American Ethnic Culture Research Paper

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American Ethnic Culture

What is an American?

It is clear that Progressive era Americans from different backgrounds differentially defined precisely what being an American actually meant. Stephen Meyer wrote in the work entitled "Efforts at Americanization in the Industrial Workplace 1914-1921 that Americanization

"…involved the social and cultural assimilation of immigrants into the mainstream of American life…" but that the process was of the nature that was comprised of "a unique and distinctly American method for the resolution of a key industrial problem -- the problem of work-discipline and of the adjustment of new workers to the factory environment." (p.323)

The Americanization campaign is stated by Meyer to have been one that was "voluntary, benevolent and educational." (p.323) However, the programs emerged from within the factories and had negative connotations as well. It was not so much an issue of the diversity represented by the national or ethnic cultures but as well was represented by the "pre-industrial and industrial cultures, and even class cultures…" (p.323) Americanization is stated by Meyer to have been an important movement for the adjustment of immigrant workers to a new industrial environment" and to the conditions in urban America and conditions of industry. (Meyer, nd, p.323) The work ethic of America was based on the ideal of coming up in the world as a form of reward for the worker's "patience, self-denial, and hard work." (p.324)

Meyer writes that the Ford Americanization program resulted in new methods and techniques of production which are stated to have "drastically diluted the skills necessary for factory operations." (p.324) Furthermore, the complications were compounded by the immigrant's styles that were not American as well as the non-American work-habits and discipline. As well it was the belief of older Americans that the immigrants work habits were inefficient as it was discovered the productivity in the factory under actual conditions was short of the hoped for and desired levels of production. The Ford workforce was dramatically changed by modern mass production.

The work of Gjerde relates the story of Josiah Strong, a Protestant Clergyman who reflects on the 'perils' of immigration and specifically on the influence the immigration had on the morals of American society. Gjerde held immigration to be "demoralizing" on America and states that the roots of a man cannot hold that man upright simply "by the strength of his own roots" in that the branches of a man's roots join with the roots of other men forming society which is inclusive of laws, customs and force of public opinion. (Gjerde, 1998, paraphrased) Gjerde also speaks of the crimes of immigrants stating that the better pay results in "larger means of self-indulgence" and notes that "the hoodlums and roughs of our cities are, most of them, Amerian born of foreign parentage…" (1998)

Gjerde also notes that alcohol is a problem and that immigration "has fed fat the liquor power, and there is a liquor vote." (1998) Furthermore, he notes that immigrants fail to honor Sunday as a day of worship. In addition Gjerde states that the largest part of Mormons are comprised by immigration and that socialism is fed by immigration. The problem according to Gjerde is the fact that many citizens in America are not 'Americanized" and notes the unfortunate nature of the preference of foreigners to their native language and customs and how they carry their nationality "as a distinct factor" into the political sector of America. This results in a "mass of men" who are not accustomed to American institutions and who will act together controlled by "their appetites and prejudices." (Gjerde, 1998, p. 310)

II. The Return of European Immigrants to Their Homeland

The reasons for the return of immigrants from Europe to their homeland during the Progressive era are varied. Following 1880 most immigrants went to the larger industrial cities with urban immigrants being mostly Jewish, Italian, and Slavik tending to "cluster together in neighborhoods along with their fellow countrymen where they could be at east with a familiar language and customs. In 1920 New York workers were stated to be as follows:

Jewish women -- the garment trade

Italian women -- comprised 93% of individuals doing hand embroidery

Slovak males -- 69% of these were coal miners (Mujica, nd)

The work of Mujica (nd) entitled "American Immigration: An Overview" writes that most immigrants to the U.S. had intentions to stay only temporarily desiring to work several years and save enough of their wages to make the return trip to their homeland ultimately improving their family's socioeconomic status. While the largest part of the new immigrants remained permanently in the United States, there were a great number of immigrants that returned to their homeland with departure rates being stated as follows:

Croatians 35%

Poles 35%

Serbs 35%

Slovenes 35%

Greeks 40%

Hungarians, Slovaks and Italians >50%

Asian immigrants > 2/3 (Mujica, nd, p. 1

The entire face of American society changed during the Progressive Era in that the cities were crowded with immigrants and crime rates rapidly rose. Added to this were the factors of illiteracy and unemployment among many immigrants. The rapidly expanding diversity represented in urban America resulted in the formation of local organized crime families all of which frightened American citizens. Not only had immigrants experienced disappointment when comparing their experience to that which they had envisioned as 'America' the immigrants were blamed for the existing evils in society and little welcomed as well.

Not only were immigrant workers taken advantage of in terms of their pay but as well the children immigrants labored long hours alongside the adults in poor work conditions. Health conditions in immigrant neighborhoods were unsanitary as well. The conditions that formed the reality of the American ideal as conceived by immigrants was quite different from the harsh realities of life in America where immigrants were welcome one moment and despised the next.

III. The Transformation of Family Roles for Immigrants

Great were the changes that took place in the roles of family members in immigrant families in the new American urban environment. Some of these changes were positive while others were negative in terms of the impact of the changes in family member roles. The work of Ethan Lewis entitled "The Vitality and Turmoil of Urban Life, 1877-1920" identifies factors that are responsible for the high percentage of nuclear families and the ways in which households expanded and contracted to meet changing circumstances. Specifically stated is that societal changes resulted in a change in the lifestyles of individuals and families. For example the number of older adults in a family increased with life expectancy increases. Furthermore adolescence and childhood are stated to have "become more distinct stages of life…People's roles in school, in the family, on the job, and in the community came to be determined by age more than any other characteristic." (Lewis, 2008, p. 575)

The work entitled: "Family Patterns" relates that in the 1920s the older generation became to live separately from the rest of the family which signaled although quietly a change in the structure of the family. As prosperity increased the result was an extension of childhood in working-class families. While there was a difference among socioeconomic classes it is still true that in all of the classes the children were withdrawn from the labor force and enrolled in schools. The age that children entered the labor force was later than previously and children lived at home longer than they had before. It is reported that all aspects of family life were disrupted by the Second World War which also disrupted the economic aspect of family life "due to separation, death and financial hardship." (Lewis, 2008, p. 576) Men went to war and women went to work and children "were forced to mature more precipitously."(Lewis, 2008, p. 576) Ayers, Gould and Oshinsky (2008) write in the work entitled "American Passages: A History of the United States" that child rearing in the families who were prosperous enough that the children did not have to work "became more organized and systematic." (p. 576) Kindergartens were viewed as the proper preparation of children for beginning school. In addition, women's status experienced a shift during the progressive era with marriage being delayed in lieu of attending college by some young women although some career fields such as law, medicine and higher education was limited in terms of employment of women. Women became employed in mills, factories and garment sweatshops working under harsh conditions. Women became liberated and the institution of marriage experienced change as women desired more than previously of marriage such as "companionship and sexual pleasure." (Ayers, Gould and Oshinsky, 2008, p. 577)

The government instituted programs that promoted family closeness including designation of a national holiday for Mother's Day. Divorce became more common with approximately four out of every one thousand marriages stated to have ended in divorce in 1900 and increasing "faster than the rate of population growth…" with 100,000 divorces in 1914 occurring as compared to the 1900 total of 56,000.…

Sources Used in Document:


Gjerde, J. (1998) Major Problems in American Immigration and Ethnic History, 1998.

Takaki, R. (2008) A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, 2008

Meyer, Stephen (nd) "Efforts at Americanization in the Industrial Workplace, 1914-1921"

Gerstle, Gary (2000) American Freedom, American Coercion: Immigrant Journeys in the Promised Land. Social Compass 47(1), 2000, 63-76. Online available at:, Americancoercion.pdf

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