What Jobs Did Immigrants Work During the 19th Century?

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Immigration to the United States was moving full force during the 19th century. German, Irish and Chinese immigrants arrived before and during the Civil War. The English and Italians added to the numbers during the post-Civil War years. Some who arrived were wealthy, many were not. Some brought useful skills, some did not. Regardless, all found some type of work and made unique contributions to building the United Sates as it is today.

Immigrants during the 19th century performed a wide variety of jobs.
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During the 19th century millions of immigrants poured into the United States. While immigration from Germany ran steady from the late 18th century into the 19th, the years following the U.S. Civil war saw nearly 3 million new arrivals before the year 1900. Nearly three-fifths of German immigrants choose to reside in rural areas. The vast majority of these were engaged in some form of agricultural work. City dwelling German immigrants routinely worked in industries such as bakeries, meat cutting, cabinet making, breweries, distilleries, machine shops and tailoring.

Baker preparing dough for oven
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Immigration from the United Kingdom, which had waned in the years following the revolutionary war, once again increased in post-Civil War United States. Nearly 1.5 million new arrivals from the UK found their way to the United States following the Civil War. Many of these were skilled or semi-skilled laborers who found a home in cities where growing industrialization provided a huge number of factory jobs. For the wealthier newcomers, business opportunities abounded. Many became very successful business owners.

Smoke coming from factory
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Along with Germany, Ireland provided a huge number of immigrants prior to, and during, the American civil war. Extreme hardship, caused by famine and poverty in the homeland, drove huge numbers if Irish to the shores of America. Unfortunately, these immigrants arrived with minimal skills and very little in the way of resources. As a result, they were forced to work as laborers. Many of the United States' canals, railways and roads were hand built by hard working Irish immigrants.

New road being built
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Italian immigrants came to the states late. As late as 1850, the United States was home to a mere 4,000 Italians. However, between 1876 and 1880, the number of immigrants from Italy exploded. By the end of the 19th century, the U.S. was home to nearly a half-million Italians. Most arriving Italians left home as farmers and agricultural workers but many did not plan to stay in America, according to Digital History by S. Mintz. Most settled in the cities and took whatever work they could find. Many men were construction workers while women did piece work in the home. Many moved into trades such as shoe-making, fishing and construction. Over time, Italian-Americans reinvented themselves and prospered.

Cobbler working on shoe
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Some of the earliest Chinese immigrants were wealthy business people. Later waves of immigrant were less well off. American businesses initially welcomed Chinese workers. They were diligent and hard workers, and worked fairly cheap. As time passed, attitudes changed, and new arrivals found themselves unwelcome and were forced to congregate among themselves. The California gold rush drew many Chinese, where they worked for minimal wages mining gold. Around this time railroad construction was underway in the west and many Chinese found work as laborers laying track. In time, Chinese immigrants formed tight-knit communities where many flourished as small business owners, often in various service industries.

Railroad track going into tunnel
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