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Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity

The Progressive Era City

Examining the Challenge of Maintaining Cultural Identity

Learning Targets

  • I can explain the concept of a “city within a city.”
  • I can give examples of how culture can lead to a sense of identity.
  • I can describe the tension of trying to live within two distinct cultures.
  • I can use photographs to identify cultural customs and habits.

Background: Cultural Identity in Progressive Era Cities

During the Progressive Era, immigration grew steadily, with most new arrivals unskilled workers from eastern and southern Europe, as well as China. These newly transplanted workers typically found employment in steel and textile mills, slaughterhouses, and construction crews in large cities. During this time, there was pressure to “Americanize” the new immigrants: to strip them of the culture of their homelands and turn them into model American citizens who could speak English and adopt American values, beliefs, and customs. Because of the pressure to become enculturated to an American way of life, a tension developed between the familiar traditions and customs of the homeland and the traditions and customs of their new homes.

More than 30 states passed laws that required Americanization programs, mostly through school districts, churches, and labor unions. Yet, while many new citizens worked to learn the language and customs of the United States during their working hours, within the home they aspired to maintain aspects of their ethnic and religious identity. One example of this could be found in Little Italy, an Italian neighborhood in Manhattan. Bill Tonelli of New York Magazine wrote, “Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village re-created on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions” (New York Magazine, September 27th, 2004). Italian enclaves began to surface in Chicago as well: the number of Italian immigrants living in Chicago grew from 16,000 in 1900 to nearly 74,000 by the late 1920s.

But eastern and southern Europeans were not the only ones immigrating to the United States at this time. In the late 1800s, immigrants from China began arriving in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, and settled in various Chinatowns. These areas were the only regions that would allow Chinese immigrants to inhabit dwellings within the city limits. While some Chinese immigrants found work outside of the cities as farmers, many were employed by the Transcontinental Railroad, or found employment as mine workers.

Begin the Activity

Hand out copies of the images or project them, and ask students to describe what they see. Working independently or in small groups, have students take notes on what they notice. Ask them to identify clues in the photographs that would suggest cultural identity. These may be architectural clues, signage, clothing, objects, or evidence of traditional customs. Have students consider the following questions.

Questions to Consider

  • What do I know about how individuals and communities express cultural identity?
  • What do I know about Americanization or assimilation into a new culture?
  • What evidence do I see in the photos that suggest people trying to maintain their cultural identities?
  • Can I think of current examples of immigrant groups striving to maintain their cultural identity?

Extension Activity

The topic of immigration and cultural identity can be more fully explored using young adult literature. The following is a list of titles that may be appropriate extensions for study of this period:

  • The Bridge to America by Linda Glaser tells the story of Polish immigration in 1920.
  • Mountain Light by Lawrence Yep documents Chinese immigration in 1885.
  • A House of Tailors by Patricia Reilly Giff takes a look at a German immigrant’s story during the 1870s in Brooklyn.
  • Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America by Helen Foster James follows the story of a 12-year-old Chinese boy as he immigrates to California in the 1920s.
next: Images as Supporting Evidence

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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