Diversity

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DIVERSITY ON THE PRAIRIE: IMMIGRANTS IN ILLINOIS

 

 

It was the presence of the immigrants that gave much of the flavor to Illinois towns. Every railroad town might have its Maple Street, but not all had a Saengerbund or a Schuetzenfest.

Identical in the conglomerate - houses designed by builders instead of architects, city hall, saloon, slum - the cities of Illinois individually had personality shaped by the people who lived there. Much of that personality was the same from town to town in the post-Civil War years: Calvinist morals, Republican politics, optimism. But interspersed in the sameness were the Amish of Arcola, the English settlement of Albion, the German intelligencia of Belleville, the Swedes of Galesburg.

Immigrants enlarged the work force that sped industrialization, the consumers who supported the economy, and the cultural diversity that lifted the state out of tedium. Without them there could have been no Second City, no Chicago the Giant - for by 1890, they totaled 77.9 percent of the city's population.

The importance of Illinois as a destination of immigrants, and the importance of that group to the state, is also clearly shown by the fact that although immigrants accounted for 20 percent of the state's population from 1870 to 1900, they made up only 15 percent of the national population in 1870 and 13 percent in 1900.

In 1890 German-born Illinoisans formed some 9 percent of the state's total population; and when Chicago's German contingent gained approval for closing all city offices in honor of the Kaiser's birthday in 1893, the Czech paper Denni Hlasatel sardonically suggested that the Bohemians should demand the same honor for Jan Amos Commenious Day.

Throughout downstate, communities of ethnic groups gathered in the midst of old-line settlers, and the Springfield Illinois State Journal, for example, noted a "Swede theater" and two German-language newspapers in Galesburg in 1871. By 1898 Joliet had become the center of the Austrian population of the country and the headquarters of the Carnolian Slavonic Catholic Union.

Of the work force in Chicago in 1890, 55 percent was foreign-born. The skilled trades were dominated by the Germans and Scandinavians while the Irish found employment in plumbing, horseshoeing, rolling mills, packing houses, and glue factories. Governor Fifer had told the General Assembly in 1889 that Illinois "offers far better opportunities for the laboring man than any other place." Nineteenth-century boosterism continued the flow of Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians into the state; by the last decade of the century, they were joined by increasing numbers of Eastern and Southern Europeans: Bohemians and Austro-Hungarians, Polish, Russians, and Italians, crowding mostly into Chicago or the mining towns of downstate Illinois.

Native Illinoisans met the newcomers with ambivalent feelings. "Progress" and "growth," two bywords of the time, demanded new people to work the land and man the factories, new buyers to feed the exploding real-estate business. In 1880, the Chicago Times reported "one thousand tickets have been sent from Streator, this year, to bring immigrants from the old country."

Those who encouraged the immigrant (and hoped to exploit him), however, met a solid wall of defensive parochials who saw the increased work force as a threat to their financial security, and the strange dress and customs of the foreigners as a threat to the sanctity of their cultural institutions. In 1870, for example, when the Chinese population of Illinois was .003 percent of the state's population, 300 Belleville citizens had petitioned Congress "to take some action against Chinese Coolies." Like it or not, the immigrant stream which continued unabated until World War I added immeasurably to the character of present-day Illinois.

 

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