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    Inspecting an immigrant “girl” for work as domestic, 1870s style

    The young woman stood hopefully, her eyes downcast, as a fashionable woman with a little girl looked her over. Behind the young woman were other women dourly etched in an illustration on the cover of the Jan. 25, 1873, Harper’s Weekly.

    The encounter reminded me of a slave auction, but much less brutal and visceral. I came across the image as I was flipping through some Harper’s Weekly publications from the 19th century at auction recently, and this picture stopped me. How familiar it felt, although the woman was dressed in her best clothes and her experience was much more humane. This was a poor white woman’s version.

    “The Labor Exchange at Castle Garden,” stated the caption on the illustration by Miss M.L. Stone. “Choosing a Girl.”

    Up-close view of the Harper's Weekly cover drawing of "Choosing a Girl."

    Up-close view of the Harper’s Weekly cover drawing of “Choosing a Girl.”

    Now, I knew the point of the encounter, but then I wanted to know the history of Castle Garden.

    The center was the first processing site for immigrants seeking citizenship to the United States – preceding Ellis Island. The site opened in 1855 and closed in 1890; Ellis Island opened two years later. The amount of business at the exchange had increased so much by the late 1860s that a new office was built.

    At Castle Garden, more than 7 million immigrants were funneled through a series of offices in a large complex located at the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park. The job of the labor exchange was to help immigrants find work across the country.

    “If your ancestors entered the U.S. at New York City prior to 1890,” one person wrote in a history of the center, “they probably came through Castle Garden rather than the commonly known Ellis Island.” Not quite. A large number of Africans came into the country on slave ships that docked in Lower Manhattan in New York, and some New Yorkers were slaveholders.

    Full view of the Harper's Weekly cover by M.L. Stone.

    Full view of the Harper’s Weekly cover by M.L. Stone.

    But for Europeans who migrated here in the 19th century, they could get all they needed at Castle Garden. They underwent a series of steps after disembarking from ships: At the quarantine station, they were checked for illnesses, and the ship for cleanliness and other issues. Then they were routed to other departments, including those where their luggage was checked, where they were examined by a doctor, where they were registered and their destination ascertained, where their money was exchanged, and finally where they could find employment.

    At the labor exchange, jobs were posted on bulletin boards for all manner of work from employers from many states. Jobs for farm workers (who were paid $6 to $19 a month) and domestics were said to be the easiest to find. Many of the immigrants were also said to be indentured servants.

    “Fashionable women frequently journeyed to Castle Garden to pick out their own domestic help,” one report noted. That seemed to be the case of the woman in the Harper’s Weekly illustration. In the home, immigrant women cooked, cleaned and became dressmakers. They were also hired in shops, hotels, hospitals and offices. Men were chosen as mechanics, footmen, waiters, janitors and more.

    An interior view of Castle Garden. Harper's Weekly drawing by Stanley Fox.

    An interior view of Castle Garden. Harper’s Weekly drawing by Stanley Fox.

    An 1882 Labor Exchange report stated that women were paid $8 to $10 a month. Although there was much anti-Irish sentiment, most of the women hired that year were Irish, who were said to be cheerful and worked for cheap, noted one article. A few years before, it was basically the same, with the women being hired almost right off the boat.

    In an unpublished and heavily edited article, Walt Whitman wrote about women waiting at the Irish Emigrant Society, which aided newly arrived immigrants. “Sometimes, the low basement rooms will be crowded with Irish girls, seated around on long benches, and holding their linen handkerchiefs and fans in their hands. Some of them are dressed in real fashion, and, when they go out, will draw on their kid gloves and hoist their parasols. … There they are, perpetually standing or seated in that way, waiting for some master or mistress to come along and give them a ‘call.'”

    These women were among the people called the “old immigrants” who came from northern and Western Europe, among them a large number of Germans. Those who came through Ellis Island were termed the “new immigrants” from southern and Eastern Europe.

    Anti-immigrant sentiment also extended to Asians, many of whom first migrated to the country during the California gold rush. An 1882 law forbade the entry of Chinese laborers – around the same time the country was dismantling reconstruction for newly freed slaves. For the first half of 20th century, the government established immigration quotas that favored Europeans but restricted other nationalities.

    Castle Garden, circa 1860. National Archives photo from

    Castle Garden, circa 1860. National Archives photo from

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