Color photography didn’t become widespread until the mid-20th century – decades after the U.S. had experienced its immigration boom. As a result, what evidence we have of the people who crossed oceans to come to America’s shores has been mostly monochromatic – until now, that is. And these colorized portraits offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives and cultures of the millions of people who traversed the seas in the early 1900s.
Towards the end of the 19th century the idea of the “American dream” – with the U.S. looked on as the “land of opportunity” – had truly taken off. Many millions would make the journey to its borders in search of a better life, with most of them arriving in New York City.
Many immigrants arrived at Ellis Island, where an “Immigration Station” was opened on January 1, 1892. On its first day of operation 700 immigrants passed through, with almost 450,000 following during its first 12 months.
Over the next five decades Ellis Island processed 12 million immigrants, with each and every one bringing with them their own cultural heritage – like, for example, the Greek-Orthodox priest Reverend Joseph Vasilon, who’s pictured here in typical clergyman attire. He arrived at Ellis Island in 1910, midway through the station’s peak years.
Who were the figures traveling thousands of miles in pursuit of the fabled American dream? Generally, they were displaced peoples forced to move from their own countries. And whether they were escaping religious, political or economic persecution, they all had their reasons for making the long journey overseas.
Ellis Island’s opening, meanwhile, marked a time of significant change in the nationalities of America’s influx of immigrants. Indeed, most arrivals were now coming from eastern and southern European countries like Italy, Poland and Greece – as opposed to the earlier immigrants from western and northern Europe.
Amid the new wave of immigrants were persecuted groups, like Jewish people from autocratic Russia, of whom 484,000 landed at the shores of Ellis Island in 1910 alone. Italians like the woman pictured here also left their native country for better economic prospects in the U.S.
Eastern Europeans from the likes of Poland and Hungary additionally joined this second generation of immigrants fleeing their homes in the “Old World.” They were leaving behind a life of religious intolerance, conflict, famine and drought, which is likely why the “New World” seemed so appealing.
And, with so many millions of immigrants chasing their dreams in the land of opportunity and freedom, it’s perhaps not surprising that more than a third of today’s Americans can trace their roots to Ellis Island. The U.S. is truly a country built on immigration.
The long boat journey to Ellis Island wasn’t without its dangers, however. In 1904, for example, a boat full of German women and children sank after catching fire, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people.
Around 80 percent of those who made it, though, passed through Ellis Island in just a few hours. From there, they either settled in New York or traveled further via train stations in New Jersey.
The photographer behind the camera for these portraits, meanwhile, was Augustus Frederick Sherman, an Ellis Island clerk. Sherman was captivated by the cultures of the immigrants who passed through the station, and so he spent 20 years of his life capturing them.
Moreover, in order to truly understand and portray his subjects’ diverse cultural backgrounds, Sherman encouraged them to wear their national dress. Photography at the time was not an easy process, so it’s testament to both Sherman and his subjects that so many pictures were taken.
Among the many cultures featured in his work are circus performers, German stowaways and Romanian shepherds. An example of the latter wearing a sarică – a traditional shepherd’s coat sewn from sheepskin – is seen here.
And while the portraits were originally taken in black and white, Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome – a project that injects color into monochrome pictures – has brought a new lease of life to the historic images. The vivid hues were determined using a mix of historical references, postcards from the time and color pictures from later periods.
This woman, for instance, looks resplendent in bright colors. She comes from the lands of the Sámi people – that is, the Arctic area between Russia’s Kola Peninsula and northern Norway. Her clothing, known traditionally as gákti, is made from reindeer wool and leather.
In 1910, meanwhile, this Albanian soldier crossed the Atlantic dressed in clothing that symbolized his hometown. His embroidered vest signifies his social rank and birthplace through its color – something that was lost in the original monochromatic picture.
But while the years preceding the First World War saw a massive influx of immigrants into New York, things quickly changed in the post-war period. Together, the 1921 Immigrant Quota Act and the 1924 National Origins Act significantly curbed the numbers and nationalities of Ellis Island’s immigrants.
In fact, in 1932 the immigration boom, halted in its tracks by the Great Depression, was effectively over. The American dream was quickly becoming something of a fairytale, and more immigrants actually left the U.S. than arrived in a single year.
Still, while the stories of the New York immigrants who arrived on the shores of Ellis Island in the early 20th century may be lost to history, they live on through Sherman’s bold photographs. And in color, the portraits highlight even further the diverse cultures that crossed the globe to reach a promised land of freedom.