-semitism was also a factor. President Roosevelt was struggling at the time to gain support for his efforts to defeat the isolationists and assist the British and French which made an additional struggle on immigration virtually impossible.


A HBC reader asks as to how immigrants affected fashion. Here of course the original British settlers had a substantial impact on fashion. As a result, English fashion dominated American fashion, especially men and boyswear throughout the 19th century. Our reader wants to know about European immigration which began with the Irish and then from Scandinavia and eastern and souther Europe later in the 19th century. We are just beginning to assess this topic. Our basic thoughts on the subject are at this time are that immigrants did not greatly impact American fashion. While immigrants played a major role in the building of modern America, we think that, however, their influence on fashion was relatively limited. I think immigrants, especially the boys after arriving in America were at first anxious to become American and fit in as rapidly as possible. Boys who learned English faster than their parents, did not want to stand out out as different or foreign. Most of the children wanted to wear American clothes and leaarn English so that they could fit in as quickly as possible. Interests in roots and ethnic heritage developed by the second or third generation, but the first generation, especially the children, wanted to become Americans and look as much as possible like Americans. Some parents encouraged this, many others were not all that pleased. A reader wtites, "I agree that the impact of immigration on fashion is an interesting topic. I did my Ph.D. dissertation on the subject ot Italian immigration in Newark, N.J. (period 1900 to 1920). I also agree that younger immigrants were more likely to want to "throw off" the old ways and adapt the customs of their new land. I don't think this is generally true, however, of the older immigrants who liked to retain customs of the old country." Another factor is that fashions at the time were set by the upper class which had a British bias. I think you will find most of the fashion inspiration coming from Britain and to a lesser extent France.

Individual Experiences

We have some limited information about the individual experiences of immigrants. We have only begun to list them here. There are many more, but we have not yet cross-indexed them here.

Italian immigrants in America: 1925

Austrian Von Trapp family: 1940s


Adams, James Tuslow. The Epic of America (1931).

Cullen, Jim. The American Dream: A Short History ofan Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford University Press).

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (Perennial, 1990), 515p.

Graham. Otis, Jr. Unguarded Gates: A History of America's Immigration Crisis (Rowman Littlefield: 2004).

Olesch, Reinhold. "The West Slavic Languages in Texas with special regard to Sorbian in Serbin, Lee County" in Glenn G. Gilbert, ed. Texas Studies in Bilingualism (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1970).


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Created: November 19, 2002
Last updated: 5:06 PM 3/31/2018