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Ed Linenthal
Editor, Journal of American History

Last modified: Thursday, January 17, 2013

Journal of American History examines surprising savings of Irish immigrants

Jan. 17, 2013

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Irish immigrants who fled famine in their home country in the mid-1800s and settled in New York managed to save remarkable amounts of money, often in a very short period of time, Tyler Anbinder writes in the most recent issue of the Journal of American History.

Relying on newly available records from New York's Emigrant Savings Bank, the George Washington University professor of history finds that nearly 40 percent of Irish immigrants were able to save the equivalent of $10,000 in today's money, often in 10 years or less.

American History, Journal

The cover illustration of the latest Journal of American History appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in 1880. It shows immigrants withdrawing money from the bank to send to their struggling relatives back in Ireland.

Print-Quality Photo

The quarterly Journal of American History is published by the Organization of American Historians, based at Indiana University Bloomington.

Anbinder's article, "Irish Immigrants' Surprising Savings Accounts," also contests the idea that the immigrant experience was a "rags to riches" story associated with novelist Horatio Alger. Few immigrants started out in rags, and few became rich. But many succeeded nonetheless.

He writes that Irish immigrants, including the mid-1800s wave that fled the famine, were not a "floating proletariat," condemned to squalor and the lowest rungs of society. And he argues that some historians have misunderstood immigrant success because they focused on factors like occupational status and home ownership, which were not important to urban immigrants, rather than savings.

"Immigrants in that era could save because the rapidly expanding American economy presented white Americans, native-born and immigrant alike, with opportunities for economic advancement that are difficult to imagine today," he writes.

Also in the December 2012 issue of the journal:

  • Alice Kessler-Harris, in an Organization of American Historians presidential address, "Capitalism, Democracy and the Emancipation of Belief," argues that democracy is rooted in an egalitarian ethos. Capitalism demands liberty to amass property and defend it, she says.
  • Krystyn R. Moon explores the relationship between immigration law, organized labor and the entertainment industry, describing how the government balanced the talent needs of new entertainment industries against the fears of nativists and unions in the early 1900s.
  • Cornelia H. Dayton and Lisa Levenstein assess the state of the field of women's and gender history, emphasizing how recent scholarship challenges historians to think in new ways about how they teach, synthesize and design research. Five other scholars offer perspectives.

In the current JAH Podcast, journal editor Ed Linenthal speaks with Anbinder about Irish immigrants and their surprising success in acquiring capital.