Interview with Joseph Podles, August 9, 1979
Migration is central to the story of the of the United States of America. Historians generally gather immigrants to this nation into four main groups. The first group, comprised primarily of Europeans and Africans, settled among indigenous peoples of the modern day United States. The second group came from Northern Europe, Western Europe, and Asia. These immigrants settled in the northeastern United States, the Mid-West, and on the West Coast. The third group of migrants came between 1880 and 1930, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, from Mexico, Japan, and from China. The fourth group is the post-1965 migration, and migrants from these groups are still arriving today. This last group is extremely diverse, with individuals coming from nations like Mexico, El Salvador, Iran, Russia, Vietnam, China and numerous other countries.
Immigrants came to the United States for a great variety of reasons, but a desire to improve one's economic circumstances usually topped the list. Faced with declining economic opportunity at home, potential migrants were often drawn to America by fantastic stories about streets of gold, pots of money available for the taking, and amazing liberties. There were, indeed, immigrants who came to the United States to amass great wealth--the Scottish-born steel manufacturer, Andrew Carnegie's rags-to-riches story being one famous example. For every Carnegie, however, there were thousands of immigrants who toiled lives away in poverty's shadow.
Joe Podles' parents, who came to the United States from Poland in the early twentieth century, were far more typical of the millions of immigrants that came with the 1880-1930 wave of migrants. His father arrived in 1904 and immediately began saving money to pay for his wife's passage to their new home in Baltimore, Maryland. The trip from Poland to Baltimore was long and arduous, at least a month in the hull of a ship with bland food and pitching seas. Joe's parents couldn't read or write and spent their lives as manual laborers, his father as grocer and his mother in seasonal work in the fruit and vegetable canning industry. As this oral history document recounts, Joe Podles decided to take a trip to his parents' homeland in 1964, after his parents had died.
Wondering how they could leave the land of their parents and relatives for the United States, a country where the customs and the language were so different than their own, he asked the Poles that had remained in the homeland why so many people like his parents left for the United States. "And the stock answer was," he says, "'for a piece of bread.'"
There were institutions that assisted immigrants in making the transition to American life. Settlement Houses, for example, were founded to help the immigrants adjust and adapt to their new country. The Ann Street Settle House, in Baltimore, Maryland, served the residents of the city's Polish neighborhood. It provided recreational facilities and activities for the children, offered classes in English and homemaking for adults, and sponsored a branch of the public library for all.
Click on the image at right for transcripts of an interview with Joe Podles, who lived in Polish Baltimore during the early twentieth century. One of fourteen children, he talks of his life as a child and the family's yearly trek in search of work to the fields and factories of the South. As you read, note his attitude toward working as a child and the conditions in which he grew up. Focus on the text in the blue boxes to answer the following questions.
- Why did Podles work as a child?
- How might their lives have been different had Podles's father received a "living wage"?
- Did Podles think they had a "good life"? What would you say was missing from it?