Immigration and Urbanization

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How did the "new immigration" change America at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth?

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The period of new immigration brought in over 27 million people to the United States. This period that began in the 1880s served to add a lot of ethnic and religious diversity to the country. It also brought in a large labor force that helped grow the nation's industries and...

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The period of new immigration brought in over 27 million people to the United States. This period that began in the 1880s served to add a lot of ethnic and religious diversity to the country. It also brought in a large labor force that helped grow the nation's industries and led to the rapid growth of urban areas.

Prior to this period, most immigrants to the United States were from the Britain, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Most were Protestant. There was a short-lived but significant wave of Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush. Otherwise, immigration was rather homogenous throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Beginning in the 1880s a large number of people from Eastern and Southern Europe began immigrating to the United States. This pattern would continue for over thirty years. Many of these new immigrants included Catholics and Jews. As a result, much more religious diversity came to the country. While there were Catholics and Jews already in the United States, the older populations were quickly outnumbered by the new influx. Also, since these new immigrants were from areas that had previously not contributed much immigration to the United States, they greatly increased the diversity of the places that they settled. This often caused animosity or even open hostility between the older populations of Americans and the new arrivals.

Many of the new immigrants were unskilled laborers. They found ample employment as low-wage workers in many of America's factories. American industry grew rapidly during this period, and the country became one of the world's greatest economic powerhouses. Working conditions were often dirty and dangerous for the laborers themselves. As a result, this period saw the growth of labor unions designed to protect the workers of America

As most immigrants settled in cities, this period also marks a shift in American settlement away from the countryside and into cities. As cities became overcrowded with tenements, many people lived in poor and unsanitary conditions. The Progressive Era was a response to this and saw many reforms which were aimed at improving the lives of the country's poor.

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The "new immigration" began in the 1880s. Prior to that, most immigrants to the United States came from northern and western European countries, such as England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany, as well as Scandinavian countries. The new immigrants, in contrast, came overwhelmingly from eastern and southern Europe and often were Catholic or Jewish rather than Protestant. They were largely seen as "other" by the earlier immigrants, and because they came in large numbers, often fleeing economic hardship or religious persecution, they could be perceived as a threat.

The new immigrants helped fuel the United States' rise as a twentieth-century world economic power through the cheap and often exploited labor they provided to fuel a growing industrial machine. (An interesting fictional depiction of this is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.) They fed "nordic" fears that the darker-skinned races were about to overwhelm the white race and white civilization (Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby subscribes to these fears, which narrator Nick describes, by the 1920s, as dated). These fears led to an increased emphasis on "early Americanism" and reinforced already strong narratives about the nation's irrevocably English and Protestant character. Further, the terrible conditions many of the immigrants lived in, overcrowded in unsanitary tenements and working in unsafe factories and sweatshops, documented by journalists like Jacob Riis and other "mudrakers," led to progressive reforms in the early twentieth century.

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The "new immigration" changed the United States in many ways.  Here are some of the most important ways in which it did so.

  • It provided a mass of unskilled workers to be hired by the growing factories.  This helped to drive wages down and to allow companies to provide poorer working conditions.
  • It brought political radicalism to the labor movement and the country as a whole.  Many of the new immigrants were anarchists and socialists.  They brought their radical ideas into labor unions and into the society in general.  This helped lead to political turmoil (the first Red Scare) and to the temporary success of the Socialist Party.
  • It helped to increase the population of cities.  At the same time, it caused conditions in the cities to deteriorate as they became overcrowded with poor people.  This helped to bring about the call for reform in the cities that was seen in the Progressive Era.
  • It brought about nativist sentiment.  Many of the new immigrants were Catholic and Jewish.  They were from Southern and Eastern Europe.  Many Americans were prejudiced against these kinds of people and a nativist movement arose.  This helped lead to such things as the resurgence of the KKK and the eventual passage of Prohibition.
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