Off to New York! A story of emigration in the 19th century in pictures

By Sonja Dolinsek (Research Assistant)

On the occasion of International Migrants Day on 18th December, we are publishing an article on the story of emigration from Germany in the 19th century.

Levi’s – who doesn’t know this jeans brand? The story of its name giver, Levi Strauss, is probably less well known than the brand. Strauss was a German emigrant. In 1853, at the age of 24, he emigrated from Buttenheim in the Franconia region of Germany via Bremerhaven to the USA, together with his mother and two siblings. Twenty years later, in San Francisco in 1873, he had the jeans we still know today patented, the “Levi's Brown Duck Trousers”.

This is what a pair of Levi’s jeans for men looked like in the 1990s, from: “Levis”, Museum Europäischer Kulturen der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (Museum of European Cultures of the National Museums in Berlin – Prussian Cultural Heritage) (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany)

When we talk about migration today, we think more about immigration than emigration. More people are moving to Germany than Germans moving to other countries. And yet for a long time, Germany was considered to be a country of emigration. In the 19th century, many millions of people emigrated from the territory which is today Germany. This article is devoted to this story.

The first migrations from Europe took place between 1500 and 1800, at the same time as the European colonial expansion. In the 18th century, about half a million people emigrated from the German-speaking area, mostly from the south and southwest of Germany, to Eastern Europe, Eastern Central Europe and South Eastern Europe. From the1830s onwards, an increasing number of people from rural regions migrated to the USA, first of all especially the residents of Baden via the navigation of the Rhine, to which they were well-connected.

But it was not until the 1820s and up into the 1920s – in the so-called ‘long 19th century’ – that around 60 million people emigrated from Europe. The majority of these – two thirds – settled in North America and, in particular, in the USA. If there were 57,500 emigrants from the German Confederation in 1846, then just about 10 years later (1854) there were already 215,000 making their way to America. Only a small percentage emigrated to South America or Australia and New Zealand.

This graph shows the extent and the fluctuation of German emigration between 1830 and 1900. From Oltmer, Jochen. Überseeische Migration im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert: Deutschland als Auswanderungsland (Overseas Migration in the 19th and 20th centuries: Germany as a Country of Emigration), Pädagogische Rundschau 72 (2), 2018, pp. 163-190, 179 (CC BY 4.0)

answer to poverty and few employment opportunities. Migration promised the improvement of one’s own economic situation. Levi Strauss, who was still called Löb Strauss at that time, also emigrated due to economic reasons, for it was not easy for the Jewish family in Bavaria. After the death of his father, the financial situation of the family, already precarious at the time, had deteriorated still further and so, like many others, they decided to emigrate.

But there were also political and religious/confessional reasons which played a part, particularly in the years of the revolution of 1848/49 and around 1878 (Anti Socialist Laws). Moreover, the population grew rapidly in the 19th century and exacerbated the already precarious situation of many people. “Between 1800 and 1850, the population in the area of the later German Empire (from 1871 onwards) increased from about 23 million to more than 35 million” declared the historian Jürgen Osterhammel.

At the same time, there were many hurdles to migration. If today migration is limited above all by restrictions on entry, in the 19th century it was rather that the departure was restricted and subject to approval. One main reason for restricting emigration for young men in particular was military service. Moreover, it was necessary to ensure that emigrants did not have any private obligations such as, for example, debts. In some of the states of the German Confederation, people not only had to apply for emigration, but also had to announce this publicly. It was only in rare cases that local authorities and states promoted the departure of certain groups of people, e.g. for politically undesirable persons or impoverished people, who were seen as a burden. The latter group was usually forbidden to return.

The story of the emigrant Dorothea Schäfer from Sindelfingen shows how difficult it was to return after an approved emigration. Record of interrogation, Oberamt Böblingen, 23. Juni 1851. Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg (F 157 Bü 99 i). Permalink des Objekts

Although migration was long considered to be a male phenomenon, there were also women who emigrated, like Dorothea Schäfer. Between 1880 and 1920, about 30 to 50% of those entering into the USA were women. Some of them travelled with their family or their husband. But single women also decided to emigrate, hoping for better chances and more independence.

Men, women, families, children emigrated with all their belongings. “Auswanderer auf dem Lehrter Bahnhof” (“Emigrants on Lehrte station”) (1880), Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin (Berlin Municipal Museum Foundation) (CC0 1.0 Universell - Public Domain Dedication)

A lot of knowledge, organisational skills and of course money was required to organise the crossing. In the 1850s, a crossing to New York (around 34 talers) cost more than a year’s wages of a simple agricultural labourer (around 24 talers). Those who wished to emigrate had to be able to afford it. Nonetheless, those emigrating often spent up to one half of their annual wages for the journey.

„“Auswanderer-Karte und Wegweiser nach Nordamerika… insbesondere für auswandernde Handwerker und Bauern” (“Map and guide for emigrants to North America – in particular for emigrating manual labourers and farmers.”) Deutsche Fotothek, photo by Christa Hüttel (rights reserved – free access, rights reserved- free access)

Migration was made easier by a constant improvement and expansion of the means of communication and transport and this was favourable for its steady increase. Those who were already in a foreign country were able to send information about the process of emigration and the local situation in a simpler way (post). This often led to the migration of whole families and groups. So-called “Auswandererkarten” (“emigrant maps”) provided a quick overview of the shipping routes from Europe to North America.

Prospective emigrants could find information on various destinations and read reports of experiences in the emigration newspaper. Various companies - from shipping companies like the Norddeutscher Lloyd (North German Lloyd) to parcel delivery services –placed their advertisements here. From “Allgemeine Auswanderungs-Zeitung” 15, 1861, p. 26. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek/Münchner Digitalisierungszentrum (Bavarian State Library/Munich Digitisation Centre) (Not protected by copyright – no right of re-use for commercial purposes)

The steamship

In the course of the 19th century, the steamship increasingly replaced the sailing ship. The introduction of a regular scheduled service with steamships gave further momentum to emigration. Whereas a sailing ship needed 44 days for the crossing, it was only 14 days for a steamship. This also explains why the number of steamships starting from the port of Hamburg increased more than fourfold between the 1870s and the 1890s. Transporting migrants by sailing ship slumped accordingly. In 1897, there were only two sailing ships which left the port of Hamburg with prospective emigrants on board.

Image gallery: 1) Ocean passenger steamer of the Hapag in port (Hamburg?) (1913), Oswald Lübeck, Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0) (Public Domain Mark 1.0)
2) “Die Auswanderung über Hamburg seit 1846” (“Emigration via Hamburg since 1846”), in: Tabellarische Übersichten des hamburgischen Handels (Tabular Overviews of Trade in Hamburg) (1897), Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky (State and University Library Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky) (CC BY 4.0)
3) Poster: Poster: Red Star Line Antwerp – America. Henri Cassirer. Kupferstich-Kabinett. (Museum of Prints and Drawings) (Rechte vorbehalten - Freier Zugang)
4) Picture postcard: Picture postcards: Red Star Line, Antwerp-Dover-New York. Historic picture postcards – University of Osnabrück – Collection Prof. Dr. Sabine Giesbrecht. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

From Galicia to New York: transit migration

From the 1880s onwards, emigration from Eastern Europe via Hamburg, Bremerhaven and the Netherlands increased dramatically. More and more people from the then Tsarist Empire, but also from Russian-Poland and Galicia, were trying to escape from poverty as well as from state repression. The Jewish pogroms in the Russian Tsarist Empire in the early 1880s and around 1900 led to mass emigration.

Jewish migrants encountered various hurdles, but also discriminatory practices, at almost all stages of their journey. It was difficult enough to obtain travel documents and so Jews de facto often left the country illegally. Moreover, the journey through the German Empire on the way to the ports in Hamburg or Bremen was not easy, since in 1892 the Prussian government imposed a travel ban prohibiting migrants from Russia and Austria-Hungary to enter the country. After a cholera epidemic broke out in Hamburg in 1892, the migrants, in particular Russian-Jewish migrants, were portrayed as “unclean” and “infectious” in a “hygiene discourse with racial contours”. Another factor was that the immigrants were also medically examined in the USA to begin with and sent back if they were ill, sometime at the expense of the shipping companies.

Hinrich, Johann Hinrich W., “Auswandererhallen auf der Veddel” (“Emigrant halls in the Veddel quarter”, 1909. Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (Museum of Art and Design Hamburg) (CC0 1.0 Universell - Public Domain Dedication)

The restrictions on entry and transit led to tangible financial losses for the North German shipping companies. Measures were also required due to the increasingly restrictive border controls in the USA. And so the shipping companies set up so-called “control and disinfection stations” at the eastern borders and railway stations. The HAPAG and the Norddeutscher Lloyd established so-called “Auswandererhallen” (“emigrant halls”) in Hamburg, respectively in Bremen. The migrants were medically examined here and then disinfected, together with their belongings.

These experiences were anything but pleasant for the emigrants and so it is hardly surprising that they looked for new ways to get to America, for example via Basel-Freiburg-Strasbourg to Rotterdam and Antwerp. This also increasingly came to the attention of the German authorities.

“Zur Sicherung der Auswanderer getroffene Vorkehrungen, Warnung vor Auswanderung” (“Arrangements made for the security of emigrants, warning about emigration”) (1904), Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg (State Archives of Baden-Wuerttemberg) (CC BY 3.0 DE)

On the ship

The passengers on the steamships were divided into different classes. Accordingly, there was a difference in comfort and in the space available to each person.

There was enough time for conversation, like here during a game on the deck of a HAPAG steamship. “Hochseepassagierdampfer ‘Cleveland’ der Hapag Hamburg (Hamburg-Amerika-Linie). Gesellschaftsspiel auf einem Deck” (“Ocean passenger steamer ‘Cleveland’ of the Hapag Hamburg (Hamburg America-Line). Game on deck”) (approx. 1909-1914). Photographer: Oswald Lübeck. Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)


Children were also able to while away their time, e.g. with two turtles which were not at all small. “Hochseepassagierdampfer ‘Moltke’ der Hapag Hamburg (Hamburg-Amerika-Linie). Sonnendeck mit zwei Kindern im Reitsitz auf Suppenschildkröten (Chelonia mydas).” (“Ocean passenger steamer ‘Moltke’ of the Hapag Hamburg (Hamburg America Line). Sun deck with two children riding on green turtles (Chelonia mydas).”) Photographer: Oswald Lübeck. Deutsche Fotothek (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

New York – Arrival at Ellis Island

Those travelling to New York arrived at Ellis Island. A trouble-free onward journey could not be guaranteed. From the 1880s onwards, the USA tightened immigration controls and in some cases turned migrants away. Some of them had to find accommodation on site before they were able to continue their journey.

The First World War

Transatlantic emigration came to a halt with the outbreak of the First World War. The migration movements which followed the war were now characterised by the human, political and economic consequences of the war. But this is another story.

The story of humanity is always also a story of migration and mobility, a story of people who were seeking to build another life elsewhere. The conditions of migration were continually changing and determined the migrants’ chances for success. The story of migration provides exciting insights here into personal experiences, which were sometimes characterised by success and sometimes by failure.


Deutsches Auswandererhaus:

„Von Hamburg in die weite Welt“, NDR, 10.2.2012. URL:,auswanderunghamburg101.html

Klein, Julia. „'The Great Departure' details forces behind Eastern European migration”, Chicago Tribune 2016, URL:

„Heimat ohne Hoffnung - Auswanderer aus Worringen nach Nordamerika im 19. Jahrhundert“, Heimatarchiv Worringen e.V., URL:

Virtuelle Ausstellung für Jugendliche mit Originaltexten zum Anhören: "Fremd geblieben und ohne wirkliche Heimat" — Die Geschichte der Auswandererin Dorothea Schäfer aus Sindelfingen, URL:

„Lesung von Auswandererbriefen aus dem Staatsarchiv Ludwigsburg“, URL:

„Mit dem Dampfer nach New York“, NDR, 25.5.2021, URL:,dampfschiffe102.html

„Hapag und Norddeutsche Lloyd: Vom Konkurrenzkampf zur AG“, NDR, 1.9.2020, URL:,hapag174.html

„Deutsch-amerikanische Geschichte: Nicht kaputtzukriegen“. Zeit Online, 23. August 2011, URL:

„Das 19. Jahrhundert“, Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 315/2012, URL:


Scientific studies

Cohn, Raymond L. und Simone A. Wegge. Overseas Passenger Fares and Emigration from Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Social Science History 41(3), 2017, S. 393–413.

Oltmer, Jochen. Überseeische Migration im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert: Deutschland als Auswanderungsland, Pädagogische Rundschau 72 (2), 2018, S. 163-190.

Reinecke, Christiane. Grenzen der Freizügigkeit. Migrationskontrolle in Großbritannien und Deutschland, 1880–1930, München 2010. Open Access:

Oltmer, Jochen (Hg.). Migration. Geschichte und Zukunft der Gegenwart, Darmstadt 2020.

Oltmer, Jochen (Hg.). Handbuch Staat und Migration in Deutschland seit dem 17. Jahrhundert, München 2015. URL:

Osterhammel, Jürgen. 1800 bis 1850, in: „Das 19. Jahrhundert“, Informationen zur politischen Bildung Nr. 315/2012, URL: