For Which Reason Did Most Early 20th Century Immigrants to the United States Settle in Large Cities?

Large cities provided economic resources for immigrants.
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Immigrants to the United States during the early part of the 20th century typically lived in large cities because cities had the most job opportunities for displaced people who needed immediate income. After leaving everything behind in their homelands and traveling long distances to reach the United States, many immigrants were willing to accept low wages in factories and industrial plants to avoid starvation. Laborers who didn’t know the language, had minimal work skills and didn’t have the money to travel to smaller communities often settled in thriving big cities along the east coast.

1 Machine Age

As Europeans tried to recover after World War I, the United States experienced an economic boom. Factories began producing mass consumer goods and businesses expanded their trades, changing the landscape of America forever. Rural life and farming were no longer the norm for many Americans. Large cities, especially in the Northeast, became hot spots for business and commerce. As a result, early 20th century immigrants settled in areas that had the most job opportunities. The Machine Age depended on workers and immigrants provided a cheap labor source.

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2 Unskilled Workers

The second wave of immigration to the United States, after the initial influx during the late 1800s, included larger numbers of poor, unskilled workers. Many came from China, Italy, Greece, Poland and Russia to pursue freedom and economic opportunities that democratic, capitalist nations, such as the United States, promised. Most immigrants didn’t know English and had little education, so jobs at factories and industrial plants were best bets. Factory owners typically only required job applicants to have a very basic understanding of the English language and low-level job skills were acceptable. Labor was in high demand in large cities, especially along the coast, where the exportation of factory goods was most prevalent.

3 Native Communities

Large cities were melting pots of many ethnicities and supported diverse cultural backgrounds. Many immigrants weren’t forced to learn the English language, intermix with other nationalities or assimilate to American culture. Industrial cities were big enough that immigrants could find pockets of people from their homeland and create their own subcultures. For example, the Jewish people, the Irish and the Chinese had their own smaller communities within the larger cities. Immigrants might work at factories in a diverse labor force, but go home to smaller communities that consisted of the same cultures and ethnicities.

4 Class Structure

Immigrants often settled in large, urban cities out of necessity. They were part of the poor, lower class, and their wages were barely enough to provide for basic necessities, such as food, clothing and housing. Most didn’t have the monetary savings to leave the city and pursue small business ownership in rural communities as trade merchants or farmers. Most settled in large cities because they didn’t have a choice. Even if they wanted to move out of the poor city slums, they didn’t have the opportunity or financial resources to do so.

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.