29 Historical Photos Of The Immigrant Laborers Who Helped Build America

Published January 19, 2018
Updated September 3, 2020

Could America have risen to unparalleled heights of wealth and power in the 20th century if not for the efforts of these hard-working immigrants?

New York Barge Worker
Immigrant worker on New York State Barge Canal. 1912.New York Public Library

Cotton Picker Oklahoma
An 11-year-old cotton picker in Oklahoma. 1916.Library of Congress

Italian Steelworkers
Italian steel workers. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

French Girl In Cotton Mill
Adrienne Pagnette, a French immigrant teen at work in the cotton mill in Winchendon, Mass. Circa 1911.Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Polish Steel Worker
A young Polish steel worker. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Polish Doffer
A Polish boy, Willie, one of the young spinners in the Quidwick Co. Mill, takes his noon rest in a doffer box. Anthony, R.I. 1909.The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Japanese American Woman
Japanese-American mother and daughter, agricultural workers near Guadalupe, Calif. 1937.Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Black Lumbermen
Lumbermen in Georgia. Date unspecified.New York Public Library

Oyster Shucker
A seven-year-old oyster shucker who speaks no English works at the Lowden Canning Company in Bluffton, S.C. 1913.Library of Congress

Tenement Gleaner
A tenement worker in New York City. Date unspecified.New York Public Library

German Steelworker
A German steel worker. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Syrians At Massachusetts Farm
Syrian children work at Maple Park Bog, Mass. 1911.Library of Congress

Italian Factory Worker
A 14-year-old Italian girl works in a paper-box factory. Location unspecified. 1913.Wikimedia Commons

Polish Miner
A Polish coal miner in Capels, W.Va. 1938.Wikimedia Commons

English Steel Worker
A steel worker from England. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Jewish Garter Makers
A Jewish family and neighbors work into the night making garters. New York. 1912.The U.S. National Archives/Flickr

Banana Vendors
Italian immigrants work as banana importers and distributors. Location unspecified. Circa 1900.Library of Congress

Doffers Spinners
Young workers in the Seaconnet Mill in Fall River, Mass. None of these boys could write their own names or speak English. 1912.Library of Congress

Russian Group
A group of Russian laborers. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Finnish Workers
Laborers from Finland. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Japanese Loggers
Japanese loggers. Location and date unspecified.New York Public Library

Portuguese Mill Girls
Two Portuguese girls work at the Royal Mill in River Point, R.I. They'd been in the mill three years and did not speak English. 1909.Library of Congress

Hungarian Beet Farmers
The Kastvan family, Hungarian beet workers near Corunna, Mich. 1917.Library of Congress

Italian Culvert Diggers
Immigrant laborers dig a culvert during construction on the New Troy, Rensselaer & Pittsfield Electric Railway, through the Lebanon Valley, N.Y. Circa 1900. Michael Maslan/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Mexican Weed Cutters
Mexican immigrants work with sickles to cut weeds along the side of a road outside of Chicago. 1917.Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

New York Sweatshop
Immigrant men and a boy work in a New York sweatshop. 1910. Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Spinning Room Boys
Non-English-speaking boys from the spinning room in the Lawrence Mill in Lowell, Mass. 1911.Library of Congress

Young Sweepers
Sweepers at Hill and Bates Mills in Lewiston, Maine. Only one or two could speak English. 1909. Library of Congress

Stanislaus Beauvais
An immigrant boy named Stanislaus Beauvais at work in Salem, Mass. 1911.Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island looking for freedom, prosperity, and a better life in America.

While some of these new citizens brought trade skills with them, others did not. But what they lacked in professional skill, they more than made up for in sweat and hard work. And together, these new American people, along with the old, pulled the country through an agricultural and industrial revolution that helped make the United States what it is today.

Between 1860 and 1910, the number of farms in the U.S., for example, went from 2 million to 6 million.

Without the labor provided by immigrants, this likely wouldn't have been sustainable growth. Industry, as well — mining, steelwork, and factories — benefitted tremendously from the labor of immigrants, who worked these jobs to provide for their families in a way that was likely impossible in their homelands.

Still, the pay, hours, and general working conditions were often abysmal by today's standards. And, often, every member of the family — even the children — needed to help bear the financial burden.

But if it weren't for these workers, America wouldn't be the productive and prosperous nation it is today. In the words of HuffPost, "Immigrants make America great, because immigrants made America."


Next, check out these stunning portraits of Ellis Island immigrants and view these Lewis Hine child labor photos that changed America.

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.