100-Year-Old Portraits of Immigrants to Ellis Island Show the People Who Helped Shape America

To understand our present, we must first have a sense of our past. The historic Ellis Island in the United States is a symbol of the “melting pot” that has come to define the country—it’s a place where many modern families got their start in America. Active between 1892 and 1954, it served as an immigration inspection station for the millions of people arriving into the country. A 17-year-old named Annie Moore from Cork, Ireland was the first of 700 immigrants who arrived on January 1—opening day. At its peak, the site saw 11,747 people arrive in April of 1907.

Those who went through Ellis Island represented low-income passengers trying to immigrate to the United States—first and second class travelers were considered wealthy enough as to not become a burden to the state and were examined on board the ships. The people who were sent to the island underwent medical examinations, interviews, and legal inspections, often with very little in tow. While waiting (for money, travel tickets, or family members), amateur photographer Augustus Sherman snapped portraits of the immigrants in their native dress, from grown men and women to small children. The black and white images are a fascinating look at these cultures throughout history, as well as an important reminder of the people who helped make America what it is today.

The New York Public Library currently houses Sherman’s photographs. In 2005, these images were compiled and published into a book called Augustus F. Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits 1905-1920. The full-page portrait publication is now available through Amazon.

Above: German stowaway

Ruthenian woman

Italian woman

Romanian women

Three Dutch women

Russian Cossacks

Romanian piper

Dutch children

Slovak woman and children

Children from Lapland

Cossack man from the steppes of Russia

Algerian man

Norwegian woman

Hindu boy

Guadeloupean woman

Slovakian women

Three women from Guadeloupe

New York Public Library: Website | Flickr
via [Open Culture, The Public Domain Review]

Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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