(click to enlarge any of the following photographs)
Among other specialized topics, I also teach the second half of the U.S. History survey course (1877-present), as well as a class called "The Historian's Craft," where I introduce students to the art of historical research, analysis and writing. In both classes I use a lot of primary documents to bring the history alive or to help students hone their skills. One of my absolute favorite images in this capacity is the above photograph of Mulberry Street from 1900. Mulberry Street is located in Little Italy on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. The photo offers such a rich window into the life of "new immigrants" at the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.
Prior to 1870, very few Italians came to the United States as immigrants. But, faced with growing economic distress at home, more and more came during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, seeking new opportunities. From 1890 to 1900, 655,888 Italian immigrants, 2/3 men, came to the United States and between 1900-1910 the number soared to 2.1 million! During the broad period 1820 and 1920, over 4,190,000 people emigrated from Italy to the United States. Only Ireland (4,400,000) and Germany (5,500,000) came anywhere near these figures. The majority of Italian immigrants came from rural communities and possessed little formal education. They intended to stay just long enough to make some money before returning to their families in Italy. In the end, though, only 40% made it back to their homeland; roughly 60% stayed in the U.S. for good. As with many other immigrants, Italians gathered in overcrowded, often dilapidated ethnic neighborhoods in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit. The main ethnic rival of the Italians was the Irish and in many cities the two groups clashed as they competed for unskilled jobs, housing, political patronage and other scarce resources. And for the record, despite popular media portrayals of the Italian mafia, the US Department of Justice has estimated that less than .0025 percent of Italian Americans have had anything to do with organized crime.
One of the cool things about this amazing photo is that it offers the opportunity to zoom in on more detailed views of working-class immigrant life during this time period. Here are some examples (click any image to enlarge):
Here is a view of the street market. Note the clothing.
Here is a man standing on a balcony. Note the architecture.
Here is a deep view of the background. Note that this scene of immigrant life goes on and on and on...
I like these guys sitting on the back of a wagon. Looks like they might be messing with someone...
This is a detail from the dead center of the photo. I like the vehicles and the way things are piled super-high!
Here is a detail of one couple.
This one shows a detail of women's clothes hanging off a rickety storefront.
Anyone for a beer?
I think that a close examination of photos like these allows us to better access the humanity of these immigrants and their lived experiences.