A century ago immigration to the United States was as controversial as it is today. Quotas, literacy tests and other measures were under discussion to limit the expected arrival of millions more immigrants.
Bomb throwing anarchists were feared and socialists were scorned along with the burden of petty criminals, the ill and the mentally deficient. “Race suicide,” the notion that an overabundance of immigrants would overwhelm the country’s “native population,” had become another concern.
R.J. Sprague, a former University of Maine professor who specialized in economics and sociology at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, warned that the “Native American Race” would be “exhausted” in a few generations because its elite membership did not produce as many offspring as the foreign-born newcomers.
“What we need are larger families among the well-to-do and smaller families among the poor,” the demographics expert exhorted in a column in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 14, 1916.
R.F. Foerster of the department of economics at Harvard warned that the problem would become much worse after World War I as the working people of Europe fled the wreckage of their countries in search of better jobs and lower taxes and prices. The flow would come principally from Italy and Eastern Europe, he predicted. The U.S. should impose restrictions to limit it.
“We should tell the rest of the world what kind of raw material we want for the making of American citizens and then we will get it,” Foerster wrote in a column published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Dec. 23, 1916.
Commissioner General Anthony Caminetti of the Immigration Service warned of “human dumping” from Asia in his annual report, the Bangor Daily News reported on Jan. 25, 1917. Chinese, Japanese and Hindu migrants were among the groups that should be limited by “improvements in the machinery” already used to limit migration. The Chinese Exclusion Act already in effect was not adequate.
Thousands of foreigners had already settled in Bangor during the past few decades. The U.S. census gives us an idea of how diverse the population of city was in 1920, though certainly not as diverse as many much larger cities.
Census takers counted 3,740 foreign-born, white residents. They included six from Albania, 16 from Austria, 209 Canadian French, 2,014 Canadian “other,” 30 from Denmark, 124 from England, 33 from Finland, four from France, 27 from Germany, 55 from Greece, 362 from Ireland, 62 from Italy, 20 from Lithuania, seven from Newfoundland, 14 from Norway, 78 from Poland, 490 from Russia, 27 from Scotland, 76 from Sweden, 53 from Syria, one from India, 24 from China and 33 from other countries.
This amounted to about 14 percent of Bangor’s population. It did not include the thousands of second generation immigrants, including many children.
Nor did it include the thousands of transient immigrant laborers who lived in Bangor’s boarding houses for part of the year when they were not employed as loggers or construction workers on vast projects like the city’s Union Station, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad and the Great Northern Paper Co.
The newspapers sometimes portrayed these immigrants with unpronounceable names as ignorant and ridiculous. You would think all Swedes, Poles and Russians did was get into brawls — also known as “race wars” — on Hancock Street if you read the newspapers. Knife fights involving Italians were another newspaper staple. French-Canadian and Irish loggers got a fair share of publicity by fighting in logging camps or on trains transporting them to and from work.
When a labor shortage developed during World War I, more and more immigrants were hired to work as loggers. Calling them the “foreign legion,” the Bangor newspapers occasionally delivered demeaning descriptions of these workers wearing low-cut, patent leather shoes and lisle stockings and carrying umbrellas.
Contractors complained that many of them were unable to do the strenuous work required, and frequently they quit their jobs before the work was done. The joke went that bosses had to hire three crews to get a job done — one crew did the work until they quit, one was headed back to Bangor after quitting and one was headed to camp from Bangor to replace the quitters.
“They handle an axe as awkwardly as a woman,” one Bangor reporter asserted. They also smoked cigarettes instead of plug tobacco in clay pipes like real loggers. “Imagine a Maine woodsman smoking cigarettes,” the reporter chortled in the Bangor Daily News on Jan. 8, 1917.
Occasionally, immigrants were the subject of more touching stories that also made them sound ridiculous at the same time. One such offering in the Bangor Daily News told the pathetic tale of the beautiful Stephanie Timochuk, who followed her husband, Zahar, all the way from Russia to a Hancock Street boarding house seeking a divorce. Before confronting him, she wisely enlisted the help of an interpreter and a policeman.
Stephanie, “young, pretty and self-possessed” and “garbed in the latest shade of tango with hat to match and all the appurtenances,” dragged Zahar out of the house after frisking him to see if he had his gun. A procession ensued that included an escort of 75 local Russians and other curious foreigners all the way to a lawyer’s office where presumably things were put to rights for Stephanie. That’s where the story ended for readers of the Bangor Daily News on May 11, 1914.
Many of these immigrants, however, managed to gain a foothold in the community no matter how they were regarded.
A group of young ladies appeared before the Bangor City Council to lobby for a night school where they could learn the ways of American women. Before long, Bangor schools enrolled many foreign-speaking children as well.
Poles, Italians, Jews and other groups formed clubs and, of course, churches and synagogues.
They formed groups to exercise political influence. Twenty-seven Greek men signed a patriotic petition protesting an editorial in the Bangor Daily Commercial criticizing the Greek army. They ran it as an advertisement in the newspaper on June 17, 1914.
Protestants eyed Catholics suspiciously and anti-Semitism was rampant. After Bangor’s fire chief accused Jewish clothiers of setting their stores on fire to collect insurance in 1908, Jewish store owners formed a “club” to defend themselves from such charges.
About the same time, Rabbi Louis Plotkin wrote a regular column for the Bangor Daily News in an effort to establish better relations between Jews and newspaper readers of other faiths.
The immigrants started all sorts of small businesses from junk yards to food carts to seedy saloons. Peddlers roamed the countryside trying to make enough money to open stores in Bangor. By 1917, some of them had become members of the middle class operating stores, laundries, restaurants, saloons and other businesses.
Despite all the national turmoil over immigration, some influential people recognized the economic value of immigrants to the city and state.
Maine’s birth rate was the lowest and the state had the smallest excess of births over deaths, according to census figures sampling 10 states and the District of Columbia published in the Bangor Daily Commercial on Jan. 17, 1917. The country’s population was shifting from rural to urban. Fewer and fewer young men were available to do the work so that Maine could keep up in factory production and infrastructure creation.
The war in Europe had aggravated the problem. Many Maine men had enlisted in Canada or European countries to fight or drive ambulances even before the U.S. declared war. Some of the immigrants had returned home to fight.
Yet, experts and scholars warned that immigration needed to be controlled by literacy tests and quotas.
“It seems almost not to be believed that with the need for rough labor existing in this country now at the height of prosperity, with manufactories everywhere running day and night, that the Congress of the United States will take action to restrict such labor,” the Bangor Daily Commercial editorialized on Jan. 10, 1917.
And again on Jan. 22, the same newspaper said: “It is difficult to understand the viewpoint of the people who are supporting the immigration bill with its literacy clause. Such a measure will not keep out of the country the criminals and anarchists … but would keep out thousands of men who would do the rough work that American laborers are unwilling to perform.”
In the next few years, however, strict new immigration requirements were passed and the number of migrants entering the country was reduced dramatically for many years to come.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His latest book, Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era, is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org