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Society in Ellis Island Era Immigration

Into the Melting Pot (Literally)

The melting pot has long served as a powerful metaphor for an American society capable of assimilating a sometimes wildly heterogeneous population into a single, unified American people. As immigration rates surged to unprecedented heights in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, and many native-born Americans began to worry that the so-called "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe might prove to be unassimilable, the melting pot came to occupy a more and more prominent—and contested—place in American culture. While the New York Times fretted that "the pot as well as the melted is going to be profoundly affected if not transformed" by the "new immigration," a play called The Melting-Pot—written by a Jewish Briton named Israel Zangwill—became a smash hit in 1908 by touting the melting pot's enduring virtues.29 (President Theodore Roosevelt attended the production's Washington premiere and shouted, "That's a great play, Mr. Zangwill," when it ended.) While Zangwill's stilted dialogue may not have stood the test of time, the assimilationist civic mythology he helped to perpetuate endures: "America is God's Crucible," Zangwill's protagonist proclaimed, "the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen! Irishmen and Englishmen! Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."30

Henry Ford, whose auto plants employed immigrant workers from every corner of Europe, was such a firm believer in the melting pot that he literally built one. Ford, who once declared that "these men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live," forced his immigrant workers to attend lengthy "Americanization" courses, in which they were schooled in the English language and Ford's own conservative ideology. Ford's giant melting pot—a twenty-foot tall crucible fashioned of wood, canvas, and papier-mâché—served as the centerpiece for his Americanization School's graduation ceremony. In this ornate pageant, workers clad in outlandish versions of their home countries' native costumes descended into the giant pot, only to climb out the other side wearing modern business suits and waving tiny American flags while singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Ford hoped that his literal demonstration of the melting pot's power would "impress upon these men that they are, or should be, Americans, and that former racial, national, and linguistic differences are to be forgotten."31

While Henry Ford's melting-pot pageantry might have seemed utterly benign—endearing at best, merely goofy at worst—his company's Americanization program had a harder edge. The assimilationist teachings of Ford's Americanization school were backed by outright coercion, as the company's Sociological Department paid investigators to monitor the home lives of workers; any Ford employee who failed to maintain a middle-class American lifestyle that met Ford's standards could lose his job.

Jane Addams and the Settlement House Movement

A less coercive manifestation of the melting pot could be found in Chicago, where a Progressive reformer named Jane Addams transformed Hull House—an abandoned old mansion in a working-class immigrant neighborhood—into the nation's preeminent settlement house. (The settlement house, an institution pioneered in Victorian England, was a place where privileged students, educators, and social reformers could live and work alongside the working-class inhabitants of urban slums, offering social, cultural, and educational programs to help uplift the poor.) Inspired by a visit to East London's Toynbee Hall, Jane Addams and her friend Ellen Starr opened Hull House as Chicago's first settlement in 1889. Their offerings quickly grew to include art exhibitions, kindergarten and daycare, courses in cooking and sewing, dances and other social events. Addams declared the settlement's primary mission to be to "help the foreign-born conserve whatever of value their past life contained and to bring them into contact with a better class of Americans."32 The immigrants who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods—especially the women—embraced Addams's vision in droves. Hull House rapidly expanded, eventually occupying 13 buildings covering a full city block, housing 70 live-in settlement workers, and even including an on-site art gallery, gymnasium, theatre, and coffeehouse. In an age before government-run social welfare programs, Hull House became one of the nation's largest social service providers. And as time went on, Addams shifted her energies in a more and more political direction, using Hull House as a base for the mobilization of Chicago women behind her favored liberal causes of trade unionism, civil rights, civil liberties, suffrage, and pacifism.

The success of Hull House inspired settlement movements in other American cities, as Jane Addams and her colleagues pioneered the modern notion of social work. While the settlements could not eliminate the crushing poverty that mired America's urban slums, they did directly benefit the thousands of mostly immigrant women who utilized their services, making the transition to America that much easier. Jane Addams may have shared Henry Ford's core sense of the cultural superiority of the "better class of Americans," but in her conception of the melting pot, assimilation to American cultural norms was more likely to be achieved through outreach and uplift than through coercion and enforcement.

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