True Immigrant Tales: American Men Did Not Wear Beards

[In 1907 at age 10, Edward Corsi arrived with his family at Ellis Island. Twenty-four years later in 1931, President Herbert Hoover would appoint him as Commission of Immigration at the Port of New York. Three years after that, after leaving the Immigration and Naturalization Service, he wrote him memoirs. This is an excerpt from his book, In the Shadow of Liberty: The Chronicle of Ellis Island.]

My first impression of the new world will always remain etched in my memory, particularly that hazy October morning when I first saw Ellis Island. The steamer Florida, fourteen days out of Naples, filled to capacity with sixteen hundred natives of Italy, had weathered one of the worst storms in our captain’s memory; and glad we were, both children and grown-ups, to leave the open sea and come at last through the Narrows into the Bay.

Steamship Florida
Steamship Florida

. . . Passengers all about us were crowded against the rail. Jabbered conversations, sharp cries, laugh and cheers—a steadily rising din filled the air. Mothers and fathers lifted up the babies so that they too could see, off to the left, the Statue of Liberty.

. . . I felt resentment toward this Ellis Island ahead of us, where we could already see many people crowded into a small enclosure. It could not be a good place. It would have been better if we had stayed in our comfortable home in the Abruzzi, back in Italy. To come made my mother cry. I looked around the deck and saw that many women were crying. Our little vessel coasted into the slip at Ellis Island. The passengers began to move. We moved with them and as we stepped from the gangplank to the land, all silent and subdued, I knew that my parents were thinking what as I was, “What is next?”

. . . Ellis Island in 1907 represented a cross-section of all the races of the world. Five thousand persons disembarked on that October day when my mother, my stepfather, and we four children landed there from the General Putnam.

General Putnam (foreground) and Satellite
General Putnam (foreground) and Satellite

We took our places in the long line and went submissively through the routine of answering interpreters’ questions and receiving medical examinations. We were in line early and told that our case would be considered in a few hours, so we avoided the necessity of staying overnight, an ordeal which my mother had long been dreading. Soon we were permitted to pass. . . .

My stepfather’s brother was waiting for us. It was from him that the alluring accounts of opportunities in the United States had come to our family in Italy. And we looked to him for guidance.

Crossing the harbor on the ferry, I was first struck by the fact that American men did not wear beards. In contrast with my own fellow countrymen, I thought they looked almost like women. I felt that we were superior to them. Also on this boat I saw my first Negro. But these wonders melted into insignificance when we arrived at the Battery and our first elevated trains appeared on the scene. There could be nothing in America superior to these!

[Before Edward Corsi became Commissioner, many dramatic events occurred at Ellis Island in the 1890s.  Read about them in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

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