In the first decade of the 20th century, over 9 million immigrants entered the United States. Many came through Ellis Island (located at the mouth of the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey), which opened as an immigration station in 1890. One report estimates that 40% of current Americans can trace at least one ancestor to the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.
As opposed to earlier immigrants who tended to be from Northern and Western European countries, immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s were increasingly Catholics and Jews arriving from Eastern and Southern European countries. By 1900, America’s population was made up of roughly 1 million Jews—more than 40% of whom were “newcomers” (meaning they had been here for 10 years of less). From 1900 to 1924, another 1.75 million Jews would immigrate to America.
New York’s Lower East Side—the setting of Intimate Apparel—predominantly housed Jewish immigrants (much like the character of Mr. Marks) along with a high population of Italians, Greeks and Hungarians. While residents may have found comfort in the culture and community, the neighborhood was dense and overcrowded. In 1900, there were more than 700 people per acre living on the Lower East Side.
With the significant increase in population, Lower East Side buildings that had once been single-family homes divided into multiple living spaces known as tenements. By the turn of the century, over 2.3 million people in New York were living in tenement housing (this accounts for two-thirds of New York’s population at that time). The living conditions in tenements were cramped and often lacked any type of ventilation. A typical tenement building was five to seven stories high and would often be without indoor bathrooms. In 1901, the Tenement House Law mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes and access to light.
The rise of segregationist laws in the South led to mass amounts of African Americans moving to Northern cities, like New York, in a period that would later be termed “The Great Migration.” By 1919, over a million African Americans had left the South, and New York City’s African American population grew by 66%. Most African American male migrants found work in factories and slaughterhouses while African American female migrants competed for a limited amount of domestic labor positions.
In 1900, an estimated 19% of all women in the US worked outside of the home. Most working Caucasian women were employed as teachers, typists, nurses and sales clerks. With the rise of industry, some white women found work in factories and mills, as well.
By contrast, from 1900 to 1930, African American women were more likely to be gainfully employed than women of any other racial-ethnic group in the US. Black married women were eight times more likely to be working outside of the home than white married women. However, most were limited to agriculture and domestic work, with only 5% holding higher-paying occupations such as manufacturing, teaching, and clerical work.