Judy DeLottie's Paper

The Immigration and Americanization Experience of Marie Bierdumpfel

by Judith DeLottie

April 29, 1980

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The purpose of this research will be to examine the acculturation process of a German female (my maternal grandmother) who immigrated to the United States in 1903 at the age of seventeen.

Included in the paper will be: A) An historical perspective on German emigration patterns from the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s; B) A detailed account of the life of Marie Bierdumpfel, in which parallels will be drawn between her unique experience and the above literature; and C) An analysis of the degree to which she can be seen as having embraced or resisted Americanization.

The data was collected by submitting an extensive questionnaire to Marie’s daughter Helen, which she then presented to her mother over the period of a week. Upon subsequent review of the initial responses, any additional information needed was obtained from Helen over the telephone.

While the revolution of ‘48 may not have been the main factor causing people to break ties with their mother country, continuous political unrest in Germany was definitely the norm and was the reason many intellectuals - journalists, doctors, musicians and teachers, as well as political activists, left Germany.

The abundance of America (both in land and industrial opportunity, coupled with the promise of political freedom) therefore became very appealing to a large number of German people.

Taylor sums up the situation that existed by describing the forces shaping German emigration in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as "population pressing upon resources, paucity of alternative local opportunities, the growth of the United States and the spread of knowledge about that country, and improvements in European and Atlantic transport" (Taylor, 42).

This paper will be concerned with one woman’s experience as part of this flow of people from one continent to another; her own motives for coming, and how she adapted to life in America, but also how her experience fits into the broader spectrum of German immigration to the United States at the turn of the century.

Early Life of Marie Bierdumpfel

Marie Bierdumpfel was born on April 15, 1886 in Harburg, Germany. Harburg is located in the north of the country and adjoins Hamburg, a major city situated at the head of the Elbe estuary, which is sixty-eight miles from the North Sea. [1] Her parents were Fritz and Johanna Bierdumpfel, and although she was the eighth child born to them, she was only the third to survive infancy, and therefore had only two older sisters at the time of her birth. Three more sisters and one brother were eventually born, all within one-and-a-half to two years of each other. These seven siblings all lived to adulthood.

The family’s religious affiliation was with the Lutheran Church and Marie considers religion to have played a central role in their lives, as it did in many other families during that time who were "deeply pious" and for whom religion was the "institutional center of their lives" (Jones, 136).

The Bierdumpfels lived in a home which had been in the family since the 16th century and from which the father earned his living as an "iron worker," making gates and keys in a forge on the property. The family "never considered themselves poor, much less wealthy" and Marie remembers it was an expected occurrence for families such as hers to "farm out" children as soon as they were of age and could help supplement the family income(a situation that also existed in the United States [Kett, 166-191]).

Therefore, once Marie completed eighth grade she began working as a nursemaid. She lived with various families caring mainly for their children, but occasionally for an elderly person. When she was no longer needed she would return home until someone again requested her services.

During this time she remembers having a persistent "desire to come to the United States." It seems possible that such a dream could be nurture by her living in an area accessible to the sea, which would serve to increase her awareness of the possibilities of going elsewhere to establish a better life. Not only was there the likelihood of her coming into contact with people who had been or were going overseas, but she was probably also exposed to the large amount of newspaper advertising done at this time by various shipping lines trying to attract customers, and by United States businesses and even individual states who were all trying to attract workers to the country. Such propaganda was so prevalent at this time in fact, that all of Europe was literally "saturated with information about America" (Taylor, 85) and the advantages it had to offer.

Interestingly, by the time Marie was seventeen years old, an opportunity was to present itself which would make her dream become a reality. She was hired to watch the six-month-old son of a German woman, Mrs. Long, who had returned to Harburg from the United States to visit her mother for eight weeks. Feeling this was the chance she had been waiting for, Marie asked the woman if she could return to the states with her as the baby’s nursemaid. Her offer was accepted, and so Marie made plans to leave her family and Germany. On departure in 1903 she took with her nothing more than her clothes and $25.00 required by law of all emigrants, with no intentions of ever returning.

The Voyage to America

The typical steamship experience for the majority of immigrants during this era has been described as a voyage which took about fourteen days, during which the passengers were accommodated in compartments of about twenty berths which were "only two feet wide and were closely arranged in tiers on either side of a narrow isle. Since there were no dining-rooms, meals had to be eaten at tables placed between the berths." In addition, ventilation was "inadequate and food a never-ending subject of complaint" (Jones, 42). In contrast, Marie’s trip was enjoyable. Due to traveling with Mrs. Long, her accommodations were second class "on a good ship", and except for suffering some seasickness she remembers the voyage as a "pleasant experience".

Again, upon arrival at Ellis Island her employer was able to buffer her from the ordeal endured by many. Serving as a "gigantic sieve, whose sole function was to keep out undesirables" (Jones, 54), Ellis Island became popularly known as "Heartbreak Island" by all those people anxious they would fail to get through inspection. Immigrants faced not only a medical exam in which doctors looked for signs of contagious diseases or "any kind of physical or mental abnormality" (Jones, 57), but also an interrogation about their proposed destination and subsequent ability to support themselves. While about eighty percent of the total were usually accepted, it still meant that "large numbers of people were held for longer or shorter periods" (Jones, 63). Although Marie still recalls the "terrible confusion" and large numbers of people waiting to enter the country, she was able to pass through with no problem with Mrs. Long’s assistance.

By the decade preceding her arrival, German emigration to the United States had peaked; "there were eight times as many immigrants in 1883 a in 1911" (Haskin, 28). In all, there were nine million foreign-born in the United States at this time, of which two and three-quarter millions were German. "Nearly half of them were to be found in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and the most German cities were Milwaukee, Cincinnati and St. Louis" (Taylor, 176).

In 1890 in New York City (her eventual destination) forty-two percent of the population were foreign-born, with Germans and Irish in the lead, making up thirty-three percent and thirty percent of the population, respectively. (Taylor, 180). By 1910, seven years after her arrival, the proportions had shifted slightly so that although the total numbers of foreign-born in the United States had increased to thirteen-and-a-half million (Taylor, 192), the proportion of foreign-born in New York City had dropped to forty percent. This was due to greater numbers of the American-born also flocking to the cities in search of the new economic opportunities offered by urban industrialization. Furthermore, the percentage of Germans in the city had dropped to fourteen percent in reflection of changing emigration patterns, in which the greatest numbers no longer came from northern Europe (the British, Irish and German), but from eastern and south-eastern Europe (notably the Russians, Austro-Hungarians and Italians) (Carpenter, 65).

Her Early Years in this Country

The Longs were residents of New York City but since upon arrival their new apartment was still being furnished, Marie spent two weeks with them in the Hotel Bingham before they were able to move in. As she knew no one in the city, the Longs were her only contacts at this time, and she may be considered fortunate to have worked as well as lived under a "protective roof" during her initial adjustment to a new country. With several other maids doing the housework and cooking, Marie’s duties consisted solely of caring for the baby, except for occasional tasks such as being sent out to get the New York Times or miscellaneous items the family needed. Since she spoke no English on her arrival, these excursions were one of the ways in which she was slowly able to learn the language, "by experience, a little at a time." Even though the language barrier caused her to occasionally fell "a little homesick," she still "loved America right from the start."

After working for the Longs for about a year, earning $8.00 a month plus room and board, Marie was approached by an acquaintance of theirs, Mrs. Weltfisch, (also German), who offered her $18.00 a month plus room and board to be a nursemaid for her two girls. The Weltfisches, also wealthy, lived in a "nice residential area of New York City" where Marie "loved the working conditions." In addition to her duties she spent her time going to movies, concerts in the park, at various "get-togethers," and by attending church occasionally. She did not socialize with any men until sometime in 1904 she met William Jurgens (also a German emigrant) through "mutual friends."

William was born in 1881 in southern Germany, to Protestant parents. He had one sister, Helen. His father was a government worker who was killed in an accident (run over by a wagon) when William was ten years old. He worked as a butcher’s apprentice for several years before deciding he wanted to leave Germany and come to the United States, at least in part because he did not want to go into the army. He had an uncle in St. Louis whom he knew he could ask for help on arrival, but he lacked sufficient funds for the trip. Therefore he devised a plan whereby he took a job in the alley of a steamship, and then as soon as the ship docked in New York, left the boat never intending to return. He arrived in the United States in 1904 at the age of twenty-three. While the details are unclear, it is known that he never got to St. Louis, but settled in Brooklyn, New York, instead, and by the time he met Marie later in the same year, was already a joint partner in a restaurant. The couple knew each other for a year before deciding to marry, and were then engaged for another six months before the ceremony took place in 1906. They were married in a Lutheran Church chapel with two of his friends as witnesses. Her family, with whom she regularly kept in touch, were informed by mail of her decision to marry, and there was no question of getting approval - "they felt she was doing okay." Following a brief honeymoon at Coney Island, the couple stayed at a boarding house until they were able, two weeks later, to find an apartment in Brooklyn.

Marriage and Family Life

Before continuing Marie’s life as a wife and mother, some general background information on marriage patterns of United States immigrants will be provided.

Census statistics reveal that within the time period from 1890 - 1920 a relatively high percent of foreign-born women were married, and in fact were married in greater numbers than the American-born in all age groups tabulated. "It is not difficult to assign a cause for these higher percentages for foreign-born women. The heavy excess of marriageable males among the foreign-born provides the females an unusually favorable opportunity for matrimony" (Carpenter, 212). And correspondingly, "a high marriage rate among the females accompanies a low marriage rate among the males, largely because the relative scarcity of marriageable females makes marriage easy for the one sex and difficult for the other" (Carpenter, 215). Given these facts of disproportionate numbers of males and females among the foreign-born, as well as the likelihood of this group to be within the age of greatest marriageability, it is of interest to see how this affects the chances of their marrying someone of the same nationality, as Marie did. In brief, three generalizations can be made. First, in spite of the uneven sex ratio between the sexes, "the majority of race groups are clearly endogamous. Second, when the immigrants do seek their mates from without their own number, they generally marry Americans. Third, there is a wide variation in the rate at which these different elements are fusing with the American stock" (Carpenter, 239). Specifically, people from such countries as Germany, Canada, England, Scotland, and Wales (considered to be part of the "old" immigration, as determined by the earlier time period in which they arrived here) intermarried more frequently than those from Italy, Russia, Poland, and other southern European countries (who came later as members of the "new" immigration). While part of this trend may be seen as due to the fact that the "old’ immigrant groups had had a longer period of time in which to become acculturated to the United States, it is also true that their religious beliefs and broad cultural patterns were more similar to those practiced by native Americans than the religions and customs of southern European and Near Eastern immigrants, making the chance of intermarriage more likely for the first group than the second.

To return to Marie’s experience, due to the amount of information to cover during this part of her life the material will be broken down into five sections. The first will provide a general description of outstanding events that occurred up to the time both her children left home, in order to give the reader a feeling for the broader structure of her life. The next three will deal separately with the education, religious involvement, and general social patterns and attitudes of the family, as these are the areas which best illustrate the importance placed by the family on becoming Americanized. The last section will be a brief outline of her life up to the present.

I. Description of Marie’s life through the time her children left home

Marie left her job in 1906 upon becoming "a married lady." Within the year she gave birth to a son, William Jr., and so continued to stay home in order to care for him. In 1907 her sister Minnie, three years her junior, emigrated to the United States and stayed with the family briefly until she found a job as a housemaid and established residence nearby. William continued in the restaurant business, eventually taking over complete ownership, until lack of business forced him to close it and look for another means of support. He returned to his original trade, that of butcher, and worked for two large meat processing companies before being able to save enough money to open his own butcher store in Brooklyn in 1914. At this time Marie returned to work assisting her husband in the store. In 1920 a daughter, Helen, was born but Marie continued to work. This was possible for two reasons. First, the family lived on the third floor of the building in which the store was located, so that Marie could always leave if necessary; and secondly, her sister Minnie was available to care for Helen during the day. Minnie was married by this time (since 1909, also to a German butcher) and although she still continued working part-time as a housemaid for several families, Helen was able to accompany her to her jobs. She also often kept the child on weekends and during summer vacations once Helen started school; they were together so much in fact, that Helen feels she was raised more by her aunt in her early years than her mother (Minnie was never to have any children of her own to raise; a boy was born but died soon after).

Upon completing college in 1928, William Jr. (called Bill) got a job, married, and left home. In 1929 Minnie separated from her husband (who had been institutionalized as a severe alcoholic) and soon after, due to a serious intestinal disease, she joined the household first to recuperate and then to stay on due to economic necessity caused by the depression. In 1930 Bill, too, separated from his wife (religious differences had quickly served to accentuate their incompatibility). He also returned home, and so these five people lived together during the depression. Helen remembers those years as "a troublesome time but the store made it so that there were really never days of ‘wanting’ - I never went hungry or wanting. They were tight times but were fortunate Pop had an established income to see us through."" In 1935 the group broke apart again when both Minnie and Bill, now divorced, remarried and left to form their own households. Thereafter the family situation remained stable (Marie, William and Helen living over the store) until 1941, when they purchases a small plot of land on Long Island and were finally able to build their own home. Helen by then had completed college, but continued to live with them, while working, until her marriage in 1944. The parents, now alone, still spent each day at the store in Brooklyn until 1951 when William retired at the age of seventy. By this time they had three granddaughters from their son and two granddaughters from their daughter (a final grandchild, a boy, would be born in 1954).

II. Social patterns

Both Marie and William felt very strongly about becoming Americans, always believing "America was the best place to be." William "had no desire ever to return to Germany" (he would not accompany Marie on her visits back to Germany), and wanted to become a citizen so badly that he "did all he could to fulfill the requirements" which finally gained him his citizenship in 1913. Marie then automatically became a citizen through her husband.

In keeping with this attitude, both husband and wife, though not able to speak any English on arrival in the United States, worked hard to master the new language. Although speaking German must still have come more naturally, once the children were born the parents made a strong effort to speak English even in the home, because Helen remembers her father "always felt as Americans we should speak the language, though some German was always thrown in."

When Minnie arrived in this country she enrolled in night classes to facilitate her learning English, something Marie now regrets not having done. However, while Minnie wanted to speed up the process of Americanization she also took a much stronger interest in maintaining ties with other Germans than did either Marie or William, "who were always tied down to the butcher shop." Minnie, who "loved singing and dancing," joined several German clubs in order to develop friendships with other Germans. Marie and William, on the other hand, although they enjoyed associating with other Germans were motivated more by economic than social concerns. For instance, the owner of the building in which they rented their apartment and store was German, but the neighborhood they lived and worked in was comprised of people of several nationalities, notably Italians, Irish, and English, and so these were the people they associated with both in business and as neighbors.

Family ties were strong between Marie and Minnie despite their different outlooks on life. In fact, Marie’s practical nature helped to rescue her sister from occasional business blunders and to then actually turn them into assets. For instance on two occasions Minnie was taken in by property offers geared to the unsuspecting. The first, occurring around 1914, was an opportunity to buy a six-family apartment building for minimal down payment which was "guaranteed" to provide a good income. She and her husband made the initial purchase but were soon overwhelmed by the complexities involved in being landlords and so called on her sister for help. Marie did by taking over ownership of the building with her husband (at a time when they were struggling to get by themselves, having just purchased the store), and then setting Minnie up as manager/janitor of the building and providing her and her husband with one of the apartments in which to live.

On another occasion Minnie won a phony land lottery ("phony because anyone could win if you ‘bit’") which turned out to be a perfect opportunity for Marie and William. They bought the land from her after she realized she had been taken, and so were then able to move out of Brooklyn to Long Island in 1941, where they could finally have "a garden and a home after all the years of paying rent."

When and where they decided to build their home further illustrates the nature of their ties with other Germans in this country. Their decision to build where they did was purely an economic one; no thought was given as to whether or not they would have other Germans who also bought land nearby with whom they became friends.

Actually, Marie’s ties to her homeland, though not dominating her life in America, were never forgotten. She made five trips back to Germany over a period of forty-nine years; first in 1912 with her son (then six years old), next in 1926 with her daughter (when she also was six years old), then in 1959 and again in 1960 after her husband died, and finally in 1961 with her sister Minnie. Her mother had died in 1920, her father in 1930, but she still had siblings who were living in the family home with whom she could visit. After 1961, however, she had "no desire to go back ‘home’," and from then on her youngest sister Gustel came instead periodically to this country to visit her.

III. Religious expression

The one aspect of their lives in which the family developed their strongest ties and maintained the traditions established by Marie’s family was in their religious involvement. Marie’s parents had made religion a central part of their lives, and although upon coming to this country her church attendance became irregular, with the birth of her children it once again became important. From then on (even though William did not join her), she attended church regularly as well as participating in several of the women’s groups. The children, too, became involved in all the available activities, because Helen recalls her mother being "very serious about our complete religious upbringing." They progressed from participation in Sunday School (both children had perfect attendance for many years), choir, and Summer Bible School when they were young, to joining all the youth groups as teenagers, and eventually, which in high school and college to teaching Sunday School and Summer School classes. The church influenced their social life as well; Bill was to meet his second wife while singing in the church choir, and many of Helen’s dates were with boys from the church. Even those boys she dated from outside her church group, however, were members of other neighborhood parishes which ranged from "Baptist to Catholic," and which Helen describes as being so numerous that there was a church "every two or three blocks."

IV. Educating the children

Education, as well as religion, was important to the family. Bill was seven years old when the family bought the store, and part of Marie’s goal in working there was so that he "could have an education." She was "extremely proud" when he did so well in high school that he was able to graduate at sixteen. From there he entered Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and later graduated with honors as an electrical engineer. He obtained a job with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company but during the depression he was laid off, and since at this time he also was getting divorced, he decided to return home. After deliberation with his parents it was decided that for future economic security he should return to school to get a teaching degree. His parents, feeling that teaching was a high status occupation, willingly paid his tuition. He subsequently taught English, industrial arts, and mathematics at a high school until his retirement.

Helen’s education was also important to the family. Even during the depression she attended private school. "Mom and Pop thought I should go to a private rather than public school. They could afford it with ‘pinching’ (since I only weighed three pounds at birth and probably looked frail, I was always treated like ‘a hot house plant’). I did very well academically - it was a very small school and there was always special attention - especially when the depression set in and so many of the students were forced to drop out because of costs." In addition she also received music, dance and art lessons, and describes her mother, especially, as "a real pusher for making me something." The art lessons were continued through high school and led to Helen’s desire to be a fashion designer. Her mother (who had dreams of her daughter also becoming a teacher) was "a little disappointed" she wanted to go to art school, especially since the "counselors at school made her believe Helen should go to colleges like Bryn Mawr or Skidmore." However, Helen was allowed to make the final decision, and so she enrolled at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Upon graduation she worked for awhile as a designer, then found a more lucrative job as a secretary. She kept this job until two years after her marriage when she became pregnant. She did not return to work until her children later reached high school age.

V. Marie’s life up to the present

After William’s retirement in 1951, the couple spent seven years together before his death in 1958. Her sister Minnie died five years later in 1963. The following year Marie got remarried to a German widower (a neighbor), with whom she lived in her home until he died in 1973, when she was eighty-seven. She continued living in her own home until 1977 when the work required to maintain a house became too burden some and she went to live with her daughter and son-in-law, where she resides as of this writing having just marked her ninety-fourth birthday.


When Marie came to this country she intended to stay. This attitude, coupled with certain other factors, made her immigration experience a positive one.

This paper has shown that even with no kin support system in her first years here, her working conditions were such, through providing her with a secure income and a pleasant, protective living environment, that she could make the transition to a new country (with its different language and customs), gradually and painlessly.

To this advantage can be added another. Within three years of her arrival here she was married to a man with a good means of support. Then, immediately following that she not only started a family of her own but was joined here by her sister, who established residence nearby, and with whom she maintained a close relationship all during their lives. They not only shared living quarters on occasion but often helped each other economically; Marie by giving Minnie both a place to live and a job, and Minnie later by caring for Marie’s daughter so that she could continue working with her husband in order to ensure the store’s success.

With this type of family support, and with a lot of hard work and long hours put into the butcher store, Marie and William were able to successfully pursue their desire of becoming Americans.

Marie’s German heritage was never forgotten but was given a subordinate position in her hierarchy of values. Whenever important decisions concerning lifestyle had to be made, as described previously, economic factors took first priority.

As important as Americanization was to Marie, however, she was fortunate in not having to sacrifice her German heritage to accomplish it. She married another German, had the regular companionship of her sister, was able to return to visit her native country several times, and established lasting friendships with other Germans all while adapting to new customs and raising her family to be true Americans.

Perhaps this balance can best be exemplified through the two social institutions in which Marie placed most importance; the education and religious training of her children. Religion served as a means for her to maintain her family traditions and to see them passed down to the next generation, while her emphasis on her children’s having a good education was her way of securing their placement in American society.


[1] Web Editor's Note: Marie Bierdümpfel was from Harburg, Bavaria, Germany, not Harburg, Hamburg, Germany.

Created: July 15, 2000 / Last Updated: June 4, 2011