Throughout the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s immigration from European countries to America was at an all time high. During this time period the United States was going through what we call the gilded age.
Viewed as a country of great fortune and prosperity, we were a magnet to many immigrants from all over the world. All of these immigrants had one thing in common. They were coming to America in search of a better life, and the urban areas provided them with the greatest chance for success. Yet not all of them had the same experience once they got there, this was simply based on pure luck or in some cases, complete determination. In European countries life was difficult. There was not much to offer, but instead lots to escape.
People were experiencing war, famine, religious persecution, political upheaval, lack of jobs, family disagreements, and personal failure as talked about in the book (Reeves, Ellis Island). They were desperately trying to escape all of these issues, while also striving for something much better. In some countries the struggle even went as far as lacking food and the brink of starvation. As one photo (International, Struggle in Ireland) showed, Ireland was a place where people were suffering badly because of this, creating even more reasons to leave the hell pit they were in. America was a place of hope and freedom. Somewhere that they could escape in search of a better life, and once the people of European countries realized this a flock to the promise land quickly began.
Not only were these immigrants running from their own countries, but they were also heading to a place where the streets were paved with gold, and job opportunities were apparently “endless”. They were chasing the American Dream! Sure America looked like a place of heavenly status, but it was actually a classic case of false advertising. There wasn’t much wealth, and not everyone wore dresses and suits, or lived in big fancy mansions. That was all just a stereotype. The truth was that America was actually struggling as well. A majority of the population was poor.
Working conditions were terrible, and cities were overcrowded, causing disgusting and miserable living conditions for many. Yet the people from other countries had been shielded from these truths, thus creating a surge of opportunistic immigrants to America’s large cities. These immigrants had only been seeing the glaze of the doughnut rather than what was really underneath. Most of them arrived to find a place completely different than what they’d heard about and seen pictures of. Many immigrant families started small businesses and remained optimistic. As one picture source showed, small family businesses were a very common theme for many immigrant families where nearly everyone in the family would help in operation (International, Small family businesses).
For most, living had been a fairly easy adjustment, simply because most immigrants lived in ghettos together based on cultures (International, Immigrant Ghettos). This allowed them to keep their own language, styles, and similar way of life to what they’d had back in the countries they came from. Many immigrants scavenged for work, finding any way possible to make money and put food on the table. In many cases this meant the children worked as well, just so the family could have enough money to make it by. Some immigrants were more fortunate as one man (Hovland) wrote a letter to his family back home.
This letter stated that his family had gained more since arrival in New York than all his time of living in Norway. He had every prospect of earning a living for himself and his family, and had plans to make his family even larger. According to Gjert, “no one need grow hungry”, a far cry from what had been happening back in the European countries people were coming from. Therefore there was an obvious mix of more and less fortunate immigrants after arriving in the urban areas of America. Thus making it very hard to determine if life here in the U.S.
was even any better than the one they had all abandoned. Immigrants from all over came to America in search for a better life. Some succeeded in their journey, while others gained little. It was clear that the large cities of the U.S.
provided these people with the most opportunities and greatest chance of achieving the American Dream. Was it what most had expected? No, but they had all gained something from the experience, and whether or not it was a good or bad experience was simply something of luck and survival of the fittest.