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What’s New in Settlement?

By Elsabel Rincon

After the Civil War, rapid industrialization and urbanization led to major technological advancements in communication, transportation, manufacturing, and banking. These rapid advances resulted in a large economic boom and population influx.  During this period of industrial expansion (1870-1929) the U.S. population grew from about 40 million to 100 million. Twenty-five million of these people were immigrants reaching the United States.

Advances in communication and mass production provided a constant supply of entertainment in novels, silent films, and professional baseball. These advances gave rise to American popular culture as we know it today.  At the same time, a majority of the 25 million immigrants entering the country during this period did not speak English and brought with them a diverse array of traditions and customs.  These contributing factors led to the widespread growth of Settlement houses across the country. The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association, one of about 50 remaining Settlement houses in the U.S. today, was established in 1910. Settlement houses began with an effort to ‘Americanize’ and assimilate the new immigrants. This gives rise to the questions: How do immigrants impact popular culture? How does popular culture impact/influence immigrants?

In their book, Rachel Lee Rubin and Jeffrey Melnick explain, one “cannot separate ‘immigration’ from ‘popular culture’…immigrants were at the very heart of popular culture…and popular culture helped produce and define various moments of immigration history…”  The complex socio-political relationship of the U.S. and immigration is widely represented in its popular culture.  Popular culture and media have fueled a cultural imagination of immigrants whether it’s the Jewish, Irish, or Italian gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s; the Latino criminal; the Muslim or Arab terrorist; or the Asian ‘model minority’. On the flip side, popular culture has brought together groups of people that may have little in common but are able to enjoy a baseball game or a silent film together.  We cannot provide a direct answer to the questions of how immigrants impact popular culture and how popular culture impacts/influences immigrants. We can agree, however, with Dr. David A. Smith (Professor of American History at Baylor University), “The natural currents of pop culture form instant communities where none exist.”

Suggested Reading: Immigration and American Popular Culture, By Rachel Lee Rubin, Jeffrey Melnick

Date: March 29, 2019

Author: Sarah Garriepy

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