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Industrialization and Urbanization, Immigration

Nativist groups, anti-Chinese sentiment, American Protective Association, European homes, Chinese Exclusion Act

Industrial workers of the late 19th century were often foreign-born. From 1865 to 1885, immigrants arrived mainly from northern and western Europe, as they had before the Civil War; the largest groups came from England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. From the mid-1880s until World War I began in 1914, the number of newcomers from southern, eastern, and central Europe increased. Many new immigrants were Slavs—Poles, Czechs, Russians, Ukrainians, Croatians—and others, including Jews, from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Among the new immigrants were also Greeks, Romanians, and Italians, mainly from southern Italy or Sicily. Record numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States, some 9 million from 1880 to 1900, and 13 million from 1900 to 1914.

Late-19th-century immigrants left their European homes to escape economic problems—scarce land, growing populations, and the decline of subsistence farming. They came to the United States in hope of economic gain. Most settled in the United States permanently, but others came only to amass some capital and then return home. Immigration dropped off during depressions, as in the 1870s and 1890s, and again during World War I, with smaller downturns in between. Immigration was encouraged by new technology such as steamships, which reduced the time needed to cross the Atlantic from three months to two weeks or less.

Where immigrants settled depended on their ethnicity and on when they arrived. In the post-Civil War decade, for instance, Scandinavian immigrants used the Homestead Act to start Midwestern farms. Two decades later, immigrants usually moved to industrial towns and cities, where they became unskilled laborers in steel mills, meatpacking plants, and the garment trade. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the population increased tenfold from 1850 to 1890, large numbers of Poles and Eastern Europeans found work in rolling mills and blast furnaces. By 1910 immigrants and their families constituted over half the total population of 18 major cities; in Chicago, eight out of ten residents were immigrants or children of immigrants.

Immigrants’ lives changed dramatically after they arrived. Uprooted, usually from rural areas in Europe, immigrants had to adjust to industrial labor, unfamiliar languages, and city life. Clinging to their national identities and religions, immigrants prepared ethnic foods, read foreign-language newspapers, and celebrated ethnic holidays. At the same time, they patronized urban amusements, found community support in local political machines, and adapted to the new environment. Men outnumbered women in new immigrant communities because men often preceded their wives and families.

Immigrants’ huge numbers, high concentrations in cities, and non-Protestant faiths evoked nativist or anti-immigrant sentiments. To native-born Americans, the newcomers often seemed more alien and more transient, less skilled and less literate than earlier groups of immigrants. Some strains of nativism rested on belief in the superiority of Anglo-Americans or Nordic peoples over all others. Other types of nativism reflected economic self-interest: Native-born workers feared competition for jobs from new immigrants; they feared also that immigrants would work for lower wages, which might mean less pay or even unemployment for them.

Both types of nativism arose on the West Coast, where immigration from China had been heavy since the 1850s. Responding to anti-Chinese sentiment, especially among California workers, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The law curbed Chinese immigration for ten years, a period that was subsequently extended indefinitely. A small number of immigrants from China continued to arrive, but the number of Chinese entrants slowed to a trickle. In the 1890s, meanwhile, Congress tightened immigration laws to exclude polygamists, contract laborers, and people with diseases. Nativist groups such as the American Protective Association (1887) urged immigration restriction.

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