Immigrant Letters and Letters of Social Reform

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The Civil War shook, galvanized, and reformed every citizen's idea of what it meant to be an American. American ideals and the American self-image were shifting, and it was the responsibility of every American to discover how he or she fit into the emerging picture of a renovated nation. Recent immigrants to the United States, arriving in droves during the decades before and after the war, had perhaps both the greatest need and the slightest chance of envisioning themselves as part of that nation. The letters of immigrants to their families and friends in various mother countries reveal a most intriguing image of America from the point of view of those who, though living in the country, could not quite consider themselves Americans.

Sometimes, as in the case of John Kerr, an Irish schoolteacher who moved to the United States in the late 1840s, immigrant letters reflect a careful analysis of the American culture. Kerr, writing to his uncle James Graham in Ireland, related his experiences teaching in American schools: “You may wonder that the schools are so numerous and teachers so scarce that it is so easy getting a school, but neither of these are the case. There are schools sufficient for the number of inhabitants and teachers as plenty as you choose, but half of them are 'bunglers.' Every human being who can write his own name and read a newspaper goes to teaching when he can do no better . . . .” [To read about manuals that teach letter writing, click here.] Kerr, who sent letters home via Ireland-bound travelers because he could not afford the 40-45 cent postage on his $18/month salary, drew on his professional observations to form conclusions about American society as a whole. “But what is the reason schools are so easily got?” he wrote. “The answer is the extreme fickleness of the Americans, the whole power over everything is in the hands of the people . . . this is here stiled 'Democracy,' but it is fast verging to Anarchy; so much for the self stiled free Americans.”

The detached and analytical position adopted by Kerr, who had been living in America for two years when he wrote the letter, belies an unwillingness to consider himself truly American that appears in many immigrant letters, including one of Kerr's own written in January of the following year. In this letter, also to his uncle, Kerr reflected on the fact that all immigrants living in America refer to the country of their origin as 'home.' The letter continues “Whatever influence a foreign country may have upon a man or whatever effect that inordinate love of gain which is so prevalent here, may have upon others still they can never cause me to forget my country, or my childhood home.” The point of such letters seems to be to reassure far-away family members that their loved ones in a new country had not forgotten them or the place they called home. Their allegiances, such as they were, remained with the country of their birth, although it was in the new country that they had a chance to pursue and secure prosperity unequalled at home.

Immigrant letters from the decades following the Civil War reflected the same ambiguous relationship with an America even more unsure of its national image. Louise Ritter-Siegenthaler, a Swiss immigrant who had come to Nebraska in the 1890s, wrote home often to her mother in Switzerland describing how much she missed her native country. In a Christmas letter from 1893 Ritter recounted her feelings: “We have experienced much in the year which will soon be gone. We turned our backs to our dear and beautiful homeland with all you beloved ones in order to found a new home in the foreign land. But I can never be really happy although we are getting along all right; it is the homesickness that will plague me here in America.” Ritter's heartfelt admission surely touched her mother back in Switzerland with its sincerity and depth. Letters such as these forged a bond between immigrants and those they had left behind in the old country, a bond that remained strong as long as the correspondence did. The editor of Ritter's letters and descendant of their author, Darlene M. Ritter, epitomized that bond: “With painful effort and at the sacrifice of precious time, letters were written to express the solidarity the immigrants still felt with those who stayed behind. The letter was a symbol of the ties that continued to bind them together.”

Immigrant letters that have survived over the years often provide a much-needed back story for the statistics that are a part of American history. What does it mean to us to know, for example, that between 1881 and 1925 over two and a half million Jews immigrated to the United States to escape persecution in their home countries? Where are the faces for these numbers? Reading the letters of men and women who risked everything for just a chance at a better life in America brings these facts to life. Through their letters we may come to understand the experiences of those people, sometimes our own ancestors, who came to this country and had to start all over again--often with far greater obstacles than homesickness standing in their way.

In 1907 the Jewish Daily Forward, a working-class newspaper that was printed in Yiddish, received a letter from a young shop worker desperate for help. In the letter, which was printed in the paper along with a reply, the girl described herself as well-educated but forced into a menial job because of her status as a Jewish immigrant living in Vineland, New Jersey. Her family of eight, forced to move to American “because of the terrible things going on in Russia,” relied on the money she made in the shop, but the foreman was exploitative of his young female workers and demanded sexual favors from them in return for job security. The girl described her employer's tactics, saying that “in spite of the fact that he has a wife and several children, he often allows himself to 'have fun' with some of the working girls. It was my bad luck to be one of the girls he tried to make advances to. And woe to any girl who doesn't willingly accept them.”

The inevitable confrontation resulted in the girl being fired, and her letter ends by begging the editors to help her find a solution to this awful problem. She wrote, “The girls in the shop were very upset over the foreman's vulgarity but they don't want him to throw them out, so they are afraid to be witnesses against him. What can be done about this?” In their reply, the editors encouraged the girl to go to the authorities with her story, reasoning that in a small town like Vineland the foreman would be unlikely to get away with his unsavory actions once they were common knowledge. While the eventual outcome of the girl's situation is not known, her letter remains as a testament to the trials faced by immigrants in America. That she proposed to solve her problem by writing a letter to a newspaper is also telling. Printing the letters of private citizens can add a touching, personal appeal to the public approach of a newspaper, a factor that undoubtedly attracted the paper's editors to the girl's plight.

By this time in American history, newspapers were by no means the only way to transmit information on a daily basis. As the nineteenth century ended and the twentieth began, great changes were taking place in communication technology. The telegraph, invented in the 1830s, had already revolutionized individual communication during the nineteenth century, allowing ordinary people (those who could afford it) to send short messages to others miles away. While telegrams were limited to one or two sentences, and sometimes took up to a day to transmit, let alone waiting for a reply, an invention was on the horizon that would render communication two-way and instantaneous. In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell transmitted the first spoken message over the wires to his assistant in the next room, ushering in the era of the telephone. Though it took nearly 75 years for the device to catch on among individual households, the telephone would eventually develop into a medium that could effectively challenge the letter’s dominance in American communication.

In the meantime, however, letters remained the primary mode of business among ordinary Americans, and among many not-so-ordinary Americans as well. As it had always been, frequent correspondence was the cornerstone of unified nation-wide interest groups, and America after the Civil War was full of them. From populists to prohibitionists, social reformers of every creed came out of the woodwork to support their cause. These groups, though often concentrated in a particular region, comprised members across numerous states, and in order to maintain a unity of purpose and a concentrated, step-by-step plan for effecting change they needed to communicate frequently and at length. Letter writing provided the perfect forum for the interchange of ideas and strategies within such socially minded groups, and members consulted upon and decided all manner of issues through the post.

One of the major social developments of the mid-to-late 19 th and early 20 th centuries was first-wave feminism. Socially active women struggled to secure for their gender equal rights under the law, especially the right to vote in public elections. The movement’s leaders spent most of their time traveling around the country, giving talks and encouraging discussion and response to their issues. Because they were rarely all together in the same place, regular correspondence was essential for maintaining a unified direction for their work, and in some cases the letters that have been preserved span three or four decades.

These letters, between such prominent women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, often reveal the heated discussions that surrounded the actions of the group. In a letter dated December 28, 1869, Stanton replied to a suggestion made by Anthony that the group should change the incendiary name of their feminist newspaper, The Revolution. Anthony apparently felt that the forwardness of the name scared away some women who might otherwise read it, but Stanton disagreed. She wrote, “If all these people who for twenty years have been afraid to call their souls their own begin to prune us and the Revolution, we shall become the same galvanized mummies they are. There could not be a better name than Revolution. The establishing of woman on her rightful throne is the greatest revolution the world has ever known or ever will know.” The letter continues, Stanton reminding her friend and colleague of the battle they are fighting: “You and I have not forgotten the conflict of twenty-years—the ridicule, persecution, denunciation, detraction, the unmixed bitterness of our cup for the past two years, when even friends crucified us. A journal called the Rosebud might answer for those who come with kid gloves and perfumes to lay immortal wreaths on the monuments which in sweat and tears others have hewn and built; but for us and for that great blacksmith of ours who forges such red-hot thunderbolts for Pharisees, hypocrites, and sinners, there is no name like the Revolution.” In the face of these mighty arguments, the name of the paper remained the same.

Over 30 years later, Stanton and Anthony were still working for female suffrage, and still writing letters to discuss strategy and make plans. In her final letter to Stanton, written in October 1902, Anthony talked about the long years of their struggle, and the failures and successes they had had along the way. “We little dreamed when we began this contest, optimistic with the hope and buoyancy of youth, that half a century later we would be compelled to leave the finish of the battle to another generation of women. But our hearts are filled with joy to know that they enter upon this task [well] equipped. . . .Those strong courageous, capable young women will take our place and complete our work.” Anthony’s view of the future turned out to be true—several days after this letter reached her, Elizabeth Cady Stanton died. Four years after that, in 1906, Anthony herself passed away. Neither of them lived to see the institution of female suffrage in 1920. But their ideas and plans, the passion they felt for the rights of women, everything that they believed in lives on in the letters they wrote, letters that now inspire women everywhere and resonate with all who understand the fight for freedom.