“Last winter sometimes I just wanted to jump in the water, if you don’t have a job in America it’s a terrible thing, I can’t thank God enough that I have work and am healthy.”
In this letter, thirty-two-year-old German immigrant Martin Weitz writes to his family in Schotten, Germany, concerning the trials and tribulations of adjusting to life and finding work in the United States. The historical significance of this document rests largely on the obscurity of its author. Though Weitz is not wealthy, connected, or particularly highly educated, he is an authentic and highly descriptive eyewitness of everyday life during America’s Industrial Revolution. As an immigrant, moreover, he is attuned to the novelties of American life and records features that most observers born in the United States would likely have missed. In this account, Weitz relates his own economic difficulties, reflects on the changing political situation of the United States, and comments on the differences between European stereotypes of American life and its reality.
In July 1855, Martin Weitz was still finding his way in the United States, which was a life harder than he imagined. Though many immigrants of Weitz’s generation shared the same high hopes of opportunities in America, the mid-1850s proved an especially challenging time to come into the country. While the economy grew dramatically throughout the nation as a whole, Weitz’s experience reveals that on a local scale, cutthroat competition among industrial competitors and the uprooted population of those seeking work, including many fellow immigrants, resulted in widespread hardship and unemployment. Moreover, the period witnessed the rise of the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist political party that first emerged under the auspices of the American Republican Party, and other expressions of political anti-immigration sentiment. Inspired by economic protectionism and racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, this new culture of intolerance mobilized suspicion against newcomers. Weitz’s letter, translated from the original German, expresses his frustration at being unable to speak English effectively, his curiosity (at times verging on bewilderment) at Americans’ foreign customs and manners, and his concerns for the future. He states half-jokingly that these frustrations have driven him to despair. For all his worst realizations, however, Weitz acknowledges the essentials of a good life in America, thanking God that he had found good work and kept his good health through a long, difficult winter.
Martin Weitz was among the luckier immigrants of the era, finding gainful employment within a year of arrival. As he himself puts it, “If you don’t have a job in America it’s a terrible thing.” Weitz’s opening greeting suggests his warm relationship with family back home in Germany. His humorous tone reflects familiarity, but also perhaps his attempt to reassure distant loved ones of his good progress and good fortune in a new country. Although Weitz arrived in America as a young, single man unburdened by dependents, his letter is a valuable reminder that immigrants were creating new communities that traversed national boundaries, not merely establishing their own independent paths. His letter reinforced ties of kinship and family, and it was likely read and reread to others outside his immediate nuclear family. Weitz’s letter would have been an important local source of information and encouragement to others in his former neighborhood who were contemplating similar migration.
A wool weaver by trade,Martin Weitz was born on September 28, 1823. He came from the small town of Schotten, part of the mountainous Vogelsberg region of the Electorate of Hesse in the German Confederation. During Weitz’s youth, this region suffered from agricultural and economic depression, and the decline in the once-flourishing weaving industry caused unusually high unemployment. Like many young Germans of his era, Weitz immigrated to the United States in search of economic betterment. After arriving in America in 1854, Weitz moved to Astoria, New York (in modern-day Queens), but struggled to find employment, gaining only temporary work in a fur factory and as a log splitter. The following year, he settled in Rockville, Connecticut, and finally secured full-time employment in the local textile mill, where he would eventually rise to a relatively well-paid position as a machine supervisor.
Weitz’s journey from small-town Germany to the industrializing United States—from artisanal weaver to textile machinist—illustrates the Industrial Revolution’s upheavals. In 1855, 39 percent of Rockville’s population was foreign born, and almost all of these immigrants had arrived from Europe during the previous decade. Though recently established, the city’s tiny German immigrant community, only 253 strong, boasted a thriving social and cultural life at the time of Weitz’s letter, including two singing clubs. Over the coming years, Rockville’s German community continued to grow and thrive, adding German-language church services, a gymnasium, and a Mutual Aid Society to its resources during Weitz’s lifetime.
Although geographic mobility in Rockville remained high, with many immigrant families continuing to move elsewhere to find work, Weitz remained in the city for the remainder of his life. Despite dying at the relatively early age of forty-five from typhoid fever, Weitz was nevertheless an immigrant success story. He married a fellow German immigrant named Philippina and, after his death in 1869, was survived by two daughters and a son. His position as a loom supervisor earned him almost twice the average salary of Rockville textile-mill workers, and his obituary in the local newspaper described him as a popular and useful citizen who had served in the city’s volunteer fire department. Though Weitz’s achievements in life were respectable rather than spectacular, his many letters home reveal growing pride in family and community. As the letter presented here suggests, many immigrants from similar backgrounds were not as lucky.
Martin Weitz lived during the height of nineteenth-century European immigration to the United States. In the 1850s alone, well over two million Europeans (nearly one million of whom were German) came to America, more than in any previous decade. The motive for such immigration was overwhelmingly economic and was driven in large part by the rapid industrialization of the United States. At the same time, the massive influx of foreign immigration meant that many newcomers had a difficult time finding gainful employment, and they struggled to assimilate. Weitz’s letter reflects these tensions while also touching upon the growing wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in America at this time, which often spilled over into violence. While Weitz’s experiences were bewildering and at times frightening to him, he proved to be tough, optimistic, resourceful, and well matched to the challenges of trans-Atlantic migration that are outlined in this letter.
In his letter, Weitz declares himself “very content with [his] situation,” but the letter still bears marks of recent difficulties as well as the anxiety of long-distance separation. Weitz was finally able to send “a small gift” to his family in Schotten, having previously been unable to do so because of an unspecified illness. He also notes that for a period of roughly five months, between October of the previous year and March 16, 1855, he was out of work after the closure of “the factory in Astoria” where he had been working. With no social security and few labor-protection laws, employers often exploited their workforce, especially young, single immigrants such as Weitz, who “had to pay 10 dollars training fee” to his employers—almost a month’s wages for the average farm laborer at that time. Despite this investment, Weitz notes that at the fur factory, they “had rotten jobs where [their] hands got all swollen up but it didn’t last long.”
Factory work was hard, but being unemployed was worse, particularly in the winter months. The stress of surviving the bitter northeastern winter, during which Weitz eked out a living splitting wood in New York, had no doubt contributed to Weitz’s recent ill health. Weitz notes, “If I had been able to speak English I could’ve gotten a job but I can’t.” He found himself that winter in New York facing similar conditions to “thousands and thousands . . . without work” who vainly “poured through the town in great droves demanding that work be found for them.” His letter refers to relief efforts, noting, “They’ve set up places where they could get lunch but it isn’t enough.” Weitz fails to clarify who “they” are, but given the limited role of government at this time, the relief kitchen was almost certainly a voluntary organization, most likely organized by one of the many benevolent religious organizations that were flourishing in New York and the nation at this time.
Despite such good intentions, the scale of industrial poverty was overwhelming. Weitz’s references to the unemployed “dying of hunger” may not have been an exaggeration. While widespread famine was seldom a direct threat—for all its industrialization, the United States was still primarily agricultural—malnutrition exacerbated poverty and enabled disease to spread, which resulted in shocking mortality rates among the working class. Weitz jokingly suggests that America be renamed Malerika, linking the country’s name to suggestions of malady, or sickness. Weitz himself eventually died in 1869 at age forty-five after contracting typhoid, a disease sadly characteristic of crowded and unsanitary living conditions.
By the time Weitz wrote this letter, he had relocated to Rockford, Connecticut, and he considered himself lucky to have found work at the city’s largest textile mill. It is a testament to the appalling conditions Weitz had previously experienced in New York that he barely complains of the twelve-and-a-half-hour daily shifts at the textile mill, preferring to focus instead on his hour-long lunch break and the generous allowances of soup, meat, butter, vegetables, and cheese—a welcome break from recent hardships. Although grueling, industrial labor was not always as bleak as the fur factory in Astoria where Weitz had worked previously. Weitz’s description suggests he was enjoying a healthy, filling, and varied diet, while his recent earnings at that time were relatively competitive for low-level textile labor.
Weitz’s letter tells part of the broader story of industrialization in America, a story involving huge shifts of labor, capital, and population both at home and internationally. While the story of the Industrial Revolution is often told as the tale of urbanization, with money and people moving from dwindling rural towns to large, growing cities, the reality was often more complex. Though Rockville was growing rapidly through industrialization, it remained in 1855 surprisingly rural, not significantly larger than Weitz’s provincial hometown of Schotten in Germany. Indeed, Weitz attempts to convey a sense of Rockville’s scale, stretching his limited English vocabulary to compare “the Willischtz” (village) to the kind of “klein Städtgen or Dorf” (small towns) he and his family grew up in. The introduction of “Fektori” (factories, or Fabricke in German) revolutionized the nature of American life, however, which massively increased the flow of workers in search of new employment, both globally and locally. “If you don’t like it in one [factory] you go to another, 3 more are being built,” Weitz explains.
Another trans-Atlantic shift reflected in Weitz’s letter is the growing importance of print culture, particularly newsprint. While artisans of Weitz’s background were not typically sophisticated or highly educated, most could read and write quite well by the mid-nineteenth century, and almost all depended on newspapers, in addition to word of mouth and handwritten letters such as Weitz’s, to keep abreast of local and international events. Both Germany and the United States boasted some of the highest literacy levels in the world, with the supply of and demand for printed text growing thanks to innovations such as the steam-powered printing press and the availability of free, public education and parochial schooling. Naturally enough, then, Weitz first learned of “a call for 25 weavers” in Rockville when he read it in a newspaper. Though Weitz’s English was apparently poor, he would likely have enjoyed access to German-language newspapers, including many printed in the United States by immigrants, which circulated both locally and internationally at the time. Likely he had read newspaper accounts of the April “blood-bath” in Cincinnati, Ohio, when German American residents of that city had fought running battles with anti-immigrant nativists and Know-Nothings. The Ohio riot, part of a wave of ethnic violence in the United States, saw gunfire exchanged in the streets and resulted in several fatalities, though the numbers remain unclear to this day.
Weitz notes with pride that “the Germans in America are on the rise.” As events in Ohio and elsewhere attested, however, ethnic relations were deteriorating and often degenerated into mob violence. In Cincinnati, according to Weitz, “the Germans won.” Such language suggests German relations with their American neighbors were necessarily seen in terms of conflict and an us-versus-them mindset. This was true enough on occasions such as the Cincinnati riot, when the local volunteer militia mobilized to drive hostile mobs from its neighborhood, known locally as Over-the-Rhine due to its large ethnic German population. Weitz’s casual reference to “Nounorthing [Know-Nothing] yankees” suggests the familiarity of his own German relatives with the American political landscape. Although Weitz argues the nativists “want to have control,” he predicts that “democracy wins, it looks like there’s going to be a revolution.” Weitz is likely referring to the successes of the Democratic Party, triumphant in the 1854 midterm elections and poised to retain the presidency in 1856. The Democratic Party, often referred to by contemporaries as the Democracy, enjoyed disproportionate support among recent immigrant voters, especially German and Irish Americans. Weitz’s talk of revolution also had resonance in Germany, which was not yet united under a single government but had undergone its own spate of political upheavals and had experienced popular nationalist uprisings in 1848.
Given the political background of worsening ethnic relations and increasing anti-immigration rhetoric, it would have been easy for Weitz to predict a bleak future for himself and his fellow immigrants, but the tone of his letter is far more optimistic. Weitz encourages “anyone from Schotten” to think about immigrating, although he suggests Wisconsin rather than Connecticut as an ideal destination; indeed, German immigrants settled Wisconsin disproportionately at this time, justifying its reputation as “another Germany.” His reference to Germans “on the rise” reflects an immigrant’s determination to assimilate rather than any adversarial sense of ethnic rivalry with the dominant English-speaking culture. A sense of pride in the growing community of German Americans shines through in Weitz’s description of “the 2 singing clubs” recently established in Rockville. German immigrants were especially noted for their strong institutional sense of community, typically organizing numerous social clubs and activities that often served as surrogates for disrupted family ties while strengthening German cultural identity. “With our German singing,” notes Weitz, “we can earn great respect.”
In the long run, German Americans such as Weitz assimilated successfully and even shaped United States culture, despite significant social barriers. Germans were one of the longest-established ethnic groups in America, but the sheer scale of their immigration in the mid-nineteenth century transformed the nation’s cultural landscape and met with significant resistance. Similarly, many German immigrants found themselves bewildered by the unfamiliar and rapidly shifting cultural norms of American life, particularly its assertively evangelical Protestant subculture, together with an increasingly vocal temperance movement. Alcoholic beverages, which most Germans drank as part of their diet, were rarely viewed as a social evil in Europe. Weitz’s culture shock is outlined in his letter, albeit tempered by a willingness to fit in. “There is Temperes [temperance] here,” he complains, “that means there’s no alcoholic spirits allowed, no beer, no brandy, wine, etc. . . . I can’t spend any money except for tobacco, I haven’t drunk any Brenti [brandy] in three months.”
While Weitz evidently viewed his enforced abstinence as a hardship, it speaks to the strong culture of social control exerted by industrial management on the working population of communities such as Rockville. The influence of Christian religion is summed up by Weitz’s humorous remark that “every Sunday you have to go to church, then the factory bosses like you.” Like many, though certainly not all, German immigrants of the time, Weitz was not fervently religious, and he probably regarded Rockville’s culture of evangelical temperance with some resentment. On the other hand, industrialization was itself a leading catalyst of the nineteenth-century temperance movement. The movement culminated in 1919 with the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks. Antialcohol enforcement in factories and mills such as Weitz experienced reflected broader social controls, the need for efficiency, and the necessity of sober machine supervision in terms of workplace safety.
Weitz’s letter underlines the importance of shifting perceptions of time brought about by the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. Given its long, conversational tone, referencing events months after the fact—his March 16 employment at the Rockville Mill, for example—it is easy to imagine Weitz making up for lost time with his family. Although the advent of regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic packet services, or mail trade, subsidized by the United States Postmaster General’s Office, radically reduced international mailing times to Europe, Weitz’s letter would likely still have taken two months to reach Schotten. Although Weitz’s letters home became more frequent over the years, they remained punctuated by gaps of several months.
An increasingly precise awareness of time’s passing was itself a by-product of industrialization, as workers became dependent on the company’s time rather than their own. Weitz places great emphasis in his letter on the clockwork routine of life at the mill, where workers had to wake each morning at five o’clock, by which time the sun had already risen. For workers such as Weitz, who had to transition from a self-employment in a small-scale handweaving enterprise to the impersonal, time-managed world of large factories, the Industrial Revolution was profoundly alienating. Weitz tried to bridge his isolation from family and friends in Europe by imagining the distance between them in terms of time zones rather than physical remoteness. By emphasizing the seemingly trivial time difference (six hours) separating waking life in Connecticut from that in Germany, he perhaps succeeded in dispelling more than three thousand miles of separation.
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