To Be or Not to Be A Greenhorn – History Essay
Throughout history, the concept of Americanization has been studied in order to better understand the effects of a mass culture on immigrants. On one side stands the view of an immigrant engulfed in American ideology who leaves
behind his past. He conforms to this new individualism and now is able to move upward on the economic ladder. On the opposite end of defining Americanization is the unscathed immigrant who maintains his old word traditions and institutions to emerge victoriously despite unfavorable conditions. His ethnicity solidifies his success by creating affinity bonds and social patterns to aid in the struggle for a decent life. Though both these views are extreme, they both contain significant aspects which form a more accurate perspective of how immigrants assimilated into the “emerging industrial and consumer society” (Ewen, 15). These immigrants did not give up their nationality completely, even as they adopted American ideals in order to survive within the new but unfamiliar consumer culture. This cultural coalescence brought about major changes, which women had most of the burden of assimilating during the 19th century. The unrelenting and brave women described by Ewen in “Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars” demonstrated an amazing ability to retain many of their traditions while still accommodating American ideals and culture in their social events, employment, and home life.
For many immigrant families, social events were the only way to escape the humdrum of daily living, even though to the American many of these activities would seem restrictive or a barrier to the betterment of immigrant life. The struggle and isolation were forgotten for a moment as “new immigrants found ways to maintain culture and create community” (Ewen, 226). As many Americans looked on with disapproval, there still arose a clash between parents who wanted to preserve the traditions of the old country while the younger generation wanted desperately to assimilate. This division appeared in issues such as love and marriage, dress, and social behavior. Even as different views developed between the older and younger generation, many social events remained traditional with the ideals that were common in the Old Country.
There were many kinds of recreation, however, that involved the whole family and were enjoyed by both Italian and Jewish families (Ewen, 214).
For example, immigrant weddings were an important part of social life unlike the trend of elopement in American marriages (Ewen 235). According to Ewen, “weddings were large, festive affairs in which the ties between the couple, the two families and the larger community were sanctified” (235). Since weddings in America were much more expensive, many Italian and Jewish daughters and mothers went without paying for food, rent, or other pleasures in order to fund a wedding. Many went into debt as well, but they found it “worth the sacrifice” (Ewen, 237). This attitude permeated other social events such as christenings, bar mitzvahs, holidays, and funerals.
Due to industrialization, factory work was a major component that divided an immigrant mother’s homebound life from a daughter’s new social and economic ideals of the outside world.
Though many American social workers believed that new practices and consumer standards would transform an immigrant’s home life, the actuality and comprehension of the work was fairly dissimilar from the immigrant. Immigrant daughters who did work outside of the home, usually in factories, did so to supplement the family’s inadequate income. Though many mothers demanded unopened pay envelopes from all their children, many daughters tried to exert control of their own wages by demanding an allowance, paying board instead of overturning their whole pay, or moving out on their own completely.
One day in an immigrant’s home would be sufficient to convince anyone of the cooperation and discipline that women use to run their household. Extensive housework was required and daughters often went through rigorous training in sewing, cooking, and spinning—“the skills of life” (Ewen, 32). Girls became proficient in these skills before they became teenagers and learned to be self-sufficient and sacrificial. Women were also in charge of family fiscal affairs where all income from husband and children was given to the mother. Also, usually with Jews, the women did the work of “domestic religion” (Ewen, 41). These rules were handed down from generation to generation to ensure the proper methods for religious rituals. Housework was divided between the females of the household in order to maintain a more demanding home in America. These homes needed more “care than in Europe, in part because the evolution of new standards of living and new household acquisitions made house work more complex” (Ewen 149). Laundry had to be done more than once a month and native cooking in a new environment was difficult. Tenement housing did not ease the burden as well with its inadequate provisions. Hence it was difficult for immigrant families to meet new American standards of “clean and different clothing every day” with a daily bath (Ewen, 155). “Nevertheless, despite the small cramped quarters and the endless fight against dirt and grime, immigrant women kept their houses clean (Ewen, 156).” Even against unsanitary and grimy conditions, immigrant mothers instilled in their daughters the value of an orderly and pleasant house.
Despite the desperate attempts to Americanize immigrants, the first and second generations did not let go of all of their traditional ideals and beliefs. Even so, they did not continue unscathed by the process. However, these ideals from the Old Country helped them “meet the challenge” (Ewen, 266). This culture became a mutual protection for immigrants against the scarcity and struggle of tenement life. It also provided a bond for the community and was the foundation for their survival. As the years passed, immigrants eventually succumbed to American ideals, but they have not totally given up their culture now that they are considered Americans. Even so, one can look back on this period and see the significant struggle that women had between customary ideas and the assurance of modernity.