Guiding Question:

1.How did immigrants respond to America’s systemic inequalities?

2.How did accelerating industrialization lead to a second wave of Immigration after 1870?

3.How did the experiences of these new immigrants vary according to their ethnicity and geographic location?


Between 1880-1920, 23 million immigrants arrived in the US. They came from Southern and Eastern Europe, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungry, and Russia.

Low wages, unemployment, disease, and religious persecution all inspired immigrants to flee their homelands and come to the United States. These immigrants were inspired to come to America by its reputation as the "Land Of Liberty" and also by the letters of friends and relatives already in the United States. Others came in hopes of finding food or to join family that were already here. The one thing they had in common was the belief that life would be better in America.

Mulberry Street, Jacob Riis

Mulberry Street, Jacob Riis

These “New Immigrants” faced difficulties. Most could not speak English, nor were they literate in their own language. They were often distrustful of government. Immigrants during this period crammed into cities in the Northeast. They created small ethnic communities where they preserved the culture of their homelands. Immigrants maintained their culture by publishing newspapers in their native languages, opening specialty grocery stores and restaurants, and establishing churches, synagogues, and schools. They filled the growing factories and also worked at other poorly-paid jobs such as construction work or sewing.

Cellar Tenement Women's Municipal League

For the immigrant, America meant "Freedom". What they found was something very different . Cities were crowded. Jobs were few and far between. Children had to work selling newspapers, making deliveries , working in sweatshops, while still attending school. Many immigrant families were poor and had to scrape together enough money to make the journey so they usually arrived penniless.

Steerage, S.S. Pennland, Red Star Line 1893

Immigrants usually made the trip in steerage passage (third class in the bottom of the ship). This was the cheapest way to get to the US. The voyage was an ordeal but they would then arrive in New York at the port of Ellis Island. Once arriving they lived in crowded immigrant neighborhoods.

Photography was new and fast growing. Small handheld cameras were developed which were called "Detective Cameras". Now anyone could snap on the spot photos of ordinary people, immigrants and their families. Thus, snapping photographs of people’s daily lives and thereby recording the lives of poor immigrants who were struggling to establish themselves in America began.

Header Images: Kodak Six-20 Folding Hawkeye Camera, photo by Rémi Kaupp; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, under the GNU Free Documentation License

Inline image: Mulberry Street, Jacob Riis, 1890, Museum of the Cuty of New York

Inline images: p.14; Cellar Tenement Women's Municipal League, courtesy of Boston Public Library; Steerage, S.S. Pennland, Red Star Line 1893; the Byron Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, retrieved from 'Around the Bend': Rags and Riches in Turn of the Century New York City, published by Museum of the City of New York, 2009, p.20

Background Image:New York City Tenement (1890)
Baxter St. Court, photo by Jacob Riis,