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Immigrant Communities: A Look at Four Ethnic Groups
Immigrants arriving in the United States were often already
set up with a support system in the New World. Most people
either had relatives or friends already living there or they were
traveling with someone who did. According to the class lecture1,
people often lived close to other immigrants of their shared
backgrounds. In this way, immigrant neighborhoods were started
in many large cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
Each immigrant community was different from each other, since the
countries that people came from were so culturally diverse. Due
to these differences and a language barrier, immigrants tended to
stay with their own people and communities.
In order to better understand the similarities and
differences between these communities, it is necessary to take a
closer look at a few of them. One significant immigrant group
during the 1800 s is the Irish. The majority of immigrants
coming from Ireland were trying to escape the potato famine.
These people set up a large community in the Boston area, which
is still today known as having a large population of people from
Irish background. The people who immigrated to the United States
often came by themselves, since there was not enough money to
send a whole family. Most people were not among the most
extremely poor peasants, since they had a way to pay for their
passage. Women came as often as men, and their first goal was to
find work in order to support themselves and send money home to
The Irish had a great advantage over most other immigrant
groups because they spoke English and immigrated at a time when
there were a large number of jobs in the United States. Women
took jobs as household servants and maids, and they often lived
at the residence they worked at. In these jobs they had no
expenses and were able to send the majority of their earnings
home to their struggling families. Some Irish women also took
jobs as factory workers. Men tended to work as manual laborers,
in jobs such as construction work, railroad builders, and canal
workers. Some Irish men also found jobs as firemen, policemen,
dockworkers, and cobblers. Irish men often joined unions and
became involved in politics through these groups.
These immigrants set up their homes in tenement houses and
formed large communities in Boston and Chicago. Families were
not as common, since women were working to support families in
Ireland and often married later in life. Men who were married
were sometimes in very mobile occupations which required them to
leave their families for months at a time. Religion and the
church was a very important part of life for Irish immigrants.
Most Irish were Catholic, although some were of the Protestant
faith. However, the Irish also found time for fun, and taverns
were a common fixture in most communities.
Another large immigrant group was the Germans. People of
this ethnic background came to America in search of jobs and
land, both of which were hard to come by in their native land.
Germans usually brought their families with them to the new
country, and took jobs as farmers, service or factory workers and
skilled artisans. Single men were often boarders with German
families, who took people into their homes as a source of income.
Unlike the Irish, the German women worked at home and sent the
children out to work as household servants. They were also able
to save some of their income, since they did not have to send it
home to needy families. Germans also did not move around very
much, but settled in communities with other German families in
areas such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. The German
immigrants formed neighborhoods and close ties so that they were
able to take care of each other. They began the first type of
life insurance with Mutual Aid Societies, which were paid into
every month so that if something happened to the head of the
household the family would be taken care of.
German communities were similar yet different from the Irish
in many ways. Aside from the idea of taking care of their
neighbors, Germans were also not as active in the church.
Although they often attended on Sundays, religion was not as
important to their daily lives. Like the Irish, Germans were
also involved in politics and unions, however they were not as
driven for political freedom as the Irish immigrants who were
accustomed to being under British rule. Known for their love of
beer, taverns were also very common in German neighborhoods, and
breweries were usually found in large communities.
Another immigrant group that formed large communities in the
United States were Italians. In this group, usually the men came
over first and found jobs, and then later sent for their wives or
families. A large number of Italians also immigrated back to
their home country. They came to America for a few years to find
work, and then went back to Italy to join their families.
Italian women rarely came to the U.S. alone, but for the most
part came to meet their husbands or the men that they were
arranged to marry. In these cases, women traveled in a group
with other Italian women from their town or area and were
escorted by a man.
Italians worked a variety of jobs upon coming to America.
Some men set up wine businesses in California, and others worked
as factory and textile workers in New England, miners in
Illinois, and cigar makers in various parts of the country.
Since most men were without their families, they were able to
migrate and move around in order to find work. Like the Germans,
Italian women stayed at home, and they earned an income by doing
piecework from factories or mending clothing. They took care of
the children, who were often sent out to work at a very early
The large Italian communities developed in areas such as
Chicago and New York. In Chicago, a well known Italian
neighborhood was located around Hull House, which helped
immigrant women adapt to their new lives. Italians in New York
lived in more spread out communities, most in Manhattan,
Brooklyn, and the Bronx. An interesting thing to note about
Italian immigrants is that they usually set up their homes very
geographically similar to those they had in their home country.
For example, the people that a family lived by in Italy were also
most often their neighbors in America. Although this was not
always true, in most cases people formed communities with the
same people they had known before they immigrated.
Italians were also much more family oriented than German or
Irish immigrants. Families and neighborhoods were very
close-knit, and everyone tried to help out everyone else as much
as possible. The majority of Italian immigrants were Catholic,
and they took their religion and beliefs very seriously. The
church was often the backbone of the neighborhood, and it brought
everyone together and got them involved. Men were sometimes
involved in local unions and politics, but it was not as
important to them as Irish or German men. Taverns were usually
located in Italian neighborhoods, but for the most part Italian
communities were characterized by a strong sense of togetherness
The last group that will be examined are the Jewish
immigrants from various countries. Like the Irish who were
forced out of their country by the famine and the British
government, the Jews were also exiled from their homelands, but
their cause for fleeing was religious persecution. Jewish
immigrants came from many different backgrounds, but their
religion basically gave them a culture all their own. They spoke
their own language, Yiddish or Hebrew, and followed their own set
of traditions and values. In many cases of immigrants, they were
being oppressed by the government under which they lived, however
they were not allowed to leave. So many had to escape their
countries in order to come to America.
Similar to the Italians, Jewish men usually immigrated first
and then found a way to help their families escape to the freedom
of America. They became well known in the clothing industry, and
a great number of Jewish immigrants worked in tailoring and as
merchants and factory hands. Since in Jewish families, it is a
goal for the man to study their religion as a Rabbi and be
supported by his family, women were used to working outside the
home and adjusted well to factory and tailoring work. Jews were
also highly literate and educated, and most strived to better
themselves and better their family standing.
Jewish immigrants lived in urban settings, and a large
Jewish community was established in New York. These families
lived in the tenement houses and often took boarders into their
small apartments in order to bring in more income. These
boarders were usually single Jewish men who were newly immigrated
to the United States. The Jewish immigrants lived close to each
other for a few reasons. For one, although they may have been
from different countries, they had a shared past and common
origins. Also, it was a way of protecting themselves from
The similarities between the four groups seem to be quite
obvious, yet immigrant groups can be different even in the things
they have in common. Although both Irish and Jewish immigrants
worked in factories, the Jewish were more involved in the
clothing and textile industry. Women from Italian and German
backgrounds stayed at home and took care of their families, but
Italian women were much more devoutly religious than the Germans.
Irish and German immigrants were more involved in politics and
unions than Italians or Jews, and were more likely to frequent
taverns and public houses. The main difference between all of
these immigrant groups is the location of their communities.
Some groups live in the same city, but their neighborhoods were
separate from each other. Immigrants came from different
countries and cultures and built their own communities in their
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