May 19th, 2008

Books!

and another ...

This is another of the books that I picked up the other day at that B&N clearance table ... I wish I'd hit one like that again, The Girls and I went to the one down in the Loop on Sunday, part to pick up a book that Daughter #1 needed, and part to see if I could score some more awesome deals ... we ended up getting her what she needed, but I struck out.

Pamela Reeves' Ellis Island: Gateway to the American Dream is another Barnes & Nobel publication, this one being a photo history of the classic entry point for immigrants in the years of massive infusion to the USA from Europe. Most folks here are likely to have had some ancestor who came through Ellis Island (or at least had shipmates who did, the 1st and 2nd class travelers were typically pre-approved for arrival and were ferried off directly into Manhattan). Having had 2-3 forebearers who arrived on the Mayflower, and having relatives who fought on both sides of the Revolution, I'd always assumed that all of "my folks" were here before they started shipping Europeans over in bulk ... but a conversation I had with a cousin turned up that we might have one great-grandmother who came in this way (from Germany), as she'd discovered a photo of said ancestor disembarking.

While the book, obviously, concentrates on the massive influx from 1892 through 1924, when 71% of all immigrants came through the Port of New York, over 14 million in those years, it also looks at immigration in general, and the difficulties (physical and political) of absorbing the influx of so many new citizens. One of the key points of moving the immigration processing out to Ellis Island was to protect the immigrants from the myriads scams awaiting them at the old processing facility down by Battery Park at the south tip of Manhattan. An entire sub-culture had developed which lived off of separating the newly arrived from their worldly goods, be it through fraudulent money changing (the book mentions "brightly polished" pennies that were being passed off for far more valuable coins), grossly over-charged food and lodging (rooms with "fake pictures" that would allow thieves access while guests slept), and "travel brokers" who provided worthless train vouchers. The theory was that by removing the initial processes from the con artists, it would ensure that the immigrants had at least a fair head-start. Unfortunately, it seems to have been a constant battle between politically-connected vendors (who would ratchet up costs), and those who were legitimately trying to make the system work.

Most of the negatives of Ellis Island seem, however, to be simply a case of the inability to scale services to the level that volume demanded. Long (even week-long) waits were not unusual, families got separated, there were dozens of languages being spoken, some without adequate resources for translation, and, generally speaking, a massive clash of cultures. One of the things that would not be possible in today's ultra-PC hyper-sensitive society were the efforts made to "mainline" the arrivals ... with processing clerks changing names from things that sounded "too foreign" to something that would not be out of place anywhere in the US. I'm personally familiar with one of these stories, as my college girlfriend had a grandfather (or great-grandfather, I forget now), who got off the boat as "Batestowski" and left Ellis Island as "Bates"!

Ellis Island: Gateway to the American Dream is, naturally, extensively illustrated with images of immigrant life, the various facilities which preceded Ellis Island, the construction of the famed location (and re-construction after a fire), the various governmental personages involved over time, and the re-development of the site in recent years into a museum ... and, of course, shot after shot of excited, worried, pensive, hopeful, eager, frightened, and otherwise focused immigrants arriving on our shores.

As I noted, I got this from a 75%-off clearance table at a local Barnes & Nobel which suggests that it has just gone out of print. If you can find a similar deal, grab it! This is also available via the Amazon new/used vendors for as little as 1¢ (plus $3.99 shipping) for a "very good" hardcover copy. If you are one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who had an ancestor pass through New York on the way into the States, you might well want to pick up a copy of this to get a sense of what that experience was like.


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