Immigration | The Extraordinary Journey Series | WVIA
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The Extraordinary Journey - Immigration

The Great Immigration

 

The Social and Economic upheaval of the Industrial Revolution

 

Numerous developments created a dynamic migration and population shift not seen before or since in our history. The Northeastern industrial corridor, particularly Pennsylvania, was a major arena for immigration. Religious, political, economic and social strains and changes led to an unprecedented movement of entire European village populations to the United States, fueling the rapid expansion of its economy.

The Industrial Revolution, started in England and Western Europe in the 1750s, had spread to the United States just after the Civil War in the 1860s.  Mechanization of everything from textiles to farming prompted a transformation of a previously agricultural society based on an economy of scarcity to a capitalist society based on corporations, consumerism and urbanization.  Artisans, craftsmen and skilled laborers who had been in demand for their abilities and talents suddenly found themselves without a place in this new society based on the deskilled labor of the masses.  While the Western European populations who went through this same process in the 1750s had the excess population in the countryside to fill their new urban vacancies, the United States, with its relatively sparse population, had a huge void. The immigrants of Eastern Europe were ready to fill that gap.

While the United States experienced this rapid economic expansion, Eastern Europe experienced upheavals of its own. The abolition of serfdom in Poland and Russia from 1815-1864 created a large, landless proletariat and was one catalyst to migration.  Another cause of migration was a population boom fueled by better medical technology, resulting in lower mortality rates.  As the unskilled laborer class grew without land reforms to combat the residual effects of Feudalistic serfdom, unemployment in these areas soared. Unlike Western Europe in the 1750s, there were no industrial centers in Eastern Europe to serve as destinations for the masses.  This created a population that had grown accustomed to a migratory lifestyle; a population that headed to the United States in great waves in between the 1880s and 1910s.

In addition, the social climate in Europe in the mid 19th century was such that old world ideologies such as deference to the aristocracy were challenged, and the idea that ordinary men could become something respectable began drawing people to America. Emigration was the only release for the population in regions with no industry and an overabundance of unskilled labor.  Improved communication and transportation networks, also characteristic of the Industrial Revolution, sped the process along throughout the turn of the century.

These political and economic developments at home and abroad greatly affected the social climate of the United States. Immigrants from the East were thought to be of a different character than the English, German and Irish immigrants who had already assimilated to American culture and ideals.  Their lack of knowledge of the language, their non-protestant religious beliefs and their lack of skills made them easy targets for discrimination and ill treatment.

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