What Life was like for American Immigrants in the Nineteenth Century

Thousands of immigrants came to American cities like New York in the 1880s. The growth of industry created a need for labor; however, the laborers, including children, were rarely treated well. Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives to expose the living and working conditions in New York slums. The middle class was stunned into action to improve the city and reforms resulted from Riis’ writings.

In his book, Riis points out that immigrants who were established and had become successful in America were treating the new immigrants poorly. For example, an Italian family paid an Irish landlord more than twice what their three rooms were worth. The head of the family asked the landlord to lower the rent, but he threatened to throw the family out in the street if they did not pay what he asked. Riis wrote, “The once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew, and the Chinaman, and has himself taken a hand at opposition…against these latter hordes.” Since immigrants like the Irish who were in America longer were treated poorly when they arrived, they treated new immigrants badly as well.

Although today working from home is often considered a luxury, this was not true for immigrants in the late nineteenth century. Factories hired immigrants to work from home because there were no laws that governed how long an immigrant could work outside the factory. Inside the factory there were rules, like required lunch breaks, and children could not start working until they were in their teens. In the tenements, however, “the child works unchallenged from the day he is old enough to pull a thread. There is no such thing as a dinner hour…and the “day” is lengthened at both ends far into the night.”

Working and living conditions in the tenements became even more unbearable in the summer. Families were so crowded together that diseases spread easily and many people, especially children, did not live through August. Fire escapes and trucks became bedrooms so that people could by chance get some fresher air than the stifling heat from cooking and working indoors provided.

Sadly, there was little chance that a young immigrant could improve his condition. Riis wrote, “The old question, what to do with the boy, assumes a new and serious phase in the tenements…in nine cases out of ten he would make an excellent mechanic, if trained early to work at a trade, for he is neither dull nor slow, but the short-sighted despotism of the trades unions has practically closed that avenue to him.” Once a child was born into a poor immigrant family, other Americans, including former immigrants, refused to help him make a decent living. Without the chance to earn money honestly, many immigrant children took to the streets and became thieves.

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