Immigration Push and Pull: Letters from the United States Back Home (2023)

Immigrants write to families back home

Even after settling, most migrants had strong ties to their "homeland" — whether it was across the ocean or the Mason-Dixon line. Correspondence between those who left and those who stayed behind. The surviving letters shed light on why some people decide to migrate, why some stay and why some return.

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  • What clues do these letters give to immigrants' personal "push" factors? ...your "pull" factors?
  • How well has America met their expectations? What was a disappointment? What went better than expected?
  • Is there such a thing as a "typical" immigrant experience? Why or why not?
  • Which letters show the strongest connection to home? How are they connected? Where do you hear homesickness?
  • Which letters break the bonds? What are the "symptoms" of loosening ties?
  • What advice do relatives in America give to their families back home?

go further

  • How has the process of leaving home, traveling to the United States, and settling in changed for today's immigrants? What parts of the process stayed the same?
  • What goals, values ​​and emotions do most immigrants of all eras seem to share?
  • Check out your theoriesInterview with someone who immigrated to the United States.

Writing Home: From the USA to Poland

William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki published the following excerpts from letters from immigrants in America to their families in Poland in their bookThe Polish peasant in Europe and America, Band 1.

Johann Bonkowski to his family in Poland

26. April 1891

dear dear parents,

I pick up my pen to share the good news. I'm alive and well, thank God. On the 24th of the month I received your letter, in which I learned that my sister Marianna would like to come here with me. Well, now is a good time to sail. She must have at least 80 rubles. She gets a job here as a maid for $8, $10, $17 a month. If she is able to understand everything that is being said, she will receive more. If she were here now, she would get the same salary that she gets from the Germans now. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 🇧🇷

Dear sister, be careful on the roads [on the way]. When you get to Castle Garden, wire me. Stay in the Castle Garden until I come for you. When you get here you won't be digging potatoes or planting hay.

When you're ready, travel to Bremen. There you buy a ticket for a steamer. In Torun, only sit in the back [of the train]. You must have at least 25 marks for train and meals. The train from Torun to Hamburg costs 13 marks and 73 pfennigs, but I don't know how much it will cost to Bremen. If Sister comes here, I have decided to stay here for two more years.

Dear parents, write me if Mary has my address, if she comes to my house or not and when my sister leaves. Write me a letter as soon as possible. You can give her some money and when she gets here we'll send it back to you. If the steamer tickets hadn't sold out I would have sent her one, but that would have gotten me in big trouble. 🇧🇷 If she wants, she can come now because it's warm and the ride would be comfortable.

Dear sister, take care and pay attention to what I wrote.

Greetings to father and mother, to my sisters and brothers, to my friends and relatives and to all acquaintances. I remain your faithful son until we meet happily again. Please send me a quick reply because I want to know if it's coming or not.

Johannes Bonkowski

Abraham Tangruza's travel instructions for his wife in Poland

New York,
November 1890

To my wife Toba,

Every Thursday a ship sails from Hamburg to New York. I wrote in the newspapers that Maier is 3 years old and Anna is 1. You have to tell them that in the Hamburg office. You must keep this ticket with the address of the travel agent. When you get off the train in Hamburg, a police officer will show you the way to the office. Everything from Hamburg to New York is prepaid. Don't pay more. And if you still have to pay, ask for a receipt, because in Hamburg everyone is thieves and thieves. And my dear, take things from home that don't spoil easily. You can get everything else in Hamburg. Do what others will do. And we'll meet at Castle Garden. We just need to know when the ship leaves Hamburg. Even if you have difficulties in Hamburg, you have to make do somehow with the money you have, because I can no longer send you. Otherwise you will have to stay longer in Europe. Let my father take you to the train and send you off. I will be grateful to him. The end.

John Cybulski's travel instructions for his wife

bait cave,
February 16, 1891

Dear Lady,

Today I received your letter in good health, which is also what I wish you from God with all my heart. You wrote to send you a steamboat ticket. I hasten to reply to let you know that I have done what you asked. I am sending this steamer card from New York on February 20th, four days after this letter. Later I will also send you some money for the trip. I will send you the Steam ticket myself by registered mail, but I have to send you the money through an agency. The steamship ticket and the money must not arrive at the same time. But you can wait a few days for the money. The Steam ticket will probably arrive first as the money has to be exchanged multiple times at the agencies so don't worry and don't listen to anyone. Once you get the steamboat ticket and money, get ready and come to America for me. wait for nothing It is not necessary to take backpacks, that is, suitcases, as well as clothes for the trip. If you have bedding, sell it. And now I remind you, dear lady, if you receive all the mail that I am sending you, then stay sober and wise, because there are many who do not respect the property of others, especially in Poland.


August Gar to his parents in Poland

4 January 1891

my dear parents,

It's been a long time since you received a letter from me. I wanted to send you some money but I don't have any extra money yet because I didn't work very hard over the summer. And now things aren't going so well either. I worked today but I don't know if I'll survive tomorrow. I must try to save some money if there is no work; but I can't save much money. I make $8 a week but I have to pay $3 1/2 a week for room and board and you know how much I have left over. If I work through the winter, I'll send some money for the trip, but not until spring. I can't run out of money because you can't say how things will continue here.


M. Goodstein to his aunt in Poland

Sankt Bernhard,
28. November 1890

... On November 4th it was exactly one year since I left home. On December 4th I arrived in New York and on the 12th I arrived in San Bernardino. I can safely say that I should have left my homeland 15 years earlier. It would have been so much better for me, a thousand times better, because I can't even describe to you how I looked at the beginning and how different I am now. I don't want to write about it because once it starts it may never end. I want to ask people at home this very question: why is it forbidden for a young man to walk with a girl, talk to her and get to know her? I don't think it's a sin, and I didn't find it in Gemorah either. Only you, the Poles, are so backward, and that's why such a young man, when he comes here, is called a "Green" and in Germany "Polen" or "Russian pig". That's the truth.

I don't want to offend you, but it's especially true that in your small towns everything is known and becomes gossip in half an hour. And when a young man comes here from there, what impression does he make? First, he cannot open his mouth because he does not know the language. So when you get together with people, you don't know how to behave and how to have fun. So people make fun of him. I can understand why he can't talk at first and then eat because he's not used to that kind of food. He also doesn't know how to hold a knife, fork or napkin. And he doesn't know how to sing or clink glasses in company. At home we just said “Lehayim”. At home we only sang Zmires. And now he knows how to dance because I've never seen anyone dance or play at home because people opened their mouths in amazement. They didn't go to the theater because that was also considered a sin. As for dressing up at home, we threw a shirt and scarf around our necks and that was it. Here, however, you must have different clothes for summer and winter. The same applies to women.

In our shop we also sell women's dresses and even underwear. And there may be times when a young man needs to sell a young woman some of these things or whatever. We also sell t-shirts, shirts, collars, fine ties, pocket watches, top hats and coats here. The young man at home did not know any of this. So here he is shown everywhere as a small child. And people laugh at him. I'm not telling this, God forbid, about me. When I came here, I was already different. The only thing was that I didn't know English, but now it's all over...

Rachel-Lea Gottlieb for her brother

New York,
6. April 1891

... You must not think that the streets of America are paved with gold. You have to work a lot more there than in Poland. Only if you are not lazy, you can live here much better than in Poland.


Kazimiz Graboski to his parents about his sister's trip to America

March 15, 1891

...Now write, dear parents, that my sister, your daughter Marianne, is leaving for America, but only on the condition that you know how much money she will need for the trip. If dad thinks so, to give money for the trip, then you can let her go, she needs 80 rubles. They ask, dear parents, whether she will have a good life here and whether she will lead a good life here. You don't need to worry about that because there is no comparison between America and this dirty Russian country. And when she gets ready to go to America, she has to take all the bedding and clothes she has, because in America everything can be dressed just like in the old country. She must bring a big scarf for me and her and an umbrella for me and her and my books, especially the prayer books. In a word, everything I left behind.

our judge

S. Kazmirkiewicz traveling to his family

Seminar St. Vincent (Westmoreland, PA)

Well, dear Szwagier, take about two boiled geese, if you have any, for the trip, some roast ducks or chickens and about 2 wholemeal breads, because on the transatlantic you will not be able to eat what they give you. Also bring 2 long homemade sausages - well smoked, peppered and cooked with garlic and if you like the sausage fresh then get the fresh one. If not, cook the smoked; but first it has to be smoked, otherwise it would spoil in the steamer. Take hard cheese with you, and when you arrive in Bremen at the sea, buy about 2 liters of good vodka, which will be like medicine for you on the steamer. In it you will not have an appetite for food. Take about a bottle of drops with you, but you can do all that before boarding the steamer...

You need to rush to the ocean liner or steamer as soon as possible so you can choose a good spot. As soon as you board the Transatlantic, you will see shelves like catwalks on one side and beds on the other side on the first few steps. Choose for yourself the first beds near the stairs where you go down. Take the lower bunk from the walkway because all smells stay upstairs, ie in the higher bunks. Hurry, pick up straw mattresses off the floor if there aren't any on the beds and put them on your bed because towards the bottom of the pad it rocks more.

Mattaus Kowalski to his wife, travel advice

middle town,
February 23

...Only use sugar for the ocean liner. Tea and low profile to allow you to self cater if you are unable to eat the food provided on the ship. As for clothes, don't pack too much, only the best and two pillows too. You shouldn't overexert yourself because I don't know how you would walk to the border.


Maker Kroneski, to his mother about America's misery

March 16, 1891

Dear mother,

Stay in the old country and eat once a day and be healthier than in America. For me, if the Lord God give me health, I will return to the old homeland in the fall. In America, too, there is a lot of poverty developing and getting worse. Many people are unemployed; there is no work to do. Those who work, work and those who are idle curse their lives. It would have been better if I got lost; it would have been better if I had drowned in the sea; that's how it is in america.


Julian Kszseszowski to a friend at work in America

February 10, 1891

Here they select laborers as they select animals for the market or for the army in the old country - provided they are strong and healthy; That's how they treat people. But it is true that someone who is strong, young, healthy and hardworking can earn 100 rubles a month; But you also need to know how to speak American. You can earn a ruble much faster here than there [Poland] half a ruble in a whole summer. And the goal will not be reached quickly because the language is not known, and that is important for everyone. But if you want and can afford it, you shouldn't be afraid to come. But he has to be strong and energetic and he has to live in a good neighborhood, have a good address and have a boyfriend so he doesn't get by like me... America is the richest country [in the world], but all their wealth is in the country; that's why people work so hard [here] everywhere. 🇧🇷 .But everyone can come here without hesitation and grow faster here than there...


Marcianna Dwiatkowska for her daughter, travel advice

24. April 1891

... When you travel, dear daughter, do not buy an arak for the journey, just buy a few plates, a small pot and a small cup. When you arrive in Hamburg, the brokers still want a lot of money from you. Even if you have it, don't pass it on; Just say your tickets are already prepaid, "my mom paid". If they don't move at all, you pay a maximum of 2 marks. As for the rest, don't give anyone what you have. Whatever clothes you have, take them with you, even your everyday scarf, because it will come in handy on the ocean liner. That way you wouldn't waste the new one as you will need it both here in America and in Poland. Well, dear daughter, if you sold the duvet and not the pillows, bring the pillows with you. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 Buy a pair of shoes with buttons, if you have good ones, don't buy them. Don't worry about money, because I've sent you some to Karpinska, where the steamer ticket will be, that's in Golub, I'll send you 24 marks and you've got enough.

Now, dear daughter, begin the journey with God, prepare yourself with confessions, for it is a dreadful journey. You have to cross several thousand kilometers of water, but don't be afraid of anything; Always keep God in your heart and God will lead you safely to me...


Joseph and Josephine Lipinski to their sister and brother-in-law

February 21, 1891

...perhaps it is possible that we see each other at least once a year. However, it gets difficult because it's not about [spending] those few dollars; but it is this great, terrible ocean that frightens us, for at the thought of this water death rises before our eyes. I don't know how to tell you how much terror and misery we endured before coming to America. But now that fear is gone. The only thing we're still afraid of is going back to our old homeland because we've gotten along very well in America so far. A man does not have to work as much as in the old country; and he can live better here and earn more money than with you in the old homeland. I work in a deep (ie?) coal mine. I work deep underground - several hundred Lokiec - from 7 am to 2 pm and sometimes until 3 pm. I earn two dollars and ten cents. But the work I do, well, if they really let me work on it and don't let me sit around, I could finish it in four hours at most. It's the kind of work where, if you really try, you can make 35 cents in five minutes and a penny is worth two copies. But now, in winter, we don't work every day; From March 1st, however, work will be in full swing. So if Grezlik and Anthony come in March or early April, they will come on time because they don't have to look for work. Anyway, if they want to work, they will find a job. But I think they'll get sick of America before long, because if I'm feeling lonely, I'm sure they will too. I am not persuading any of you to come to America, nor do I praise America before you because there are others who have experienced greater misery in America than in the old country.

Joseph and Josephine

Leon Makowiecki to his mother in Poland

Gallitzin, PA
21st of January

Dear mother,

I inform about my work. From the moment I received your letter, work stopped. Men didn't want to work for that salary, they wanted a higher salary, so we stopped working for 7 days. But this company didn't want to give more raises. We worked for the same money again, but now we only work three days a week. I don't know how long the work will go on like this. During this time, a man hardly earns enough to live on. But maybe that won't last long. Dear mother, I warn you that in America it is very cold and there is a lot of snow. Dear mother, you ask where I like it best. I like America better because I can make money faster and if I was on the old continent I couldn't help you with anything. But in America, if God gives me health, dear mother, it will be easier for me to send you a few rubles...


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