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“We accept their labor in the building of our railroads. We accept their muscle in our factories, in the doing of our heavy work. We accept all these things from them and yet, unless we watch out, we are going to miss from them some of the best things they can give us, their long reserve of experience in lines such as we do not have. Unless we take some pains to teach them somewhat of our language and learn somewhat of theirs, a whole generation is going to die out without any special relation between us.” -- Jane Addams, “Work and Play: Recognition Day Address By Miss Jane Addams, August 18, 1905.

Between 1880-1914 over 20 million people immigrated to the United States from Europe. Given that the population of the country was only 75 million at the time, this was a major influx felt across the land. Unlike previous waves of immigration, these travelers came from Southern and Eastern European countries, places with no history of American settlement. They were driven by economic need and in some cases by violence and religious persecution in their homelands, countries like Italy, Austria-Hungary, Greece, Russia and other Slavic nations. Unlike previous immigrants, many of the new immgrants were unskilled and unused to urban living. Risking all, they came to the United States in hopes of a better life in a time of economic and industrial change.

Between 1890 and 1914, the United States was industrializing rapidly. Factories and manufacturing plants spread around urban centers, creating jobs, but also harsh conditions. The new steel mills, manufacturing plants and assembly lines, coal mines, and other industries across the United States needed workers. Workers from abroad and from agricultural areas of the United States were eager to fill the demand for labor, but with more workers than job, employers were able to set wages low. Working conditions in early factories were terrible, with dangerous machinery, cramped quarters, and unhealthy ventilation. These conditions spilled out into the cities where pollution, garbage, disease and poverty clustered around factory districts. 

The impact of immigration can be most clearly seen in cities. By 1900, 77% of Chicago’s population was foreign-born or the children of recent immigrants.People of varied ethnicities and religions clusterd in factory districts and tenement houses. Many were Jews, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox, whose practices seemed alien to predominantly Protestant Americans. Many native-born American did not welcome the new immigrants, they feared they might lose jobs to immigrants who would work for less money, for example, and believed racial theories that held that some ethnicities were more "advanced" than others. Immigrants spoke differnt languages, wore strange clothing, and had customs that were foreign to American people. Having fled oppressive regimes in Europe, many immigrants were less trusting of governments; some were radicals, labor leaders, and anarchists. Industrialists and journalists fueled fears of immigrants by spreading sensational stories about strikes, terror attacks and violenves, which served to further drive wedges between native and foreign-born workers.

When Jane Addams opened Hull-House, she did so in the midst of a vibrant and diverse immigrant neighborhood. She and the other residents actively sought to bridge the gap between native and foreign-born citizens. Addams believed that Americans feared immigrants because they did not take the time to get to know them. Addams began immediately to close the cultural divide between immigrants and Americans, by opening Hull-House to any that needed it services and by hosting events that showcased the culture and talents local immigrants. In times of anti-immigrant fervor, such as in the aftermath of President William McKinley's assassination and after the shooting of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch in Chicago, Addams proved a stalwart ally. Addams helped immigrants navigate American culture and helped Americans understand how immigrants contributed to a shared society.

Recommended primary sources:

Addams, Jane and Hull-House, “First Report of the Labor Museum at Hull House," 1902, Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane, “Recent Immigration: A Field Neglected by the Scholar," January 1905,” Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane, “Statement on Abraham Isaak," September 10, 1901,” Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane, “Work and Play: Recognition Day Address By Miss Jane Addams," August 18, 1905, Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Additional resources:

Analyzing Anti-Immigrant Attitudes in Political Cartoons,  Reimaging Immigrantion, UCLA.

Immigration. Library of Congress.

Immigration and Americanization, Digital Public Library of America.

Urban Experiences in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889-1963

Suggested subjects:

Addams Jane, and immigrants

Addams, Jane, relationship with Hull-House neighbors

Addams, Jane, views on democracy

Hull-House, and immigrants

Immigration reform

Immigrants and immigrant neighborhoods


People associated with immigration

Organizations associated with immigration

Photo Credit

Lewis Hine, Italian Immigrants Searching for Lost Baggage, Ellis Island, 1905, Portraits of Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York Public Library.