Land of Dollars

 Money in the Minds of American Immigrants, 1870-1935

Atiba Pertilla

“Land of Dollars: Money in the Minds of American Immigrants, 1870-1935” examines the everyday financial practices of immigrants to the United States from the Civil War to the Great Depression as they adapted to a new financial system to save money, send money to their families overseas, and invest money in projects of their own, creating in the process financial knowledge that was critical to making migration successful. Studies of the “first era of globalization” often counterpoise the world-spanning activities of metropolitan capitalists who invested money in infrastructure and industrial development with the bodily movement of millions of laborers in search of new economic opportunities, flattening the experiences of migrants who negotiated and created complex financial systems operating across great distances. The project argues that scrutinizing monetary flows that depended on the choices and agency of migrants at the bottom of the economic ladder sheds light on the emergence of a truly global economy, pursuing this methodology by focusing on the city of Baltimore, home to tens of thousands of immigrants and the second-most important gateway for immigrant arrivals in the period (after New York City).

Bolognesi, Hartfield & Co., Steamship Agents for Italian Line, 50 Wall St., ca. 1907. Museum of the City of New York,

The project further engages with literature on financial sociology, economic morality, and Americanization. Following research on “the social meaning of money,” the project uses correspondence, bank records, legal testimony and government petitions to study the circulation and transmission of financial knowledge among immigrants and how it was used to sustain economic and emotional ties both across great distances and within ethnic enclaves. The project examines immigrants’ entanglement with financial crimes like fraud, counterfeiting, and embezzlement as both the exploited and exploiters, contributing to larger discussions about the permeable and socially constructed boundaries between licit and illicit economic behavior. Increasingly, immigration and assimilation were seen as “problems” whose solutions would be defined by expert knowledge production. Thus, the project examines how political and social elites sought to use financial practices such as postal savings banks and the mass-marketed “Liberty Loans” to steer immigrants toward what were seen as valuable civic goals. Immigrants’ negotiation of these forms of Americanization, in turn, helped shape the post-Depression financial order that emerged as part of the New Deal.