“Sometimes the number of immigrants waiting to be transferred was so great, that they waited for several days and nights before the little ferry boat could bring them to the island.”
“A group of Slavic immigrants register many shades of emotion. The baby salutes his new home — quite a family group.”
"In 1905 there was no organized recreation, so the immigrants supplied their own. The sign overhead reads: ‘No charge for meals here’. It is written in six different languages."
“Families of this size were responsible for keeping German immigration on the top of the list. From 1820 to 1936, 5,996,916 Germans came to America, the largest of all immigrant groups in the country.”
“These are some of the Italians who became of the barbers, waiters, chauffeurs and mayors of America. Some became the artists and sculptors of our national Capitol and of other public buildings.”
“The attendant brings a milk lunch, a great improvement over former days, when prunes or prune sandwiches, was the chief diet offered.”
“Notice the variety of foods on the table; this is a considerable improvement over the earlier days. The room too is less crowded and more comfortable looking.”
“A social worker explains to a group of immigrants some of the technicalities of becoming an American.”
“This enclosure is part of the improved conditions on the island. Here the elders too could play baseball, box or play some of their native games. In the background New York skyline can be seen.”
“This little girl finds the wonders of Ellis Island and the New World far more fascinating than the first penny clasped in her hand.”
“This beautiful mother and child sit outside the detention cell. Sometimes 1700 immigrants were crowded into a room which was built to accommodate 600.”
“The large window in the background becomes a halo for this Russian family, who might have been a suitable subject for a Renaissance painter.”
“This Armenian Jew probably left his native land to escape the Turkish persecution of the post-war period. His beard is typical of that worn by the orthodox Jews of Europe and the near East.”
“’Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound; But where is what I started for so long ago — and why it is still unfound.’ – Whitman”
“This woman is wearing her native costume. At times the Island looked like a costume ball with the multicolored, many-styled national costumes.”
“The desire to come to America must have been very strong for this young man to face all sorts of uncertainties.”
“Jewish immigration from Russia dates back to the 1840s. The Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and the Pogroms kept the exodus high. Today there are supposedly 2,000,000 Russian Jews in America.”
“Beds, three tiers high, were still not sufficient to accommodate the 5,000 immigrants who arrived daily. Many, like this young woman, were forced to sleep on benches, chairs, or on the floor.”
“The woman in the background carries her baggage in typical peasant fashion. The identification tag on her chest is the first touch of American civilization.”
“With all of her possessions on her back, this woman is prepared to face the future. Many of the 2,000,000 Slavs come to America in a similar condition.”
“Carrying clothing to the tenement to be ‘finished’ by family. Many young children have been employed long hours this way when they should have been at play or study.”
All photos and commentary by Lewis Hine via the New York Public Library.
Over the course of 62 years, Ellis Island saw a staggering 12 million people enter the quaint 27.5 acre space. For a good chunk of that time (1906 to 1926), photographer Lewis Hine documented it, as well as what transpired afterward as immigrants eked out new lives — and faced adversity of a different kind — in the United States.
Hine, like other documentary photographers of his time, took photos with a reformist’s agenda — specifically to fight the “ignorance and unconcern” that abounded with regard to popular understandings of and sentiment toward immigrants’ plight.
Unlike other documentary photographers who focused primarily on conditions, British historian Ian Jeffrey notes that Hine placed more emphasis on the people rather than the conditions, therefore situating Hine’s work “on the threshold between social documentation and art.”
Hine, who would go on to work for the American Red Cross and the National Child Labor Committee, would over time see himself as more of an artist than a social photographer, perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in 1920 he changed studio publicity from “Social Photography by Lewis W. Hine” to “Lewis Wickes Hine, Interpretive Photography.”
In the photos above, you can see Hine chronicle the hope, opportunity and fear immigrants felt as they arrived in the U.S. and adapted to their new home.