What Immigrant Life Looked Like In Early 20th Century America

Published September 14, 2016
Updated September 8, 2020

Forty striking historical photographs of what life was like for immigrants after they arrived in America in the 1900s.

Italian Family En Route To Ellis Island
Italian family en route to Ellis Island.

“Sometimes the number of immigrants waiting to be transferred was so great, that they waited for several days and nights before the little ferry boat could bring them to the island.”

Joys And Sorrows At Ellis Island
Joys and Sorrows at Ellis Island, 1905.

“A group of Slavic immigrants register many shades of emotion. The baby salutes his new home — quite a family group.”

Immigrants Detained At Ellis Island Take Time To Be Happy
Immigrants Detained at Ellis Island Take Time to be Happy, 1926.

"In 1905 there was no organized recreation, so the immigrants supplied their own. The sign overhead reads: ‘No charge for meals here’. It is written in six different languages."

Getting Tagged By An Official For A Railroad Trip
Getting Tagged by an Official for a Railroad trip, 1926.

“Families of this size were responsible for keeping German immigration on the top of the list. From 1820 to 1936, 5,996,916 Germans came to America, the largest of all immigrant groups in the country.”

Group Of Italians In The Railroad Waiting Room
Group of Italians in the Railroad Waiting Room, Ellis Island, 1905.

“These are some of the Italians who became of the barbers, waiters, chauffeurs and mayors of America. Some became the artists and sculptors of our national Capitol and of other public buildings.”

Mid Morning Lunch At Ellis Island
Mid-morning lunch at Ellis Island, 1926.

“The attendant brings a milk lunch, a great improvement over former days, when prunes or prune sandwiches, was the chief diet offered.”

Group Of Germans Having Lunch At Ellis Island
Group of Germans having lunch at Ellis Island, 1926.

“Notice the variety of foods on the table; this is a considerable improvement over the earlier days. The room too is less crowded and more comfortable looking.”

A Social Worker At Ellis Island
A Social Worker at Ellis Island, 1926.

“A social worker explains to a group of immigrants some of the technicalities of becoming an American.”

Children On The Playground
Children on the Playground, 1926.

“This enclosure is part of the improved conditions on the island. Here the elders too could play baseball, box or play some of their native games. In the background New York skyline can be seen.”

Italian Child Finds Her First Penny
Italian Child Finds her First Penny, 1926.

“This little girl finds the wonders of Ellis Island and the New World far more fascinating than the first penny clasped in her hand.”

Mother And Child — Italian
Mother and Child — Italian, Ellis Island 1905.

“This beautiful mother and child sit outside the detention cell. Sometimes 1700 immigrants were crowded into a room which was built to accommodate 600.”

Mona Lisa Visits Ellis Island
Mona Lisa Visits Ellis Island, 1905.

“The large window in the background becomes a halo for this Russian family, who might have been a suitable subject for a Renaissance painter.”

Armenian Jew
Armenian Jew, Ellis Island 1926.

“This Armenian Jew probably left his native land to escape the Turkish persecution of the post-war period. His beard is typical of that worn by the orthodox Jews of Europe and the near East.”

Young Russian Jew At Ellis Island
Young Russian Jew at Ellis Island, 1905.

“’Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound; But where is what I started for so long ago — and why it is still unfound.’ – Whitman”

An Albanian Woman From Italy At Ellis Island
An Albanian woman from Italy at Ellis Island, 1905.

“This woman is wearing her native costume. At times the Island looked like a costume ball with the multicolored, many-styled national costumes.”

Finnish Stowaway At Ellis Island
Finnish Stowaway at Ellis Island, 1926.

“The desire to come to America must have been very strong for this young man to face all sorts of uncertainties.”

Jew From Russia At Ellis Island
Jew from Russia at Ellis Island, 1905.

“Jewish immigration from Russia dates back to the 1840s. The Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the Pogroms kept the exodus high. Today there are supposedly 2,000,000 Russian Jews in America.”

Slavic Immigrant At Ellis Island
Slavic Immigrant at Ellis Island, 1905.

“Beds, three tiers high, were still not sufficient to accommodate the 5,000 immigrants who arrived daily. Many, like this young woman, were forced to sleep on benches, chairs, or on the floor.”

Slavic Mother And Child At Ellis Island
Slavic Mother and Child at Ellis Island, 1905.

“The woman in the background carries her baggage in typical peasant fashion. The identification tag on her chest is the first touch of American civilization.”

Slavic Mother
Slavic Mother.

“With all of her possessions on her back, this woman is prepared to face the future. Many of the 2,000,000 Slavs come to America in a similar condition.”

Lithuanian Woman With Colorful Shawl
Lithuanian Woman with Colorful Shawl, 1926.

Labor Agency, Lower West Side
Labor Agency, Lower West Side, 1910.

French Worker
French worker making high-grade tapestries, New York City, 1920.

Italian Worker Barge Canal
Italian worker on New York State Barge Canal, 1912.

Italian Clothing Worker
Italian clothing worker in Rochester, N.Y. factory, 1915.

Italian Craftsman
Italian craftsman working in bronze, New York City, 1930.

Slavic Weaver
A Slavic weaver in a New England textile factory where high grade velvets are made, 1932.

Russian Boarding House
Russian boarding house, Homestead, Pa. 1909.

Italian Street Laborers
Group of Italian street laborers working under Sixth Ave., New York City, 1910.

Greek Wrestling Club
Greek wrestling club at Hull House, Chicago, 1910.

Italian Mother LES
Italian mother, Lower East Side, New York City.

“Carrying clothing to the tenement to be ‘finished’ by family. Many young children have been employed long hours this way when they should have been at play or study.”

Market Day
Market day in Jewish quarter of East Side, New York City, 1912.

Cop Brings Home
Cop brings them home alive, East Side, New York City, 1915.

Fresh Air Baby
Fresh air for the baby, Italian Quarter, New York City, 1910.

Chicago Tenement
Italian family sits for its portrait in Chicago tenement near Hull House, 1910.

Slavic family living in a shack in cannery community in western New York, 1912.

Bedroom of Italian family in a rear tenement of the New York East Side, 1910.

“A happy note in the old tenement life. Child is bathed and underwear is laundered at one time.”

Desperately Ill
Portrait of Slavic family with a father who was desperately ill, Chicago, 1910.

Refugee Music
A young refugee with musical talent receives instruction in Hull House music studio, 1910.

Over the course of 62 years, Ellis Island saw a staggering 12 million people enter the quaint 27.5 acre space. For a good chunk of that time (1906 to 1926), photographer Lewis Hine documented it, as well as what transpired afterward as immigrants eked out new lives — and faced adversity of a different kind — in the United States.

Hine, like other documentary photographers of his time, took photos with a reformist's agenda — specifically to fight the "ignorance and unconcern" that abounded with regard to popular understandings of and sentiment toward immigrants' plight.

Unlike other documentary photographers who focused primarily on conditions, British historian Ian Jeffrey notes that Hine placed more emphasis on the people rather than the conditions, therefore situating Hine's work "on the threshold between social documentation and art."

Hine, who would go on to work for the American Red Cross and the National Child Labor Committee, would over time see himself as more of an artist than a social photographer, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in 1920 he changed studio publicity from "Social Photography by Lewis W. Hine" to "Lewis Wickes Hine, Interpretive Photography."

In the photos above, you can see Hine chronicle the hope, opportunity and fear immigrants felt as they arrived in the U.S. and adapted to their new home.

Next, see portraits of immigrants at Ellis Island. Then, discover what life was like inside New York's tenements.

All That's Interesting
A New York-based publisher established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science to share stories that illuminate our world.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.