Urbanized America


Eviction (Lower East Side), 1904, Everett Shinn

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Tanagra (The Builders, New York), 1918, Childe Hassam

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The early years of the twentieth-century saw a significant increase in economic inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the poorest. While the rich continued to bathe in their unregulated, post-industrial age economic success, the poor, largely represented by the overwhelming influx of new immigrants, remained trapped in an unrelenting cycle of poverty and adversity. Many struggled to find prosperity and acceptance in a country where some American citizens harbored foreign resentment and racism. Emblematic of the hardships they encountered is artist Everett Shinn’s chaotic scene of Lower East Side Jewish immigrants being evicted from their homes. This scene in downtown New York City is starkly contrasted with artist Childe Hassam’s romanticized view of an ethereal woman in her uptown home surrounded by beautiful objects likely acquired through European travel. She represents the prosperous post-industrial age, where wealthy patrons demonstrated their cultural sophistication through the acquisition and display of exotic, priceless objects in their homes.

The expanding urban population precipitated the introduction of new building materials in the development of high-rise buildings and tenements, revolutionizing urban living. Technological innovations like the electrified elevator and the Bessemer steel process replaced older building techniques and enabled the construction of high-rise buildings, the new symbols of American progress. However, overcrowding of the evolving urban landscape also gave rise to problems such as poverty, disease, and lawlessness. These issues ultimately led to crucial social reform and legislation, known collectively as Progressivism.

Activity: Observe and Interpret

Tanagra, The Builders, New York

Artists make choices in communicating ideas.  What can we learn from this painting about life in the rapidly changing city at the turn of the 20th century?  What clues does Child Hassam give the viewer?  Observing details and analyzing components of the painting, then putting them in historical context, enables the viewer to interpret the overall message of the work of art.

Observation: What do you see?

Tanagra_DetailA woman with pale ivory skin wears a delicate, flowing gown and calmly stands in a richly decorated interior.  The same colors, textured brushstroke, and pattern used to portray the woman and her dress are repeated throughout the room, closely connecting her with her surroundings.  She is in no rush as she languidly grazes her hand across the finely polished table. Rather than gaze out the window at the progress rising in the streets, she casts her gaze inward, lost in thought.

What is she holding?

The woman holds a Tanagra figurine, an ancient Greek statuette of a fashionable woman.  These small terracotta figures, which were excavated in great numbers from sites in Greece during the late 19th century, were used as decoration in wealthy homes around the turn of the century.  They relate ideas of femininity and female culture in ancient times.

What’s going on outside the window?

Looking outside the window, we see the growth of Manhattan.  Tall buildings reach several stories high. while in the foreground, workers on a scaffolding construct a new building.

Interpretation: What does it mean?

The artist created two contrasting worlds:  an ordered interior and a rapidly changing exterior cityscape.  The woman in the painting is a contemporary version of the decorative statue she holds.  Appropriately for a wealthy woman in her day and age, she is not at work.  Instead she appears idle and a thing of beauty; her home, an extension of herself.   Outside the window, the beauty and comfort of the interior gives way to industry.  In 1918 the United States was changing rapidly:  cities were growing, skyscrapers were rising, and urban populations were increasing. Women were beginning to work outside the home; and the country faced fighting in Europe as it neared the end of World War I.  The same immigrants who flooded the cities and provided the cheap labor that fueled American industry were sometimes feared by established Americans.  What changes would these new immigrants, some very different in their manner, class, and wealth, bring to the cultivated way of life of the moneyed upper-class?  How would the changing roles of women impact the woman depicted in Hassam’s scene?  Will her beauty and her way of life, like the cut roses on the table, soon wilt and fade?

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Artists make choices in communicating ideas. Contemporary newspapers reveal that in 1904, the year Shinn created this work, Eviction (Lower East Side), there was a fierce rent war between tenement landlords and renters in the Lower East Side of New York City. Meetings and parades were held and many cases were contested in court. What is an eviction? How can you tell it is taking place here?  What do you see in the painting that makes you think the artist depicted the scene objectively or sympathetically?

Observation: What do you see?

Eviction_Cop cropWhat different groups of people do you see? Describe them.

The central group of figures sits amongst bags and furnishings along the curb.  Take a look at their clothing, posture, and expressions. What do you think they are feeling? Behind them we see movers haul a rug and heavy trunk. Do you think they are moving these objects up or down the stairs? Onlookers watch the scene from the background of the artwork; one man stands out among this group, standing rigidly with his hands clasped behind his back. What can you tell about him from his posture and dress?

What is the setting? What clues in the picture tell you about the time and place of this scene?

Eviction_Group cropThis city street is crowded with buildings, filled with onlookers, high staircases, and lights glowing in some of the windows. It gives us the impression that this is an urban dwelling, with many people living in close proximity to one another. The glowing lights in the windows give the impression that this scene takes place in the evening or at dawn, when lighting would necessary.

What colors do you see? 

The artist painted this work in gouache – a paint that is similar to an opaque watercolor. This allowed him to create ghostly white highlights over the dark, muted gray, brick, and muddied colors of the dark street. How does this artistic technique effect the mood the artist is trying to portray?

Interpretation: What does it mean?

What does this scene tell us about tenement life?

Tenements were laid out in a way that should have been humane, but in practice wasn’t – there were only narrow shafts for light and for air to circulate. The apartments within them were laid out for four families to live in tight quarters per floor, but often as many as 16 families would live there. Family members, including children, would also often work there doing what was called “home work” – shelling nuts, cutting and sewing clothing etc.  This practice was outlawed in 1901, but many such arrangements remained.

What did this scene mean to the artist? 

In Everett Shinn’s typescript “I Remember New York,” he recalled the subject matter for Eviction, “I had talked to this old man. He had been a musician in Austria, having migrated to this country as a youth for he waited for recognition until his beard became a mattress for his weary head. . . . Living, only in his exaulted [sic] dream that brought his family and himself among the curb glutted pile of his possessions.” Shinn added a hand written note to his typed description of Eviction, “The Eviction on Hester Street: This, I saw and felt. I was then two months in arrears with my own rent. I saw the cop as he might be serving me, sunk in a clutter of canvases waiting to be flushed along to the city dump.”

Historical Background

Immigration in the Early 20th Century

The Steerage; 1907, printed 1915; Alfred Stieglitz; photogravure; Smithsonian American Art Museum

At the time Everett Shinn created Eviction (Lower East Side) in 1904 the United States had undergone decades of accelerating immigration. Unprecedented numbers of immigrants flocked to our shores, dreaming of a life of freedom and prosperity. Between 1820 and 1920, approximately 34 million immigrants came to this country, and New York City was by the far the most popular destination. By 1910, immigrants and their American-born children accounted for more than 70 percent New York City’s population. As steamships sailed to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty greeted them, her inscription calling out, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Immigrants flocking to this country saw Lady Liberty as a symbol of a new life, a new beginning.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Like most immigrants that came before them, early 20th century immigrants came to better their lives. In Europe, many left their homelands in search of economic prosperity and religious freedom. Living conditions in Europe were degraded, as poverty and an exploding European population led to food shortages. One immigrant would later state that, “Hunger brought me . . . here [and] hunger is the cause of European immigration to this country.” Religious persecution of Eastern European Jews became significantly more pronounced after 1881, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in that same year. Government sponsored pogroms were organized and laws were passed that severely restricted Jewish residency, along with educational and occupational mobility. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 (the same year Eviction was created) forced many Jews to leave Europe to avoid conscription into the army. New York’s Evening Post wrote in 1905 that, “Russia, while denying her Jewish subjects all civil rights, does not object to sending them to Manchuria [Northeast China] to stop Japanese bullets.” These many reasons propelled Jewish people to seek refuge in a new country. In 1906 alone, nearly 150,000 Jewish immigrants came to America from Russia. Nearly 7 in 10 Jewish immigrants settled in New York’s Lower East Side. Advances in steam engine technology allowed ships to travel faster to America, carrying greater numbers of people than ever before.

Everett Shinn’s Eviction and Childe Hassam’s Tanagra provide us with two different views of the changing face of New York in the early twentieth century. Everett Shinn was part of the ground-breaking Ashcan School of art, a group of eight artists that sought subjects in the everyday, common-place and even ugly aspects of daily life. Everett Shinn’s images of tenement life on the Lower East Side provided some of the most compelling depictions of the struggles faced by immigrant communities. On the other side of the artistic and social spectrum, Childe Hassam’s genteel views of uptown city life rarely showed the city in a negative manner. Even bustling crowds were made to look as elegant as possible through his Impressionist style. Hassam, more established in New York’s art world and seventeen years older than Shinn, disregarded the plight of the immigrants living in squalor downtown and instead focused on the beauty of the civilized and enlightened world found uptown where, not coincidentally, he found his patrons.

The artists themselves explained their compositions, providing us with insight into the artworks. Writing in a hand written note, Shinn confirmed that the individuals depicted in Eviction were Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. The artist recalled, “The Eviction on Hester Street: This, I saw and felt. I was then two months in arrears with my own rent. I saw the cop as he might be serving me, sunk in a clutter of canvases waiting to be flushed along to the city dump.” Hassam described his composition in an interview stating that, “Tanagra – the blond Aryan girl [is] intended to typify and symbolize growth – the growth of a great city.” Additionally, the construction of the high-rise building seen through the apartment window in Tanagra serves to personify the growth and greatness of America. By including representative objects of bygone great civilizations, including the Asian screen, the Chinese lilies perched on the windowsill and the Greek Hellenistic Tanagra figurine held by the woman, Hassam has effectively positioned the United States as the cultural successor to these exalted ancient civilizations.

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Technological Innovations

Chrysler Building (Chrysler Building in Construction)_Howard Cook

Chrysler Building (Chrysler Building in Construction), 1930, Howard Cook, wood engraving on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The rapid growth of the urban population caused by the arrival of immigrants necessitated new advances in technology. Resulting from land shortage and technological breakthroughs, the high-rise building was one of the most significant engineering developments at the time. The introduction of steel in construction and the use of electric elevators made high-rise buildings feasible. These innovations sought to alleviate the dense urban landscape by creating more space for people to live and work.

In 1896 artist Childe Hassam proclaimed that “New York is the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. All life is in it . . . No street, no section of Paris or any other city I have seen equal to New York.” When he returned to New York City in 1910 after a stay in Europe, the city had changed dramatically. Previously, the New York City skyline consisted mainly of church spires and the towers of public buildings. But with the dawn of the skyscraper, the skyline took on a drastically modern appearance. Gone was the picturesque city made of brick and timber, its streets filled with horse drawn carriages. In its place was a metropolis laden with soaring steel towers and streets teeming with noisy streetcars and crowds of new immigrants.

Before the high rise, buildings in New York City were made of iron, timber or brick. Due to the weight of these materials, buildings could only reach up to ten stories in height. As the city’s population steadily increased and these older buildings became less efficient. More people needed more space to live and work, having reached the outer limits of Manhattan Island, there was no land available for construction and expansion. Consequently engineers were tasked with constructing buildings upward, freeing up infinite space. This was achieved by replacing the older, heavier construction materials with steel, a lighter and stronger material.

The modern era of steelmaking began in the mid-nineteenth century with the Bessemer process. Named for its inventor, Englishman Henry Bessemer, the process turned iron into large, inexpensive quantities of steel. By 1910, the United States became the leading producer of steel in the world, producing 24 million tons annually. Scottish immigrant and American steel magnate Andrew Carnegie revolutionized the American steel industry by capitalizing on Bessemer’s cheap and efficient process. Carnegie realized that steel, a cheaper and stronger material, would eventually replace iron as the preferred material not only for skyscrapers but also for bridges and railroads.

Along with a structural steel beam framework, the use of plate glass windows and lighter masonry walls enabled architects and engineers to build structures that towered over anything that had been built before. The first building in New York to use these construction materials was the Woolworth Building. Completed in 1913, the building soared to an impressive 760 feet in height, or 55 stories. For a short time it was the tallest building in the world until surpassed by the Chrysler Building, constructed in 1929, and the Empire State Building, built in 1931.

Tall buildings expanded the physical space in New York City, but they were useless unless people and goods could be transported from top to bottom. The introduction of the electric elevator to high-rise construction was essential as buildings over six stories would have been virtually unusable without them. Mechanical elevators had been in use for centuries but with the addition of electricity, people and goods could move from floor to floor with ease and speed. Further modern technologies like electric light, modern plumbing and heating, and the telephone all made high-rise buildings habitable.

American Impressionists like Hassam avoided depicting these new innovations in their artworks. Hassam viewed the skyscraper as “a wildly formed architectural freak,” and not a “marvel of art.” Some contemporary literary figures, like British-American writer Henry James, remarked in 1907 that New York City’s, “multitudinous skyscrapers” resembled “extravagant pins in a cushion already overplanted.” The more progressive looking the building, the less appealing it was to Hassam. He preferred suggestions of skyscrapers, as seen through the window in Tanagra, as evidence of the city’s evolving modern character.

Hassam associated the constant construction of skyscrapers with the wave of immigrants permeating the city that he idealized in his artwork. His concentration on the more refined views of New York City was not accidental. He specifically depicted genteel, cheerful scenes of the city to please his affluent clientele, all the while ignoring the presence of the heterogeneous immigrant population.

Traditionalists like Hassam viewed high-rises as ugly, representative of an ever-expanding heterogeneous immigrant population. Yet proponents like photographer Alfred Stieglitz extolled them as symbols of American spirit and power, divergent from European culture. Indeed, prior to the twentieth-century the graphic representation of America’s progress and expansion had been visualized as a horizontal line, epitomized by wagon trains and railroads that plunged westward. With the West settled in the previous century, artists reoriented the line of progress vertically, positioning skyscrapers as the new emblems of American expansion and progress.

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Tenement Life

1974.28.302 002

Tenement (mural study, Depart. Of Justice Building, Washington, D.C.) 1935, George Biddle, tempera on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Jewish immigrants that flocked to New York City’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century were greeted with appalling living conditions. The mass influx of primarily European immigrants spawned the construction of cheaply made, densely packed housing structures called tenements. They were built on lots that measured 25 feet by 100 feet. Noted New York architect Ernest Flagg (1857-1947) believed that, “The greatest evil which ever befell New York City was the division of the blocks into lots of 25 x 100 feet . . . for from this division has arisen the New York system of tenement-houses, the worst curse which ever afflicted any great community.”

Four to six stories in height, tenements contained four separate apartments on each floor, measuring 300 to 400 square feet. Apartments contained just three rooms; a windowless bedroom, a kitchen and a front room with windows. A contemporary magazine described tenements as, “great prison-like structures of brick, with narrow doors and windows, cramped passages and steep rickety stairs. . . . In case of fire they would be prefect death-traps, for it would be impossible for the occupants of the crowded rooms to escape by the narrow stairways.” Tenement buildings had adjoining walls so interior rooms could not receive natural light or ventilation. Expensive modern conveniences like indoor plumbing and elevators were not included in the cheaply built tenements. Hallway lighting was rare, forcing tenants to climb up flights of stairs in the dark, or climb down in the dark to reach the outdoor toilets located in the back of the lot.

The deteriorating conditions of the apartments were described in 1902 by newly arrived immigrant Emma Beckerman: “The furnishings were worn and shabby. Four rickety chairs, a scarred wooden table, a leaky icebox, and a rusty coal stove greeted us. The bedroom contained a sagging double bed and a broken-down bureau.” The space was so small that people slept on whatever they could find – rugs and even orange crates doubled as beds. During the hot summer months, the fire escapes that clung to the fronts of the buildings were used a place to sleep. Additionally, the Tenement House Department reported in 1903 that, “often at night, when the small rooms opening upon the air shaft are so close and ill-ventilated that sleep is impossible, mattresses are dragged upon the floor of the parlor and there the family sleeps altogether in one room. In summer the small bedrooms are so hot and stifling that a large part of the tenement house population sleep on the roofs, sidewalk and fire escapes.”

To make matters worse, tenements were severely overcrowded. At the turn of the century the Lower East Side, populated mostly by Eastern European Jews, reached density levels of 350,000 people per square mile. In other words by 1900, approximately 43,000 New York City tenement buildings housed 1.6 million of the city’s total 2 million person population. The Jewish population alone was 700,000 in 1905. Several factors contributed to the accumulation of Jews in the Lower East Side. Residing in an ethnic enclave was vital because of close access to other European Jews. Immigrants that did not speak English felt comfortable settling close to others that spoke the same language, had the same customs and practiced the same religion. The garment industry, which provided a majority of Jews with jobs, was within walking distance to their homes on the Lower East Side. There was little opportunity for them to venture out of the Lower East Side.

In 1879 a new law imposed requirements for tenements. The Tenement Reform Law of 1879 enacted minimum requirements for light and air. As a result of this law “dumbbell” tenements were constructed, so-called because of the shape of their perimeter. The dumbbell shape allowed for air shafts between tenements. Unfortunately the 1879 law did not alleviate the overcrowding and filthy conditions of the tenements as many of the older style of tenements were still in use. Additionally, the air shafts that had been installed to provide ventilation were often used to dump refuse.

The streets of the Lower East Side were filthy, filled with sewage and droppings from transport horses that was regularly dumped on the sides of the streets.  The New York Times wrote of the conditions, “It is in the downtown East Side district that this present offense to the eye and prospective stench to the nostrils exist to an extent that warrants alarm. Hester Street, Forsyth Street, Stanton Street, Essex Street, and other streets in the neighborhood which is largely populated by Russian and Polish Jews, Bohemians, Slavs, etc., the most unclean population which the city has, are really in a terrible condition. Every pile of snow is garnished with rubbish and decaying matter, and even the sidewalks are not clear of it.”

The Tenement House Act of 1901 hoped to improve conditions for tenement tenants. The law required the removal of outhouses and the installation of indoor plumbing and lighting. These improvements proved costly, and many landlords resisted making the necessary changes. To offset the cost, landlords increased the rent of their tenements. For those who could not meet their rent, they were swiftly evicted from their homes, their belongings unceremoniously dumped onto the sidewalks. This led to “rent wars” between landlords and tenants who protested the increase in rent.

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Immigrant Evictions

Evictions in the Lower East Side were rampant in the beginning of the twentieth century. Fierce rent wars waged between tenants and landlords, who kept increasing the prices of rent. Most immigrants were poor and worked menial labor jobs to support their family, usually in the garment industry on the Lower East Side. With rent averaging between 10 and 20 dollars per month and wages as little as 50 cents per day, many immigrants could not make the rent payments and still afford to put food on the table. Additionally, many immigrants were trying to save money to send to loved ones back home in Europe or to purchase steamship tickets for them to travel to America.

It was common to provide renters with two weeks’ free rent, which for many poor families meant moving regularly. A Jewish immigrant, Samuel Green, reported that as a child when coming home from school, “I could never be sure if we’d still be living at the same address.” Immigrant Martha Dolinko echoed Green’s sentiment recalling, “I used to come home from school or work, sometimes I didn’t know where we lived. The neighbors had to tell me.”

The Tenement House Act of 1901 required landlords to upgrade their tenements to include lighted hallways and indoor plumbing. These changes proved costly, so to compensate, tenants’ rent was increased. Landlords and tenement builders alike were particularly merciless in their approach to tenants. They sought to maximize their profit at the expense of the welfare of the tenants. Builders constructed tenements cheaply on densely packed on plots of land, while many landlords insisted on collecting rent in advance, with failure to do so resulting in eviction. Perhaps what made the situation even more shameless was that many landlords were older immigrants preying on the newer immigrants.

Many Evictions_NYTimes Headline

New York Times, 1904 Apr 05

Newspapers of the day were packed full of eviction stories. The New York Times headline of April 5, 1904 read, “Many evictions on East Side Threatened.” The article states that, “Nearly 800 evictions are impending on the east side because of the advance in rents.” The following day, the New York Times headline read “Two Thousand Warrants for East Side Tenants.” The article states, “It required no extraordinary power of perception to see that the indignation aroused by the evictions following the wholesale raising of rents on the lower east side of this city yesterday was at a high pitch. The City Marshalls were busy all day serving dispossess papers, and they say that never in their career have they been called on to undertake so stupendous a task as at present.” Again on the next day, April 7, the New York Times ran an article that illustrated the magnitude of the evictions affirming, “Last year there were over 60,000 evictions in this city and you may judge for yourselves how many evictions there will be during the coming twelve months.”

Everett Shinn was responding to these rent wars and immigrant life when he created Eviction in that same year in 1904. The artist empathized with the evicted immigrants he observed on the Lower East Side, writing in the accompanying note to this drawing, “The Eviction on Hester Street: This, I saw and felt. I was then two months in arrears with my own rent. I saw the cop as he might be serving me, sunk in a clutter of canvases waiting to be flushed along to the city dump.” Shinn had planned to publish a book of these drawings illustrating the plight of the immigrant poor on the Lower East Side, but the publication never came to fruition.

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New York City through the Eyes of Its Artists


Tanagra (The Builders, New York), (detail), 1918, Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In the nineteenth century, American Impressionist artist Childe Hassam described New York City as “the most wonderful and most beautiful city in the world. All life is in it . . . No street, no section of Paris or any other city I have seen equal to New York.” His artwork was inspired by parks, pristine residential districts and genteel strolling pedestrians. Yet the dawn of the twentieth century would bring a deluge of European immigrants to the shores of New York City and a plethora of rapidly advancing technology, creating a new modern metropolis unlike anything that had been seen before. Gone was the picturesque city of the nineteenth century Hassam adored; a city made of brick and timber, its streets filled with horse drawn carriages. These remnants of a by-gone century had been replaced with soaring towers of glass and steel, streets teeming with noisy streetcars, electrified subways and elevated railroads, motor buses and electric streetlights. Advances in technology had revolutionized the look and feel of the city. The skyscraper towered above it all, its verticality an emblem for urban innovation.

For Hassam, a stalwart proponent of the picturesque nineteenth century New York, these new tall buildings were, “wildly formed architectural freak[s]” and not “marvel[s] of art.” The more progressive looking the building, the less appealing it was for Hassam to represent it in his artwork. When he did include modern buildings in his artwork, they were often anonymous and generic, blending in with the older buildings he favored. Hassam’s preference for unspecified skyscrapers coupled with the older brick and timber buildings suggests a wish to cling to bygone days, desirous to slow the pace of the city’s rapid modernization.

Other artists working in New York City at the time, such as American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, viewed the skyscrapers as symbolic of the progression of American civilization; patriotic symbols which could rival the great castles of Europe. Hassam seems to have reconciled these advances by associating American progress with the continuation of traditional and classical ideals into the modern twentieth century world.  Every element in Tanagra, from the objects in the room to the woman’s classically inspired clothing, is evocative of embodiments of classical civilizations and can be equated to the modern American skyscraper seen through the window. Great bygone civilizations are evoked through the Greek Tanagra figurine, the Chinese lilies on the windowsill, and the golden Oriental screen.

Hassam’s depictions of urban America illustrated a city that was refined and elite, while purposely minimizing workaday figures such as street sweepers and cab drivers. Hassam was class-aware, so when these types of people were included in his artwork they were shown as service employees who, while lower class, were essential to his view of society that was sharply divided along class lines. Art critic Eliot Clark remarked that Hassam did not “indulge in the sentimental aspect of squalor, or look with sympathetic gaze upon the picturesque life of the humble.” Hassam’s paintings ignored the problems caused by mass immigration and urban poverty.

1992.91_1a Cumulus Clouds, East River

Cumulus Clouds, East River, 1901-02, Robert Henri, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

There were, however, artists that chose to depict the more unpleasant, yet all-too-real views of city life and the class of people who occupied it. This younger generation of progressive American artists became dissatisfied with the work produced by the American Impressionists and the art extolled by the National Academy of Visual Arts, which they viewed as idealized and removed. These radical young artists preferred to depict the reality of urban life; particularly the less than ideal lives led by the majority of urban inhabitants – the impoverished immigrants. These artists believed that art was not to be idealized and set upon a pedestal, solely reserved for the consumption of the elite. This new generation painted for and about the common man. Their gritty works depicted the harsh reality of life in Lower Manhattan; the tenement slums, the refuse filled streets, the shoeless children, the dock workers (see Cumulus Clouds above). Their radical, unvarnished views of city life challenged the accepted vision of the city as beautiful and genteel. These artists would become known by their collective name, the Ashcan School.

The Ashcan School’s approach to painting challenged the conventions of American art. Artists like Childe Hassam devoted their canvases to the depiction of the refined features of urban living, more specifically the lives of the Anglo-Saxon middle and upper-classes. These artists equated beauty with sophistication and civilization, whereas the Ashcan School artists found a certain beauty in the everyday lives of the downtown poor. Their interest lay in the energy and drama produced by the bustling crowds, shouting push cart peddlers, and hurried newspaper boys – scenes that on that canvas portrayed a churning whirlwind of human activity. A reviewer of Shinn’s artwork wrote that, “Beauty rarely tempts Mr. Shinn’s fancy. . . . He is distinctly of the world. Humanity, yes, even sordid humanity, interests him. Reality, not romance or poetry, appeals to him. . . . Lovers of the merely “pretty” will find little in common with Mr. Shinn; students of modern life, its workaday people, the bustle and movement of its streets, will find in his pictures an endless fund of interest.”

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Immigrant Discrimination

As more and more immigrants poured onto American shores, a rising wave of discrimination against the immigrants began to arise. Immigrants were blamed for contributing to the socio-economic problems that were common in industrialized societies such as poverty, crime, labor unrest, and overcrowding. Congested tenement buildings, in which the majority of immigrants resided, were seen to foster violence and disease, and further burdening social programs, charities and police forces who tried to maintain order. This strong xenophobic reaction was primarily fostered by a select group of Americans known as “nativists.” They strove to maintain the nation’s character and believed that the mass arrival of Irish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and Jewish immigrants would pollute this character. In their assessment of the multitudes of immigrants flooding American shores, nativists saw only a deluge of poor, uneducated, religiously and linguistically dissimilar people who would never be able to assimilate and who would destroy American culture with their foreign lifestyle.

“To the cry of Mr. Riis, ‘Abolish the tenements!’ there may be suggested an alternative. Why not abolish the tenants?”

Immigrants were also accused of causing a variety of economic problems, chief among them the seizure of jobs previously held by American citizens. Immigrants became a prime source of cheap unskilled labor and were consequently favored by employers. It was also argued that immigrants resisted American assimilation, with claims that “the mother tongue is preserved, the English language is ignored, the institutions of the home country are revered, and American habits are despised.” Growing opposition to immigrant entry was voiced in social commentary publications of the day. One author, John C. Van Dyke, wrote in 1909: “To the cry of Mr. [Jacob] Riis, ‘Abolish the tenements!’ there may be suggested an alternative. Why not abolish the tenants?”

Artist Childe Hassam leaned toward nativist beliefs, a fact that can be seen through his compositions. Initially purely proud of his Anglo-Saxon heritage, Hassam’s bias morphed into nativism with age. He believed in the ethnic purity of Anglo-Saxon America espoused by the nativist groups and his propensity to only feature middle and upper-class subjects is illustrative of these sentiments towards the evolving industrialization of the city, and consequently, the immigrant population. Scenes of industrialization were equated with a more heterogeneous urban population which included a large amount of so-called undesirables. Hassam was a man much aligned with tradition, favoring the old style of Impressionist painting and abhorring the new style advocated by the Ashcan School. His adherence to the older style of painting and to genteel subjects was also of matter of great economic importance matter to the artist. Hassam was keenly aware that his views of the city in their most attractive form resonated with his upper-class patrons. The cheerless images of immigrant ethnic enclaves depicted by his Ashcan School contemporaries such as Everett Shinn were less likely to attract sales. As such, Hassam’s work always seems to suggest to its viewers that despite the rapid industrial growth, a heavy influx of immigration and all-over modernization, New York remained a civilized, charmingly picturesque city.

One prominent proponent of immigration restriction was Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a founder of the Boston-based Immigration Restriction League. He and the League maintained that America’s open-door policy admitted “races most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes among these races.” Legislation supported by the League advocated for literacy tests for all incoming immigrants, in addition to severely restricting entry and levying higher head taxes so as to discourage immigration. This first bill, which was passed by Congress, was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland in 1897. In defending his veto, Cleveland stated:

I cannot believe that we would be protected against these evils by limiting immigration to those who can read and write in any language twenty-five words of our Constitution. In my opinion it is infinitely more safe to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who, though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and opportunity to work, than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies of governmental control, who can not only read and write but delights in arousing by inflammatory speech the illiterate and peacefully inclined to discontent and tumult. Violence and disorder do not originate with illiterate laborers.

Literacy tests were vetoed again in 1913 by President William Howard Taft.  The president explained his veto stating, “It was a visit through the [lower] east side [of Manhattan] that led me to veto the Immigration Bill containing the literacy test when it finally came to me. I saw among the young men and girls of the east side a spirit of appreciation, a gratitude, a patriotism that wouldn’t hurt some of those whose fathers and great-grandfathers were born in this country.”

A further bill to institute a literacy test was vetoed in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. The president declared that the bill, “seeks to all but close entirely the gates of asylum which have always been open to those who could find nowhere else . . . and it excludes those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied, without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity.” However, Wilson’s veto was subsequently overturned by Congress by a two-thirds majority the following year and the first literacy test was officially made into law as part of the Immigration Act of 1917. The passage of the law directly related to the increase in xenophobia Americans succumbed to as the country formally declared war on Germany and entered World War I that same year. Those that were largely suspected of disloyalty were German immigrants and even German-American citizens.

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Progressivism and Reform

As the country continued its progression from a rural society to an urban society in a period of immense population growth and industrialization, many were concerned with the social and economic effects of this change, especially in the cities. Morality was low and corruption high. Many blamed the conditions of immigrant life in these cities as the source of all urban ills. In the early twentieth century an era of reform called the Progressive Movement emerged as a series of attempts to address social and economic issues.

A chief concern of progressives was that immigrants would never assimilate or “Americanize.” A contemporary wrote that. “The influx of foreigners into our urban centers, many of whom have liquor habits, is a menace. . . The hope of perpetuating our liberties is to help the foreigner correct any demoralizing custom, and through self-restraint, to assimilate American ideals.” Many saw the ideals of the founding fathers being swept away and vowed to re-institute social justice and democratic ideals.

Progressives theorized that advances in science, technology, economic development and social organization could improve the human condition; essentially, reform through improvement. They believed that at the root of all urban problems, moral and behavioral, lay the tenement housing system. By improving the living conditions of immigrants, Progressives reasoned that many other social problems would be resolved. Tenement house investigators noted at the time that, “the physical conditions under which these people live lessen their power of resisting evil.” In 1900, the New York Tribune wrote of the Lower East Side that:

Jacob Riis Self-Portrait_NPG

Jacob Riis Self-Portrait, c. 1901, Jacob Riis, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The squalor, the poverty, the hopeless drudgery, and the queer features of this foreign district are evident to the visitor, no matter how hurriedly he goes over the ground, but the crime with which that part of the city is infested has been concealed from the general public until it gained such proportions . . . other parts of the East Side tenement-house district . . . shelter crime in its worst form, and the inmates of these apartments contaminate their neighbors and create an atmosphere in which good morals cannot exist.

Journalist, photographer and social activist Jacob Riis was one of the most prolific reformers of the time. His groundbreaking, searing exposé, How the Other Half Lives, shed light on the plight of the immigrant poor living in New York City’s Lower East Side. His social criticism centered on the disparity between the rich and poor: “That half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath.” His publication shocked the nation. Furthermore, it became a catalyst and call to action for some, including then-New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. The two became allies in the fight for reform in 1894 when Riis worked as a journalist for the Evening Sun. As Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Riis in April of 1901:

The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York. . . . Mr. Riis was given, in addition to earnestness and zeal, the great gift of expression, the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt. His book, “How the Other Half Lives,” did really go a long way toward removing the ignorance on which one-half of the world of New York dwelt concerning the life of the other half.

In an effort to combat the social and economic issues facing the urban destitute, a political party called the Progressive Party was founded by Roosevelt in 1912. The short-lived party’s platform contained a number of social, economic and political reforms.  The social reforms advocated by the party set the foundation for programs that still exist today: insurance to provide for the elderly, disabled and unemployed; an eight hour workday; and workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.

Just as Jacob Riis’s photographs shed light on the plight of immigrants, so too did the artworks of Everett Shinn. Yet despite the identical subject manner, Shinn’s intent was not to exact social change like Riis, but merely to evoke a mood or a particular activity. In an interview Shinn recalled the ambitions of the Ashcan School: “Not one of us had a program . . . sure we were against the monocle-pictures at the Academy, but that was all. None of us had a message – and it’s funny now when they try to make me a ‘protest’ painter. I wasn’t.” Nevertheless, his illustrations aided and inspired reformers and socially concerned citizens in accurately representing the squalor of downtown life. Shinn remembered a conversation with Mrs. Frances Morgan, wife of famed American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, in which she had asked him if his artworks “represented truth,” to which Shinn replied, “Truth, yes, but understated, as odor couldn’t be unless I dipped my drawing in refuse.” He recalled that, “A week later, Mrs. Morgan’s secretary told me that Mrs. Morgan had opened a haven for those unfortunate souls on the Lower East Side. But I had no such intention in mind.”

Supporters of restricted immigration also wanted saloons closed as it was assumed that immigrants were the chief patrons of drinking establishments. It was believed that alcohol demoralized the character of the immigrant, kept him in poverty, contributed to the decline of family life, and prevented him from becoming a responsible American citizen. A chief concern was the economic impact of alcohol consumption. Supporters of prohibition argued that consuming alcohol limited an individual’s efficiency to function at work, in turn hampering industrial production, which on a larger scale interfered with the prosperity and progress of America. Just like the literacy tests, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing the Prohibition era was another attempt at social control over the immigrant population. Prohibition eventually backfired as the illegal manufacturing and sale of alcohol increased the volume of organized crime. The amendment was repealed in 1933, just thirteen years after its institution.

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Primary Source Connections

America, the Dream of My LifeInterview of Anonymous Russian Jewish Male, 1911

Excerpt: “I was born in Russia thirty-six years ago and came to this country at the age of seven. In Russia, I remember not having enough to eat. We were a family of eight. I remember living in a house with no floor. We were jammed into two rooms. We slept above an old country stove to keep warm. I remember my mother taking all of us in great haste outside of the village in which we lived. She anticipated a pogrom the following day. Pogroms were frequent in our village. My father left for the United States when I was two. . . . Later, we followed and landed in New York in 1911. We moved to the East Side, where the entire family, including my father, were reunited. We lived in a four-room railroad flat. The younger children slept on the floor. The older children doubled up in the available beds, which cluttered up the two bedrooms. The toilet was in the yard, and there was no hot water. My sisters worked fifteen hours a day in a dress shop. They had to supply their own machines. When the season slacked in one shop, they had to cart their machines in a pushcart to another shop. During the busy season, for about four months out of the year, there was ample food in the house. During slow season, which was the balance of the year, we lived from hand to mouth. We were evicted from two places for nonpayment of rent. I remember some very bitterly fought needletrade strikes, in which my sisters were involved. . . . I did not know there was such a thing as pajamas until I was sixteen. Did not sleep in a bed until I was sixteen. Until that time, I slept on the floor or on a bed composed of chairs and the extension boards from our dining-room table. One of my older sisters once treated my mother to some fancy vegetables by bringing home a bunch of celery. Never having seen celery before, Mother thought they were flowers and put them in a vase in the center of the table.”

Source: “Lived from Hand to Mouth” in America, The Dream of My Life, 1990, David Steven Cohen

Find it in a Library (Excerpt from page 188)

How the Other Half Lives Book CoverHow the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

Jacob Riis, 1890.

The classic exposé of the suffering of tenement occupants and street life in turn-of-the-century New York City.

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NMAH-Cleveland Many People One Language

Poster, Cleveland: Many Peoples, One Language, 1917

“Waves of non–English–speaking European immigrants flooded the cities of industrial America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Local governments and civic groups sought to encourage immigrants to learn to speak, read, and write English. This 1917 poster from the Americanization Committee of the Cleveland Board of Education was posted in schools in an attempt to reach immigrant parents through their children. An appeal to attend free evening English classes appears on this poster in six languages : Italian, Hungarian, Slovenian, Polish, Yiddish, and English. Cleveland’s factories, steel mills, port facilities, and assembly plants teemed with the new working–class arrivals from central and eastern Europe.” – Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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McClures Magazine Roosevelt Article“Reform Through Social Work” 1901, McClure’s Magazine

An article on the poor living conditions in Lower Manhattan authored by future president, Theodore Roosevelt.

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New York World Glackens illustrationNew York World, May 1, 1898 

This article, illustrated by Ashcan School artist William Glackens, appeared in the April 30, 1898 edition of New York World , a newspaper published in New York City from 1860 until 1931.  From 1883 to 1911 under publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the paper captured readers’ attention through sensational stories, and reached a circulation of over one million readers.  New York World reporter Nellie Bly became one of America’s first investigative journalists, often working undercover.

The charges of sensationalism were most frequently leveled at the paper by more established publishers, who resented Pulitzer’s courting of the immigrant classes. And while the World presented its fair share of crime stories, it also published damning exposés of tenement abuses.  This article highlights the May 1st “Day of Eviction and Misery to the People of the East Side.”  Notably, the illustration by William Glackens echoes the subject of Eviction (Lower East Side).

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Literary Connections

Maggie 1896 book coverMaggie: Girl of the Streets, 1893, Stephen Crane

The plight of the immigrant poor was frequently dramatized in gritty detail in the literature of the day. Contemporary writers did not shy away from vividly describing tenement life in all of its shocking detail. The Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane tackled the subject of immigrant life in New York City in his 1893 novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Crane describes a densely packed tenement building as it, “quivered and creaked from the weight of humanity stamping about in its bowels.” Crane is considered part of the American realism movement – the same movement of which artist Everett Shinn, the Ashcan School of art, and social activist and photographer Jacob Riis were associated. No matter their medium, these cultural purveyors all strove to provide a candid look at the ills plaguing American cities, particularly New York City.

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Yekl 1896Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto
, 1896, Abraham Cahan

In his 1896 novel, Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, Jewish immigrant author Abraham Cahan vividly depicts the life of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. Cahan vividly describes the novel’s protagonist Jake walking through a crowded tenement neighborhood, “through dense swarms of bedraggled half-naked humanity; past garbage barrels rearing their overflowing contents in sickening piles, and lining the streets in malicious suggestion of rows of trees; underneath tiers and tiers of fire escapes, barricaded and festooned with mattresses, pillows, and featherbeds not yet gathered in for the night. The pent-in sultry atmosphere was laden with nausea and pierced with a discordant and, as it were, plaintive buzz.

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Age.Of.Innocence.1920.CoverThe Age of Innocence, 1920, Edith Wharton

A fictional novel that probes the inner workings of New York high society elite class in the early 20th century; the section of society Hassam depicts in his paintings.

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The House of Mirth 1905The House of Mirth, 1905, Edith Wharton

Wharton’s New York society novel chronicles the life of a young, upper class woman navigating the upper echelons New York society. Often read as a satire, the novel relates to the artwork Tanagra in that the main character Lily participates in a tableau vivant, blending the lines between art and life. She essentially becomes an object, much like the woman in Tanagra.

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The Yellow Wallpaper 1899 coverThe Yellow Wallpaper, 1892, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This short story is a semi-autobiographical work of fiction, published in 1892, illustrates nineteenth-century views towards women and women’s mental health. Considered an early piece of feminist literature, the protagonist is relegated to a third floor room of her country house by her husband for a period of rest, a remedy thought then to cure depression and/or nervous disorder. She descents into a psychosis, essentially trapped in the room with the yellow wallpaper as her social interactions, movement and intellectual activities such as reading and writing are restricted.

Read and Download at the U.S. National Library of Medicine (PDF)

Artwork Connections

1995.3.1_1a ManhattanManhattan, 1932, Georgia O’Keeffe

O’Keeffe began painting her “New Yorks” in the mid 1920s. In 1925, O’Keeffe and her partner photographer Alfred Stieglitz moved into the Shelton Hotel in Manhattan, where O’Keeffe became enamored with the spectacular views of the city seen from their 28th floor suite. O’Keeffe soon expressed a desire to paint the city. In a letter of that year, O’Keeffe stated that the subject of New York “goes round in my head.” In 1932 the Museum of Modern Art commissioned sixty-five painters and photographers to submit mural designs for an exhibition, Murals by American Painters and Photographers. They were asked to create a small mockup of a hypothetical mural, then develop one piece of the overall design into a large painting. O’Keeffe paired this large panel Manhattan with her smaller mural design.

Liberty, ca. 1884, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi

The American Art Museum’s sculpture Liberty is a model for Frederic Auguste Bartholdi’s colossal sculpture Liberty Enlightening the World, more commonly known as the Statue of Liberty. Bartholdi made at least two terra cotta casts of this 4-foot model, which represents the sculptor’s final design for Liberty. The model was exhibited in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda until around 1887 when it was transferred to the Smithsonian Institution.

Maréchal Niel Roses, 1919, Childe Hassam

Childe Hassam posed a young model at a mahogany table with two vases of Maréchal Niel roses, a flower named for Napoléon III’s secretary of war. Hassam believed that people were shaped by their environments, and here the hybrid roses symbolize America’s culture, which he thought had absorbed the best elements of European and Asian history. The two women in the painting, a blonde and a brunette, similarly evoke different “strains” that had blended to create an American hybrid of womanhood.


The Steerage, 1907, printed 1915, Alfred Stieglitz

“There were men, women and children on the lower level of the steerage….The scene fascinated me: A round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain; white suspenders crossed on the back of a man below; circular iron machinery; a mast that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me.” – Alfred Stieglitz, 1932

The Figurine

The Figurine, 1921, William M. Paxton

The Figurine illustrates the vogue for Asian decorative wares that informed American collecting tastes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, a Chinese blue-and-white jar is shown alongside a Chinese figurine; a maid delicately cleans the glass encasing the figurine. Paxton’s compositions often portray women in beautiful interiors. The light source from the left highlighting the woman’s rosy complexion, combined with the sensitive attention to detail, recall the works of the seventeenth-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

Cumulus Clouds, East River, 1901-1902, Robert Henri1992.91_1a Cumulus Clouds, East River

In 1901, when Robert Henri and his wife Linda had moved into their new home at 512 East 58th Street, at least two blocks south of the scene in this painting, they were conscious that they lived in a district that was not elegant (although elegant residence were not far away), but they had a view that the artist enjoyed and made much of. Cumulous Clouds, East River, is one of a series of evocative river views that Henri painted near his home over the next two years. In April 1902, Cumulous Clouds, East River, was featured in a one-man exhibition of Henri’s works at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. This was the same gallery where Henri and his fellow Ashcan-School painters and two outside artists would famously show in 1908 as “The Eight.” Henri’s 1902 show included views of the East River and New York streets, such as Cumulous Clouds, as well as scenes the artist had recently painted during his travels in France.


Growth, Cities, and Immigration: Crash Course US History – PBS (13 min) TV-G
This PBS video teaches you about the massive immigration to the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century. Immigrants flocked to the US from all over the world in this time period. Millions of Europeans moved to the US where they drove the growth of cities and manned the rapid industrialization that was taking place.

Additional Smithsonian Resources

Exploring all 19 Smithsonian museums is a great way to enhance your curriculum, no matter what your discipline may be. In this section, you’ll find resources that we have put together from a variety of Smithsonian museums to enhance your students’ learning experience, broaden their skill set, and not only meet education standards, but exceed them.

Subject: History

Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How the Other Half Lives” in America – Smithsonian Magazine
The article explores how innovations in photography helped this 19th century journalist improve life for many of his fellow immigrants.


Alfred Stieglitz: (1864-1946) American photographer and modern art exhibitions organizer.

Andrew Carnegie: (1835-1919) One of the most successful industrialists of the 19th century, after making a fortune in the steel industry he donated much of his wealth to scientific, cultural, and educational institutions.

Bessemer process: A process of making steel from pig iron by burning out impurities (as carbon) by means of a blast of air forced through the hot liquid metal.

head taxes: Essentially an entry fee for arriving immigrants. The charge of one to two dollars per person was instituted to discourage immigration of poor immigrants who might become a public burden to American taxpayers.

Immigration Act of 1917: The first federal law that imposed a restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also designated an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which barred immigration to the United States for much of Asia and the Pacific Islands.

nativists:  primary from Anglo-Saxon Protestant backgrounds, they favored the rights and interests for those already established in America.

pogrom: the organized killing of many helpless people usually because of their race or religion; comes from the Yiddish (from Russian) word meaning devastation.

Tanagra figurine: Made of terracotta, these figurines originated from the 4th century B.C. in the city of Tanagra located in central Greece. The discovery of these fashionable ancient figurines in the 1870s produced an immediate vogue for the wealthy to acquire one for their art collection.

Tenement House Act of 1901: a New York State Progressive Era law which outlawed the construction of the dumbbell-shaped style tenement housing and set minimum size requirements for tenement housing. It also mandated the installation of lighting, better ventilation, and indoor bathrooms.


U.S. History Content Standards Era 7 – Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)

  • Standard 1A – The student understands the connections among industrialization, the advent of the modern corporation, and material well-being.
    • 5-12 – Explain how organized industrial research produced technological breakthroughs, especially the Bessemer steel process, conversion to electrical power, and telephonic communication, and how these innovations transformed the economy, work processes, and domestic life.
  • Standard 2A – The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.
    • 7-12 – Distinguish between the “old” and “new” immigration in terms of its volume and the immigrants’ ethnicity, religion, language, place of origin, and motives for emigrating from their homelands.
  • Standard 2C – The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.
    • 5-12 – Investigate new forms of popular culture and leisure activities at different levels of American society.

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