American History
  Immigration and Urbanisation

America has always been a nation of immigrants (except for the 1% of the population who are American Indians), but between 1870 and 1900 the number of foreign-born Americans nearly doubled.

*In the 1840s and 1850s many immigrants had come from Ireland and Germany, but starting in the 1870s and until the start of World War I, many more began coming from Scandinavia, eastern Europe, and southern Europe. 

*Unlike most German immigrants and some Irish, many of the ‘new immigrants’ were poor and unskilled.  Many were also Catholic or Jewish (at a time when most Americans were Protestants).  This added to fears that American culture would change or be destroyed, which led to greater discrimination.

*Read ‘Witness History’ on page 128.

*Many immigrants came because falling farm prices in Europe made their old lifestyles unprofitable.  Religious persecution also pushed some of them out of Europe, particularly Russian Jews.

*America offered jobs and land.  The Homestead Act of 1862 made western land cheap, and railroads made it easy to get to it—in fact, many railroads offered cheap fares west so they would later have customers for the products they shipped across the country.  America also offered political and religious freedom.

*Once immigrants came to America they often wrote to family and friends back home, so that people from the same family or town would end up in the same town or neighbourhood in America..  In other cases, entire villages would pack up and move to America and found a new village much like their old one—this was particularly common in Scandinavia.

*When immigrants arrived they had to be inspected to make sure they were healthy and that they had money, a skill, or someone in America who would support them.  First and second-class passengers were processed quickly on board the ship, but third-class passengers were taken to special facilities for health inspections.  In New York (where most European immigrants landed) this was done at Ellis Island.  In San Francisco (where most Asian immigrants landed) it was done at Angel Island. 

*Ellis Island was relatively welcoming and about 98% of immigrants were allowed into the United States (although it was not uncommon for foreign names to be misspelled, shortened, or changed).  Angel Island was much harsher on Asian immigrants, particularly Chinese.  Sometimes Asians were held for weeks or months, almost like prisoners.

*By 1890, 40% of the people in San Francisco and Chicago were foreign-born and 80% of those in New York were.  To help them with the process of Americanization, settlement houses gave them a place to live and taught them to dress, speak, eat, and act like Americans.  One of the most famous settlement houses was Hull House, founded by Jane Addams.

*As more and more immigrants entered the country, an anti-immigrant movement known as nativism (which had existed since at least the 1840s) tried to limit immigration and the rights of immigrants.  Some of the earliest laws against teaching religion in public schools were passed by Protestants to try to shut down Catholic schools. 

*Prejudice against low-paid Chinese workers in California led to Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which outlawed immigration by Chinese workers (or even the return of those who went overseas on a visit) and limited the rights of Chinese in America.  The Supreme Court later ruled that Chinese-Americans born in America were citizens and had equal rights, but they were still often discriminated against.

*Eventually, as more and more immigrant workers joined labour unions, the unions demanded better treatment for immigrants, but assimilation was a slow process.

*Although some immigrants moved west or went to small towns, most settled in big cities, and America certainly had big cities by the late 1800s.

*In 1860, 16% of Americans lived in towns or cities of 8,000 people or more.  By 1900, over 30% lived in towns or cities, including 15 million Americans in cities of 50,000 people or more.  The growth of cities is known as urbanization.

*Most of America’s major cities in the Northeast, along Midwestern rivers, or on the Pacific Coast.  Railroad made travel to and between cities easier and the growth of industry (which was mostly near cities to take advantage of their population) led to more people moving to cities for work—and a greater variety of work than what they could do in the country.

*New inventions helped cities grow.  Steel frame construction and Otis’s safety elevator allowed the construction of skyscrapers ten storeys high or higher, and better central heating systems made them more comfortable.  The first steel-frame skyscraper was built in 1885 in Chicago (pictured on page 143).

*Mass transit also became widespread in the late 1800s.  Horse-drawn streetcars had existed for some time, and in 1888, Richmond introduced the first electric-powered streetcar. 

*Streetcars, cablecars, and later subways allowed people to live farther from where they worked, eventually creating suburbs for those who could afford mass transit every day—the poor still stayed in inner cities and walked to work.

*Many of the working class in the inner city ended up living in tenements, cheap apartments that were often badly overcrowded, dark, and poorly-maintained.

*Look at the blueprint of a tenement on page 140.  How many bedrooms are there on that floor? (8)  How many bathrooms (2)

*Overcrowding in cities led to the spread of disease, crime, fighting between gangs based on ethnic groups or workplace affiliation, and disasters due to the fact that a tenement that caught on fire could kill hundreds of people.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 killed between 200 and 300 people and left over 100,000 homeless.

 *In the late 1800s more and more cities began creating professional police forces, fire-fighting companies, public utilities (the most important were those that provided clean water), and even public parks so people in cities could have a brief escape to a real outdoor setting.  Nonetheless, poverty, pollution, and crime remained serious problems into the 20th century.

This page last updated 26 January, 2015.
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