Immigrants at Ellis Island 1
Introduction: The Great Migration
In the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, America experienced a massive influx of immigrants. From 1815 to 1914, over thirty million immigrants arrived in the United States, most of them fleeing from dismal living conditions back home.2 Europeans in particular fled in large numbers after new technology and industrialization decreased the need for individual farmers and artisans. People searching for work opportunities and a better life took advantage of technological advances which made sailing over the Atlantic both safer and faster and fled to the United States.3 Meanwhile, the West Coast also experienced an increased number of immigrants from Asia. The arrival of large amounts of immigrants from Europe and Asia in the 1900s drastically changed the landscape of American culture, as well as altered the definition of urban living. Many immigrants found that life in the United States sometimes differed little from their previous lives back home. A lack of proper housing, health and sanitation problems, economic depression and xenophobia made the immigrant experience challenging and, at times, unbearable. The focus of this Wiki is to examine the details of the urban immigrant experience in New York City from approximately 1830 to 1930. By doing so, it seeks to give readers a better idea of how the urban environment changed as a result of massive immigration and became the booming cities of today.
The Tenement House
New York City Tenements4
After arriving in the United States, most immigrants took refuge in crowded tenement houses located in the poorest areas of the city. In New York City, a tenement housing boom took place during the 1850s and at that time there was little legislation governing the building and upkeep of the new homes.5 In an effort to reap high profits, landlords attempted to fit as many families as they could into their property. In the Lower East Side, there was a square city block which consisted of “39 tenement houses, containing 605 different apartments, inhabited by 2,781 people, of whom 466 are children under five years of age.”6With little cheap housing available elsewhere in the city, working class immigrants had little choice but to squeeze their families into the tiny tenement apartments. Rent for a Lower East Side tenement home ranged from ten dollars and fifty cents to fourteen dollars a week as compared to ninety-five dollars per week for a single room in the Upper West Side.7 The huge difference between rent prices was not only a sign of the different qualities of the homes, which will be discussed later, but also an indicator of the enormous economic and social gaps between the rich and the poor. Whereas the wealthy elites gradually moved uptown and built ritzy homes and businesses, working class immigrants were forced to live in the neighborhoods and homes left behind by the rich.8
Most tenement buildings were four-to-five stories tall and “occupied as much as 90 percent of their lot.”9 Often built side-by-side, this left little room for light and ventilation to penetrate the houses. As Yohanna Von Wagner, a tenement house inspector, described in 1902,
“the average tenement-house has deprived the people of light, air, and privacy; it has dark bedrooms, with sometimes the worse than useless air-shaft opening into a common hall,—a hall which, on entering, sends a chill through one’s bones; as a rule it is not ventilated, is very dark, unventilated toilets open into it, and the damp cellar air and odors from cooking and toilets which greet one on entering are overpowering.”10
Inside of a Tenement Apartment14
Landlords were intent on making money and therefore failed to consider the needs of their tenants. The downtrodden nature of the tenements houses was not just dangerous, but was also an indication of how increasingly profit-driven the housing market had become. By not building separate bathrooms and installing electricity and gas fixtures, landlords could cut costs. Although plumbing and gas pipes were common in middle and upper class homes, some tenement houses “without gas and running water long after gas and water pipes were laid in the neighborhood.”11While technological advances were seen taking place elsewhere around the city, modernization in tenement neighborhoods was slow, if not almost standstill.
A lack of proper plumbing, contaminated water supplies, and poor ventilation all contributed to the epidemic-like onset of infectious diseases inside the tenement houses and immigrant communities. The narrow airshafts that were placed in some rooms were unable to circulate an appropriate amount of air, creating a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. The Citizens’ Association, an activist organization, had found:
“typhus and consumption in overcrowded tenements; infantile diarrhoeas and malarial and typhoid maladies where the streets were badly drained, neglected, and filthy with decaying organic matter; rheum, scrofula, and eruptive diseases where the people had to sleep in unventilated bedrooms or in damp cellars.”12
The presence of so many infectious and deadly diseases frequently triggered outbreaks within tenement communities. It became crucial that officials set up health and sanitary inspections of tenement houses to prevent the diseases from spreading to even more residents. In the midst of huge outbreaks of infectious diseases, medical and health professionals instituted health guidelines, such as quarantine and coercion. Immigrants living in the tenements were “encouraged to keep their bodies and homes clean by public health officials as well as by private hospitals.”13 Still, without properly built houses that provide sufficient ventilation and ample sunlight, it was difficult to stop the germs from quickly spreading from one member of the community to another.
Landlords were able to get away with constructing tightly packed tenement houses because there were no rules in the mid-nineteenth century on what could be built.15 It was not until the New York State's Tenement House Act of 1867 was passed that housing reform became a priority. However, even with calls for more bathrooms and fire escapes, there were still very few landlords who adhered to the new law. There was little enforcement of the Tenement House Act of 1867 and, as inspector Von Wagner’s observations from 1902 show, even time brought about little change to the living conditions of the urban working class immigrants. What their squalid living conditions did bring about was a wave of activism and calls to improve the lives of the poor. This eventually led to the passage of the 1901 Tenement House Act, which “all but banned the construction of tenements on 25 foot wide lots… [and] required improved light, ventilation, and toilet facilities.”16 Unlike the previous act, however, this one had stricter enforcement and landlords were actually punished for not complying with the rules. New tenement houses became far more habitable than their predecessors and the conditions inside older tenements also improved. The Tenement House Acts, results of the plight of immigrant workers in New York City, set precedent for the building codes and regulations that are in place in the United States today.
Most immigrants came to the United States hoping to find a stable, well-paying job as a means to support their families. However, the Panic of 1873, the result of several bank failures, caused an economic depression in America. In New York City,
“one hundred thousand people were thrown out of work, nearly one-quarter of the city's labor force. Ten thousand homeless roamed the city's streets. Those who still had work suffered a severe drop in wages, roughly 30 percent across the board.”17
A Tenement Sweatshop18
Working class immigrants desperate to earn an income worked not only labored in factories and peddled in the streets, but also worked at home. Often, women and children could be found “carrying bundles of clothing or boxes of artificial flowers from work-shop to home.”19 In order to make a sixty cents a day, they had to put together “six wreaths of daisies, three or four pieces to each daisy, and thirty-nine daisies on each wreath,”20 an incredible amount of work considering they had already labored outside their homes during the day. Women also gathered together as groups in the tenement houses to create garments. These gatherings became the beginnings of the sweatshop industry, what New York state inspectors described them as “a system of labor which is nearly akin to slavery.”21
Although tenement inspectors were aware of the tenement factories and there were laws passed to stop the labor, they, like the previous tenement building codes, were difficult to enforce. Tenement sweatshops were extremely prevalent and oftentimes the entire family participated in its operation.22 However, with the opening of the New York City subway system, most sweatshops moved away from the tenements and into what is now known as the garment district. With the growth of the garment industry came a new labor movement and the formation of garment unions. In response to unsafe work environments and unfair wages, immigrant workers increasingly turned to strikes and revolts as a bargaining tactic. This culminated in the Great Revolt, when “approximately 50,000 - 60,000 strikers left their shops” in July 1910.23 Although the strike erupted into violence several times, workers were granted their demands, including a fifty hour work week, double pay for overtime and legal holidays with pay. The victory was not just a win for laborers, but also for immigrants, a group who had long suffered the abuses of factory contractors and owners.
Working class immigrants not only battled economic hardtimes, but were also victims of social ills. Poor housing was not only an indication of "a bad distribution of wealth,"24 but was also "one of the principal causes of drunkenness and crime."25 In New York City, tenement communities were home to the most numerous and profitable liquor houses. In one area of the city, "there [were] 148 saloons all located within a space 514 yeards long by 375 wide."26 Without a comfortable home to return to, laboring men and women increasingly turned to alcohol as a means of escaping from their problems.
Nineteenth Century Classroom31
Another social problem was the lack of proper education for tenement children. "Although most middle-class children went to school, most poor and immigrant children did not"27 Rather, many labored in home industries or worked illegally in sweatshops and factories. Those who did have the opportunity to attend school often worked as well in order to add to their families' income. This lifestyle required immigrant children to stay up late at night to finish work orders and then wake up early the next morning to complete homework assignments. In 1874, New York state passed a law requiring all children to attend school, but New York City's school system "remained inadequate to serve [the] growing population of children."28 Without a proper education, many children were unable to move up the socio-economic ladder that would have helped them afford housing outside the tenement community. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to grow.
Many of the uneducated young men from tenement communities organized themselves into groups according to the neighborhoods they lived in or by the trades they practiced. These groups evolved into violent gangs in the mid-1800s as a result of economic downturns and an influx of immigrants from Ireland. The ensuing violence sparked a "power struggle between native-born and immigrant groups."29 Native-borns were citizens whose families came prior to the great migration of immigrants in the mid-ninteenth century to the early-twentieth century. Many native-borns disliked the new group of immigrants and often used them as scapegoats for the country's problems. An example is disease--new immigrants were blamed for carrying the disease to the United States from their home countries. Certain diseases were also connected to specific immigrants populations who lived in areas with the largest outbreaks. During the first half of the nineteenth century, "the Five Points area was labeled as the "cholera district" since its Irish residents suffered the most from the illness."30
It is important to analyze the study the lives of urban immigrants in the mid-1800s to early-1900s because it was during this time that lots of urban changes came about. New York City, for example, experienced unprecedented growth as modern amenities such as gas and plumbing became more common. Although such luxuries were usually absent from the homes of working class urban immigrants, activism and reform eventually made their residences habitable. The changes in the economic and social institutions that occurred during this time period would make way for the continued growth in urban centers all over the United States. New housing regulations, educational requirements and labor reform would turn cities such as New York City into booming, multicultural centers they are today.
Mulberry Street, 1900 31
1 "New Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island." 26 April 2007. http://sydaby.eget.net
2 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Nine: Immigration." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/immigration.htm
4 "New York City Tenements." 26 April 2007. http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com
5 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Eight: Housing." 2005 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/housing_tenements.htm
6 Gould, E. R. L. "The Housing Problem in Great Cities." Quarterly Review of Economics 14 (1899-1900), 378-393. 26 April 2007. http://tenant.net/Community/LES/gould.html
7 Gould, E. R. L. "The Housing Problem in Great Cities." Quarterly Review of Economics 14 (1899-1900), 378-393. 26 April 2007. http://tenant.net/Community/LES/gould.html
10 Von Wagner, Yohanna. "Tenement-House Inspection." The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 2, No. 7. (Apr., 1902), p. 509. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-936X%28190204%292%3A7%3C508%3ATI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5
12 Lederle, Ernst J. "New York City's Sanitary Problems, and Their Solution." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 23, Municipal Problems. (Mar., 1904), p. 117. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7162%28190403%2923%3C117%3ANYCSPA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-3
13 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Four: Health and Disease." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/diseases_epidemics.htm
14 "Inside of a Tenement Apartment." 26 April 2007. http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com
15 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "The Tenement House Act." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/features_dolkart.html
17 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Five: Economic Depression." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/ecodepress.htm
19 van Kleek, Mary. "Child Labor in Home Industries." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science > Vol. 35, Supplement. Child Employing Industries (Mar., 1910), p. 145. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7162%28191003%2935%3C145%3ACLIHI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-J
21 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Six: Garment Industry." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/garment_sweat.htm
22 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Twenty-Three" Sweatshops." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/sweat.htm
23 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Thirteen: Labor Movement." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/labor_revolt.htm
24 Cope Jr., Francis R. "Tenement House Reform: Its Practical Results in the "Battle Row" District, New York." The American Journal of Sociology > Vol. 7, No. 3 (Nov., 1901), p. 336. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9602%28190111%297%3A3%3C331%3ATHRIPR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M
27 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Nineteen: Public Schools." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/publicschools.htm
29 Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Chapter Fifteen: Lower East Side." 2005. 26 April 2007. http://www.tenement.org/Encyclopedia/lower_gangs.htm
31 "Mulberry Street, 1900." 26 April 2007. http://www.uvm.edu/~arosa/187italian.html
"A Tenement Sweatshop." 26 April 2007. www.picture history.com
Cope Jr., Francis R. "Tenement House Reform: Its Practical Results in the "Battle Row" District,
New York." The American Journal of Sociology > Vol. 7, No. 3 (Nov., 1901), pp. 331-351. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-9602%28190111%297%3A3%3C331%3ATHRIPR%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M
Gould, E. R. L. "The Housing Problem in Great Cities." Quarterly Review of Economics 14 (1899-
1900), 378-393. 26 April 2007. http://tenant.net/Community/LES/gould.html
"Inside of a Tenement Apartment." 26 April 2007. http://occawlonline.pearsoned.com
Lederle, Ernst J. "New York City's Sanitary Problems, and Their Solution." Annals of the American
Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 23, Municipal Problems. (Mar., 1904), pp. 117-127. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7162%28190403%2923%3C117%3ANYCSPA%3E2.0.CO%3B2-3
Lower East Side Tenement Museum. "Tenement Encyclopedia." 2005. 26 April 2007.
"Mulberry Street, 1900." 26 April 2007. http://www.uvm.edu/~arosa/187italian.html
"New Immigrants Arriving at Ellis Island." 26 April 2007. http://sydaby.eget.net
van Kleek, Mary. "Child Labor in Home Industries." Annals of the American Academy of Political and
Social Science > Vol. 35, Supplement. Child Employing Industries (Mar., 1910), pp. 145-149. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-7162%28191003%2935%3C145%3ACLIHI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-J
Von Wagner, Yohanna. "Tenement-House Inspection." The American Journal of Nursing, Vol. 2, No. 7.
(Apr., 1902), pp. 508-513. 26 April 2007. Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0002-936X%28190204%292%3A7%3C508%3ATI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-5