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The Business of Transatlantic Migration

between Europe and the United States, 1900-1914

by  Drew Keeling       ( Zurich: Chronos, 2012 )


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"If there is any credence to the oft-cited hyperboles of Calvin Coolidge and Oscar Handlin – that America’s business is business, and its history is immigration – then the history of the business of immigration to the United States ought to be something rather important...Before the 1920s, there was no crossing the Atlantic except on a ship.

The 'Great Migration' across the Atlantic...was an international demographic and ethnographic event of signal importance, involving extensive transformation of ethnic and social identities.. It was also a modern service business in which long distance transportation enterprises, a transnational labor market, sovereign control over border-crossing, and modern mass migration flourished and co-evolved.” Introduction


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This examination of mass migration travel across the pre-1914 North Atlantic explicates reinforcing strategies of shipping lines, their migrant customers, and government authorities, showing how they helped keep the migration safe, smooth and largely self-regulated. It details the motives and mechanisms by which eleven million Europe-born migrants made nineteen million ocean crossings on eighteen thousand voyages of several hundred large steamships between 1900 and 1914. It describes how the long-lived long-distance travel business which moved them across the Atlantic operated as the crucial common denominator of the greatest and most ethnically diverse mass transoceanic relocation ever.


The flow of Europeans across the Atlantic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a human drama and a long-lived historical experiment in ethnic transformation. The mass migration was also a complex and enduring modern service business in which long distance transportation firms, a transnational labor market, sovereign control over border-crossing, and large-scale population transfers flourished and co-evolved. In the history of globalization, the early twentieth century North Atlantic offers an exceptional example of relatively unfettered and cooperatively managed long-distance mass migration. The business of this migration was seasonal, cyclical, technologically-driven, vulnerable to nationalistic intervention, and yet inherently transnational. It was a risky activity for those involved with it, but successful risk management strategies helped make the overall migration smoother and longer-lasting.



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