Grandma Stole the American Dream: Immigrants, Nostalgia, and the Myth of a Pure America


St. Francis Xavier University

Robert Zecker is a Professor of History at St. Francis Xavier University. His research and teaching focus on US immigration history. He is the author of America’s Immigrant Press: How the Slovaks Were Taught to Think Like White People (New York: Continuum, 2011).

“Why can’t those people come here legally and work hard, become Americans, like we did? At least they could learn the language!” Too many wall-builders and anti-immigrant foot soldiers in the United States’ xenophobic army have sanctified the myth their ancestors arrived with worthy notions of liberty, self-sacrifice and almost innate American patriotism. Current nativists, however, rely on a nostalgic vision of the past in which virtuous ancestors effortlessly passed through Ellis Island. This nostalgia relies on a selective fashioning of the southeast European immigrant, a shtetl of the mind that wilfully forgets some of the less palatable aspects of an earlier era’s newcomers, and the moral panic an “invasion” of Slavs, Italians, and Jews triggered in old stock Americans. In part, the “invasion” of Southeast Europeans around 1890 caused old stock Americans to create genealogical societies that looked back to Plymouth Rock and a time America was free of the “gross little aliens” polluting the land. Sadly, today descendants of these earlier pariahs all too often stigmatize current newcomers, suggesting a continuity in American nativism, even if today it is Asians, Muslims, and Latino/as who raise restrictionists’ ire.

Figure 1: Fostering Idea of Original Americans

“Mayflower Descendants Hold Quiet Celebration This Year.” Americans with colonial forebears did everything they could to distinguish themselves from Southeast European newcomers. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 22, 1908, 2. Source:

At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries, to old stock immigration restrictionists, the migrants reverently valorized today posed nothing less than an existential crisis for the nation. Henry Cabot Lodge asserted the Slovak was a bad investment for the United States, equating his indolence and supposed love of drink to the canard of Chinese addiction to opium. By 1882 Chinese migrants were infamously excluded by Congress from migrating to the U.S.; Lodge and other politicians hoped the same would soon be said of Slavs.

Tropes of pollution, disease, menace, and invasion were deployed by cartoonists, journalists, and politicians to characterize southeast European newcomers. Sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross asserted “a Pole could live in dirt that would kill a white man” (among many other dime-store assessments of Slavic and Italian unsuitability for the republic.) Cartoons published in Puck, a popular satirical political magazine, depicted a terrified Uncle Sam cowering at the base of the Statue of Liberty as rats with knives in their mouths labeled “Italian” swarmed into New York Harbor. Another cartoon showed a bewildered Uncle Sam, “a stranger in his own land,” surrounded in New York by signs in Yiddish, Italian, and other incomprehensible foreign tongues. Progressive Era photos or magazine exposés of immigrant neighborhoods characterized New York’s Little Italy or the primarily Jewish Lower East Side as at best sites of exotica, but more often seats of squalor, danger, and dysfunctionality.

Figure 2: At Ellis Island

Physical examination of female immigrants at Ellis Island, New York City, 1911. Inspectors scrupulously guarded the country’s gates against “unfit” newcomers. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.,

Such anxiety was not entirely unfounded. Ethnic nostalgia exhibits much amnesia in forgetting immigrant street gangs (Brooklyn’s Murder Inc. or the Sicilian camorra, not always as cinematic as Goodfellas or The Godfather would have us believe.) Allen Street on the Lower East Side was circa 1900 the center of New York prostitution, a fact sensationalized in Munsey’s Magazine exposés of alleged Jewish control of the “white slave trade.” Disease, crime, and juvenile-delinquency indices in immigrant enclaves such as Brownsville, Brooklyn – now remembered with fondness as home to egg creams, labor lyceums and second-generation strivers all bound for City College and glory – were alarmingly among the highest in the city. Dysfunction and boot-strapper achievement were close neighbours in immigrant quarters. Only maladjustment, though, was seen by a nativist like Lodge, while nostalgic descendants of ghetto dwellers have developed amnesia about the deviant while celebrating immigrant achievers. One person’s nostalgia was, for 1900 nativists, another man’s angst.

Figure 3: Little Italy in New York

Italian neighborhood with street market, Mulberry Street, New York, circa 1900. This photograph, published by the Detroit Publishing Co., likely evoked images of menace among nativists alert to the Italian “invasion” of “their” country. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.,

To progressive journalist Frank Julian Warne, the “sclavic” (sic) immigrant was an invader of coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania, driving down the wage rate of established miners. Ironically, by 1904, many of those miners were Irish American, whose labor militancy and Catholicism in an earlier era had raised alarm bells, too. The fear that a secretive society of Irish Catholic Molly Maguires was terrorizing eastern Pennsylvania led to a militant pushback culminating in the 1877 execution of six Irish American “Molly Maguires” in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. By the early twentieth century, though, it was Slavic migrants who were often characterized as inherently violent, prone to drink and a menace to respectable, white America, which by that point tentatively included Irish Catholics. Yesterday’s outsider was admitted as a grudging insider when new “wretched refuse” arrived at Ellis Island and infiltrated the mine and mill towns of America.

Figure 4: Staking a Claim to Thanksgiving


By 1944, Polish Americans could claim Thanksgiving as part of their heritage as loyal Americans. This advertisement from the International Workers Order’s Front Line Fighters Fund urged readers to send a Thanksgiving “care package” to soldiers overseas. “The pilgrims, our ancestors, came from the old world to America in pursuit of freedom and a better life,” the ad asserted in Polish. A few decades earlier, nativists would have bristled at Poles claiming the pilgrims as “our” ancestors. Wayne State University, Walter Reuther Library, Don Binkowski Papers, Box 5, Folder 5-29, Głos Ludowy, November 25, 1944, 6, “Radość Dnia Dziękczynienia Należy do Naszych Dielnych Bojowników” (“The Joy of Thanksgiving Belongs to Our Brave Warriors.”)

Fear of worrisome migrants swarming into industrial America spurred the birth of colonial genealogy societies seeking to reclaim a purer, nobler heritage. Old stock Americans founded the Society of Mayflower Descendants in 1897, the Colonial Dames of America in 1890, and the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1890. Nostalgia for a time when the country unequivocally belonged to White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and homages to one’s pioneering ancestors were often juxtaposed to anxiety about southeast European “hordes” muddying the American gene pool. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw a rise in the performance of historical pageants venerating colonial nation builders, a respite from the anxieties of an urbanizing, polyglot country. Today’s descendants of Slavic or Italian migrants often express patriotism and love of America’s traditions. In the age their ancestors arrived, however, that colonial heritage was often wielded by WASPs to reclaim America from the grasp of Slavic, Italian, “gross little alien” hands. Colonial lineage was resurrected and celebrated, at least in part, out of an anxious nostalgia for an America old stock residents feared was slipping from their hands. More than a hundred years later Slavic or Italian Americans often join in similar cries to “make America great again.”

Everybody is yearning to breathe free in their fabricated America; nostalgic invocations of a pure past when the country was free of the huddled masses polluting the body politic resonated in 1900 no less than 2023. Slovak, Jewish, Italian, or Polish Americans who invoke hard-working, model minority ancestors might do well to remember at one point their forebears were the “mongrel” and the “underman” who would invariably cause America to “sink to early decay unless immigration is rigorously restricted.” Henry Cabot Lodge, Madison Grant, and other immigration restrictionists wanted to build a wall to keep out the “beaten men of beaten races.” They wanted the great-grandpa of many of today’s restrictionists on the other side of that wall.

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