Skip to Main Content

Industry and Immigration in the Gilded Age

85 min
  • Students will analyze excerpts from primary sources of the Gilded Age to trace relationships between industry and immigration during the period.
  • Students will review letters from immigrants in the United States to see how they evaluated the success of their venture.

Students will need access to laptops or tablets, at least for analysis of Handout B: Nevada Manifest. This activity requires close analysis of a document available at National Archives Identifier: 5753086 Full Citation: Passenger Arrival Manifest for the Ship Nevada; 1/2/1892. Students should have access to laptops, at least sufficient for work in pairs, so they can analyze and comment on the Passenger Arrival Manifest for the Ship Nevada ( either as a whole-class guided exercise or as a self-directed activity.

Have students read Handout A: Background Essay: Immigrants and Industry to set the stage for this lesson. Before class begins, write the following on the board: (Choose between Driving Question A and Driving Question B.)

  • Driving Question A: How did the increase in industrialization during the period 1865–1898 fuel immigration to the United States and what was the result?
  • Driving Question B: What was the impact of large-scale immigration on industrial development in the United States during the late nineteenth century?
  • Lesson Thesis: Immigrants came for the promise of escaping poverty and oppression. They did not always find a warm welcome and the transition was difficult, but for many people, immigration to the United States led to improved opportunity for themselves and/or for their descendants over time.
  • American Identity: How did immigration and industry contribute to American identity in the Gilded Age? How were immigrants themselves shaped by American ideals?

Handout B: Nevada Manifest (Students should have access to laptops.)

  1. If desired, provide Handout B: Nevada Manifest as a printed document to use in conjunction with the online document. Otherwise, students will access the Nevada Manifest at and provide this introduction: In this manifest of January 2, 1892, the first officer of the ship Nevada declares “that the following List or Manifest. . . delivered to the Collector of Customs for New York City is a full and perfect list of all the passengers taken on board” in Europe and “on said list is truly designated the age, the sex, and the calling of each of said passengers. . . the country of citizenship of each, and also the destination or location intended by each.” Also included is a column recording how long the passenger intends to stay in America: “a protracted sojourn [lengthy stay]” or a transient stay.
  2. Give students a few minutes to preview the document online, perhaps in pairs. Instruct them to determine the source, audience, and purpose of this document.
  3. Next, working with the class as a whole as time permits, you might encourage students to pursue their own questions and comments inspired by the document. Alternatively, you could point out a few features of the document by asking students to notice certain details in a close reading exercise. Point out that this is just a single voyage of a single ship out of the many arriving regularly, filled with people who wanted to live in the United States. Sample questions are listed.
    • How many passengers total are listed on this page?
    • How many of the passengers do not appear to be traveling with a family unit? How can you tell?
    • Notice the ages of the passengers: Oldest? Youngest? Additional details?
    • Do any children appear to be traveling without a parent? What scenarios might have resulted in these children being sent without an adult?
    • It appears that for four mothers who are traveling with their children, no father is listed. At a time when women’s roles and rights were limited in the United States and elsewhere, why might these mothers have moved to America with their children?
    • What was the most common citizenship listed?
    • What was the most common destination?
    • What were the most common callings [occupations]?
    • Summarize the Read/Write column under “Intended Destination or Location.”
    • Note the number of pieces of luggage for the passengers and how long they intended to stay in the United States.
    • What characteristics did all of these passengers have in common?
    • What other questions do the data inspire?

Conclude the discussion by asking students to either speculate or, time permitting, do additional research regarding one or more of the following questions.

  1. Pick a passenger or a family listed on the manifest and develop a hypothesis about push/pull factors that may have contributed to their decision to come to America.
  2. What clues can you deduce regarding changes in American identity as nearly 9 million immigrants made their way to American farms and cities during the period 1880-1900?
  3. How might these people’s experiences have affected their own personal and family identities?

There are many possibilities for extension activities involving additional research related to these people and their family histories.

1. Distribute Handout C: Letters from Polish Immigrants to Their Families in Poland and assign students to read the three letters provided. Assign the readings as best fits your teaching situation (e.g., small groups, jigsaw). Note the directions, which require students to answer the Comprehension and Reflection Questions as well as analyze the letters, identifying similarities among them and using them to understand how the increase in industrialization fueled immigration and what the result was.

2. Wrap up with a whole-class discussion based on some or all of the Comprehension and Reflection Questions for the letters.

The lesson’s driving question is How did the increase in industrialization during the period 1865–1898 fuel immigration to the United States and what was the result?

3. To get a sense of the “what was the result” part of the question, have students read and respond to the questions on the two documents in Handout D: Debate Over Immigration Law 1896–1897.

4. You may wish to briefly correct any misunderstandings students have regarding these documents before the next step, conducting a Socratic Practice dialogue. Divide the class into two groups, and designate them as Group A Inner Circle and Group B Outer Circle.

5. The inner circle serves as the conversation panel, working from the list of discussion topics (Driving Question, Lesson Thesis, American Identity) on the board. Add questions or topics as needed for your students.

6. The outer circle observes and moves the conversation along by asking follow-up questions as needed on the basis of the inner circle’s participation.

7. All interactions must be courteous, with no one hogging the conversation. Ideally, the students are speaking to one another, making space for every student to participate, with no prompting from the teacher.

8. Students are required to support any comment or assertion by linking it to one or more of the primary sources used in the lesson.

9. The teacher’s role is to observe and keep notes about the quality of the conversation.

10. Halfway through the time allowed for this step, inner and outer circle students will trade places, and the conversation will continue with the new discussion panel. Students should avoid repeating comments and observations that have been previously mentioned.

11. Have students place their desks in two concentric circles facing the center of the room. The inner circle will be the first discussion panel. The outer circle will ask questions as needed to move the discussion along but cannot answer questions in the first round.

12. Students may refer to the list of questions on the board to serve as a roadmap for the conversation. You may wish to have students work in the order the questions are listed the first time or two that you use this strategy. Later, students should be able to develop their own order of questions as the conversation flows in a more organic manner. As students become more familiar with the strategy, they will take more ownership of the conversation and need less coaching. Also, it is useful for the teacher to keep notes on which students were in Group A, and make those students Group B next time, so everyone has an equal opportunity to be in the first discussion panel.

Summarize the inner and outer circle conversation by asking the following:

  • How would you define American ideals? To what extent were they demonstrated in the Gilded Age?
  • To what extent did the new influx of immigrants after 1880 contribute to the changing makeup of the United States? How were immigrants, in turn, shaped by American ideals?
  • How did native-born Americans respond to the immigrants and their diverse cultures?

The following essential questions could be used for classroom discussions or as essay prompts:

(a) To what extent were the promises of freedom and prosperity in the United States fulfilled by its immigrants?

(b) To what extent has immigration contributed to U.S. economic development and success?

Related Resources