Ellis Island Land of Dreams

Ellis Island Land of Dreams

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t have to lug around a camera.”  Lewis Hine

Fascinated by the men, women and children pouring into America through Ellis Island, Lewis Hine used his camera to capture the faces and families of those who risked everything for the possibility of a new life in a new country.    

Between 1892 and 1954 more than 16 million Germans, French, Irish, Italians, Greeks, Chinese, Poles, Austro-Hungarians, Jews and others passed through the 27½ acres of Ellis Island hoping to become Americans. 

America was on everyone’s lips.  We talked about America; we dreamt about America.  We all had one wish—to be in America. said Louis Sage, A 15-year-old Polish immigrant. 
— Louis Sage, Polish Immigrant

Directly across from the island of Manhattan, the main red-brick and limestone immigration station looked like a palace and took two years to build.  The island included a hospital, dormitory and kitchen.

The immigrants kept coming many having spent a week to a month on the bottom deck of a crowded steamship.  A ticket could cost as little as $10 a person.  Most people were steerage passengers. Sometimes as many as 200 people slept in the same room.  There were no windows and many were seasick the whole way.

One of the first things immigrants saw as they entered New York Harbor was the Statue of Liberty.

“She was there, waiting for us, when we arrived from Hungary,” said one immigrant.  “The sun was sinking, but she lit the harbor for me.” 

Some called Ellis Island the island of hope. It was the greatest migration of human beings in history. 

“America was on everyone’s lips.  We talked about America; we dreamt about America.  We all had one wish--to be in America,” said Louis Sage, A 15-year-old Polish immigrant. 

“Many of them came through with all their bedding and belongings and pieces of silver wrapped in a bundle,” said another immigrant.  “These were the last possessions they owned. They wore everything they owned.” 

Today more than 100 million Americans have at least one ancestor who came through Ellis Island.

“If America did not exist, we would have to invent it for the sake of our survival,” said another immigrant. 

Lewis was a social documentary photographer who captured these subjects with compassion and respect.  His photos are more a kin to portraits, people frozen in time, their faces speaking volumes.  He wanted to present immigrants not as foreigners, but as everyday people just like the rest of us. He wanted people to look upon them the same way we did the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock.  

Lewis captured the spirit of migration as people crossed from an old world to a new one. He worked at this between 1904 and 1909 and took around 200 pictures.  He wanted to counteract some of the existing press notions of immigrants needing to be being greeted into America with hostility and undeserving of help. 

Because of the limitations of photography equipment one shot was all Lewis had.

“Photography is an empathy towards the world,” he said.

On Feb. 5, Swann Auction Galleries featured a selection of Lewis Hine’s Ellis Island photos in its sale. 

Lewis Hine and Ellis Island (Silver Contact Prints)

Slavic Immigrant Resting; 1907, printed in 1931; 6 ¾ inches by 4 7/8 inches;  $4,000.

Italian Family on Ferry Boat Landing; 1905, printed circa 1931; 4 /34 inches by 6 ¾ inches;  $4,320.

Italian Family in Baggage Room; 1905; printed in 1931; 6 ¾ inches by 4 ¾ inches;  $7,560.

Mother and Child; circa 1907, printed circa 1931; 6 7/8 inches by 5 7/8 inches;  $8,750.

Climbing into America; silver print; 1908; 6 3/8 inches by 4 3/8 inches; 1908;  $12,500.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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