Believing the streets were paved with gold, millions of European immigrants arrived in the United States during the late 1800s. From Italy alone, one hundred thousand came every year at the height of that country’s emigration, 1860-1869. Some were driven from behind—squeezed out by poverty, disease, or persecution—others were drawn forward by what they dreamed lay ahead. America, the land of opportunity, an Elysian field for the huddled masses, was a young country ripe for development. Just through her golden door waited rights and privileges impossible to attain in Europe, where guilds and governments extracted hefty tariffs from tradesmen and artisans.
The freedoms and opportunities pursued and captured by numerous first-generation immigrants to this country were won at a price higher than the mere cost of transatlantic passage. Many surrendered time-honored traditions and assumed long hours of toil that kept them from families and leisure. Whereas European peasant life had centered around the family, American industrialism typically subtracted the father from the equation. Men frequently labored fourteen to eighteen hours a day to establish a business or trade. They had little time for religious observance, recreation, or regular meals with their families. From this rigid work regimen, however, they realized a piece of the American Dream: many built their fortunes. Riches, material comfort, life’s luxuries became theirs, and the path was cleared for the second generation to expand the dream by achieving assimilation.
Second generations often discarded “the old ways.” Their rejection of European customs was reinforced by witnessing all that their fathers had forfeited, as well as by the lessons taught in schools to ignore their ancestral heritage and to adopt the conduct of conformity. This amended American Dream promised a triumph of acceptance over alienation; stability over uprootedness; a glittering future over the dimming past.