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Immigration to New York in the late 19th, early 20th century


Erie canal in New York
Erie canal in New York

A second major period of immigration, which began after the Civil War and peaked in the first two decades of the 20th century brought about 30 million people into the United States. While the earlier immigrants had come mostly from northern Europe, many of the immigrants in this period were Russians, Italians, Poles, and others from eastern and southern Europe, including many Jews. The majority of immigrants first set foot in America on Ellis Island, in New York Harbor. As before, many remained in New York City or settled in cities upstate. From 1890 to 1920 the population of New York State grew from 6 million to 10.4 million. From its pre-Civil War population of 1.2 million, New York City grew to nearly 5 million by 1910.

The new immigrants provided a steady supply of workers for the state’s growing industries: the steel and heavy metal manufacturing plants around Buffalo, the new photography industry that inventor George Eastman established in Rochester, the electric and locomotive plants in Schenectady, and the garment industry in New York City. The population shift from the farms to the cities, begun before the Civil War, continued at a faster rate. This meant laborers were also needed to build city streets, apartment buildings, subways, and electric trolley and railway lines. Free public education, established throughout the state in 1867, helped the immigrants adjust to their new country.

But life for many foreign-born Americans was difficult. They lived in overcrowded slum tenements—many without heat, lighting, or sanitation—for which they often paid high rents.

In factories and garment sweatshops, they worked long hours for low wages, often in unsafe or unhealthful conditions. As workers tried to improve their lives, the labor movement grew and national unions were founded, such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) led by Samuel Gompers. Two unions in the garment industry, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) (see UNITE HERE: International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, had a strong influence on New York State As pioneers in welfare unionism, they built apartment houses and provided health clinics, concerts, and summer camps for their members.

The grim working conditions for garment workers were dramatically demonstrated in 1911, when a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City killed 146 women trapped in the factory. Reform efforts after the fire led New York to adopt some of the most progressive labor laws in the nation, including laws regulating sweatshops, factory safety, and the employment of women and children. "New York" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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