Pre-1914 Migration from Europe to the United States as a Travel Business

Saturday, January 4, 2014
Exhibit Hall B South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Drew Keeling, independent scholar
The poster outlines my study of the business of mass migration travel between Europe and the United States during the period of unprecedented globalization prior to World War I. The study is based on shipping line archives and records, government documents, and contemporary accounts of travelers, observers and policy-makers, examined in many countries on both sides of the Atlantic. This research illuminates the reinforcing interests and actions of the North Atlantic shipping lines, their migrant customers, and contemporary government authorities, in coping with the substantial risks of mass physical relocation, and in keeping this inter-continental mass migration safe, smooth and largely self-regulated.

Particular focus is placed on the eleven million Europe-born migrants crossing to and from principal U.S. Atlantic ports during the peak years 1900 to 1914. This analysis uses a large database constructed to provide consistent passenger and vessel statistics covering all of the over eighteen thousand voyages into and out of those ports in that period. The analysis and related information help to explain the motives and mechanisms by which Europe-born migrants moved to (and often also later back from) the United States, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues for these steamship lines in the early twentieth century, and how this long-lived long-distance travel business operated as the crucial common denominator of the greatest and most ethnically diverse mass transoceanic relocation ever.

The poster highlights three key results from this research: Firstly, that North Atlantic steamship companies used cost savings from ongoing technological developments to improve on-board conditions, not to reduce travel fares. Secondly, that numbers and movements of migrants were shaped more by cyclical fluctuations than by cost constraints (calculated average fares amounted to the equivalent of only several weeks worth of low-skilled U.S. wages). Thirdly, that the pre-1914 travel business carrying out transatlantic relocation operated within U.S. immigration policies that “worked” (in contrast to today’s policies widely considered to be “broken”): Policies toward immigrants from Europe were based then on limited regulation designed to bar only a very small fraction of arrivers considered to be in poor health or otherwise unsuited for work, and to efficiently manage the much larger inflows of legally welcomed entrants, and were “self-funded” through head taxes on immigrants and by requiring shipping lines to implement much of the mandated screening and handling. Other results shown in less detail include statistical evidence that transatlantic migration was more “circular” and “repetitive” than previously thought, and that the strategies migrants, transporters and regulators used for coping with the logistical, political and cyclical risks of migration were more congruent than conflicting, because those risks were in many respects shared across these various actors in the mass relocation process.

The poster also includes references to the publications generated by this research: the book based on the PhD dissertation which was awarded the Gerschenkron dissertation prize of the Economic History Association, and various related journal articles. Sources and suggestions for further research and additional information are also provided.

Poster draft (tentative): see

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