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III. THE GREAT IMMIGRATION: 1870-1920

A. One Million Hungarians

       Between 1870 and 1920 an estimated 1,078,974 Hungarians immigrated to the United States.24 (This figure does not include the ethnic minorities who came as citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Those who made the arduous journey to the North American continent were lured by the prospects of economic opportunities. The United States, on the other hand, was in need of cheap labor to maintain and expand its industrial potential.

       Around the turn of the century, the flow of immigrants to the United States shifted from western and northern Europe to central and southern Europe. The Industrial Revolution in England, France and Germany literally halted the flow of immigrants to the United States. Rapidly expanding industry, however, created an even greater demand for manpower; Italy, Austria, Hungary and Poland became new centers for the recruitment of workers. By 1910 over nine million immigrants had arrived in the United States from these regions in Europe. This mass migration has been attributed to the combined effects of "push" from the country of origin and "pull" exerted by the United States.

       The "push" was primarily caused by poverty and overpopulation in the countryside. Hungary's population was augmented by two million in the 1880s. This aggravated the situation of the agricultural laborers, to whom the increased numbers of workers meant lower wages and less work. Moreover, the problem of overpopulation exerted greater demands on the already limited amount of available farmland. A semi-feudal land ownership system determined that one-half of all arable land belonged to landowners with large estates

 


 

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(ranging from a few thousand acres to 50,000 and 150,000 acres) and medium-sized estates (from seventy to 700 acres).25 The other half of the agricultural population consisted of small landholders, dwarf-landholding farmers and landless agricultural peasants. Small landholders owned from fifteen to seventy acres and were able to make a living from their own property. The dwarf-landholding farmers owned a house and maybe a few acres, but could barely subsist on their own land. This latter group, along with the landless agricultural workers were the ones who immigrated to America.

       Working and living conditions were inhuman. Landless agricultural workers worked from sunup until sundown for usually less than twenty-five cents a day. Industry was barely developed in Hungary, and the poverty-stricken peasant could not find work in a nearby city or town. The over-abundance of laborers often resulted in maltreatment and abuse from overseers and landlords. Many of the peasant laborers had their fill of the back-breaking work and starvation pay. They gambled everything on steerage to America because they had little to lose and everything to gain.

       Several factors contributed to the "pull" to the United States, such as: recruiting agents and letters and/or money sent by fellow countrymen already in America. Agents recruiting cheap labor for demanding American industry afforded the means by which the peasant could gain passage to America. Usually, because of conditions in the homeland, it didn't take much convincing on the part of the agent. Some companies such as the New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson hired a staff of recruiting agents and contracted shipping lines to bring shiploads of immigrants from Fiume directly to New Brunswick. Fiume was the main point of embarkation for

 


 

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immigrants from Austria-Hungary destined for the United States. In retrospect, the agents were highly successful, nearly ten percent of Hungary's population immigrated to America between 1870 and 1920.

       The pull was further augmented by money and letters sent by fellow countrymen already in America; both provided testimony of the favorable working conditions and high pay in the United States. At the height of immigration, Hungarians in America sent home as much as one hundred to two hundred million kronen annually. According to estimates, the highest annual remittance was 125 billion kronen or the equivalent of $50,000,000.26 Families which received significant amounts of money from America built new homes, bought land and paid off mortgages. Such concrete testimony of success in America promoted immigration in the entire surrounding district.

       Letters, such as the following written to the village of Komárom, provided eyewitness accounts of life in America. The contents of such letters were made known to relatives, friends and eventually, the entire village. Letters relating the hardships, alienation and tragedies were usually not circulated:

 

Here a man is paid for his labors, and I am certainly not sorry that I am here. I work from six in the morning until seven at night and get $10-$11 a week. Just now, it's hot. When it gets cooler I'll make more money, perhaps double, and then I'll work only eleven hours. There are 10,000 workers in this shop and my wife is working here too. She makes $9.50 a week. At home I made that much money in a whole month and people thought my job was very good. Here I am sewing dresses on a machine. In America there is no difference between one man and another. If you're a millionaire you are called a Mister just the same and your wife is Missis.27

 

The net result of all these factors combined was that entire villages were depopulated. The Hungarian government realized only too late the implications of such a loss of manpower to the nation's economy.

 

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       The majority of Hungarians who immigrated to America at this time came with the intention of returning to Hungary, hopefully with enough money to purchase land. Emigration began in the following counties of northern Hungary: Abaúj-Torna, Sáros, Szepes and Zemplén. Migration began in districts where harsh economic realities, caused by such factors as crop failure, unemployment and widespread hunger put a great strain on the population.

       Initially, single men and men who left their families behind constituted a large percentage, over seventy-three percent of this emigration. During the years preceding World War I, however, the number of women emigrating equalled that of men. Three-fourths of these Hungarians were between the age of twenty and forty-nine. And over eighty-nine percent were literate. In America, they stayed in the industrial northeast, where they found immediate openings as unskilled laborers in steel mills, foundries and coal mines. At that time, industry paid fifteen cents an hour. Unskilled laborers worked ten to twelve hours a day, usually earning between $8 and $12 a week. The occupational breakdown of the Hungarians who immigrated was: 77.5 percent-agricultural workers and unskilled workers of all kinds; 8.6 percent-skilled workers; and 13.5 percent-miscellaneous occupations.28

States with particularly large concentrations of Hungarian immigrants were: New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio and Illinois. Living in close proximity to fellow countrymen already in America was important. It provided the newcomer, thrust into a foreign environment, with a certain degree of security. Numerous examples attest to such "group migration." From one district in northern Hungary, Bodrogköz, more than 7,000 immigrants settled in the state of Ohio. The Hungarian community of Homestead, Pennsylvania, was composed largely of immigrants from the county of Ung.

 


 

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       They lived in large overcrowded boardinghouses, where sometimes even the beds would be shared by men working on different shifts. The immigrant women who ran these boardinghouses never had a moment's rest; the work involved was overwhelming. It was a privilege for an immigrant to have a bed in a boardinghouse run by a Hungarian woman and, above all, to receive Hungarian-style home-cooked meals. The boardinghouse manager cooked the meals, washed all the boarder's clothes and cleaned the house. For this, each boarder paid around $3 per week.

       More than half of those who arrived prior to 1914 managed to return. World War I and its outcome dramatically altered the lives of thousands of Hungarians in America, many of whom were living as aliens in the United States. As such, they were unprotected from discrimination and other forms of injustice directed against them because their homeland was on the "other side" during the war. Many simply accepted this situation and returned to Europe. Others returned because they wanted to rejoin their families and help assure their safety. The treaty which followed the war, the Treaty of Trianon, partitioned several sizeable sections of Hungary. Thousands decided to return to their villages in the midst of such political and economic upheavals.

       Those who stayed realized that this decision was a permanent one. After 1920 increased numbers of Hungarians purchased homes and became citizens of the United States. Others abandoned the hope of returning after long years of working and saving, or simply adjusted to life in America and chose to stay. Still others never returned because they lost their lives in a coal mine cave-in or a steel mill explosion.

 


 

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Hungarian Immigrant Family in Cleveland c.1900
(Greater Cleveland Ethnographic Museum)

 

Hungarian and Slovak workers at factory in Pennsylvania Ca. 1915
(Greater Cleveland Ethnographic Museum)

 


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