Immigrants in the 1900s
Between 1891 and 1910, around twelve million immigrants arrived in the United States. Unlike the wave of immigrants the United States had seen in the mid-1800s, the majority of these so-called new immigrants came from countries in southern or eastern Europe. Most of the Jewish families fled their homelands to escape religious or political persecution, whereas other immigrants sought improved economic opportunities.
Millions of immigrants first set foot on American soil on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Hundreds of thousands then settled in New York City, where they often lived in slums and crowded, unhealthy apartments. Slum streets were often piled high with garbage and raw sewage, and the slums usually were located right next to polluted industrial areas.
The life of immigrants in the United States was filled with other hardships. They often were only able to obtain low-paying, unskilled jobs. Some worked as many as fifteen hours a day simply to support their families. Education was seen as the key to improving these circumstances, so many adult immigrants attended English classes at night; children often attended public schools. The children of immigrants often became Americanized more quickly than their parents, speaking English and adopting American habits.
Jewish Immigrants in New York City
Most Jews in New York City settled in the Lower East Side, which developed into a thriving community filled with Jewish stores and services. Immigrants could buy kosher meats and other Jewish delicacies, attend a Jewish theater that gave performances in Yiddish, and read a newspaper published in Yiddish. Many Jews faced discrimination; for example, some employers refused to hire Jews. Some Jewish immigrants responded by trying to assimilate into American culture. Among other measures, they adopted American clothing or worked on the Sabbath (Saturday). Other Jews, however, clung to the traditions of their former life, particularly their religious rituals and their habits of spending the majority of time studying the Torah, which is the first five books of the Old Testament.
Urban Reform in the 1910s and 1920s
As the cities became increasingly crowded, city officials found themselves unable to keep up with demands for housing and social services. As a result, thousands of families lived in unsafe, unsanitary conditions. The drive to reform the cities began in the early 1900s, and these problems were addressed in a number of ways. For example, New York passed a law in 1901 that greatly improved new tenement buildings. Other reformers led a campaign to provide children with safe places to play, and by 1920 cities had spent millions of dollars building playgrounds. A city-planning movement also grew with the goal of halting the spread of slums and beautifying the city. City planners controlled and regulated city growth, created safer building codes, and developed public parkland. Civil engineers improved city transportation and paved the streets. Sanitation engineers worked on solving the problems of water supply, waste disposal, and pollution.
Women in the 1920s
During the 1920s, the so-called New Woman appeared. No longer believing that marriage and family was the ultimate goal in her life, many women asserted their independence and challenged traditional ways of looking at their roles and behaviors. Some women became reformers or sought to gain entry into the work world. Many women simply enjoyed the personal freedoms changing social roles brought them, for example, exchanging restrictive Victorian garments for looser-fitting, more casual clothing and cutting their hair.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Anzia Yezierska, Published by Gale, 2002.