More than a century ago, Ellis Island in the east and Angel Island in the west have processed millions of immigrants, all of whom came to the U.S. looking for a better life, or at least a new start. The photographs taken during this time tell of the Old World, as people disembarked from their steamer ships wearing the traditional dress of their countries, belongings in fabric bundles, sometimes with a smile for the camera and sometimes not. Here are 24 stunning photos of immigration at the turn of the century that give us a glimpse of what these immigrants were experiencing upon their arrival to America.
Immigrants endured long lines, separation from their families, and were sometimes even quarantined or detained for weeks or months. They were given medical inspections and were subject to rigorous questioning. Weary-eyed and tired, those that did finally make it past the immigration stations could start a new life.
Some immigrants were detained for long periods or were held indefinitely as in the case of Angel Island near San Fransisco, where the Chinese Exclusion Act made immigration for Chinese an extremely arduous process that could leave immigrants cooped up in cells for years.
Once they finally got settled, immigrants often lived somewhat separate lives from the larger community, usually living near other immigrants. Tenement housing in New York City became notorious for poor living conditions and overcrowded spaces. But, these apartments were the only thing that most immigrants could afford.
So-called “steamer classes” taught through object identification and signing to help immigrant children learn English. These classes were often mixed-age.
The boom in immigration around the turn of the century meant that extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world flooded Ellis Island and major cities across the country. It wasn’t easy, but they made the best of the situation, making friends and money as they could and carving out new lives in this unfamiliar new land.