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Toward A Better Life: America's New Immigrants in Their Own Words From Ellis Island to the Present

Toward A Better Life: America's New Immigrants in Their Own Words From Ellis Island to the Present

by Peter Morton Coan

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This book offers a balanced, poignant, and often moving portrait of America’s immigrants over more than a century. The author has organized the book by decades so that readers can easily find the time period most relevant to their experience or that of family members. The first part covers the Ellis Island era, the second part America’s new


This book offers a balanced, poignant, and often moving portrait of America’s immigrants over more than a century. The author has organized the book by decades so that readers can easily find the time period most relevant to their experience or that of family members. The first part covers the Ellis Island era, the second part America’s new immigrants—from the closing of Ellis Island in 1955 to the present. Also included is a comprehensive appendix of statistics showing immigration by country and decade from 1890 to the present, a complete list of famous immigrants, and much more.

This rewarding, engrossing volume documents the diverse mosaic of America in the words of the people from many lands, who for more than a century have made our country what it is today. It distills the larger, hot-topic issue of national immigration down to the personal level of the lives of those who actually lived it.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Prometheus Books
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America's New Immigrants in Their Own Words From Ellis Island to the Present
By Peter Morton Coan

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Peter Morton Coan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-394-7

Chapter One


This decade was dominated by the depression of the 1890s, which was on par with the Great Depression of the 1930s. A deep agricultural crisis hit Southern cotton-growing regions and the Great Plains. The shock waves reached Wall Street and urban areas by 1893 as part of a massive worldwide economic crisis. A quarter of the nation's railroads went bankrupt; in some cities, unemployment among industrial workers exceeded 35 percent.


Immigration to America began in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia. In the pre–Ellis Island era, traditional large-scale immigration began with the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, leading up to the 1890s, the Ellis Island era, to present day.

* 1846: Irish potato famine triggers large-scale emigration to the United States.

* 1848: Chinese immigration spikes with start of California Gold Rush.

* 1855: Castle Garden opens as an immigrant reception station in New York City to accommodate mass immigration.

* 1861–1865: During the American Civil War, large numbers of immigrants serve the military on both sides.

* 1880: US population exceeds fifty-one million; more than 6.4 million immigrants enter the country between 1880 and 1890.

* 1882: Chinese Exclusion Act curbs Chinese immigration; first federal immigration law bars "lunatics, idiots, convicts" and those likely to become "public charges."

* 1886: The Statue of Liberty is dedicated, ironically, just when resistance to unrestricted immigration begins to escalate.

* 1890: New York is home to as many Germans as Hamburg, Germany, is. Pogroms in Russia trigger significant Jewish immigration to the United States.

* 1891: The Bureau of Immigration is established to administer immigration laws. Congress adds health qualifications to immigration restrictions: "the insane, paupers, persons with contagious diseases, polygamists and persons convicted of felonies or misdemeanors of moral turpitude are barred from entering the United States."

* 1892: Ellis Island replaces Castle Garden as the reception station for immigrants; Chinese immigration to the United States is prohibited for ten years.

* 1893: Economic depression widens.

* 1894: The restrictionist movement emphasizes the distinction between "old" (northern and western European) and "new" (southern and eastern European) immigrants.

* 1897: President Cleveland vetoes literacy tests for immigrants. A fire on Ellis Island destroys buildings; no lives are lost, but many years of federal and state immigration records are burned along with the pine buildings, so the US Treasury orders that all future structures on Ellis Island be fireproof. During reconstruction, immigrant processing temporarily moves from the island to the Barge Office in New York City until the new "fireproof" Ellis Island buildings are built, of stone instead of wood, in 1900.


Total legal US immigration in 1890s: 3.7 million

Top ten emigration countries in this decade: Italy (603,761), Germany (579,072), Russia (450,101), Ireland (405,710), United Kingdom (328,759), Austria (268,218), Sweden (237,248), Hungary (203,350), Poland (107,793), Norway (96,810)

(See appendix for the complete list of countries.)


Immigrants who came to America in this decade, and who would later become famous, include:

Gus Kahn, Germany, 1890, lyricist Annie Moore, Ireland, 1892, pioneer Antonín Dvorák, Czechoslovakia, 1892, composer Rudyard Kipling, England, 1892, writer Irving Berlin, Russia, 1893, composer Francis Hodur, Poland, 1893, priest Knute Rockne, Norway, 1893, football coach Warner Oland ("Charlie Chan"), Sweden, 1893, actor Frank Costello, Italy, 1893, gangster Mary Antin, Russia, 1894, writer Felix Frankfurter, Austria, 1894, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court Asa Yoelson ("Al Jolson"), Lithuania, 1894, actor/singer Kahlil Gibran, Lebanon, 1895, writer Al Dubin, Switzerland, 1896, lyricist ("We're in the Money") Samuel Goldwyn, Poland, 1896, producer Moses Teichman ("Arthur Murray"), Austria-Hungary, 1897, dancer James Naismith, Canada, 1898, inventor (basketball)


She was born in a small border village near Bialystok, Russia (now Poland). Her family escaped the pogroms to America; her father came first, and the rest of the family joined him later. An only child from an Orthodox Jewish family, she grew up in Boston and eventually married a man who became a successful real estate developer. They would go on to have three children, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. They were married sixty-three years. "It's been a wonderful life," she said. She passed away in 1994 at the age of 101.

I remember just a little of my life then. I was so young. I remember I was told that my father was in the service and my mother was, at that time, pregnant with me. However, at that time it didn't matter if he was a soldier; he had to serve whether he had a wife to support or not, and I was born while he was in the army. He was in the army three or four years, the usual time that they had to serve, and then he was supposed to be discharged, but they didn't let him go.

Well, he had a sister in New York, and he wrote to her, told her that if she didn't send him a ticket that he would surely be killed. They were close. His sister had very little money, but when the people came over from Poland and Russia in those years they always had jewelry, watches they had accumulated somehow. Well, she pawned everything to send him a ticket to come, and he paid off the guard, and that's how he escaped the army. And that's why I never knew my father. When I was born he was in America.

I was living with my mother. She had no way of supporting me, and I think she was a cook or did cooking for people, and at that time she told me that she gave me to a wet nurse. That's what they did in those days. However, one day she came and found me in a deplorable condition, not very clean and she was heartsick, so she took me with her, and I think I stayed with her. I was maybe two or three years old. I was an only child. My mother didn't have any parents. They had already passed.

But my mother had a sister, and she lived with us in one room. I remember it, one room, one great big room where there was a bed and there was an oven where they baked; a great big oven they used to bake bread or challahs, and sell them to the peasants there. They were very good cooks.

My mother was very religious, very orthodox, and very observant. She went to services. She would hire a horse and wagon and drive to the city to observe the holidays because there was no synagogue in our village. A man would drive them, a Gentile man. Mother was extremely religious. My aunt was, too. They always kept a strict kosher home and observed the holidays as best they could.

We had no running water in the house and there were no such thing as toilets, those were outside. For water we used pumps from the well. My aunt had two boys, one a little older than me, and one younger. And the younger one, I remember a cradle, and I used to rock him in the cradle. So it was me, my mother, my aunt, my aunt's two sons and my uncle.

I was very close to the two boys. They were more like my brothers as we grew up. We came to America first. Then they came, and they lived with us for quite a while. There were no handouts, no aid of any kind.

I was too young to go to school in Poland. My mother wasn't able to go to school so she couldn't read or write. But my father was very well-learned. He spoke about four languages. He knew Polish, he knew Russian, he knew Hebrew, he knew the religion very well. He was very well-learned. And my mother, they never allowed her to go to school. It was true for many women then, especially Jewish women, so you will find that many of the elderly Jewish people that came, they were illiterate. They didn't know how to read or write. But she knew how to pray because she went to shul all the time.

America. It was a custom in those years for men to come first, but sometimes they met a woman who they liked, and he just wouldn't send for his wife, or divorce his wife. My mother felt this. She felt since my father was already in America, he'd never send for her. So she had two brothers in Boston, and she wrote to them that she'd like to come to America, and they sent her a ticket. And she told me, this is one thing I remember so distinctly, "If anybody asks you your father's name, say he died." Because she felt he wouldn't come to take her off the boat. So if he wasn't there she'd have no problem. But he did come.

I don't remember the boat or where we left from, but I remember we went steerage, way down, and I must have been very sick. Everybody was puking down there, and I contracted the measles on the boat, so when we landed at Ellis Island I was separated from my mother. They took me to the hospital where they kept those that were detained, and it was very frightening. I didn't know the language, and I didn't know what happened to my mother. They wouldn't allow her to see me for some reason. I was isolated, and she couldn't come to see me. But my father came to visit me as soon as he heard I was there, and he came every single day. And he always came with some kind of a toy or a doll or something. He was a wonderful father, very lovable. And when I got better he took us to New York, and we lived on Cherry Street. He had a little apartment for us on Cherry Street on the East Side of New York.

Years later I went to Ellis Island through the hospital where people that got sick stayed, and where the parents stayed, and I said to my daughter, "Can you imagine what they did to me?" I says, "They might have told me that I was sick, I was going to stay there, but I wouldn't understand. I didn't speak anything but Yiddish."

In America, my father was a sheet-metal worker, and he worked on roofs. He was jack of all trades and master of none. He was a very handy man; he could do anything. He got any kind of a job he could, and he struggled; it was very rough, but he made it on his own. I remember we always had somebody living with us. One person brought over somebody else; it was an uncle or a cousin, they had no place to go. Everybody at that time had a boarder, if you know what I mean. Most were relatives. My father had a young brother and he had no place to go. Well, he came with us. There was always room somehow, even if it was on the floor.

We were close with our neighbors. If anybody was sick, they would bring chicken soup. And as I said, we always had somebody stay with us. Everybody had boarders, either to help pay the rent or give somebody a chance to get on their feet.

My mother's sister and my cousins stayed with my aunt. The sister who sent a ticket to my father pawned all her jewelry, everything she ever had, and to add to her plight, she had five children. She lived on Ludlow Street: five flights walk-up, three rooms, five children. And when my father came to America, she was so delighted to see him, and he saw her plight, he says, "I'm going to get myself a room."

She says, "No, you're not. We'll move."

They all slept on the floor. They all had these feather comforters they took with them, and he stayed there one night and he got himself a room because he realized that she was in bad circumstances, that she pawned everything she had to send for him. All his life, he said, "My sister-in-law saved my life."

And he did pay her back for the ticket so she could get her jewelry back, and my mother used to say, "You paid her back." He says, "I could never pay her back." There was such love, and I loved her so dearly. She was my favorite aunt.

For school they put everybody in one class. Most of the children in the school were immigrants. I learned English right away. You know, you pick up those things. The children came from everywhere, not just Poland. But they were mostly Jewish immigrants.

My father was quite a smoker. He smoked a real Russian cigar, and I said to him one day, "Papa, why do you smoke so much?"

He said, "Well, I had a rabbi who said if we learn this passage, the one that learns the passage first will get a cigarette."

And that's how he got sick: he got hooked on cigarettes in those days. He said, "I got more cigarettes than anybody else." And unfortunately he died of lung cancer....

My mother said, you know, there's an expression in Europe: "America, the golden land." She comes here and says, "Where's the gold?" She saw people struggling, you know, and it was a letdown for her. But as soon as he was able to, my father became a citizen and he would go and vote. He would drag me along. Women didn't vote then, and there were suffragettes and I remember saying to him, "Pa, please vote for the women to vote." He said, "Yes, I certainly will." Well, I remember when the women got the vote and we were all elated. And I was glad that he voted for the women, because I begged him to, and he said he would.

So he was very broad-minded, and he was so very proud of his citizenship papers that he had them framed and he always looked up at it. My daughter has it framed today as an heirloom. She kept it. It was falling apart, and she had paid eighty-five dollars to have it put together because she wanted that as a remembrance of her grandfather.

My mother was a good soul, very honest, very devoted to my father. She was a wonderful wife. She always did things that would please him. In those days the man or the husband was the head of the household, the king. I remember never eating until Papa came home. We all ate together as a family to show respect.

She always begged him to become more religious, and she always begged him not to work on the Sabbath, and she always said to him, "No matter how much you make, I'll manage. I don't care. I don't want you to work on the Sabbath." My father wasn't as religious as my mother. He was more liberal, more Americanized. But as they got older he became active in the temple and served in the capacity of a president. And he was very capable as a leader, I would say. He was either the president or the secretary or head of something.

My parents were extremely honest. If a bill was due on the first, it was paid on or before. We were never allowed to buy anything paying out [on credit]. We always had to have the money before we bought. Those are the values, I would say, that I have always held to this day.

Since I was an only child, my cousins were almost like brothers. We lived together for years when they came. Then when we all accumulated a little money and we did, we bought a house together on Grove Street in Boston. We couldn't afford a house by ourselves. It was a three-family house, so we had one apartment, they had one apartment, and there was a store downstairs, and my father had the store. He was a plumber, did all kinds of fixing, a handyman. And that's how he went into business for himself. He didn't work for anybody when he came to Boston.

I met my husband one summer. In my day we didn't go away for the summer; we couldn't afford to. So what we did as young girls, we ran a dance and made money and we rented a cottage. We made about $300 selling tickets, and we rented a cottage for the summer near the beach in Winthrop, north of Boston. We went there weekends, and boys did the same thing. And that's how I met my husband. They had cottages nearby, and we'd meet on Saturday nights and have dances with a Victrola, and we had a lot of fun. [She pauses, nostalgic.] He was very attentive to me and he was very much in love with me and he said, "You'll never be sorry if you marry me because I'll always adore you." Something like that—and we got married.


Excerpted from TOWARD A BETTER LIFE by Peter Morton Coan Copyright © 2011 by Peter Morton Coan. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Morton Coan (New York, NY) is the award-winning author of Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words and the critically acclaimed biography Taxi: The Harry Chapin Story. His work has appeared in Time, the New York Times, Newsday, Travel & Leisure, World Tennis, and many other publications. He is the creator and principal owner of Coanbooks.com.

From the Hardcover edition.

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