Immigration at the Turn of the 20th Century: Two Contemporary Accounts

The Changing  Character of Immigration

By Kate Holladay Claghorn

Photo of Claghorn in 1912

Text and images from The World’s Work: Scribners monthly, an illustrated magazine for the people, volume 1(Scribner & Son, New York, 1900-01)

Nearly half a million immigrants came to our shores during the year that ended June 30, 1900, the statistics of which have just been published. This is the largest number that has come since 1893. A curve showing the fluctuations of immigration since 1875 would rise rapidly after the low point of 1878 to more than three-quarters of a million in 1882 and sink again in 1886 to a third of a million, again rise to the highest point since then in 1892, and then rapidly decline till 1898.

While these figures show nothing surprising as a total, an interesting change has taken place in the proportions of nationalities that come to us. Compare this year with two previous years of large immigration—1882 and 1892 (which are the crests of the two highest waves), in respect to arrivals from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, regarded as one group, from Austria-Hungary and Russia, regarded as another group, from Ireland, and from Italy. German and Irish immigration has shrunk, and Italian has greatly increased.

It is noteworthy that the Austro-Russian group and the German-Scandinavian group have changed places as extremes since 1882. Last year, arrivals from Italy go beyond any previous record, with a total of over a hundred thousand, about double the arrivals from Germany and Scandinavia together, double the arrivals from Ireland in 1892, and one-third more than the Irish arrivals in 1882.

The change in the composition of our immigration is made even more plain by reducing the different national elements to percentages of the total immigration in each year considered, as is shown in the diagram of immigrants from given countries.

The decreasing elements have been grouped at one side of the table, the increasing elements at the other, in shaded blocks, the unshaded blocks between the shaded blocks representing all other elements in the total of immigration for each year.

The statistics of immigration for successive years would be even more significant, however, if the present system of classifying arrivals according to race as well as to country of residence, had been adopted sooner. The student of social matters has to thank Mr. Edward F. McSweeney, the present Assistant Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York, for the introduction of this better system of classification, the first results from which are given in the reports of immigration for the year ending June 30, 1899.

It is now possible to disengage the significant racial facts. For example, we can tell from last year’s figures that of the 90,787 arrivals from the Russian Empire, 12,515 were Finns, 37,011 were Hebrews, 32,797 were Lithuanians and Poles, and only 1165 were “Russians” proper.

Moreover, arrivals of the same race element from different countries may be grouped together. For instance, after grouping together all Germans by race, while arrivals from the German Empire in 1900 were 18,507, arrivals from all countries of persons of German race were 29,682. Hebrew arrivals for the year were 60,764. Arranging these figures by percentages of the total immigration in a bar makes the matter plainer to the eye.


The noticeable feature in recent immigration is the predominance of three racial stocks, usually considered of doubtful social and industrial value,—the Slavs, the Italians, and the Hebrews. Our problem now is the problem of the Italian, the Jew, and Slav—no longer of the Irishman and the German.

If we look at the human tide as it first washes our shores at the immigrant station, we shall see patient family groups—father, mother, and little children, old grandfather and grandmother, perhaps, and sturdy grown sons and daughters—as they sit beside their little possessions awaiting with eagerness the moment of their exit to a land of freedom and opportunity. The girls and women who pass the gate alone are moral and industrious peasants in the main—wives coming to husbands, sisters to brothers, or they are making the venture on their own responsibility. Even the bands of unattached men are not so bad as fancy paints them. Tall, ferocious-looking Croats and Slovacks are found, upon acquaintance with them under normal conditions, to be simple country fellows, ready to talk and sing, or to drink sociably, ready to work at anything that offers itself, planning to save the greater part of their earnings for wives and children left behind. Weather-beaten Italians, with seamed and lowering countenances, are meditating nothing darker than their chances of slipping by the inspector and gaining their foothold in the promised land.

We have practically no immigration from city slums, and very little from city populations of any sort, except the Russian Jewish immigrants, whose circumstances are peculiar, and who cannot be said, as a people, to have become infected with the characteristic slum vices. Our immigrants as a whole are a peasant population, used to the open, with the simple habits of life, the crude physical and moral health that the open air and poverty together are apt to produce. Practically all the immigration from Austria-Hungary, which has grown so considerably of late years, is from the country, as is also the immigration from Italy. The Italian mendicant, who is seldom seen here, is a member of a highly specialized class, and is as unwilling to leave his city haunts as any other specialized and privileged social product of his country would be.


In the immigrant group as a whole arc to be found poverty, ignorance, weakness, a pathetic patience, a no less pathetic hopefulness of what the future will bring, a childlike ingenuity of deceit in eluding the pains and penalties of detention and exclusion; but so little full-fledged and out-breaking viciousness that it is not worth talking about. In short, like the other class of beginners in citizenship they come to us as little children, and claim our care and protection as such.

But what course of training in citizenship is prepared for these grown-up children? A large proportion of them, for one reason and another, find their first homes in the slums of great cities. And so it unfortunately happens that, just as poverty and vice, ignorance and depravity, are confused together in our thought about them, so in our cities the newest immigrants who are the most hopeful element in our slums, are brought in direct relation with the vicious and defective remnant left behind by earlier comers. The man who is climbing up the ladder stands, while still on the lowest round, with the man who has slipped down there from a higher place, or who has stood there forever.

When the two sets of elements—the poor and the corrupt—come in contact, some mutual impression must be made. It has to be acknowledged that in some cases the incoming of newer peoples has had a distinctly beneficial effect in the neighborhoods they have taken possession of. In New York, for example, the old Fourth and Eleventh wards, long the haunt of the drunken sailor and his vicious mate, have been to a large degree cleaned up by the incoming of Greeks, Italians, and Russian Jews. Ground-floor tenements formerly occupied by saloons and dance halls are now the lodging places of Greek pedlers, who live together in peace, quiet, and order, smoking and playing cards at home on a rainy day, neither drinking nor fighting, well thought of by that great power in tenement-house life—the ” housekeeper “—and by neighboring families. Above stairs newly arrived Italians, industrious and of sober habits, have driven out the drunken Irish pauper of the second generation, to the great satisfaction of the charitable agencies that have had to struggle for so many years with the latter class.

On the other hand, there are influences of tremendous force constantly at work to drag the newer immigrants down. Especially bad is the tenement house for the newly arrived immigrant. The robust physical health of the peasant fails in the poisonous air of his dwelling; such habits of cleanliness, order, and decency as the immigrant family may have brought with it are in serious danger of wreck in unsanitary and crowded quarters. Not knowing localities and prices, the immigrant takes up his abode in the parts of the city nearest his point of entry, which is, in New York, the most expensive part of the city, so far as rents are concerned. A family must not merely confine itself within as narrow limits as possible, but must, in order to meet the expense, ask another family to share the space already too narrow for itself. The moral as well as the physical evil that such crowding brings does not need to be described.

It is, perhaps, a fortunate rather than an unfortunate circumstance that as families of the newer races crowd into a given tenement, earlier comers move out. The “colony,” composed of one sort of foreigners solely, representing approximately the same period of immigration, has this favorable feature, at least—it is made up of elements of similar kind. The old stager in vice and trickery is not so likely to be at hand to instruct the inexperienced new arrival in all branches of his art, nor the practiced pauper, to give the dangerous lesson of dependence to the normally self-helpful immigrant.

All evils, however, are favored by an institution which is the greatest evil of them all,—that is, the peculiar system of political control under which our great cities groan, “politics for profit,” an organized business, run primarily for the advantage of its managers, secondarily for the benefit of their sub-agents.

The tenement house itself, with all its evils involved was here when the immigrant came; but the continuation of the worst features of the tenement in spite of laws enacted for its improvement, is the direct result of “politics for profit.” Requirements with regard to round space to be occupied, to the size and character of air-shafts, to other matters of constriction when the building is to be erected, requirements for the lighting of hallways, to proper sanitation, to the character of inmates, after the tenement is built, are violated with impunity.

The immigrant problem is a very serious one; but we succeed with it directly in proportion to our skill or neglect in dealing with it. The material is, in the main, good raw material for American citizenship.

There has never been a sufficiently careful oversight of fresh immigrants in our crowded cities; for they ought to be regarded as civic children and cared for as such. But somehow, in haphazard ways, we assimilate them—developing the best traits in most of them but not in all, taking our chances. They take their chances, too, in coming; and the wonder is that we both survive the experiment as well as we do. The children of almost any kind of parents become American.

Americans in the Raw

By Edward Lowry
Illustrated from photographs by Arthur Hewitt

Text and images from The World’s Work: Scribners monthly, an illustrated magazine for the people (Scribner & Son, New York, 1902)


In an open ditch, red and raw under a broiling sun, sixty-five Italian immigrants, stripped to the necessities, toiled silently with shovel and pick. A hard-faced, red-necked man, their taskmaster, walked up and down the trench, and wherever he stopped the men worked with feverish speed. Temporarily, at least, this will be the fate of thousands of the other immigrants who flowed in through Ellis Island in this year’s spring flood — the greatest in twenty years.

Magyar Woman and Child

During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1901, there were landed at New York 388,931 immigrants; in May alone, 92,485, and on one day in May, 6,490. The highest previous monthly record in twenty years was in May, 1893—the flood is always heaviest in spring—when 73,000 were landed. Persons with contagious or incurable diseases are sent back, and a far greater number of other on the ground that they are likely to become public charges. The others give their occupations and enter, but not always to take up the occupation given, for many calling themselves musicians have been found later working as waiters in restaurants or toiling as laborers on public works.

Just arrived from Holland

The Government assumes jurisdiction over the aliens as soon as their steamer has been passed at quarantine. Inspectors go aboard from the revenue cutters down the bay and obtain the manifests of alien passengers, which the steamship companies must supply. These manifests must show:

A Polish Woman

Full name—age—sex—whether married or single—calling or occupation—whether able to read or write—nationality—last residence —seaport for landing in the United States— final destination in the United States— whether having a ticket through to such destination—whether the immigrant has paid his own passage, or whether it has been paid by other persons, or by any corporation, society, municipality or government—whether in possession of money, and if so, whether upward of $30, and how much, if $30 or less— whether going to join a relative, and if so, what relative and his name and address— whether ever before in the United States, and if so, when and where—whether ever in prison or almshouse, or supported by charity —whether a polygamist—whether under contract, expressed or implied, to perform labor in the United States—the immigrant’s condition of health, mentally and physically and whether deformed or crippled; and if so, from what cause. It is a searching census, indeed.

Waiting in One of the Railway Detention Rooms

When the steamship reaches her pier the inspectors discharge such immigrants as they may deem it unnecessary to examine (usually not over fifteen or twenty). All the others are transferred to barges and taken to Ellis Island. There on the main floor of the big immigration building they are divided into groups according to the manifests, and separated. Later, in lines set off by iron railings, they undergo “primary inspection.” Each immigrant is questioned to see if his answers ally with the manifests. If they do, he is discharged; if they do not, he is detained for “special inquiry,”by boards composed of four inspectors, who decide all questionable cases. Only the Secretary of the Treasury can overrule their decision. The immigrants are kept in the big detention room downstairs until the railway agents take them to board trains to their final destinations. While on the island they are lodged by the Government and fed by the steamship companies.

In the Detention Pen: Men who will be deported as not desirable

My concern has been not with the larger meaning, but with the unkempt particles of this slow and constantly moving glacier of humanity; from whence and why they came, how much money they brought with them, the amount and character of their baggage, how they procured employment, and how they were assimilated.


[LEFT]: Young Irishmen Ready for Politics
[RIGHT]: Russian Jews


[LEFT]: A Typical Italian Family
[RIGHT]: Peasants From Norway on the Roof Awaiting Deportation


[LEFT]: Until Her Friends Arrive
[RIGHT]: Swedish Girls on Their Way to Wisconsin.

Odd Baggage of the Immigrants

I welcomed Florio Vincenzo when he came over to become one of us. He had no doubts of the future for he wooed the Goddess of Good Fortune boldly. Florio is fourteen; he came from Palermo. He traveled light. When he opened his cheap paper valise, it was apparently empty, save for a pair of discredited and disreputable old shoes. Florio bowed, cap in hand, and his white teeth flashed as he smiled suavely:


[LEFT]: “I am a poor man, nobleman, seeking my fortune. ”
[RIGHT]: On Ellis Island: Polish women going from a barge to the immigration building.

Landing on Ellis Island: The immigrants are brought in barges from the ships to the Island.

There was an odor that an old inspector knew. He picked up one of the shoes and extracted from it, after some manipulation, a creased and crumpled hunk of Bologna sausage. The other shoe was stuffed with a soft, sticky and aggressively fragrant mass of Italian cheese. These articles and a sum of Italian money equivalent to about $1.80, and the clothes he stood in, formed the basis on which Florio expected to rear his fortune.

Released Italians Awaiting the Boat To New York

Pietro Viarilli was gray-haired, round-shouldered, and weazened. He, too, had come make his fortune. His impedimenta consisted of one padlocked canvas valise lined with paper and containing two striped cotton shirts, one neckerchief of yellow silk blue flowers and edges, one black hat (soiled and worn), one waistcoat, two pairs of woolen hose of gay design, one suit of underwear, one pint of olive oil and about half a peck of hard bread biscuits. Until his arrival the list included a quart of Vesuvian wine of the rich purple hue one may buy in cheap cafes in Naples. Carelessly Pietro had slung his valise from his shoulder, and had smashed his bottle, drenching his store of biscuits. He and his companions had munched them greedily until the supply was exhausted.

Dutch Peasants: Mother, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild come to make a home in the West.

The contents of the bags and boxes of the Scandanavians, English, Scotch and Irish are usually more diverse. These immigrants bring over articles of personal adornment or household ornaments of a sentimental interest. The Scandinavians bring more baggage than any others. Close behind come the English nd the French. Roughly speaking, those from the North of Europe bring more personal effects than those from the South. The 2,000 immigrants who arrived on a Liverpool ship one morning this summer brought 1,185 pieces of checked baggage, exclusive of about 900 pieces of hand baggage. This is about two-thirds more than the same number of persons Southern Europe would have brought. For this reason Hungarins, Slovaks, Greeks, Sicilians, and other South-of-Europe peoples, are called “walkers” by baggage men.

During one month this spring 21,367 pieces of baggage were received at Ellis Island, examined and sent to various parts of the country, frail and poorly made, and awkwardly shaped, much of it unmarked and the rest scrawled over with undecipherable hieroglyphics. The Government makes no charge for storage, and the immigrant, if he chooses, may leave his trunk or box on the island for a year, yet seldom a piece is lost.

It is said that the old customs inspectors tell at a glance from the contents of a bag what part of Europe its owner has come from. The Italians bring over wine, fruits, oil or nuts; the English and the Scotch will have a piece of tweed or heavy cloth, and the Irish bring frieze. In the main, however, these immigrants come away from their homes to a strange country bringing less clothing and fewer personal effects than the average American workingman would drag out of a burning house, and chosen about as wisely.

Money Brought by Immigrants

At the examination the immigrants are asked to show their money. Some craftily fail to show it all; others willingly display their whole petty hoardings. The money is carefully counted, and, after a record has been taken, restored to them. Later, they are asked if they wish any money changed. Many refuse for fear of being cheated; others stop before the busy money-changers’ booth at the end of the long examination room.

Last year the 388,931 immigrants showed $5,490,080, an average of $14.12 The French led all the others with an average of $39.37. The Hebrews stood at the foot of the list bringing on an average $8.58. The Germans followed the French with an average of $31.14. The other nationalities stood in the list as follows:

A pleasant-faced little man with trustful blue eyes stood before the desk one afternoon. His wife, a typical German woman, and three children formed a patient, waiting group behind him. The man wore a suit of “copperas jeans,” stained and worn, top-boots, and the high peaked cap of the German peasant. He was fumbling through his pockets and in hidden recesses of his garments and producing money. Thalers, marks, Imperial treasury notes and gold pieces fell from his dirty fingers until a tidy little heap was lying on the counter.

Some of the immigrant officers looked on in amazement. The little German had seemed peculiarly unproductive soil for such a harvest—which amounted to over $600 to be converted into United States treasury notes. He grinned cheerfully when the neat pile of crisp green bills was handed to him, and opening his shirt, stowed the roll where he could feel it next his body. But he was an exceptionally wealthy immigrant.

The Immigrants as Citizens

Getting a job is casual business with an immigrant. Each seems to find an opportunity. In a big gray stone building on the Battery is a low living room with white walls —bare save for rows of benches. In one corner is a railed-off desk space where sit two or three kindly faced old men. An iron railing running the length of the room separates capital from labor. On the benches are men waiting to be hired, of all sorts but alike in having no friends and no work. They slouch like habitual park loungers. A dull spirit of lethargy hangs over the room. The waiting peasants read dirty scraps of newspapers, or chat disconnectedly. Employers come in from time to time and tell the man behind the railing their needs. A fair-faced blond man in shirt sleeves, for example, came in one day and spoke briefly:—

“Who wants to work for a baker ? ” called the manager.

A young fellow stood up like a boy at school, came forward and talked with the employer in German. Then he went back and sat down. Another man looked up from his paper, spoke to the baker, and the two departed chatting like old friends.

From 1,000 to 1,500 persons find employment every month at this bureau, which is maintained by the German Society of the City of New York and the Irish Emigrant Society. Usually, however, the immigrants rely on friends or relatives for a start. Women seeking domestic service are more capricious than the men. They will not take a place outside of New York, not even in Brooklyn. They can get higher wages in New York than in any other place in the country.

Foreigners who have been in this country for less than one year are still subject to the immigration laws. If an immigrant becomes a public charge within twelve months, or applies to a public charity for relief, he is deported at the expense of the steamship company. The Outdoor Poor Bureau, maintained by the City of New York, handles about 2,000 such cases every year. The case of “Prince ” Ranji T. Smilie was interesting.

The “Prince” came into New York as an Eastern potentate with a retinue of swarth retainers. He was really only a curry cook and his coming had been cleverly exploited to advertise an Oriental restaurant in which the “Prince” was to cook and the retinue to become waiters. When the restaurant failed the waiters applied for relief and were sent to Ellis Island. Later they were deported. Some of the other cases have had interesting features: Ario Tokian, who described himself as a minister, thirty-one years of age, and did not know what ship he came on (not an common occurrence), applied for relief in June. He had $5.00 when he landed nearly a year previously, and had $3.00 at the time he made his application. He had been refused on a similar application last September, whereupon he came back to the mainland and enlisted. He was discharged in June. In less than a month he was “broke.” Another case was that of an English girl, an idiot and an epileptic, here a little more than a year. Her sister gave the unfortunate girl a good home, circumstances recently made it impossible to support her longer. When application was made at the Outdoor Poor Bureau, it was found that she was a British subject and could not be committed permanently to an institution here, because she had been in this country more than a year. The British Consul refused to do anything. The final outcome of the matter is yet to be determined.

Roughly speaking, the North-of-Europe people make better citizens than those from the South of Europe. The better class go to the country and the worst to the cities. Greeks are considered about the least desirable of all; the Italians from the southern portion of the peninsula also make poor citizens; but those from the northern part of Italy rank with the Swiss and other desirable nationalities. From 1821 to 1900, accord ing to a recent Census Bulletin, over 19,000,000 immigrants landed in the United States. Germany sent 5,000,000; Ireland, 3,870,000; Great Britain, 3,026,000; Scandinavia, 1,246,000; Austria-Hungary (including Bohemia), 1,000,000; and Italy, 1,000,000. Once the stream came mainly from the North of Europe now it comes chiefly from the South— the undesirable countries.

These Greeks and the Southern Italians, however, who live by selling fruit from the push carts in the city streets, earn considerable sums of money. An old Italian was detained at Ellis Island, preparatory to being deported because he had arrived here penniless. He sent for his son, a push-cart man, who had been in this country just one year. The boy (he was not more than twenty) brought his book showing deposits aggregating $250. This money represented the sum he had saved. He impressed upon the inspectors his ability to support his father, and the old man was admitted. The boy said his expenses were about $7.00 a week, and that he did not work for a padrone, but was an independent merchant.

Others follow different paths, and meet strange adventures. There is a man now honored in a Western State whom I shall call Karl Ritter. His older brother emigrated from the Black Forest to Wisconsin, where, laboring and living frugally, he acquired a prairie farm. At the age of eight, Karl came over with his name stitched on a square of white cloth on his breast. Kindly men cared for him till on a dreary winter day he reached Black Earth. When the day’s work was over the station agent drove him over the dull prairie to his brother’s place, and left him at the gate. He knocked, but getting no response, pushed desperately in. An old man and older woman, with sinister vicious faces, sitting there within the little farmhouse, told him his brother had gone on a journey. After a fortnight, beaten down with terrors, Karl ran away, and tramping up country, secured a place on a farm.

Arrived at manhood, and owner of a farm of his own, he was called one day to Black Earth, to learn that the man and woman he net the day of his arrival had murdered his brother the day before and hidden the body in the cellar.

I have heard another odd tale. Three Scandinavian immigrant boys were each left a sixty-acre prairie farm by their father. Mons was a fisherman—the more he thought the plainer he saw his duty. To Nils he said:

“If I give you my farm, will you support that I can fish ?”

Now Nils’s 120 acres have increased to several thousand, and his stock is the finest in the country. Mons fishes all day in the lake, seldom catching anything, but content with his lot.

The final destination of the hordes pouring in can be set down but roughly, though the objective point of all the new-comers is a part of their record. Of the 138,000 arrivals in May and June of this year the distribution of the largest streams flowing in from Ellis Island was as follows:—

Of the Italians, not more than half come as permanent settlers. Of the 533,245 immigrants from Italy in 1901, 281,688 according to their own declaration sought temporary employment with the intention of returning to their old homes. Of these temporary immigrants there were 20,221. They have shown no tendency to settle in “colonies, ” but seek work wherever it may be had at tolerable wages. They are unlike the Swedes, Danes and Finns, who usually go directly to Western lumber camps and farms. Even these, like many of the immigrants, retain their old home customs years after settling, and outward-bound ships in the spring are filled with two and three-year immigrants going home on visits. As soon as the coal strike had begun in Pennsylvania, thousands of the strikers went back to Europe.

Homesickness drives certain of the foreign born residents of New York to the Battery Park sea wall in the spring. On sunny mornings the long rows of benches facing the sea are full of men and women with bright head dresses and gaily colored shawls, watching the ships come in. They chat animatedly and their manners are vivacious. Their talk is of home, of Tuscan hillsides, of the vineyards, of Cretan villages, and of the old Mediterranean cities. At regular intervals, when the boat from Ellis Island brings its load of newly arrived immigrants to the Barge Office, there is a rush of the homesick ones to the edge of the sea wall. The peasants on the boat wave their hats or brilliant neckerchiefs, and sometimes there is a call of greeting from across the water. Those who sit on the benches do not go to the park for the clean, cool air, but to satisfy demands that are psychological.

Originally published by eHistory at The Ohio State University under a Creative Commons license.