The Effects of Immigration in the Late 1800s

by Rita Kennedy

An estimated 25 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900. The flow of migrants meant that by the time of the 1900 census, 10.3 million of the 76.3 million residents of the United States had been born overseas, making up 13.6 percent of the total population. The arrival and assimilation of millions of migrants in just a few decades profoundly affected U.S. economic and cultural development.

Creating Ethnic Diversity

The immigrants diversified the ethnic mix of the United States. The majority in the 1870s and 1880s still came from Ireland, England and Germany, as was the case before the Civil War, but these were joined by increasing numbers of Scandinavians and eastern and southern Europeans, as well as Asians. The immigrants, with their languages and traditions, contributed to the rich ethnic mix of the United States. New arrivals tended to settle in areas where there countrymen were established, and this was particularly visible in cities like New York, where entire neighborhoods became associated with particular countries or ethnic groups. For example, Italian immigrants to New York established “Little Italy” in lower Manhattan, complete with Italian-run food stores and markets and, from 1891, a Catholic church observing Italian traditions.

Facilitating Industry

The millions of immigrants, many of them young and in search of work, helped to facilitate America’s industrial revolution. Mechanization allowed manufacturers to replace skilled craftspeople with cheaper unskilled immigrant labor performing simplified tasks. By 1880, Chicago was surpassed only by New York as a manufacturing center, and an estimated two-thirds of the employees working in the Windy City’s factories were immigrants. Some ethnic groups became associated with specific industries; for example, Eastern European Jews arriving in East Coast cities often went to work in the garment industry or as peddlers.

Inspiring Conflict

Immigration also caused conflict in American society. Some native-born Americans associated their own low wages and unemployment problems with immigrants, and accused the foreign-born population of creating poverty, crime and civil unrest. The federal government acted to restrict the arrival of certain types of immigrants; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, virtually stopped Chinese and Asian immigration and prevented these people becoming citizens. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894, worked to reduce immigrant numbers and impose literacy criteria on those arriving in the United States.

Building America

Some immigrated for purely economic reasons and returned to their home countries after earning enough money to support themselves. Between 30 and 50 percent of Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth century, for example, returned to Italy within five years of arrival. However, the vast majority remained part of American society, and many Americans today can trace their ancestry back to a particular group of immigrants. The 2010 American Community Survey records 47.9 million Americans claiming German ancestry, while 34.6 million identified with Irish ancestry, 25.7 million with English ancestry and 17.2 million identified their ancestry as Italian.

About the Author

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.

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