“Lights come up slowly, revealing CHARLIE — an immigrant just off the boat, taking his first look at the strangeness of New York City . . . Attached to his jacket is a numbered immigration tag . . . Exhausted from his journey and overwhelmed with emotion, HE lets his bags drop to the ground, breathes in deeply the air of the New World, then impulsively takes his cap off his head and drops to his knees to kiss the ground.”
This image is the opening moment of Tintypes, an immediate light on one of the show’s central themes — immigration.
The turn of the twentieth century was an era of mass migration, with over 20 million people moving to the United States between 1880-1920. Europe was particularly plagued by political, religious, and economic conflict at the time, leading millions to seek a better life overseas. Tintypes emphasizes Italian and Jewish immigrants in particular; over 600,000 Italians immigrated to the U.S. from 1890-1900, and over 2 million Jews fled Eastern Europe for the U.S. from 1880-1920.
Approximately 12 million people traveled by ship and entered the U.S. through the gateway of Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay. Upon arrival, upper class passengers did not have to go through an extensive inspection process due to assumptions that they were less likely to pose a medical or legal threat. Steerage passengers, on the other hand, traveled in poor conditions at the bottom of steamships and underwent more scrutinous inspections upon arrival. Still, the process typically took less than 5 hours, and entry rates of the era were approximately 98%.
The journey was not simple for all, however. Legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, for instance, reprehensibly restricted immigration from China. Suspicion-fueled limitations continued to increase as World War I progressed, leading to laws such as the Immigration Act of 1917.
Still, Tintypes honors the struggle, contribution, and drive of immigrants. In fact, four of the five historical figures in the show are immigrants — Charlie Chaplin came from England, Bert Williams from the Bahamas, Anna Held from France, and Emma Goldman from the Russian Empire. In this spirit, I leave you with one of Emma’s lines from the show, a sentiment that — for many reasons — resonates in complicated ways today:
“How often I thought back to that last day of my journey to New York. Helena and I stood pressed to each other, enraptured by the sight of the harbour and the Statue of Liberty emerging from the mist. Ah, there she was, the symbol of hope, of freedom, of opportunity. She held her torch high to light the way to the free country, the asylum for the oppressed of all lands. We too, Helena and I, would find a place in the generous heart of America.”