“My first venture was to buy a pair of stockings”: part six of Augusta Parsons Hylander’s account
Here is an opportunity for detective work (and speculation): Augusta refers to Ellis Island several times, but as far as I can gather, her arrival in America predated the 1892 opening of the immigration station there by a year or so. Before it opened, immigrants were received very nearby – at Castle Garden Immigration Depot from 1855–90, and then at a temporary station at the Barge Office on Manhattan’s southern shore (the area known as the Battery) from April of 1890 until January of 1892, while the Ellis Island station was under construction.
If we accept that Augusta did arrive when we think she did, and was therefore “processed” at one of these locations (probably the Barge Office), my guess is that she later used the name “Ellis Island” as a sort of shorthand to describe the adjacent points of immigration to New York. Given that she was part of the Swedish-American immigrant community, she would have known (or known of) a great many people who arrived via Ellis Island throughout her life, from just after her own arrival until she was an elderly woman; and the Barge Office was so close to the Ellis Island construction site that it may well have felt natural to just use that term.
In researching the history of the various immigration stations, I came across an article from The Illustrated American, 23 July 1892, which is transcribed here; I think if you are in the USA it can be read directly via Google Books, but I can’t access that. It’s a patronising and unpleasant little piece, displaying some of the casual racism and misogyny that typified many Americans’ attitudes to immigrants around the time of Augusta’s arrival:
We hear a great deal of the Irish peasant girl, with black hair and blue eyes, and a complexion which would drive a Newport beauty wild with envy. We have seen her once or twice on her native sod, with stockingless feet, and we have often met her raised to the position of a barmaid; but we have never seen her at Ellis Island. Possibly she is kept in hiding. Scotland’s “bonnie lassies,” too, have hidden themselves away, and where are England’s fair daughters? The beautiful women of Capri evidently never came to this country in the steerage, and Germany must smuggle her pretty Gretchens into this country by some other means.
The matrons and maids who arrive here, to domineer over our housekeepers, are certainly not a picturesque lot. The men are of a far finer type, and this is probably explained by the fact that the hard labor of the European peasant develops manly beauty, while it coarsens the features of the women. At any rate the European beauties do not come to this country by steerage.
It’s well known that the experience of arriving at Ellis Island proper – particularly the medical exam – could be unpleasant for women. They had to strip in front of one another, which could be humiliating, and they had to be examined by male doctors until the state finally employed two female doctors in 1914. I don’t know whether the same was true for women who came through the earlier Barge Office immigration point, nor whether women were routinely prevented from leaving there (as they were at Ellis Island) unless they could prove they were “safe” by displaying written evidence that they were awaited by relatives. Even if they could provide such evidence, single women were apparently prevented from leaving the depot in the company of any man not related to them.
There was also, as pointed out in this article, the worry of being branded “LPC”, which could result in a woman being sent home immediately for … well, no reason at all, really:
One statute in particular—the provision, first enacted in 1891 [the year of Augusta's arrival], that barred from entry any person officials deemed “likely to become a public charge”—placed a disproportionately heavy burden on female immigrants.
The law was intended to prevent destitute foreigners from immigrating to the United States solely for the purpose of going on welfare. “Likely to become a public charge”—or “LPC,” to borrow the abbreviated annotation used by border agents—differed from other categories of exclusion in that it required federal officials to assess each individual immigrant’s economic self-sufficiency in not only in the present, but also in the future. “Likely to become…” was a strange standard for judgment and one not used elsewhere in immigration law. (Immigration agents were required to inspect immigrants for tuberculosis, for example, but no one would have tried to exclude individuals on the basis that they were likely to become tubercular in the future.) The odd “LPC” standard required immigration officers to decide—often with a great deal of individual discretion—which immigrants were likely to be able to support themselves if allowed to enter the United States, and which were likely to become paupers. In practice, those decisions were heavily gendered. The dreaded initials “LPC,” scribbled onto the paperwork of would-be immigrants deported from Ellis Island, spelled the end of the American Dream for thousands of women who were sent back to their homelands without ever being allowed to set foot on the American mainland.
“LPC” placed an unequal burden on women because the officials charged with enforcing the provision operated under the strong presumption that men could support themselves and their families through wage labor, but that women likely could not. Therefore, women who arrived at Ellis Island attached to men—that is, as dependent wives or daughters—were likely to gain admittance, while those who arrived without a man were likely to be sent back home. As historian Martha Gardner has written, “LPC stigmatized women’s work outside the home by dismissing the ability of single women, divorced women, or widows to support themselves and their families. Poverty, in essence, was a gendered disease.”23 Even women who had supported themselves in their homelands through skilled, paid labor—for example, as seamstresses—were frequently classed as “LPC” and sent packing. By the 1920s, a single woman hoping to pass through Ellis Island without being branded “LPC” had to produce an affidavit of support from a male relative residing in the United States. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, any woman who lacked the financial support of a man was presumed to be “LPC.”
Fortunately for Augusta, her brothers had advised her well. She had them coming to meet her, and she had a documented dressmaking qualification from Malmö under her belt. Nevertheless, her experience of coming through immigration was somewhat stressful. She bounced back quickly, though, as we see in the following section of her story.
When we landed at Ellis Island and had passed a health inspection, my friend and I were separated and had to go to different sections. In these areas all people were herded who were going to one place, such as Boston or other city [sic]. My friend had to go to the Boston section and I to the New York section, so we said good-bye, or rather the Swedish adjö, and never met again. I was pushed into the place where I was going to be met, and there I sat for hours with my bulky baggage waiting to be called for. No one came for me. Perhaps I began to regret my “great adventure”. The only American words I knew were “yes” and “no”. Later I learned that the reason I was not met was that my brothers had been notified that the ship would not arrive until the next day and they were at work. But they felt uneasy, and came in the evening anyway. They had been misinformed. I don’t think I had ever been so glad as I was to hear my name called and see my two brothers coming toward me. I ran to them, leaving my baggage and bundles behind, laughing and crying.
They had been in the country for several years, and felt very much at home, talking and pointing out sights to me until I was dizzy. My first impression of America and New York was that I didn’t like it. Where were the golden streets? What about all the fairy-tale stories I had been told? It was too dirty and too full of dirty people. Later I realized that all New York did not look like the section first seen by immigrants coming from Ellis Island.
However, even this disappointment and disillusion did not really dampen my spirits. I was with my two brothers, I had no cares for the time being, and I was hungry: knäckebröd and hard cheese had been practically my only diet for three weeks.
My brothers took me to a very nice family, friends of theirs; the husband was a friend from home. They had a large apartment. One part of it was a dressmaking establishment, for the wife was a dressmaker trained in Stockholm. I got work with her right away, with her and her sister, who lived and worked with them. We formed a good trio of friends. We were very happy together, and I realized how lucky I was to have a good job and wonderful friends and live in such a nice place. It had all happened so quickly too. I didn’t feel like a new person who had just arrived in America from a foreign country. As soon as I began to earn money I repaid my brother for the ticket he had sent me. Then I bought cloth for a new dress which I made in American style. It was gray, and very pretty, and I bought a hat to go with it. It was the style then to wear wide ribbons on the dress, hanging from the shoulders to below the waist. I felt very stylish, and was confident that I looked like a real American.
My first venture to a store was to buy a pair of stockings. I insisted on going by myself, although I could only speak two words of English. I made out all right by pointing to everything and using my hands, but I was pretty nervous. It was probably a mistake to live with Swedish people and speak nothing but Swedish. I couldn’t learn English very quickly that way. So I started going to night school to learn the new language. It was difficult, and it was about three years before I could carry on a real conversation.