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This Day in Labor History: January 1, 1892

[ 88 ] January 1, 2014 |

On January 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened to process the millions of immigrants entering New York. Although certainly not only entry point for immigrants, it was the primary location where the immigrants needed to labor in American factories first experienced the country. Annie Moore, an Irish immigrant, was the first person to go through processing that morning, one of over 12 million who would enter the country from this point before the facility closed in 1954.

The rapid growth of American industry during the Gilded Age required the importation of a new labor force. While some of this could be filled through in-migration, native-born English speakers not only could not fill the needed jobs, but also eschewed the brutal and dangerous labor of the steel mills, meatpacking plants, and coal mines whenever they could, moving into managerial and supervisory positions. After 1880, immigration spiked. While the west coast saw waves of immigrants from Asia and the southwest began to experience slight increases in migration from Mexico (although this would not become a major boom after 1910), most of the immigrants came from Europe, headed for the heart of American industrial production in the northeast and Great Lakes states.

The American government had no established immigration procedure and with the exception of the Irish had mostly welcomed the Protestant western Europeans who had made up most of the American immigration experience before the Civil War. But the anti-Irish sentiment that marked the antebellum period would be repeated when they new immigrants of the Gilded Age originated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Greece, and other areas of southern Europe, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Americans were highly torn between needing the labor and mortification over these weird people and their clothes, their languages, their food, and their religion.

In order to manage the enormous numbers, at the beginning of 1892, the federal government opened the processing facility at Ellis Island. Until 1890, the federal government played basically no role in immigration processing and the state of New York ran the precursor to Ellis Island. On the first day of the new facility’s opening, 700 immigrants passed through its gates; by the end of 1892, 450,000 had arrived and 1897, 1.5 million people. The peak year for Ellis Island was 1907, when slightly more than 1 million people were processed for entry at the site.

For immigrant labor, the experience of Ellis Island combined hope and dread. Here was the land of opportunity–if one could get in. Of course most did. But some did not. Immigrants, most of whom did not speak English, were often petrified at the process of medical checks and chalk marks on coats. If one member of the family received a special mark, would they be separated? Imagine the terror. About 9% of immigrants were detained for medical reasons. All unaccompanied women and children were detained until an adult male came to claim them. Ellis Island had wards for the detained, medical and otherwise. Approximately 2% of immigrants were denied entry entirely.



The inspection line

Inspections for trachoma caused great pain in immigrants, as the doctors pulled back people’s eyelids with a hook. Elda Del Bino Willits from Luca, Italy passed through Ellis Island at the age of 5, in 1916. She remembered:

When I got on the boat, I was only five and this little, this gentleman who had been back and forth several times, and well my mother took a liking to him because he was so knowledgeable about it. He spoke Italian. And so he took me on a walk one day and he said, “You know what? When you get over to Ellis Island they’re going to be examining your eyes with a hook,” and he says, “Don’t let them do it because you know what? They did it to me one eye fell in my pocket. (Paul laughs) So you can imagine how I entered this…So we get over there and everybody has to pass and I’m on the floor screaming. I passed without a physical. I passed the eye test because the other seven passed.

Others who did get in had their names changed by immigration agents who could not understand strange and long family names from Poland or Russia. The museum at Ellis Island today contains a lot of unclaimed luggage from immigrants. What happened to those people? Why did they not claim their luggage? They checked it at the entrance. Did they die inside? Did they lose their tags and thus lost their clothes and their family histories and religious materials? It’s heartbreaking.

Wonderfully, silent filmmakers in New York captured part of the arrival experience. Here is a 1906 film. I find the viewing of these films incredibly powerful and moving.

As the immigrant experience began scaring Americans and as immigrants began being tainted with the labor radicalism that resulted from the terrible conditions of their labor, the nation’s powerbrokers, at least those who did not rely on this labor for their workforce, began organizing to restrict migration. In 1903, anarchists, epileptics, polygamists, and “beggars” were officially refused entry (with the power to decide who fell into these categories residing in the immigration agents). Knowledge of English became a requirement in 1906, although this was haphazardly enforced to say the least. In 1907, unaccompanied children and those suffering from tuberculosis were banned.

It’s also important to remember that many and perhaps a majority of immigrants did not see the United States as a permanent home. The major exception to this were the Jews, looking to escape anti-Semitism and especially Russian pogroms. Relatively few Irish returned as well. But for many Christians from eastern and southern Europe, as well as the Middle East (most of these people called Syrians then would be recognized today as Lebanese Christians), the United States was a money-making venture before going back home. Around 30% of immigrants returned home during this period, with numbers much higher among Italians and Greeks. Many, like immigrants from Mexico or Central America today, went back and forth several times, as the need to earn money clashed with the desire to be around loved ones, speaking a language you understood in the village and nation of your birth.

After passing through Ellis Island, the immigrants became the labor force of the Gilded Age. Norwegians and Swedes took trains to the Dakotas to homestead. Jews went to the Lower East Side and worked in the garment trade. Many Poles went into the steel industry and Lithuanians into meatpacking. Like anything, their experiences as American laborers were mixed but they built much of the country we live in today.

Ellis Island closed on November 12, 1954. By now, it was rarely used, as between 1924 and 1965, the United States turned its back on its immigrant past, closing the nation’s door to immigrants during one of the nation’s occasional fits of extreme racism.

Hurricane Sandy nearly destroyed the facilities at Ellis Island, causing the site to be closed for over a year. It has now reopened.

This is the 87th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Comments (88)

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  1. Gregor Sansa says:

    Also of note: January 1, 1994: NAFTA enters effect and the Zapatistas seize (short-lived) control of 7 towns and cities in Chiapas, including San Cristobal de las Casas and Ocosingo. Both events surely deserve a place in this history, and it seems to me a 20th anniversary is a rounder number than a 202nd one.

    • J. Otto Pohl says:

      I suppose 20 is rounder than 202. It is also the 55th anniversary of the successful Cuban Revolution which was arguably a far more significant than the failed Zapatista Revolution. It is also the 45th anniversary of what Fatah marks as the start of the Palestinian Revolution and 2014 is officially the UN’s Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Also an even more significant than the Zapatista uprising. But, really I think the reason there is no mention of any of these events on LGM is because they all took place outside of the US.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        OOps I can’t add. It is the 50th not 45th anniversary of the first Fatah attack on Israel. But, what Ronan said, it isn’t relevant to the post.

        • gregor sansa says:

          NAFTA’s relationship to US labor history is obvious. The Zapatistas, less so, but aside from their failed opposition to NAFTA and their highly successful bid to bring attention to Chiapas (admittedly, last I checked, not part of the USA), I’d say they represent a landmark in a certain style of internet-savvy but non-electoral politics, with definite echoes in the US (including Occupy). They also are a strong indigenous movement, with important contemporary echoes in Canada and elsewhere in the Americas. None of this was entirely new to them of course but they were a milestone.

          • Ronan says:

            have you read clifford bob’s book the marketing of rebellion? he uses The Zapatistas as a case study in how political movements in non western countries ‘market’ themselves though NGO’s etc to gain global attention.
            Pretty interesting (though a while since I read it)

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I would be hesitant in calling the Zapatistas a strong indigenous movement at this point.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              Somewhat like the internet version of the United Farm Workers, the Zapatistas did a much better job outreaching to left-leaning rich whites than it did to the indigenous people of southern Mexico, especially after about 1996 or so.

              • Gregor Sansa says:

                Their outreach to other indigenous groups fizzled after the “Marcha del Color de la Tierra” to the Congreso Nacional Indígena in early 2001 did not get the laws agreed to under the Acuerdos de San Andres passed. Since then, the Zapatista “otra campaña” is certainly not an indigenous movement. However, in the highlands of Chiapas, there is still an indigenous Zapatista movement; not as strong as at its height, but unquestionably indigenous and a force to be reckoned with in certain zones.

    • Ronan says:

      Jesus lads, its a post about US labour history ! not a commemoration of everything that ever happened ; )
      I enjoyed it

  2. Good mind-reading trick, J. Otto. Do you do balloon animals for parties as well?

  3. N__B says:

    One minor quibble: Sandy damaged the museum exhibits, not the “facilities”.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Sandy heavily damaged the infrastructure of the museum. Either way, I’m not sure why this is a point one would quibble over.

      • N__B says:

        Because, as someone who works in building restoration, I can tell you that if the buildings were damaged the museum might never have reopened, since the repair costs would have been an order of magnitude higher.

        • Bruce Vail says:

          Were Ellis Island/Liberty Island not such high profile National Parks sites, there might have been more questioning of the $65 million spent in repair costs. Seems excessive to me, and I am a big lover of historical parks and old buildings.

          • N__B says:

            I believe some of that money was flood protection against future Sandys, but yeah, a lot of money. It’s a difficult site to work on.

            • ChrisTS says:

              What makes it [especially] difficult?

              • N__B says:

                One lane in/out (a “temporary” bridge to NJ), little room for materials storage except inside the building or in an area surrounded by mothballed landmarks, relatively poor access to water and power (although better than it was in 1990). Every square inch is technically part of the national monument designation, so a lot of ordinary tasks are both subject to review and more difficult than they would otherwise be. The base building construction is largely materials that are no longer used, so the interface with modern materials (e.g., fastening a display case to a partition) requires special details.

                In short: the cost is based on a national monument in an expensive urban market but the access and infrastructure are as if it were in the middle of nowhere.

                • ChrisTS says:

                  Cool. Thank you. I guessed at least part of it would be access but did not think about the other issues.

    • N__B says:

      I should add: it is a minor quibble and this is a great post. You just described, in detail, the experience of all four of my grandparents.

  4. Aimai says:

    My husband’s grandmother, later a garment worker in NY who lived at the hotel Chelsea with her unmarried daughters, also garment workers, was denied entry and had to sneak in through Canada. She was later abandoned by her husband, I believe and supported herself and her children on her own.

  5. Todd says:

    Sad photos from inside some of the Ellis Island structures (taken this past year).

    http://kingstonlounge.blogspot.com/

    (this whole site is interesting)

    • N__B says:

      For those unfamiliar with Ellis Island’s current state: the museum is in the main immigration station building, which was thoroughly restored in 1990-1992. A few other buildings have had some real work done, but most of the buildings on the island have received minor stabilization and mothballing. There is at this time neither money nor a plan for the other buildings.

      • ChrisTS says:

        Big Bear, I have a possibly dumb question to ask you.

        I have noticed at some of the abandoned places my kids and I explore that those ‘subway tile’ walls stand up better than anything else in the interiors (at least, where some asshat hasn’t tried to break them).

        Is this my imagination, accident, or or they actually just tougher than everything else?

        • N__B says:

          I assume this was triggered by the Kingston Lounge pix…

          Those tiles are basically whiteware, which is to say ceramic made of finely-ground clay and baked at a high temperature. They’re tough except for direct impact – which is why archaeologists are always digging up thousands-year-old pieces. If you look at the pictures, the back-up behind the tiles is terra cotta block, which was used (along with gypsum block) for non-structural partitions before the invention of light-gage steel studs. The terra cotta is porous and large-grained, so it both erodes and is degraded by freeze-thaw.

          The subways tiles are basically dishwasher-safe china. The terra cotta is the same material as flower pots. Put a pot in a dishwasher a few hundred times and let me know what happens.

    • efgoldman says:

      (this whole site is interesting)

      Is it ever! Thanks so much for the link.
      This pic of a sign in Worcester State hospital got my attention right away. http://www.ianferencephoto.com/kingstonlounge/worcesterstatehospital/41.jpg

  6. Barry Freed says:

    Another quibble with an otherwise excellent post. The name change thing is a myth: http://www.nypl.org/blog/2013/07/02/name-changes-ellis-island

    • Aimai says:

      FANTASTIC link, barry freed. Incredible. The story of the bearded, cross dressing, woman is worth clicking that link alone. Id also like to add that my own family, parts of, are supposed to have changed their last names, indecisively, three times on the way over trying to improve their status by taking higher class german names instead of russian. But this is supposed to have happened on the boat.

      • efgoldman says:

        …immigrants would change their names themselves when they had arrived in the United States, and for a number of reasons.

        My paternal grandfather, who landed in Boston from Russia ca. 1910, had at least three last names, we think, but maybe only two. The name he had at birth in the old country, sometime in the late 1880s-early 90s,a different name when he left Russia, and the name he had when he married grandma, in Boston ca. 1913.
        And then at the beginning of WW2, my dad and two of his four brothers adopted a new, anglo-saxon last name, so if they ended up in Europe and got captured (none did) they wouldn’t have an obviously Jewish last name.

      • Barry Freed says:

        I’m glad you liked it, Aimai. I know the author of that post and I’ll pass on your kind words.

    • Lurker says:

      The article still has one fallacy: it assumes that people don’t feel the need to change their names anymore. Maybe the immigrants do not feel that need, but having been a legal non-immigrant alien, I can attest that the work environment would greatly prefer using an English first name for a colleague:

      When I worked in a university research lab as an exchange researcher, and it was my final day prior to my departure back to Finland, I remarked to some colleagues that my Finnish name translates directly to English. My professor exclaimed: “Why didn’t you tell that before? We could have called you X!” (X being the translation.) I answered: “I prefer being called with my own name.”

      Perhaps relatively entrenched immigrants like Hispanics and Chinese feel no longer the need to change their names, and even Americans are comfortable calling people “Wei” or “Juan”. However, for a member of a small nation, with unfamiliar first names, they would greatly appreciate using English names.

    • TribalistMeathead says:

      For years we thought my maternal grandmother’s family’s name was changed from DiDomenico to DiDominick by an Irish immigration agent at Ellis Island, but we later learned that it was changed by the government sometime between them and the time their citizenship papers were issued, and that was probably a transcription error.

  7. Major Kong says:

    But we don’t want the Irish!

  8. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Didn’t a lot of Irish already immigrate prior to 1892?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes. But they came to any number of entry points without any meaningful processing. Ellis Island was a federal attempt to take greater control over the immigration process and centralize the migration points.

  9. Gator90 says:

    A great post in a great series. I hope there are many more of these in 2014.

  10. Dave Wing says:

    This was a great post. I imagine that many of the people who will read it had ancestors who came to this country through Ellis Island. I know I did.

  11. Bruce Vail says:

    I read somewhere that there was no requirement for immigrants to be processed at Ellis Island and that affluent or wealthy immigrants could just check into a NY hotel and wait in comfort for the paperwork to be finished. Is this true?

  12. Reg Inchmale says:

    [N]ative-born English speakers not only could not fill the needed jobs, but also eschewed the brutal and dangerous labor of the steel mills, meatpacking plants, and coal mines whenever they could . . . .

    Do you have any idea just how how wrong this sentence seems to someone with family roots in the Appalachian piedmont of the South?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Most of the migration from Appalachia to northern factories didn’t occur until after immigration from Europe closed in 1924. And by then the level of sheer death and horribleness in the factories had declined somewhat from the earlier period.

      • Reg Inchmale says:

        I’m thinking about all the men who took jobs in coal mines, iron ore mines, limestone quarries, and the Birmingham steel industry. I’m boomer age, and my great-grandfather was a coal miner in Alabama. Both grandfathers and two great uncles were in mining or factory work in Alabama not so very long after 1924. They were native-born English speakers who saw that brutal and dangerous labor as their least bad option.

        • That would make sense, given the timeline that Erik has outlined.

          Protip: Sometimes a post isn’t about you and your family history.

          • Bruce Vail says:

            But Reg’s point is well taken. Erik’s post seems to imply that Eastern/Southern European immigrants occupied the bottom rung of the industrial ladder, thus giving native-born anglos an easy boost upwards. The Ellis Island immigrants largely avoided the South (especially the Deep South), so that was clearly not the case in places like the Birmingham steel mills, or the burgeoning textile mills of the Carolinas.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            And if there’s one thing I never do at this site or in this series, it’s write about the brutality of coal mining.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          I have trouble seeing why you seem to be getting upset about this, especially as I’ve talked plenty about poor native-born English speaking whites doing hard work in this series, especially in coal. But I do think that a post on Appalachian migration into the factories would be a good idea.

    • Aimai says:

      After reviewing this thread, because I’m avoiding my own work, I’d like to add that Reg Inchmale in his haste to be offended neglected to observe this significant part of the actual quote he jumps off from:

      [N}ative-born English speakers not only could not fill the needed jobs, but also eschewed the brutal and dangerous labor of the steel mills, meatpacking plants, and coal mines whenever they could . . . .

      The relevant portion is “eschewed…whenever they could.” I.e. “When they couldn’t, they took those jobs.” Elsewhere Erik Loomis has written very interesting pieces about the churning of local labor pools as every immigrant group arrived, got sucked into the factories, and then spit out when they began learning each other’s languages and organizing politically. Each new group was brought in as a kind of strike breaker/scab against the old groups.

      Appalachia has a really particular and interesting history in this respect because the local white population competed against (and drove out) non whites/native americans/freed slaves –didn’t they? As well as all kinds of strangers to the region to protect control over local lands, jobs, and mores. There’s lots to be written and said about culture, history, race, ethnicity and labor in this region but nothing Erik said disparaged it in any way.

    • Hogan says:

      You should have lopped off the “whenever they could” at the end. Then it really would be wrong.

  13. ChrisTS says:

    I would be interested in an answer to Bruce’s question about the wealthy immigrants getting a pass on EI.

    Also, I wonder about the use of the ‘hook’ to check for trachoma. Was it supposed to be safer (for the examiner)than using hands? My ophthalmologist manages to look under my lids without using a piece of metal.

    • Aimai says:

      Would anything stop them? Surely people travelling on the Titanic didn’t “go through” Ellis Island? Even if you just pretended you wer visiting and overstayed your visa.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        I don’t believe there were visas at all in those days. This level of detail is getting a bit deep for an issue that I don’t specifically study, but basically if you could pay, you were going to walk right through. In fact, the big ships didn’t dock at Ellis Island at all. They docked at their stopping point (Newark, frequently) and then the immigrants in steerage were loaded onto smaller boats to take to EI. Unless you were Chinese though, a wealthy person was good enough to get in.

        The hook question I can’t really answer at all.

      • ajay says:

        Surely people travelling on the Titanic didn’t “go through” Ellis Island?

        No, none of them did, and if you don’t know why they didn’t then you might want to sit down because I have some rather sad news to tell you.

    • Major Kong says:

      I’m told that my Irish ancestors came in through Boston rather than Ellis Island.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Even when Ellis Island was at its peak, there were still a good number of immigrants coming through at other ports. It wasn’t so much the American government trying to funnel everyone through New York as it was it responding to where most ships were already docking.

    • ajay says:

      I wonder about the use of the ‘hook’ to check for trachoma. Was it supposed to be safer (for the examiner)than using hands?

      Maybe safer for the patient. I wouldn’t want my eyelid peeled back by the ungloved fingers of someone who’s peeled back 5,000 eyelids already this morning, some of them with trachoma.
      Eyelid retractors and a jeweller’s loupe are standard tools for diagnosing trachoma even today. You need to look quite closely for the signs of early-stage trachoma.

  14. M31 says:

    at the Ellis Island website you can view copies of ship manifests, which is very interesting–

    I found the entry for my great grandfather, who came from southern Italy in the late 1890s–the manifest listed his occupation as “peasant”.

  15. [...] Island, which opened as an immigration processing post on January 1st 122 years ago, symbolizes for many Americans of immigrant descent the place where would-be entrants to the U.S. [...]

  16. [...] December 30, 1969–Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act signed. January 1, 1892–Ellis Island opens. January 8, 1811–German Coast slave rebellion begins in Louisiana. January 13, [...]

  17. […] Island, which opened as an immigration processing post on January 1st 122 years ago, symbolizes for many Americans of immigrant descent the place where would-be entrants to the U.S. […]

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