Immigration in the Gilded Age: Using Photographs as Primary Sources

by Philip J. Nicolosi

Aim / Essential Question

How successful were photographs in demonstrating the conditions of immigrants during the Gilded Age?


The latter portion of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century witnessed the start of photojournalism - investigators scouring the slums and ghettos of American cities. Just forty to fifty years following the devastating and powerful photographs taken by Matthew Brady during the Civil War, these new chroniclers of the urban scene, along with the print "muckrakers," recognized that photographic images could have an effect on perceptions of social realities and used them to expose the horrific living conditions of America's immigrant underclass. The photos provoked debate and discussion, and promoted legislative action to remedy the neglect of those who had no real voice in the halls of government.


This lesson gives students an opportunity to analyze historic photographs to gain a better understanding of the Gilded Age and of the life struggles of immigrants during that era. Students will engage in historical analysis and will decide which photograph or photographs would be most useful in supporting a thesis.


  • Analyze photographic evidence
  • Explain the conditions faced by immigrants in the Gilded Age
  • Write a thesis statement
  • Discuss and explain the challenges of using photographs as historical evidence


Online photographic images of immigration (the sites below are suggestions)


Students should have had prior lessons establishing a connection to the period of the Gilded Age and the concurrent immigration

Modeling for Student Learning

Select one image from the collection.

Ask the students to use the Photo Analysis sheet from the National Archives to analyze the selected photo as a class. Ask them to look at the people, objects, and actions in the image. You can find the Image Analysis sheet at - - analysis_worksheets/photo.html

In the discussion ask the students to focus on the following questions:

  • What does this image tell you about living and / or working conditions at the time it was taken?
  • What might motivate someone to take such a photograph?
  • What other images would you like to have if you were an historian creating a narrative of that time period?


After completing the above motivational activities, distribute the attached chart for students to complete as they examine other photos.

Use the following strategies to allow students time to examine each of the photos in the collection:

  • Displaying each photo for a few moments on a projection screen and allowing students time to examine the photos and take notes.
  • Setting up groups of photos at "history lab stations" in a computer lab and having students examine photos in groups, spending a few moments at each station before rotating to the next one.
  • If individual students have access to their own computers in a computer lab or classroom: allowing time for them to explore the photos on their own.
  • Break the students up into small groups and ask each group to select three photos that will go on display at the "Gilded Age Immigration Museum." Ask the groups to provide rationales for their choices.

After the photos have been selected, ask the students:

  • What common theme was used to select the photos chosen?
  • What generalization can one make about immigration and this time period based solely on the three photos selected? Can a thesis statement be created based on this generalization?
  • What problems do you think historians have in selecting sources for use in supporting a thesis?


Ask the students: If you were going to highlight a contemporary problem through photography, toward what issue or condition would you point your lens? Why?


The following assessments are designed to allow students to "do history" and be historians in the truest sense - reflective, analytical, and knowledgeable.

  • Analysis and comprehension: Ask the students to work either individually or in groups to write their justifications of the images chosen, using their newly acquired knowledge and incorporating the knowledge of the time period to justify the choices made. Students should be certain to relate the selections to the theme or thesis.
  • Research: Ask students to find another primary source (an image) that could be included in this display and justify why it could be included. Be sure it helps support the generalization and/ or thesis statement.
  • Research and application: Ask students to find a written primary source document that provides perspective on one of the images that has already been chosen and ask them to pair the image with the narrative. Note that for this exercise students may not use a document that has already been used in class.

Further Understanding

Have students research Jacob Riis. How can his background and motivations be used to help explain the photos? Ask students to examine How the Other Half Lives and compare the actual photos with the drawings.

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