Initially, immigrants arrived mainly from northern and western Europe, as they had before the Civil War; the largest groups came from England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. From the mid-1880s until World War I began in 1914, the number of newcomers from southern, eastern, and central Europe increased. Among the new immigrants were also Greeks, Romanians, and Italians, mainly from southern Italy or Sicily. Record numbers of immigrants arrived in the United States, some 9 million from 1880 to 1900, and 13 million from 1900 to 1914. Despite event driven periodic declines, immigration increased from 1870 and 1920, with an increasing diversity of origin, and was met with mixed reaction from existing Americans fearful for their jobs and the lack of assimilation by the newcomers.
Late 19th-century immigrants left their European homes to escape economic problems—scarce land, growing populations, and the decline of subsistence farming. Most settled in the United States permanently, but others came only to amass some capital and then return home. Immigration dropped off during depressions, as in the 1870s and 1890s, and again during World War I. However, immigration was encouraged by new technology such as steamships, which reduced the time needed to cross the Atlantic from three months to two weeks or less.
Where immigrants settled depended on their ethnicity and on when they arrived. In the post-Civil War decade, for instance, Scandinavian immigrants used the Homestead Act to start Midwestern farms. Two decades later, immigrants usually moved to industrial towns and cities, where they provided unskilled labor. By 1910 immigrants and their families constituted over half the total population of 18 major cities.
Immigrants’ lives changed dramatically after they arrived. Uprooted, usually from rural areas in Europe, immigrants had to adjust to industrial labor, unfamiliar languages, and city life. Clinging to their national identities and religions,...
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