Americanization Movement

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First Steps in Americanization; A Handbook for Teachers, 1918. Courtesy of HathiTrust.

As a patriotic duty, the task of "Americanizing the immigrant" engaged a network of libraries, schools, churches, and other organizations. The Americanization movement, which began in response to both European immigration and World War I, reached its height around 1921, when more than thirty states and hundreds of cities adopted Americanization measures. Some of this legislation provided for positive support measures like night classes in English and civics at schools and libraries. Other legislation was more punitive, including prohibiting immigrants who had not been naturalized from holding particular jobs or the banning of foreign languages in public settings.

Public libraries were key partners in the Americanization movement. The Immigration Act of 1917, a response to increasing native-born anxiety about immigration, banned illiterate immigrants over the age of sixteen as well as most Asian immigrant entry into the US and would not be formally altered until 1952. Because of this legislation, public library Americanization activities included adult education trainings to prepare immigrants for citizenship and related literacy tests.

The American Library Association’s Committee on Work with the Foreign Born encouraged public libraries to incorporate programming that supported immigrant assimilation into American culture. In addition to helping immigrants with speaking, reading, and writing skills in English, programs helped them understand America’s history, participate in patriotic activities, and learn middle- and upper-class American cultural norms like rules for hosting guests and table manners. Some libraries that gave etiquette training to immigrant women also lent them place settings so that they might host dinner guests in the proper way even when they could not afford the equipment.