The Faces Of America: 16 Stunning Colorized Portraits Of Ellis Island Immigrants

Published October 11, 2017
Updated June 3, 2021

See stunning portraits of the early 20th century immigrants that came through Ellis Island reimagined in full color.

Ruthenian Woman Face
"Ruthenian woman." Circa 1906.

While there are clues in her garments, the exact home village of this "Ruthenian woman," as she was originally titled, is uncertain. Her costume is characteristic of the Bukovina region that is today divided between Ukraine and Romania. The embroidered motifs on her linen blouse suggest that she is likely from the Ukrainian side, but useful details are concealed by the lack of color in the original image.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Ruthenian Woman Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Romanian Shepherd Face
"Romanian shepherd." Circa 1906.

Dominating the photograph is a traditional shepherd's coat known as a sarica, made of three to four sheepskins sewn together. Depending on the region and style, a sarica could be worn either with the fleece facing inwards, as seen here, or outwards, resulting in an entirely different aesthetic. The size and softness of the garment also made it suitable for use as a pillow when sleeping outdoors.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Romanian Shepherd Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Algerian Man Face
"Algerian man." Circa 1910.

The large turban style headdress is made up of a large square of fabric folded and wrapped around a fez hat and secured using a special cord. Visible beneath the djellaba robe is a multi-colored, striped silk belt that was common throughout the Ottoman Empire. These belts had different regional names (e.g. taraboulous) revealing the city where they were made — in this case, Tripoli (Ṭarābulus in Arabic).
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Algerian Man Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Cossack Man Face
“Cossack man.” Date unspecified.

This man is wearing a traditional costume that enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the Caucasus, most notably among the population living in modern-day Georgia. The choka overcoat along with the traditional swords and daggers were seen both as elements of folk dress and military uniform and continue to be worn in the region today. The rows of tubes across his chest are metal-capped wooden gun powder containers. Once functional, they remain as purely decorative elements today.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Cossack Man Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Guadeloupean Woman Face
"Guadeloupean Woman." Circa 1911.

The elaborate tartan headpiece symbolizing marital status or mood worn by Guadeloupean women can be traced back to the Middle Ages. First plain, then striped and in increasingly elaborate patterns, the Madras fabric exported from India and used as head wraps was eventually influenced by the Scottish in colonial India, leading to a Madras-inspired tartan known as "Madrasi checks."
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Guadeloupean Woman Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Danish Man Face
"Danish man." Circa 1909.

Evolving since the 1750s, the Danish dress was simple, with more decorated attire saved for special occasions. As with many nations before mass industrialization, much of the clothing was homespun. In contrast, this man is wearing clothing made of commercial cloth and a hat that suggests he is wearing a uniform reflecting his profession rather than a strictly regional costume. His tailored jacket is decorated with metal buttons and a chain.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Danish Man Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Norwegian Woman Face
“Norwegian woman.” Circa 1906-1914.

This woman is wearing a bunad from the Hardanger region, one of the most famous in all of Norway. The main elements of this bunad are decorated with elaborate beadwork. Bunad is the Norwegian term for regional clothing that developed through traditional folk costumes. In some regions, the bunad is a direct continuation of the local peasant style, while in others, it was reconstructed based on historical information and personal tastes.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Norwegian Woman Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Hindoo Boy Face
"Hindoo boy." 1911.

The topi (cap) is worn all over the Indian subcontinent with many regional variations. It is especially common in Muslim communities, where it is known as a taqiyah. Both the cotton khadi and the prayer shawl are likely to have been hand-spun on a charkha, and were used all year round.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Hindoo Boy Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Bavarian Man Face
"Bavarian man." Circa 1910.

Traditional dress in Germany is known as Tracht(en) and, as with other nations, there are many regional variations. In the Alpine region, leather breeches known as lederhosen were worn regularly by men and became part of the typical Bavarian style known as Miesbacher Tracht. This standardized form is exemplified here and is now typically associated with the annual Oktoberfest. The gray jacket is made from fulled wool and decorated with horn buttons.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Bavarian Man Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Italian Woman Face
"Italian woman." Circa 1910.

Elements of this dress may have been homemade, though accessories such as the kerchief and earrings would have had to have been purchased, as these items would have meant a considerable expense for many peasants. The color and cut of individual garments were often region specific, though manufactured elements such as shawls were a common feature throughout Italy. For special occasions such as weddings, women often wore highly decorative aprons made of expensive floral brocade fabrics.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Italian Woman Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Romanian Piper Face
"Romanian piper." Circa 1910.

This man's sheepskin garments are noticeably plainer than the shepherd seen elsewhere in this gallery, indicating his relative lack of financial wealth. He is likely a farm laborer, but the fact that he has posed with an instrument could suggest that his earnings were supplemented at least in part by playing music. The waistcoat, known as a pieptar, was worn by both men and women and came in a variety of shapes, sizes, and ornamental styles depending on the region.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Romanian Piper Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Greek Orthodox Priest Face
"Rev. Joseph Vasilon, Greek-Orthodox priest." Circa 1910.

The vestments of the Greek Orthodox church have remained largely unchanged. In this photograph, the priest wears an anteri, an ankle-length cassock (from the Turkish quzzak, from which the term "Cossack" also derives) worn by all clergymen over which an amaniko, a type of cassock vest, is sometimes worn. The stiff cylindrical hat is called a kalimavkion and worn during services.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Greek Orthodox Priest Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Laplander Face
"Laplander." Circa 1910.

Gákti is the traditional costume of the Sámi people of the Arctic regions spanning from northern Norway to the Kola Peninsula in Russia. Traditionally made from reindeer leather and wool, velvet and silks are also used, with the (typically) blue pullover supplemented by contrasting colored banding of plaits, brooches, and jewelry. The decorations are region-specific.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Laplander Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Alsace Lorraine Girl Face
"Alsace-Lorraine girl." 1906.

Originating in the Germanic-speaking region of Alsace, now in modern-day France, the large bow in this regional dress is known as a schlupfkàpp and was worn by single women. The bows signified the bearer’s religion — Protestants generally wore black, while Catholics favored brightly colored bows.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Alsace Lorraine Girl Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Dutch Woman Face
"Dutch woman." Circa 1910.

The Dutch bonnet was usually made of white cotton or lace. The shape of the headdress in addition to the gold pins and square stikken identify where this woman is from (South Beveland), her religion (Protestant), and her marital status (married). Necklaces in this region were often red coral, though black was also common especially during times of mourning. Other elements of the dress changed over time depending on the availability of fabrics.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Dutch Woman Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

Albanian Soldier Face
"Albanian soldier." Circa 1910.

The truncated, brimless felt cap is known as a qeleshe. Its shape was largely determined by region and moulded to one’s head. The vest, a jelek or xhamadan, was decorated with embroidered braids of silk or cotton. Color and decoration denoted the regional home of the wearer and their social rank. This man is likely to come from the northern regions of Albania.
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library

Albanian Soldier Portrait
Augustus Francis Sherman/New York Public Library/Dynamichrome

As hopeful immigrants stepped onto America's doorstep via Ellis Island, some found themselves the subject of an aspiring portrait photographer. Chief clerk Augustus Francis Sherman immortalized almost 250 immigrants throughout the early 1900s.

Sherman requested that his portrait subjects dig into their belongings and put on their national dress, their "Sunday best." He sought to accurately document each immigrant's unique heritage to the best of his ability through both his photos and the short captions he included with them. Sherman did all he could to safeguard against the loss of his subject's origins.

After the photos were taken, National Geographic published some in 1907, and some hung in the halls of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services' headquarters, unattributed for decades. Now, a selection of these black and white photos — which stand as an invaluable record of America's rich diversity — have been reimagined with the addition of vibrant color.

Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome colorized several of Sherman's original photos. The colorized versions appear in the book The Paper Time Machine: Coloring the Past — and, along with their black-and-white counterparts, in the gallery above. Brought to life by a successful crowdfunding campaign, the book features 130 colorized historical photos that bring the past to life like never before.

In the case of these Ellis Island portraits, this is a past that many of us are connected to even today, whether we realize it or not. More than one-third of all Americans have an ancestor who passed through Ellis Island.

Between 1892 and 1954, nearly 12 million people passed through in search of freedom and greater opportunity. Behind every one is a story, and together these stories help weave the fabric of our nation.


For another look at those who gave up everything to come to America, see these striking Ellis Island immigration portraits. Then, for more stunning images of history that goes beyond mere black and white, check out these photos of World War 2 in color.

Erin Kelly
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.