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Ellis Island
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Thinking Questions

Ellis Island in 1900


They came escaping poverty, political repression, drought, starvation, or simply for the chance to obtain the European dream: landownership. Whatever the reason, a rolling tide of 20 million immigrants—Italians, Poles, Russians, Czechs, Jews, Irish, Slovaks, Turks—a global buffet,  flooded into Ellis Island between its official opening in 1892 through 1930, when the numbers began to dwindle. Many suffered through horrible conditions just to make the trip but they did it for the chance of a brighter future. The only direction for these hopeful souls was forward, through the processing center known as Ellis Island.


But Ellis Island didn’t start off as the premier way station for immigrants. In fact, the three square mile island had undergone some major transformations (and a few name changes) since it was first purchased by the Dutch in 1630 from the local Mohegan Indians. During colonial times, it was called Oyster Island because of the abundance of oyster beds. But the place got its current name from its owner, Samuel Ellis, during the 1770s. While he owned it, Ellis Island was used by American forces as an ammunition depot, a harbor fort, and even as a place to hang captured pirates.


After the British so easily captured New York City during the Revolutionary War, the Americans realized how vulnerable that city’s defenses were. Therefore, they decided to beef things up a bit and in 1808, the US government purchased Ellis Island and made the island part of the harbor’s defense system.


After the Civil War, the island stood vacant until the government decided that the current immigration center at Castle Island just couldn’t keep up with the demand. Two years and $75,000 later, the island not only had a brand new immigration center, but the island tripled in size using landfill from the newly excavated subway tunnels being built throughout Manhattan. 





Smelly, Crowded, and Humiliating


Immigration was big business. Once you crunched the numbers a company could net a profit of $60,000 for a single one-way trip! Major steam ship companies like Cunard and White Star Line (of Titanic fame) made money hand over fist from the transport of would-be immigrants to America. Like travel websites today, these companies advertised throughout Europe, offering bundle packages with passport, ship passage, medical inspection, and even a train ticket to get you to the French ports of Le Harve or Cherbourg, where most ships embarked for New York City. But, once you arrived at the port it wasn’t like you could just board and be on your way. This isn’t modern travel we’re talking about. Because train and ship schedules didn’t always coordinate some immigrants might be stuck waiting around for their ship to come in for weeks. Of course, you could stay at the “Emigrant hotels” provided as part of your package, but read on and you can guess how great these accommodations were.


After obtaining your passport and verifying that you weren’t a lunatic, anarchist, or criminal you would be subjected to a rigorous medical inspection. Third class men and boys had their hair cut short, everyone would be given a vaccination if they needed it, and your body and hair would be inspected for signs of lice or infectious diseases. As a separate courtesy, your clothes and luggage would be given a hot steam treatment to kill any vermin hiding inside. This got rid of the lice, which somehow managed to find their way aboard anyhow, but also had the unfortunate side effect of damaging your photographs and other personal mementos that would be your last reminder of the life you were leaving behind. (Sorry, company not responsible for lost or damaged goods). These inspections got more rigorous as U.S. immigration laws became stricter on the condition of the immigrants who could enter the country. As an incentive to ship companies to do the job right the first time, any immigrant denied entry to the U.S. was required to be transported back to their home country at the expense of the company.

If you were an immigrant traveling to the United States and you could afford a first ticket— about $90 in 1900— you had it made. It was no Carnival cruise with standup comedians and “all you can eat” buffets (and you can just forget about seeing Seuss at Sea), but it was decent for the time period. First class traveled on the upper floors of the ship, ate in a separate dining room stocked with real china plates, cutlery, and the best part is you didn’t have to share a cabin with a stranger. Correction, we should have said that the best part was being able to bathe.


The steerage passengers, who shelled out 30 bucks for their passage, had to travel in the bottom of the steamship. Located next to the steering mechanisms of the ship, this area was noisy, hot, with little ventilation. The goal of the ship companies was to turn a profit and boy did they ever. The typical steam ship could hold about 2500 passengers, 95% of which were traveling steerage.


Crowded into one large room, the ship companies built rows of simple metal frame bunks lined with a straw or seaweed mattress. With bathroom access spread out amongst hundreds of people, conditions got ripe really fast.  Steerage passengers were given a bucket for washing (with cold seawater) which also doubled as an emergency sea sickness pail. Food was sparse and you could count on accidentally ingesting your fair share of maggots. Things were so bad for the folks below decks that an investigation was started in 1910 by President William H. Taft. The report that came back was unflattering to say the least: “The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it...”


The report ruffled some feathers in Washington and after 1910 steerage was changed to plain ol’ third class. Third class cabins were designated for six bunks and they even got their own dining room. Sorry, no news on the food quality situation.

The Physical Exam 



Sailing into New York Harbor after a long and cramped two-week journey, the Statue of Liberty was a sight for sore eyes. Rising 351 feet into the air, her copper plating already halfway oxidized to the familiar green that we know and love today, Lady Liberty was a sign that they had at last made it to America. Once immigrants caught sight of her the decks erupted with all kinds of emotion. Most people cheered, some wept, and others just stood in awed silence.


A ferry took you from your ship to the customs station at Ellis Island. Again, even this part of the journey was tainted with class discrimination. Typically it was the steerage classes who went through Ellis Island. The more affluent first and second class got a private inspection on board ship and were directly escorted into New York.  The vast majority of immigrants, who came from steerage class, were seen as being prone to end up in a hospital or becoming a burden to the state. Not wanting a boatload of freeloaders, Ellis Island was designed to efficiently screen the “desirables” from the crazies and diseased.


Once the immigrant poor reached Ellis Island, their discomfort and problems were not yet over. They still had to pass several inspections which could last anywhere between three and five hours. Afraid of losing their luggage with customs— some things never change— most  lugged their trunks around with them, ensuring an even more grueling and tiresome experience. But hey, when all of what you own is inside that trunk, who can blame a person for being suspicious. 


Inspections were conducted by two government agencies responsible for processing and screening – the US Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration (today, it’s simply known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS). The inspections were designed to make sure each person entering the country had decent health and all of their paperwork was in order. Over time, the doctors giving the inspections got so good at their jobs that they could do “six second physicals”. Leaning against railings a floor above the line of immigrants, doctors scanned the crowd for any visible sign of illness. A stooped gait, redness on the scalp, an obvious limp, all would put you on the fast track for a more intensive medical inspection. Immigrants whose collars covered their necks or who wore hats would be stopped and inspected to see if they were hiding a goiter, tumor, or contagious skin infection.


To distinguish the unhealthy from the rest of the pack, inspectors would quietly place chalk markings on the back of your coat. B stood for back problems, E for eyes, H for heart, Sc for scalp, and X for possible insanity. An X with a circle meant that, no further questions needed, you were definitely mentally unstable.  For most medical cases a stay at the island hospital was all that was required to treat common illnesses. However about 2 percent of the immigrants hoping to enter the United States were denied entry due to physical ailments.


One of the most common ailments to land you back on the boat was a nasty eye infection called Trachoma (marked by the letters CT). Trachoma is a disease caused by bacterium spread by using unsanitized towels. The symptoms start off similar to pink eye, and just as contagious, but instead of having an eye infection that’s gross to look at, trachoma often can lead to blindness if left untreated. Anyone suspected of having eye issues had to take the button hook test— a painful test using a simple instrument used for looping buttons on shoes. The button hook would be used to turn your eyelids inside out to check for the tell-tale crusty patches under your eyelids.   After the would-be new Americans were poked and prodded by doctors and nurses, the ones who did not pass the inspection were sent back to their home country at the shipping company’s expense. 



Two statues of Annie Moore stand 3,000 miles apart. In 1993, County Cork, Ireland and New York City unveiled the pair to commemorate the crossing of the first immigrant to step foot on Ellis Island back in 1892
Ellis Island markings
button hook test
The dreaded button hook test
Ellis Island 1910
Ellis Island c. 1910
Click on the photo 
for an interactive tour. 

Give me Your Tired and Poor

but You can Keep the Lame and Lunatics. 


“Stupid; erratic answers; wanders about the room.”

“Emotional; noisy, boisterous, low of self-control.”


 These comments come from actual notes made by inspectors as they questioned immigrants to determine their character and mental fitness. As part of the inspection immigrants were asked a myriad of questions: twenty-nine to be exact. Their personal backgrounds, legal histories (taken from the ship’s manifest) all were examined and if they were found to be criminals, strikebreakers, anarchists or other “undesirables,” (after 1920 this was also extended to communists) they would be refused entry into the US. Some of the questions included, “Are you an anarchist?” and “Are you a polygamist?” The purpose of these questions was to determine your character. Were you hard working, did you have some sort of skill, or were you the trouble making sort that would end up living on the public dole? Immigrants had to prove that they could support themselves. Of course, answering that you had a job already lined up was a certain way to get deported. In 1885 the contract labor act made it illegal to import foreign workers, who often undercut American wages, leading to an outcry that immigrants were taking away American jobs.  



An immigrant also had to prove that they had come to this country with at least some starter cash. All immigrants had to show that they had $25 on hand. This led to the rise of an interesting scam where, if you had gambled away your earnings on the boat, you could pay $3 to a guy who would loan you the necessary funds. Once you passed through the doors he would be waiting for you to collect his $25.  





By the turn of the Twentieth Century, millions of immigrants— representing a slice of every part of the globe, had crammed their way into a fourteen square mile section of New York’s Lower East Side.  But up until the 1920s immigrants kept pouring in at a rate of 2,000 a day. In nine states 10% of the population was foreign-born with 100,000 aliens who couldn’t speak English.


These new Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were vastly different from the old immigrants who came from England, Ireland, and Germany. The newbies were mostly poor farmers from the back country of wherever they came from. Most of them hardly had any formal education.  Religious bigotry played a big role as many of these groups were Catholic or Jewish.  


A perverted version of Darwinism called Eugenics was becoming popular in the 1920s. Eugenics was an attempt to turn racism into a science and sought to categorize different races by their intelligence and industriousness. Western Europeans were at the top of the scale, not surprisingly since it was created by an English chap. Next came eastern and southern Europeans, followed by Asians, and lastly were people of African descent. The Eugenics movement inspired beliefs that these new immigrants were dumber, lazier, and more shifty.


“Native” Americans, known as nativists, (and not to be confused with the people whose land was recently stolen from them) were mostly middle and upper crust types who didn’t like the direction that the new America was moving. The old rural ways were being replaced with massive, filthy, crowded, chaotic cities. New York and Chicago were two of the fastest growing urban areas in 1900. In 1830, New York City barely had 200,000 people but in 1900 it had swelled to over 3.5 million! Most of this population explosion was European immigrants. In 1921, President Coolidge, under pressure from nativists and trade unions signed the Emergency Immigration Act which became permanent in 1924.  These laws created quotas for how many immigrants could enter from which country. Not surprisingly 86% of western Europeans were allowed in, the number of eastern and southern Europeans plummeted to 11%, with the remaining 2% being offered to everyone else— except that is the Chinese, who had been entirely barred from emigrating in 1886.  


Not all immigrants were treated equal in America. At the bottom of the rung were the Chinese, Japanese, and Irish. They would often only be able to find work in the most dangerous, crappy jobs available. Inside mines, working on the railroads, tanneries and iron mills used cheap immigrant labor to keep costs low. And when workers began to grumble about their low pay and bad conditions they would be replaced with strike breakers from a different ethnic group. The most violent conflicts erupted between the Irish and blacks who could only find work as servants or strike breakers.



Ellis Island tests
The mental competence of a person could be assessed without asking awkward questions.
The picture at top is the Form Block Test. The Knox Cube Test (below) was an imitation test where, like the game Simon, a cutoms official would tap out a random pattern on the blocks and the immigrant would be expected to repeat it.
Americanization class.
Portland, Maine. 1926
“There is no room in this country,” Roosevelt bellowed, “for hyphenated Americanism…German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans or Italian-Americans. There is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”
-President Teddy Roosevelt. 

The End of Ellis Island



Ellis Island saw tens of millions of immigrants entering the United States in hopes of a brighter future. In 1907, at the peak of the immigration years, more than 1.25 million people passed through the center. It was difficult for workers to keep up with the growing number of immigrants in terms of building and maintaining hospitals, dorms, and kitchens between 1900 and 1915.


Immigration began to dwindle after 1914. The two main reasons for fewer immigrants are because of World War I and new immigration restrictions. The Immigrant Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants that were allowed to enter the United States. In fact, only a little more than two million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1925 and 1954. That’s quite a drop considering that between the years 1900 and 1914, between 5,000 and 10,000 immigrants passed through the processing center every day!


The new regulations also took into account the ethnic groups that wanted to enter the country. The government analyzed the censuses of 1890 and 1910 to determine how many of each group was already in the United States. If there was a certain number from a particular group, immigrants from those nations were denied entry.

In 1917, as America was being pulled into World War One, anti-immigrant sentiment was growing. That year new laws were passed that required immigrants to pass a literacy test (in their own language). Failing this test would get you deported. The 1917 Immigrant Act also placed quotas on the numbers of immigrants and which country they came from. Western Europeans like French and English were given highest preference with Eastern Europeans, Italians, Russians being placed lower on the waiting list. The Chinese and Japanese were entirely excluded altogether due to racist attitudes of European superiority.


A third reason why immigration through Ellis Island dwindled is because the US became a world superpower following WWI. As a result, the nation established embassies in various parts of the world. Those who wanted to immigrate to the US could get their inspections and their paperwork completed at the US embassy in their nation. This meant that they could enter the US through any port instead of being required to go through Ellis Island. By 1924, only immigrants who had problems with their paperwork and refugees were required to be processed at Ellis Island. Ellis Island officially closed for immigration in 1954. Today, it still stands as a museum – the Ellis Island Immigration Museum – with many artifacts and exhibits displaying the history of immigration in the United States. In fact, about 40 percent of today’s US citizens can trace their ancestry back to an immigrant who passed through the Ellis Island processing center. In 1984, it went through a major restoration process which cost $160 million. It was the largest restoration project in the history of the United States.



Save Ellis Island Project
anti immigrant poltical cartoon



1. Rebman, Renee. Life on Ellis Island. Lucent Books, 2000


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