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New York City

Your Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free: Ellis Island


An Immigrant Ship nearing New York, 1892Gilded Age America saw not only a boom in millionaires, but a boom in immigration. During this era, approximately 10 million immigrants entered the United States,  hungry for religious freedom and greater prosperity. The most striking of these immigrants were Eastern European Jews fleeing the brutal pogroms of Imperial Russia between the years 1881-1924. The surge in population witnessed in America’s major cities created a number of conflicts, particularly in politics and government, as witnessed with the strong hold Tammany Hall held on New York City long after the death of Boss Tweed. Yet, this new power in numbers did little to protect these new Americans from exploitation and betrayal from power- and money-hungry politicians and robber barons. Troubles came not only from “native” Americans angered by the threat immigrants had to their jobs, but from exclusionary laws passed to keep “undesirable” minorities–like the Chinese–from entering the country to work for wages even lower than those garnered by European immigrants.

To stem the influx of peoples seeking asylum and citizenship, the U.S. Federal Government built Ellis Island Immigrant Station in 1892, about half a mile from the Statue of Liberty, to replace the state-run Castle Garden Immigration Depot (1855–1890) in Manhattan. The first immigrant to pass through the gates of Ellis Island was Annie Moore, a 15 year old from Cork County, Ireland. During that first day, 700 immigrants were processed, and in its first year, Ellis Island processed almost 450,000 immigrants. Disaster struck soon after, for on June 13, 1897, the original wooden structure burned to the ground, destroying all administrative records for Castle Garden, and most of the records for the Barge Office and Ellis facilities. Fortunately, copies of the passenger lists were held by the Customs Collector and abstracts were held in Washington, DC. The station reopened in 1900 and was built of red brick and more importantly, was fireproof. This new building was also much larger in order to accommodate the 5000+ immigrations streaming through the island daily. Immigration peaked in the years leading up to WWI–1907 processed a record of 1,004,756 peoples, and April 17th of 1907 witnessed and all-time daily high of 11,747 immigrants.

ellis islandThe great number of immigrants of the “new immigration” era–that is, emigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, as opposed to “old immigration” from Western Europe–caused many native-born Americans to grumble that the United States had become a “dumping ground” rather than a “melting pot.” To make matters worse, these immigrants appeared to bring the fears of native-born Americans to fruition: they were dirty, foreign, prone to crime, refused to learn English, practiced weird customs, sent good American money back home rather than spending it in the US, and otherwise wreaked havoc on the sedate, Anglo-Saxon lives of “true Americans.” To combat this, Congress passed a series of immigration laws which at various times excluded, restricted, or refused emigrants from particular countries. In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1907, the Dillingham Commission tightened the medical requirements for admission, dividing physically and mentally “defective” immigrants into three classes: idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the feeble-minded; the insane; and those subject to tuberculosis or a dangerous disease. The average wait on Ellis Island was about two to five hours, but for those whom health inspectors held back, the island became “The Island of Tears” or “Heartbreak Island.”  Many spent months in quarantine ,or were held in the detention quarters, before the immigration officials rejected their application for entry and deported them back to their homeland.

Ellis island examinationMedical examination centered on the “line,” which became shorthand for the set of techniques and procedures that medical officers used to examine thousands of immigrants quickly:

After an arriving ship passed the quarantine inspection in New York Harbor, Immigration Service (IS) and United States Public Health Service (PHS) examiners boarded and examined all first- and second-class passengers as the ship proceeded up the harbor. Upon docking, PHS officers transferred steerage or third-class passengers to Ellis Island by barge. Proceeding one after the other and lugging heavy baggage, prospective immigrants entered the station and moved slowly through a series of gated passageways resembling cattle pens. As they reached the end of the line, they slowly filed past one or more PHS officers who, at a glance, surveyed them for a variety of serious and minor diseases and conditions, finally turning back their eyelids with their fingers or a buttonhook to check for trachoma. PHS regulations encouraged officers to place a chalk mark indicating the suspected disease or defect on the clothing of immigrants as they passed through the line: the letters “EX” on the lapel of a coat indicated that the individual should merely be further examined; the letter “C,” that the PHS officer suspected an eye condition; “S” indicated senility; and “X,” insanity.

The procedure was intimidating, and, indeed, between 1891 and 1930 nearly 80,000 immigrants were barred at the nation’s doors for diseases or defects. Yet the vast majority were allowed to enter the country—on average, fewer than 1 percent were ever turned back for medical reasons. Of those who were denied entry, most were certified, not with “loathsome and dangerous contagious diseases,” but with conditions that limited their capacity to perform unskilled labor. Senility (old age), varicose veins, hernias, poor vision, and deformities of the limbs or spine were among the primary causes for exclusion. That so few of the more than 25 million arriving immigrants inspected by the PHS were excluded sets into bold relief the country’s almost insatiable industrial demand for cheap labor.

Detention roomImmigration through Ellis Island slowly trickled to a halt during World War One, but there was a post-war boom that Congress once again severely curtailed through a series of immigration acts: the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. The latter act placed a quota on European immigration, allowing no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks into America. In addition, Congress had already passed a literacy act in 1917 to curb the influx of low-skilled immigrants from entering the country.

Despite the laws, the conflict, the harassment and the disappointments many immigrants faced when attempting to enter America, they nonetheless continued to journey to the shores of Ellis Island, weary but rejoicing eyes turned towards the Statue of Liberty–and after the installation of the plaque in 1903, its sonnet by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Further Reading:
American Passage: The History of Ellis Island by Vincent J. Cannato
Island Of Hope: The Journey To America And The Ellis Island Experience by Martin Sandler
Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America’s Immigrant Hospital by Lorie Conway
On the Trail of the Immigrant‎ by Edward Alfred Steiner
“Immigration and the Public Health,” Popular Science Monthly, October 1913 by Dr Alfred C. Reed
“Going Through Ellis Island,” Popular Science Monthly, October 1913 by Dr Alfred C. Reed

Further Viewing:
Emigrants landing at Ellis Island – 1903
Arrival of Emigrants at Ellis Island – 1906

The Armory Show, 1913


armory showModern and avant-garde art introduced itself to 1913 New York much against the latter’s will. Since the emergence of Impressionism, many other shocking developments in artistic expression set the world afire. However, these movements were smaller, grounded by one or two artists, and usually returned underground after the public’s initial outrage. By the 1910s, these smaller art movements began to convene and morph until two distinct styles of art bubbled beneath the mainstream–Expressionism and Cubism. Both began in Europe–the former in Germany and Austria, the latter in France–and were the culmination of the fascination turn of the century society held for “primitive” and “foreign” art.

Nude Descending a StaircaseIn one way, the rise of Expressionism and Cubism could be seen as a reaction to the globalization of society. As colonialism spread throughout Asia and Africa, as well as the South and North poles, Europeans and Americans came in contact with peoples only hardy explorers of the past were able to meet. Also, this time witnessed the birth of modern anthropology. Though scientific racism retained its hold upon greater social thought, exploration began to turn its emphasis from conquer to the study and cataloging of non-European peoples and their customs.

The seeds for the Armory Show were sown at one of the artistic “Evenings” held by Mrs Mabel Dodge, a “400” socialite who worked her darndest to become the “queen of Greenwich Village.” The 69th Regiment Armory for the National Guard located at on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets was chosen by organizers Arthur B. Davies, Walt Kuhn, and Walter Pach as the perfect venue for this show of modern art. Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art bravely purchased Paul Cézanne’s Hill of the Poor to symbolize their willingness to accept modern art, others were not so happy with the descent of art from nice, safe portraits, landscapes and still-lifes into dots and dashes across the canvas. Despite the rumbling of dissent, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors trundled on. The date for the show was from February 17th to March 15th, 1913, and the armory was home to approximately 1250 paintings, sculptures, and decorative works by over 300 European and American artists.

AThe Musemong the artists whose work was to be shown were Mary Cassatt, Paul Cézanne, Marcel Duchamp, Raoul Dufy, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Many of the artists were known and respected, so the audience and art critics waiting to view these 1250 paintings were not too alarmed by the roster. But when they did feast their eyes upon the exhibition, most of New York was stunned. Lloyd Morris recounted the “outrage and protest [which] flared up in newspaper headlines” and “Cubism, futurism, post-impressionism became issues in a battle that engaged the general public.” Critics were baffled by Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, and were incensed by Matisse’s nudes, Picasso’s cubist paintings, and Constantin Brancusi’s roughly-hewn block. Former President Theodore Roosevelt condemned all modernists as lunatics, and many critics considered the more provocative art exhibited to be the work of degenerates, and described the Armory Show a “bedlam in art,” comparing cubism to prehistoric cave drawings.

Rude Descending a StaircaseIn the midst of this furor, modern art did have a small, but growing number of supporters, which included Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was to receive lasting fame for her art studios in Greenwich Village and the museum she founded in 1931. Many art collectors found much to admire in this new art movement, and more than a few wealthy art patrons included early Picassos among the then-priceless works by Rubens and Holbein the Younger. Ironically, for all the castigation the show received in the press and the public, it went on to tour Chicago and Boston to equal doses of acclaim and horror. The outcome of the Armory Show was but one of the many pre-WWI forces that shaped both modern culture and society in the coming decades. The Modernists took inspiration from non-European arts and looked forward rather than looking back to old masters, thereby forging not only a new path for art, but enabled them to stand on their own merits as artists.

Further Reading:
1913: an End and a Beginning by Virgina Cowles
Online exhibition recreating the Armory Show
The Armory Show, 1913
The 69th Regiment Armory Show
The 69th Regiment Armory

The Edwardian Publishing Industry


1877 typewriterMuch as today, the publishing industry of the Edwardian era wrestled with such familiar issues as distribution, declining interest in reading, literary fiction versus “trash” for the masses, competition for bookstores from cheap editions & used book sales, and the eternal assumption of an “us versus them” between aspiring authors and editors/literary agents of major publishing houses. Though things like iPods, television, the internet or video games were not distractions from reading, nonetheless around the turn of the century, the London correspondent of the New York Evening Post reported that the British bookseller was liable to tell a tale of woe: “The trade is not what was once, you know, sir, and what with the war and six-penny reprints, some of us are pretty well at the end of our tether,” and would then “proceed to show you a shelf after shelf of war-books which are not selling, and shelf after shelf of spring which we hoped to get rid of, but which is now so much old stock.”

At this time the industry was in a state of flux and readership was split amongst such disparate tastes as readers of popular novelists Marie Corelli, Elinor Glyn and Ouida, adventure novelists H. Rider Haggard and Rudyard Kipling, and the Ruritanian genre, and readers of a more serious vein of fiction–G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, or the Webbs–though Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray remained perinneal favorites. The quantity of books published during the 1900s advanced considerably, with the number of new publications doubling between 1901 and 1913 from 6,044 in the former year to 12,379 in the latter. This trend lay in the improvement in family incomes and the ever-increasing interest in education, which accelerated with the decline in illiteracy. Aligning with this increase were the sudden growth of public libraries, whose public expenditure jumped from 286,000 pounds in 1896 to 805,000 pounds in 1911. Also, during this time, publishers made an attempt to make the classics more accessible to the reading public, and Collins’ Classics and the Everyman’s Library, each sold at modest prices in relatively durable editions, did much to extend an interest in classic English novelists and essayists.

For the aspiring novelist hoping to break into this seemingly impenetrable market, a score of books nestled on the shelves, some written by popular authors of the day and others by publishers themselves, full of advice on not only how to submit a novel but on the actual publishing process itself. The typical course to publication was detailed as following:

1. First, the aspirant should see that the typewritten copy was accurate, fastened together securely, and most importantly, clean. Their name and address, the title and description of the manuscript, and the length of the manuscript in words, should be prominent on the first page. A letter offering a view to publication and a request for return should the manuscript be rejected accompanied the manuscript in the mail.

2. When the manuscript arrived at the publishers’ offices, a clerk enters the particulars of the book into a ledger and it was shoved aside with other manuscripts to await the casual inspection of a partner or manager. The book is then taken from the pile and handed to a reader. It was their job to sift through the chaff to get to the wheat, and authors were advised to remember that “Publishing firms flourish by making profits; and profits are made out of books that sell; and it is in the business of the reader to recommend not good books merely, but good books that will sell.” Even if the reader enjoyed the book, there was a chance for rejection from the publisher if the lists were full or the reader’s remarks weren’t eye-catching enough. However, should the publisher accept the novel, to the trembling author went a contract.

3. The author was advised that under no circumstances should they bear the whole or part of the expenses of publication–that was to be born entirely by the publisher–nor should he agree to be remunerated on the half-profit system. The newly acquired author would then be remunerated in one of three ways: the publisher buys the entire copyright of the book for a lump sum down, (b) the publisher buys the copyright for a term of years, at the expiry of which it reverts to the author, and (c) the publisher may acquire the right to publish during the whole term of copyright, or for a shorter term, by agreeing to pay the author a royalty on every copy of the book sold (generally 10%, though well-established authors could revieve 25-33%). However, unlike today, this latter system did not guarantee an advance, and first-time authors were advised against insisting on an advance until they made a reputation.

4. The proofs were sent to the author, which were either in long “slips” or in page form, according to arrangement. After the proofs were returned, the next time the author saw their book was when a parcel of six free copies arrived on the day of publication. The author was advised to subscribe to a press-cutting agency for cuttings of reviews. If the first book achieved a sale of a thousand copies it was considered to have done very well, as the average circulation of first books was nearer to five hundred or less. After this first book, the author was further advised to have books published on a moderate, but regular schedule to build their reputation, stating that “even mediocre talent, when combined with fixity of purpose and regular industry, will infalliably result in a gratifying success.”

5. The literary agent was someone to aspire for, as the more successful agents were loathe to take on unknown authors who could prove unprofitable. According to advice, when the aspirant has made a name for himself and has the ability to his work on his own, then was the time to go to an agent as now the popular author–via their newly acquired agent–could demand a higher advance, more publicity and better placement in the lists. The agents’ percentage hovered around 10%, though once the author’s income exceeded two thousand a year, the agent should be willing to accept 5% on all sums over that amount.

The author with a little success would be tempted to publish their books in other countries, and while first-time authors were advised against worrying over foreign copyrights, then as today, a book that was a smash hit in England frequently fizzled in the United States, and vice versa. But in the end, the aspiring novelist turned published, had as equal a chance for success as authors today. Worries over advances, publishing profits, and so on preoccupied everyone, but thankfully, not enough to mitigate such wonderful novelists whose works have remained timeless classics in our age.

Further Reading:
Edwardian England, 1901-1914, ed by Simon Nowell-Smith
1001 Places to Sell Manuscripts: A Complete Guide for All Writers by James Knapp Reeve
Authors and Publishers: A Manual of Suggestions for Beginners in Literature by George Haven Putnam & John Bishop Putnam
Practical authorship‎ by James Knapp Reeve
The Author’s Desk Book by William Dana Orcutt