The Misconception of Americanization in 19th and 20th Century America

Written by Kerry Ellard on November 12, 2021

It is often said that, at some point in the 19th or early 20th century, American public schools became oriented towards “Americanizing” immigrant children. Usually, this idea has negative connotations, suggesting bigotry or a curriculum designed to denigrate other cultures, religions, and languages in some manner. However, prior to World War I, there is little evidence for a systematic approach to forcing cultural assimilation of immigrants through public schools.[1]


If anything, there was an impulse to forego a general education of immigrant children in favor of more “practical training.” But what actually got implemented tended to be very practical—just kind of building a comfortable space for the kids to spend their days off the streets and learn the 3 Rs. In most cases, no one actually sat down and came up with a curriculum aimed specifically at immigrant children.[2]

Usually, there were similar concerns about, and responses to, the American-born working-class getting the right to vote and having their lives disrupted by industrialization. So, it wasn’t really an “Americanizing” impulse so much as it was a “civilizing” impulse. “American culture” was viewed as equivalent to 19th-century American-style republicanism (often interpreted through upper-middle class northeastern standards, with an emphasis on literacy, self-reliance, and the righteousness of the Union cause): the concern was forming virtuous citizens who could handle self-government. The attitude was “better find a way to make the ignorant masses into republican citizens,” and that applied regardless of whether you were an immigrant or not.

If you look at Horace Mann’s career, for example, you can see he was worried about both issues, but for all his aspirations, what he actually did was create a centralized bureaucracy that Massachusetts could use to keep track of everyone and enforce compulsory education. The curriculum was secondary to him—he just wanted to get the infrastructure in place to get everyone together under a single plan, in the hope that it would promote shared norms and smooth over class differences.[3]

Urban Schools

For most of the 19th century, most immigrants lived in several major cities in the northern states, like New York City and Boston. (San Francisco's immigrants were mostly single male laborers, so there were few children to assimilate.)

Outside of these cities, it was fairly common to find small, prestigious schools operated by immigrants, with foreign language and cultural training included in the curriculum marketed to locals.

This reflected the fact that “education in the late nineteenth-century rural context was still associated primarily with refinement and status rather than market economics and the ‘development of human capital,’” as it was in the cities.[4]

The result was that, if anything, there was an impulse to forego a general “cultural” education of most city children (which included most immigrant children) in favor of more “practical training” that cultivated “human capital.” Complacency about social and economic inequality in general would seem to be a fairer accusation than that of forcing immigrant children to adopt their own cultural norms or treating them differently from most native-born Americans:

“But the urban schools were not developed with only business goals in mind; in fact, business interests entered into an alliance with the new professions of social workers and educators...among the first urban secular schools funded by New York's business class for African American children...to provide basic educational opportunities for the children of freed slaves. These schools in turn set the pattern for the schools established for the children of the Irish Catholics who arrived after the 1830s and pushed the population of New York City to 400,000 by 1840. In the case of both the African American and Irish-immigrant children, something very different happened in the city than in the countryside: schools were financed and controlled by elites acting in the place of parents... The business interests believed deeply that public schools were an investment that would prepare the children of immigrant workers to fill slots for moderately skilled workers and other labor needs. The urban elites may have touted the advantages of egalitarianism, but the prerogatives of wealth protected their own children from the new urban schools with their emphasis on preparation for the factory line. For their own children...they continued to maintain a separate system of academies.”[5]

But the large-scale, semi-compulsory public education systems adopted by some big cities did require some sort of common curriculum. These textbooks eventually became popular throughout the U.S., significantly contributing to what we would call the 20th century American culture. A look through selections from these texts does not indicate an attempt to aggressively impose American cultural norms on immigrants, though they of course emphasize the English-language literary tradition. All Americans who enjoyed reading were voluntarily inducted into the broad moral and philosophical culture that America was thought to exemplify.

“...tens of thousands of McGuffey's Readers defined common cultural touchstones, such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride," and Marc Antony's oration in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar...with the result that millions of American students, even those living in the backwoods, shared a common culture, beliefs, and subconscious habitus... despite a lack of central government coordination, by 1895, virtually every community in the United States had a primary school of some sort...the aim of these "common schools" was...to promote sufficient learning and self-discipline so that people in a democratic society could be good citizens, read the newspapers, get job, make their way in an individualistic and competitive society, and contribute to their community's well-being. Impressively, this hodgepodge school system spread across a vast country, creating a shared nationality, citizenship, and social order.”[6]

Post-WWI Changes

“America's involvement in World War I (1917-1918) gave further impetus to concerns about whether schools were producing "useful citizens" or not. In particular, army recruiters complained about the poor physical and mental conditions of men who were the children of urban immigrants...physical education and health became more important concerns for the new schools to address...The new system of both primary and high schools came to be seen as a pragmatic natural resource elemental to the military, political, and economic strength of the nation.”[7]

A new generation of reformers was eager to use the existing infrastructure assembled by the Progressive Era. If there was a time to attempt socially engineering “Americanization” through the public school system, this was it.

“The new university-based education schools began dreaming of what the ideal American school system would look like, particularly at the rapidly growing high school level. Consistent with the enthusiasms of the day, these university-based education departments emphasized that schools should be scientifically and professionally managed...This happened as new teachers' colleges, and university-based schools of education asserted a monopoly over the training, certification, and licensing of teacher candidates. School teachers and administrators were hired by the tens of thousands by school boards eager to establish the new high schools and engineer the precise results they believed a prosperous and glorious future demanded. By the 1920s...high schools were redesigned to establish paths that met the presumed need of each child to find a role in the economy... All that was needed was buy-in from the parents of the millions of immigrant children who would be sent to the newly stratified high school system.”[8]

In 1913, an industrial education proponent lamented:

“...we cannot but note some peculiar things in connection with this industrial training wherever it is found. As deep as the feeling for it seems to be where the work is found, still the sentiment for it does not seem to be altogether sincere. There is hardly a state where the work has not been undertaken to a limited extent, but its history seems to stop with those beginnings. No community or state during the whole first half of the nineteenth century actually took up the work as if it were considered the end of important instruction, but generally merely a side-line. The movers of the work are nearly always open to a suspicion of a lack of genuine and complete sincerity, because while professing to place this work in the forefront of importance they still cling to the idea of the superiority of the classical schools. This feeling may for a time be hidden, but sooner or later it appears when it comes to a question of educating their own children.”[9]

But when the Progressive Era ended around 1920, and modern public-school systems were well on their way to being the norm across the country, it slowly became clear that this impulse was not confined to snobby native-born community leaders. Indeed, if anyone in America was pushing for cultural assimilation, it seemed to be immigrant parents living in the big cities:

“The postwar 1920s and 1930s continued to see a rapid expansion of secondary school enrollments, as educational attainment was seen as a status marker by the masses of immigrant parents living in the rapidly enlarged cities...at least initially, [they] were relieved to gain access -any access-to high school for their children. In this context, vocational subjects became the focus of the new high school curriculum...But this arrangement ultimately posed a conundrum for status-conscious immigrant parents who eventually resisted efforts to sort and track their children into vocational tracks. They viewed these tracks as second rate, in spite of presumably scientific claims by professional educators about the appropriateness of such courses for their children...the values of egalitarianism and utilitarianism were at odds...Arguments emerged in the 1940s and after that emphasized that what the psychological tests measured was not innate ability, but socioeconomic disadvantage...Whether African American, immigrant, rural, or simply poor, parents had educational ambitions for their own children to attend universities consistent with the dominant meritocratic ideology that emerged from the middle classes...”[10]

Though the attempts to make it work continued into the early 1950s, it turned out that many immigrant parents would accept no less than a full education for their children, and they were insulted by the idea of vocational tracking at the heart of industrial education, which still implied something less than full community participation. However, it still wasn’t clear exactly what they’d consider ideal schooling. (“Americans throughout the early 1800s wrote approvingly of schools of a ‘higher order’ that offered ‘advanced education’ in the ‘higher branches’ in something often called a ‘high’ or ‘higher school.’ High was whatever was not low.”)[11] Parents sensed any attempt to treat their children as second-class citizens, a status they rejected by appealing to American cultural norms.

Anxieties About Assimilation in American History

A piece of this length can only give a simple summary of the immigrant education experience in America, which varied greatly over the course of centuries. Attempts at cultural and economic assimilation no doubt occurred in some instances, but the more explicitly planned projects, at least through WWI, revolved around either Native Americans or disadvantaged urban children in general, rather than immigrants. There were some periodic attempts to discourage identification with certain cultures, such as the hostility to Catholic schools in the 19th century and the persecution of German Americans during WWI. But these measures did not focus on the adoption of "American” practices in schools so much as the suppression of those perceived as foreign and objectionable.

There were also educational programs aimed at foreign-born adults, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but their purpose was to teach literacy and other basic skills. This is discussed in a 1919 paper on “the Americanization movement,” “undertaken...for the American Council on Education.”[12] Serious discussion of Americanization efforts was not common until WWI made the issue seem salient and pressing.

The author of the paper, Howard C. Hill, presented America as facing an unprecedented situation when it came to immigration.

“...of the total number of Americans in the United States in 1820, by far the larger portion were of English or of Scotch-Irish ancestry. But shortly after 1820, the first year in which the Census Bureau records foreign immigration, there began a considerable Irish movement to America. This movement reached its height in the late forties and the fifties, owing chiefly to the severe potato famine in Ireland and to other causes of internal discontent and unrest. About the same time there began the first considerable migration of Germans to this country--a migration which was to continue in increasingly large numbers down to the early eighties. The crushing of the liberals in Germany in I848 and the years following, together with the economic distress which occurred about the same time, were the propelling forces in this movement. During the same period, or a little later, large numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes also came to America...down to 1885, by far the major number of foreign immigrants to the United States hailed from the countries of North-western Europe...Illiteracy was uncommon; education was highly esteemed; for the most-part homes were established in farming communities; and, with the exception of the Germans, there was little tendency among the incomers to settle in racial groups. In short, down to 1880 or 1885, foreign immigration presented few obstacles to successful Americanization.”[13]

Hill’s analysis, which reflected the assumptions and prejudices common to American sociologists during the Progressive Era, claimed that after 1885, increasingly large waves of immigrants started arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe, representing 75% of immigrants by 1905. These immigrants were much less likely to be Protestants, and Hill thought them radically different from Americans in customs, habits, and ideals. Moreover:

“Illiteracy ranged from I3.7 per cent in Austria to 78.9 per cent in Serbia. Whereas in our earlier immigration the illiteracy of immigrants had occasionally been less than that of native Americans, in I910, I2.7 per cent of the foreign-born were illiterate, against 3 per cent of the native Americans. Most serious of all perhaps was the fact that, unlike the earlier immigrants, many of the late-comers manifested no intention of making America a permanent home and no desire of becoming Americans.”[14]

The truth of the last sentence is hard to assess and is in some ways anachronistic. If such expressions had become common, it may reflect the fact that transatlantic voyages had become easier and more affordable. Combined with less unrest and desperation in Europe, regular visits or a permanent return to one’s homeland may have simply become a realistic possibility for more people. Previously, this claim had mostly been made about west coast laborers from China, who allegedly were single men who came to America only to work and send money back home. These arguments led to America's first major immigration restriction law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Additionally, the idea of “becoming an American” was less intelligible for much of the 19th century, with federal citizenship not existing until after the Civil War and only applying to adult men. Prior to that, naturalized status was easier to acquire in many states, foreign-language newspapers were popular, and non-English-speaking regiments were common during the Civil War.

Hill was most focused on those who were above school-age and illiterate, and suggested public school Americanization efforts were not a plan specifically for immigrant children but referred to going through the normal public-school curriculum and socialization process:

“Keeping in mind these facts, the conditions revealed by the census of 1910 should occasion no surprise. In that year there were some 13,000,000 foreign-born whites in the United States, 3,000,000 of whom were ten years of age and over and were unable to speak, read, or write the English language. Over 2,500,000 of these were twenty-one years of age and over. Of these 2,500,000, over 1,500,000 were illiterate, and only 35,614 of the total 2,500,000 were in school.In other words, but a fraction over 1 per cent were undergoing any systematic training in the rudiments of Americanization.”[15]

He also noted that Americanization of the “foreign-born population” was being accomplished via “foreign-born [run by immigrants themselves], native-born [run by native-born Americans], educational, industrial, and labor agencies,” including “racial societies [groups based on a non-American national or ethnic identity], churches, fraternal orders, patriotic and social organizations, chambers of commerce, public and private schools, railroads, mines, and [other] industries...”[16]

However, “In recent years there [had] been various indications of an increasing public sentiment in favor of placing the responsibility for the education of immigrants on the federal government rather than on the local community or the state.” He detailed some federal proposals, including that “at least one hundred hours of English, civics, and history must be taught in a given class or school,” based on the argument that “Immigrants are admitted into the country by the Federal Government; they are admitted to citizenship by the Federal Government; therefore, the period between admission and naturalization is equally a matter of Federal interest. In this period their education for life and citizenship must take place.”[17]

In fact, by 1919, the federal government had released “a tentative syllabus in elementary civics ‘published for use by teachers and principals until such time as [a] complete course, now in preparation, can be distributed."[18] How frequently it was used cannot be known, but the curriculum’s five topics are pretty simple:

“1. The citizen-how he lives

Such items as food, clothing, water, and fresh air are to be discussed, the purpose being "to show the relation of a citizen to his community."

2. The citizen's community-what it does for him

Protection of the citizen from danger by fire, disease, accident, and so on, and the services rendered by the public schools, library, parks, post-offices, etc., are to be discussed.

3. The citizen's work-work and citizenship

How to secure work, how to advance in your work, and how to save money come under this topic.

4. The citizen's country the United States

The growth and history of the United States, the causes of the present war, and the war duties of citizens are to be taught here.

5. Becoming a citizen-ideals of American citizenship

The purpose and content of matters to be treated under this topic are clear from its title.”[19]

For adult immigrants seeking naturalization, authorities had released another simple curriculum, with some English and arithmetic lessons, an explanation of the naturalization process and design of the American government, “the story of the flag...and bits of American history,” the last of which led Hill to complain that "it is impossible to discover the unifying idea in a series of topics which include consecutively the following: story of the United States government; discovery of America, the Indians, life of Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Longfellow, liberty, the federal Constitution.”[20]

The “unifying idea” probably had something to do with the “ideals of American citizenship” and “growth and history of the United States” mentioned in the elementary curriculum. To quote Hill’s own summary of such programs, “There is much here which native Americans could doubtless read with profit.”[21]


Well into the 20th century, American attempts to culturally assimilate immigrants, especially in public schools, amounted largely to socialization with native-born Americans and cultivating respect for and effective participation in self-government.[22] A similar approach was taken to the education of most native-born Americans following the 19th-century expansions of suffrage and citizenship. In general, the norms of non-American cultures were neither encouraged nor discouraged in an explicit way; implicit messages were a secondary effect of the main objective: encouraging the adoption of American norms.[23]

[1] This piece does not go into detail about post-WWI conditions, but the issue was likely less pressing due to immigration restrictions in place from roughly the end of the war until 1965. Increased anxiety about immigration during the Progressive Era (1880-1920) led to much discussion of how to promote assimilation, including the proposal of specific education policies, but the actions actually taken in the aftermath tended towards exclusion. See Wikipedia contributors, "National Origins Formula," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=National_Origins_Formula&oldid=1047968842 (“The National Origins Formula was an American system of immigration quotas, used from 1921 to 1965, which restricted immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere on the basis of national origin using a mathematical formula. Temporary measures establishing quota limits per country based on the makeup of the foreign-born population residing in the U.S. were introduced in 1921 (Emergency Quota Act) and 1924 (Immigration Act of 1924); these were replaced by a permanent quota system based on each nationality's share of the total U.S. population as of 1920, which took effect on July 1, 1929 and governed American immigration law until December 1, 1965 (when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished it). The National Origins Formula aimed to preserve the existing ethnic proportions of the population as calculated according to data from the 1920 Census of Population... The 1921 Emergency Quota Act restricted immigration to 3% of foreign-born persons of each nationality that resided in the United States in 1910. The Immigration Act of 1924, also called the National Origins Act, provided that for three years the formula would change from 3% to 2% and the basis for the calculation would be the census of 1890 instead of that of 1910. After June 30, 1927, total immigration from all countries will be limited to 150,000, with allocations by country based upon the national origins of inhabitants according to the census of 1920. The quota system applied only to non-Asian immigrants. It aimed to reduce the overall number of unskilled immigrants, to allow families to re-unite, and to prevent immigration from changing the ethnic distribution of the population. The 1924 Act also included the Asian Exclusion Act, which limited immigration to persons eligible for naturalization. As a result, East Asians and South Asians were effectively banned from immigrating. Africans were also subjected to severe restrictions. Immigration from North and South America was not restricted.”)

[2] It is likely that treating immigrant children like native-born American children seemed adequate for assimilation, as this necessarily emphasizes the local culture at the expense of others. (Outside of Boston, most upper-class kids did not attend the urban public schools, although it was often the wealthy upper class that set up the schools for the immigrant children, because it seemed like the right and practical thing to do.)

[3]The ideal was not self-consciously Protestant, as Mann really wanted the schools to be secular, but the entire educational culture of early America was undeniably influenced by Protestantism. Catholics were seen primarily as a political threat rather than a religious one.

[4] Dr. Tony Waters, Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy Bureaucratizing the Child (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Aldrich, F. R. “Industrial Education in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The Elementary School Teacher 13, no. 10 (1913): 478–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/993637.

[10] Dr. Tony Waters, Schooling, Childhood, and Bureaucracy Bureaucratizing the Child (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.)

[11] William J. Reese, The Origins of the American High School (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.)

[12] Howard C. Hill, “The Americanization Movement,” American Journal of Sociology 24 (6): 609–642, 1919, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/212969.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. “Massachusetts was the only state which had a law requiring illiterates up to twenty-one years of age to attend school. In certain instances municipalities had endeavored to solve the problem by establishing evening classes of various kinds. Such classes, generally speaking, were attended by few pupils and as a rule were poorly adapted to meet the needs of immigrants. Since I9I4some progress has been made. By I9I6Massachusetts and Connecticut had enacted laws requiring the establishment of evening schools for the education of illiterate minors in communities where there are a certain number of such minors and under certain other conditions. Where such evening schools are established persons to whom the law applies are compelled to attend...in Massachusetts, the leading state in the Union in eliminating illiteracy, there were, according to data available March 1, 1961, 23 communities in the state, each having over 5,000 inhabitants and over 1,000 foreign whites where no evening schools were found, in one of which, according to the census returns for 1910, the foreign-born whites comprised 47 percent of the population.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. It was a revision of a syllabus published by the New York State Department of Education.

[19] Ibid. Emphases added.

[20] Ibid. Emphases added.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The post-WWI national popularity of mass-produced textbooks may have marked a turning point away from this approach. See Walter Karp, ” The Teaching of History,” Harper’s Magazine, May 1980, at https://sourcetext.com/textbook-america/ (”Since American educators always claimed they were providing “training for citizenship,” the first history textbooks might have been expected to fortify the oral tradition of the schoolmarms. In fact, they did exactly the opposite. According to FitzGerald, the first history text taught children that the colonists had come to America for “commercial motives” and not for religious freedom at all. With that premise laid down, FitzGerald writes, the texts “looked on the American Revolution as a matter of practical politics more than anything else.” Instead of the sons of liberty, the pioneer texts offered the sons of the dollar; instead of a revolt against arbitrary power, squalid maneuvering for economic advantage. The obvious lesson of these texts is that Americans who profess to fight against tyranny are probably hypocrites trying to make money, an excellent lesson if you happen to favor tyranny. Such was the ’citizenship training‘ offered by the pioneer textbooks. Most American schoolchildren never read them, however, since they were used exclusively in a few big-city school systems ’to Americanize‘ (as the phrase went) the children of immigrants...It was...a harbinger of what was to come. ‘Americanizing’ native Americans was a far more delicate problem, and educational leaders were long reluctant to try it in any systematic way. The problem became inescapable, however, in the early years of the twentieth century, when, for the first time, Americans in large numbers began attending public secondary schools.”)

[23] The curriculum linked above gives a general sense of how this worked with adult immigrants, even as late as WWI. As was true for the efforts of Horace Mann, it reflects the perspective of educated northeasterners, with an emphasis on libraries, local self-government, and venerating Abraham Lincoln for his role as the ”Savior of American Citizenship” and in abolishing slavery.