Americanization (immigration)

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The Americanization School, built in Oceanside, California in 1931, is an example of a school built to help Spanish-speaking immigrants learn English and civics.

Americanization is the process of an immigrant to the United States of America becoming a person who shares American values, beliefs and customs and is assimilated into American society. This process typically involves learning English and adjusting to American culture, and customs, while keeping the old foods and religion. The ethnic groups undergoing Americanization not only retained their traditional cuisines, but they also spread to the wider American public their taste for pizza, bagels and tacos.[1]

The Americanization movement was a nationwide organized effort in the 1910s to bring millions of recent immigrants into the American cultural system. 30+ states passed laws requiring Americanization programs; in hundreds of cities the chamber of commerce organized classes in English language and American civics; many factories cooperated. Over 3000 school boards, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, operated after-school and Saturday classes. Labor unions, especially the coal miners, (United Mine Workers of America) helped their members take out citizenship papers. In the cities, the YMCA and YWCA were especially active, as were organization of descendants of the founding generation such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. The movement climaxed during World War I, as eligible young immigrant men were drafted into the Army, and the nation made every effort to integrate the European ethnic groups into the national identity.[2]


The term "Americanization" was brought into general use during the organization of "Americanization Day" celebrations in a number of cities for July 4, 1915. Interest in the process of assimilation had been increasing for many years before such programs were designated "Americanization." The publication of a report of the United States Immigration Commission in 1911 marked the culmination of an attempt to formulate a constructive national policy toward immigration and naturalization and was the basis of many of the programs adopted afterwards.[3]

During the period of mass immigration, the main target group of Americanization projects included Jews and Catholics and from southern and southeastern Europe. Churches, unions, and charities attempted to Americanize the new immigrants both formally through structured programs and informally at work through the environment created by management. Americanization also suggests a broader process that includes the everyday struggle of immigrants to understand their new environment and how they invent ways to cope with it.[4]

Private agencies also gave high priority to Americanization projects. The Ford Motor Company had an especially well-publicized program. Among the religious groups carrying on systematic programs of work among immigrants were most of the larger Protestant denominations, the National Catholic War Council, the Y.M.C.A., the Y.W.C.A., the Knights of Colombus, and the Y.M.H.A. Extensive campaigns were also conducted by od stock patriotic organizations such as the National Security League, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Colonial Dames of America. The National Chamber of Commerce and hundreds of city chambers also did systematic work. The National Federation of Women's Clubs and the National Council of Jewish Women also adopted definite and comprehensive programs of work.[3] The organizations assisted newcomers with naturalization papers, helped reunite families, provided interpreters, warned about fraudulent offers, provided access to lawyers, and provided information about employment.[5]

In the aftermath the target populations learned English and adopted American life styles in speech, clothing and recreation. They clung to their historic religions. They not only retained their traditional cuisines,[6] but they also introduced the wider American public to the taste for pizza, bagels and tacos. Historian Vincent Cannato adds: "From sports and food to movies and music, they haven’t just contributed to the culture, they have helped redefine it."[7]

World War[edit]

Interest in the foreign born in the United States was quickened by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Although the United States remained neutral until April 1917, the war in Europe cast attention on the many recent immigrants in the United States. Of special concern was the issue of their political loyalty, whether to the United States or to their mother country, and our long-term and tension regarding assimilation into American society.

Numerous agencies became active, such as the Councils of National Defense, the United States Department of the Interior, the Food Administration and other federal agencies charged with the task of uniting the people of the United States in support of the war aims of the government.[3] The National Americanization Committee (NAC) was by far the most important private organization in the movement. It was directed by Frances Kellor. Second in importance was the Committee for Immigrants in America, which helped fund the Division of Immigrant Education in the federal Bureau of Education.[8]

Frederic C. Howe, Commissioner at Ellis Island, asked mayors nationwide to make July 4, 1915, Americanization night in their communities.

Impact of war[edit]

Millions of recently arrived immigrants who had originally intended to return to the mother country were unable to return to Europe because of the wars 1914-1919. The great majority decided to stay permanently in America; foreign language use declines dramatically as they switched to English. Instead of resisting Americanization they welcomed it, often signing up for English classes and using their savings to buy homes and bring over other family members.[9]

Kellor, speaking for the NAC in 1916, proposed to combine efficiency and patriotism in her Americanization programs. It would be more efficient, she argued, once the factory workers could all understand English and therefore better understand orders and avoid accidents. Once Americanized, they would grasp American industrial ideals and be open to American influences and not subject only to strike agitators or foreign propagandists. The result, she argued would transform indifferent and ignorant residents into understanding voters, to make their homes into American homes, and to establish American standards of living throughout the ethnic communities. Ultimately, she argued it would "unite foreign-born and native alike in enthusiastic loyalty to our national ideals of liberty and justice."[10]


After World War I, the emphasis in Americanization programs was gradually shifted from emergency propaganda to a long-time educational program, when a study of conditions in the draft army made by the United States Surgeon General's office showed that from 18% to 42% of the men in army camps were unable to read a newspaper or to write a letter home, and that in the Northern and Middle Western United States these illiterates were almost entirely foreign born. Indications were that barriers to any understanding of U.S. aims and interests were even more marked than this among the older men and the women in the foreign colonies within the U.S. Hundreds of Americanization agencies sprang up overnight.[3]

After the 1970s proponents of multiculturalism have attacked Americanization programs as coercive and not respectful of immigrant culture. A major debate today is on whether speaking English is an essential component of being American.


Jacob Schiff played a major role as a leader of the American Jewish community in the late 19th century. At a time of increasing demand for immigration restriction, Schiff supported and worked for Jewish Americanization. A Reform Jew, he backed the creation of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He took a stand favoring a modified form of Zionism, reversing his earlier opposition. Above all, Schiff believed that American Jewry could live in both the Jewish and American worlds, creating a balance that made possible an enduring American Jewish community.[11]

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), founded in Chicago in 1893, had the goals of philanthropy and the Americanization of Jewish immigrants. Responding to the plight of Jewish women and girls from Eastern Europe, the NCJW created its Department of Immigrant Aid to assist and protect female immigrants from the time of their arrival at Ellis Island until their settlement at their final destination. The NCJW's Americanization program included assisting immigrants with housing, health, and employment problems, leading them to organizations where women could begin to socialize, and conducting English classes while helping them maintain a strong Jewish identity. The council, pluralistic rather than conformist, continued its Americanization efforts and fought against restrictive immigration laws after World War I. At the forefront of its activities was the religious education of Jewish girls, who were ignored by the Orthodox community.[12] Americanization did not mean giving up traditional ethnic foods.[13]


World War I closed off most new arrivals and departures from Italy. The Italian American community supported the American war effort, sending tens of thousands of young men into the armed forces, as others took jobs in war factories. Buying war bonds became patriotic, and use of English surged as the community supported the Americanization campaigns.[14] By the 1920s the Little Italies had stabilized and grew richer, as workers gained skills and entrepreneurs opened restaurants, groceries, construction firms and other small businesses. With few new arrivals, there was less Italian and more English spoken, especially by the younger generation.[15]


The French-speaking Cajuns of southern Louisiana were not immigrants—they arrived before the American Revolution in an isolated area that allowed little contact with other groups. The Cajuns were forcefully Anglicized in the 20th century. Children were punished in school for using French; they were called names like "swamp rat" and "bougalie", forced to write lines ("I will not speak French in school"), made to kneel on kernels of corn, and slapped with rulers.[16]:18 French was also banned as a medium of education in 1912.[16]:18 English also gained more prestige than Cajun French due to the spread of English-language movies, newspapers and radio into Acadiana.[16]:20 Wartime military service broke the crust of traditionalism for younger men, while automobiles and the highway system allowed easy movement to Anglo cities. Prosperity and consumer culture, and a host of other influences have effaced much of the linguistic and cultural uniqueness of the Cajuns.[17]


The study of Polish immigrants to the United States, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920), became the landmark first study of this process.[18]

Case studies[edit]

States and cities[edit]

A number of states had bureaus whose responsibility was to help immigrants assimilate into American society. Often described negatively as efforts to force foreigners into appropriate molds, Christina Ziegler-McPherson (2009) argues that these programs—including adult education, environmental improvement, labor market regulations, and conflict resolutions—were typically implemented by groups sympathetic to immigrants and their cultures. Toledo, Ohio was typical of several cities that continued Americanization programs into the 1997s. The Toledo Americanization Board in cooperation with the Toledo Board of Education provided classes in English as a second language and Americanization from 2015 until probably 1925; the Toledo International Institute was affiliated with the Young Women's Christian Association and offered English instruction and assistance with naturalization to foreign-born women and girls.

Other uses[edit]

The term also is used for the cultural transformation of areas brought into the U.S., such as Alaska,[19] and on the assimilation of Native Americans.[20]

Impact on other countries[edit]

The term Americanization has been used since 1907 for the American impact on other countries.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jennifer Jensen Wallach (2013). How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 179. 
  2. ^ John F. McClymer, War and Welfare: Social Engineering in America, 1890-1925, (1980), pp 79, 105-52
  3. ^ a b c d  "Americanization". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921. 
  4. ^ James R. Barrett, "Americanization From The Bottom Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the Working Class in the United States, 1880-1930." Journal of American History (1998) 79#3 pp: 996-1020. in JSTOR
  5. ^ Paula M. Kane, Separatism and Subculture: Boston Catholicism, 1900-1920 (2001) pp 39-40.
  6. ^ Jennifer Jensen Wallach (2013). How America Eats: A Social History of U.S. Food and Culture. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 179–80. 
  7. ^ Vincent J. Cannato "How America became Italian," Washington Post Oct 9, 2015
  8. ^ McClymer, War and Welfare pp 110-11
  9. ^ Thomas J. Archdeacon, Becoming American (1984) pp 115, 186-7
  10. ^ McClymer, War and Welfare, pp 112-3
  11. ^ Evyatar Friesel, "Jacob H. Schiff and the Leadership of the American Jewish Community. Jewish Social Studies 2002 8(2-3): 61-72. 0021-6704
  12. ^ Seth Korelitz, "'A Magnificent Piece of Work': the Americanization Work of the National Council of Jewish Women." American Jewish History 1995 83(2): 177-203.
  13. ^ Robert Seltzer (1995). The Americanization of the Jews. NYU Press. p. 259. 
  14. ^ Christopher M. Sterba, Good Americans: Italian and Jewish immigrants during the First World War (2003)
  15. ^ Humbert S. Nelli, "Italians," in Stephan Thernstrom, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980) 545-60
  16. ^ a b c Shane Bernard (2000). The Cajuns: Americanization of a People. University Press of Mississippi. Retrieved 30 May 2013. 
  17. ^ Shane Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2002)
  18. ^ Zygmunt Dulczewski (1984). Florian Znaniecki: życie i dzieło (in Polish). Wydawnictwo Poznańskie. pp. 175–177. ISBN 978-83-210-0482-2. 
  19. ^ Ted C. Hinckley, The Americanization of Alaska, 1867-1897 (1972)
  20. ^ Francis P. Prucha, Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indians," 1880-1900. (1973)
  21. ^ Samuel E. Moffett, The Americanization of Canada (1907) full text online; see also Ralph Willett, The Americanization of Germany, 1945-1949 (1989)

Further reading[edit]

  • Barrett, James R. "Americanization from the Bottom, Up: Immigration and the Remaking of the American Working Class, 1880–1930." Journal of American History (1992) 79#3 pp: 996–1020. in JSTOR
  • Bernard, Shane. The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2002).
  • Cowan, Neil M. and Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. Our Parents' Lives: The Americanization of Eastern European Jews. (1989).
  • McClymer, John F. War and Welfare: Social Engineering in America, 1890-1925 (1980)
  • Olneck, Michael R. "Americanization and the Education Of Immigrants, 1900-1925: An Analysis Of Symbolic Action." American Journal of Education 1989 97(4): 398-423; shows that Americanization programs help liberate youth from the tight confines of traditional families in JSTOR
  • Olneck, Michael R. "What Have Immigrants Wanted from American Schools? What Do They Want Now? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Immigrants, Language, and American Schooling," American Journal of Education, 115 (May 2009), 379–406.
  • Seltzer, Robert M. and Cohen, Norman S., eds. The Americanization of the Jews. (1995).
  • Sterba, Christopher M. Good Americans: Italian and Jewish immigrants during the First World War (2003).
  • Van Nuys, Frank. Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants, and Citizenship, 1890-1930 (2002).
  • Ziegler-McPherson, Christina A. Americanization in the States: Immigrant Social Welfare Policy, Citizenship, and National Identity in the United States, 1908-1929, (2009)


  • Brubaker, Rogers. "The return of assimilation? Changing perspectives on immigration and its sequels in France, Germany, and the United States." Ethnic and racial studies 24#4 (2001): 531-548. online
  • Kazal, Russell A. "Revisting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History." American Historical Review (1995) 100#2 pp. 437–471 in JSTOR
  • Steinberg, Stephen. "The long view of the melting pot." Ethnic and Racial Studies 37#5 (2014): 790-794. online

Primary sources[edit]