Immigration, 1905-Style

Recently ran across this description of the immigration experience as it was for many people in the early 20th century.  Vivid portrayals of steerage class aboard ship and of the passage through Ellis Island.

Related:  a Tom Russell song about an Irish ‘picture bride’ coming to America.

8 thoughts on “Immigration, 1905-Style”

  1. Both of my maternal grandparents emigrated separately from Denmark at about this time. I don’t know their exact circumstances but they wouldn’t have had more than 2nd class passages. This was a time when malnutrition was common and actual starvation not unknown there if not at the levels during the earlier migrations from Northern Europe. Nine children, many many grand children and still more great grand children but I don’t think they could be described as prospering, more getting by. But get by they did. Nothing different in this story except particulars from many others here.

    It’s practically impossible not to see a parallel between them and those besieging our southern border. The great majority of the present migrants are seeking opportunity to get by that isn’t present in the places they had the misfortune of being born to. In virtually all cases, this lack is a product of corrupt and dysfunctional government.

    There are supposed to be 7.9 billion people today. How many of those would be substantially better off in the poorest, most violent inner city here than where they are? If we allowed even 1% of them a year to come here, how long would anything like the present country last? We may be in the process of finding out.

    At some point, simple self preservation has to take hold. This seems to be one more place that the “left” is pushing the other half of the country into a corner. They think they will be able to deflect the eventual explosion by calling us names. They won’t.

  2. my family came through ellis island south, the freedom tower in miami, we waited 8 years for a visa to get out of that godforsaken hellhole (the details of which they seem desirous to us to experience again) there was no guarantee that we would be able to get on the plane,

  3. As a young man, Robert Louis Stevenson travelled to the US in 1879 to spend some time with an American woman with whom he had become friendly in Paris. As best I can recall the background, Stevenson’s father — the Scottish equivalent of a Supreme Court Justice — was outraged at his son’s behavior and refused to pay for the trip. Stevenson travelled steerage and paid for his trip by writing articles for a magazine, subsequently collected in the volume “From Scotland to Silverado”. Travel in those days was rough!

    At the end of the trip, Stevenson made a comment along the lines of — It took only 2 weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean and the American continent to get from Greenock to California. We really have reached the peak of civilization!

  4. Indeed – it might take several months to cross the Atlantic in a sailing ship, and the emigrant decks were pretty horrid – basically a single long deck or two, bunks along the sides and a long table and benches down the middle. I had to describe this misery for the first Adelsverein book, The Gathering. In the Sophienburg Museum in New Braunfels, there’s a full-size replica of one of the chartered sailing ships which brought German immigrants to Texas in the 1840s.
    With the development of a reliable maritime steam engine, and regular packet passenger service across ‘the pond’ later in the century – travel time was cut to a week, either way. While it was a big selling point in providing luxury for First Class, and considerable comfort for Second … many of the steamship lines made more money overall from providing passage to Steerage/Third Class. Third Class in the late 19th and early 20th was actually pretty comfortable, relative to what it had been earlier. The big difference was felt upon arrival in New York (and I presume other established ports of entry): First and Second Class passengers got off the ship and went on their merry way, presumed to be people of responsibility and substance. Third Class emigrants were screened exhaustively for various issues, including health and ability to work.
    I have always assumed this was why my maternal grandfather spent money on Second Class passage – that the immigration authorities at Ellis Island would let him go without hinderance.

  5. Very interesting– some of the early crossings before steam were harrowing and IIRC some
    mortality rates rivalled the Middle Passage. And also IIRC (from old Oscar Handlin) about a quarter of immigrants were back home within 3-5 years either by choice or circumstance–vague but broadly true . . .

    My father’s parents both came from Germany circa 1909-12, but I don’t think either one went through Ellis. (We know some of my wife’s Sicilian ggparents did, though.) Opa was a friseur from Hamburg–a hairdresser, wigmaker, and makeup man for an Italian opera company touring the US. He said the first language he learned in America was Italian.

    Oma was an Oldenburg peasant girl, brought over to work for an uncle in the hair goods business, where Opa took a job when the opera co went bust here. I’ve been to the thatched two room cottage, constructed 1817, she was born in . . . one room for people, one room for animals. I’ve been to Hamburg too, but a lot has changed ;-) and we didn’t know about his youth at all.

    No memorable journey details from either one–he died 1960, I was 6; she died 1984 but never said much about her trip over per se. He had amassed several big scrapbooks of postcards from all over the country–including a lot of period racist stuff, alas.

    Cousin Eddie

  6. My great great grandfather was an Irish immigrant about 1820. He married my great great grandmother, also from Ireland, in upstate New York in a French language Catholic church. The church may have been in Quebec as they settled in a town near the St Lawrence River. My maternal great grandparents settled right across the river in Canada. They were also from Ireland and the St Lawrence River might have been the destination for both families. There is fragmentary evidence that one ancestor might have been a British soldier in the War of 1812 who deserted. I wish I could learn more about the Irish immigrants that early. The passage must have been very difficult. They prospered, however, and many moved West after the Erie Canal opened the way.

  7. I’d rather have manual laborer immigrants than doctors and lawyers. Of course our current system of seasonal labor migration is grossly exploitative and immoral, to both the migrants and natives they are displacing. And the presence of the welfare state we have now, and the ease of money transfers international, makes immigration today a massively different proposition than it used to be, as does the presence of a vast constituency actively undermining the very concept of assimilation.

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