Migrant Knowledge

Transatlantic Migrants and Knowledge in the U.S. Immigrant Press

During the era of mass transatlantic migration, the migrant press was a busy conduit of knowledge. Newspapers produced for migrants leaving Central Europe or by migrants already in the Americas offered valuable information on emigration and immigration laws, travel and living conditions, and the availability of jobs both in the United States and back home, not to mention news from the migrant diaspora communities. Politics naturally influenced reporting and the type of information the papers provided, particularly emphasizing the competition between imperial loyalty, separatist nationalism, and labor activism. While the migrant press was an important channel of migrant-created and migrant-consumed knowledge, newspapers were also susceptible to governmental interference. Furthermore, government officials used the migrant press as a surveillance tool. Immigrant newspapers were selectively mediated by authorities—an important reminder for anyone using them to investigate the history of migration and its intersections with the history of knowledge.

A Flourishing Migrant Press

It is difficult to overstate the enthusiasm with which migrants from Austria-Hungary took to the press. It would be nearly impossible to assemble a list of every Zeitung, Volks-/Wochenblatt, listy, noviny/e, dennik, hírlap/híradó, and újság that rolled off American presses in the decades before World War I, everything from the Oesterreichische-Ungarische Zeitung to the Slovák v Amerike to the established New Yorker Staats-Zeitung. Archives in Europe and the United States (and elsewhere) house thick stacks of crumbling newsprint, splitting along the creases. These cheap migrant newspapers pose an archival nightmare, but their affordability contributed significantly to the flourishing migrant press. On their pages, migrants could share news of their latest workplace troubles, news from home, news from nearby and far-away migrant communities, and announcements from their social organizations. The migrant papers thus offer compilations of local knowledge and reveal the processes by which knowledge was circulated and translated. As Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg argue, “institutional frameworks that invest particular bodies of knowledge with authority in migrants’ countries of origin can be weakened and become less effective as a result of spatial relocation.” For migrant groups, they explain, that “might allow the development of knowledge that would never have come into existence or have emerged only belatedly in more rigid, institutionally anchored knowledge orders.”1 The prolific migrant press in the United States, spatially relocated overseas, offers a prime example of such opportunities vis-à-vis the Austro-Hungarian government.

Immigrant newspapers featured a high ratio of reader-contributed content, allowing migrants to share their observations, tips, and grievances. Szabadság (Freedom), for example, featured contributions the size of classifieds on the question “Why did I come to America?” The respondents, from places as far apart as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New York, South Bend, Trenton, and Hoboken, shared their perspectives on what they had gained and lost by immigrating, from escaping high land taxes at home to saving enough for retirement. This forum gave voice to many who otherwise might not have had a platform on which to share their experiences beyond their own dinner table.2 Immigrant papers were the first place where migrants, home governments, and home newspapers alike looked in times of tragedy. After the 1907 Darr mine disaster in Jacob’s Creek, Pennsylvania, killed 239 workers, at least 150 of whom were from Austria-Hungary, the consulate in Pittsburgh compiled articles from all the local immigrant press outlets, as they did for other similar incidents.3

Financing Migrant Newspapers

Immigrant newspapers were relatively affordable enterprises but required financing. Papers with a significant readership could get by on subscription costs, but many accepted monthly subventions from their home government. From the 1890s until the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian foreign ministry subsidized dozens of U.S. newspapers that did not criticize Dual Monarchy policies, thereby facilitating the exchange of information through the printed word. Imperial officials were eager to keep migrants loyal, both to encourage future return migration and to counter the perceived threats posed by newspapers that espoused various forms of Slavic nationalism. Officials in Hungary were more eager to use the American ethnic press as a tool than those in Austria, but the joint Austro-Hungarian foreign ministry willingly wrote the checks. Curbing pan-Slavic activity abroad was one of the few overlapping interests between Austrian and Hungarian officials.4 The foreign ministry awarded 5,928 crowns annually to the Slovenské Noviny, which published in the Eastern Slovak dialect favored by the Hungarian government, for example. The ministry awarded 5,000 crowns to other Hungarian-language papers as well.5

Although we might assume that migrant papers were organized primarily around language or nationality, migrants defined their reading preferences and newspapers defined their audiences in many other ways, too: by location, political orientation, industry, and especially religion. Cerkovnaja Nauka, published by 1903 by the Greek Catholic church in Johnstown, PA, addressed both the Slovaks and Rusyns who made up the membership,6 serving one Catholic community in two languages. Several Hungarian- and Czech-language newspapers oriented toward a more professional readership featured German-language articles among other content. Specialized newsletters spoke to migrants’ every interest, from numerous Catholic papers to ones specifically for miners with notices about jobs, accidents, and insurance associations. Several organs of the immigrant press even affiliated by American political party, especially in large cities. This array of papers fed readers’ hunger for knowledge on many levels—topical, economic, and spiritual.

Migrant Community-Building

A primary purpose of migrant newspapers was community-building; they were backbones of many. For example, the Amerikai Magyar Népszava (American Hungarian Peoples’ Voice), founded in 1899, became the newspaper of record for a mutual benefit society based in Bridgeport, CT. Through this partnership, the society gained a ready instrument with which to communicate to its members rates, benefits, deaths, and relevant news. Newspapers’ work in the community mattered on and off the printed page. Besides reporting on activities in their community, they routinely sponsored live events. The Népszava had been central in erecting a statue of the 1848 revolutionary Lajos Kossuth in Cleveland.7 The Foreign Ministry was happy to financially support these types of activities, which complemented the Hungarian government’s goals of fostering continued loyalty.

Such newspaper subsidies were not without controversy. By supporting newspapers for their “patriotism” and fidelity to the Empire, the Austro-Hungarian government could assure that the “right” kinds of knowledge would be passed on to its migrant subjects. After all, Hungarian-language papers did not automatically fall in the loyal category. Those with socialist or labor orientations antithetical to Hungary’s aristocratic government, like Előre (Forward), did not. The criteria for Slavic-language papers depended on how “monarchy friendly” they were. The Slovak-language Slobodni Orel (Free Eagle), for example, justified the continuation of its government subsidy by sending free copies to heavily pan-Slav areas in order to sway the readership toward imperial loyalty.8 In another case from 1914, when the fate of the Empire was at stake, the Foreign Ministry offered 20,000 crowns in start-up costs and a 4,000-crown annual subsidy for a pro-monarchy newspaper that was to circulate among American South Slavs. The idea was to counter separatist movements with voices promoting the geopolitical status quo.9

Austria-Hungary’s press subventions arose, in part, as way to influence, if not control, migrant knowledge. It was a response to some Slavic-language papers, especially those associated with the editor and printer Peter Rovianek, that encouraged greater separation from Austria-Hungary. For example, Austro-Hungarian officials kept notes on the political activities of migrant clergy in the United States, classifying them according to their political orientation—from “Slovak angry panslav” to “very suspicious” and “Slovak loyal”—and increasing their level of threat to the monarchy if they “scribbled” in the press.10 Slovak clergy who stuck to their religious duties or wrote only about church news faced no problems, but those who took their grievances with homeland policies to the press provoked surveillance. By subsidizing news organs that printed less politicized content, officials hoped they could lessen the impact of the papers reporting on objectionable policies or conditions back home—or of those spreading knowledge about anti-imperial associations and political ideas in America.

Subversion and Activism

Although the Hungarian government could do little to censor objectionable papers within the United States, it had several tools at its disposal to try to mitigate the effects of the circulation of undesirable materials back home. Local officials were to track mailings of Slavic-American publications that had been deemed agitative. Alongside the major Czech- and Slovak-language presses in Prague and Martin respectively, officials identified subversive newspapers, journals, and pamphlets distributed by the “American panslav anti-national movement.” One policy adviser insisted on “preventative measures.” By the time these materials fell into readers’ hands it would be too late. The postal service, he advised, should track the return addresses of materials coming to Slovak-speaking areas of Hungary from America and Austria and then obtain the full subscription list to surgically censor those senders.11

If officials in the monarchy used newspapers to subvert the effectiveness of ideological threats, newspapers themselves could evince their own activism. Such practices were not limited to the printed page but could inspire the newspaper’s readership to come out for events, whether festivities or protest. The Czech Denní Hlasatel reported that “harassing Count Apponyi, the archenemy of the Slovak people” was the Cesko-Americka Tiskova Kancelar‘s (Czech-American Press Office’s) “outstanding achievement” during the count’s lecture tour in the United States.12 Apponyi, a Hungarian nobleman-politician and the minister of education, was reviled for closing many minority-language village schools, whereas he garnered respect as a scholar-statesman, including in the diplomatic community. Newspapers were capable not only of informing their own audiences about the visit of a politically unwelcome Habsburg official; they also spread the word about a protest by migrants, thereby tainting the count’s image in the American press.

Even amid these contentious national projects, scholars remind us that not all Europeans, including migrants, identified nationally. The immigrant press was full of entreaties for migrants to support nationalist causes, but sometimes to no avail. When the Czech politician T. G. Masaryk came to lecture at the University of Chicago, Denní Hlasatel complained about American Bohemians’ tepid commitment to hear an emerging leader: “Hardly anyone attends his lectures” and “we burden him with useless questions.”13 It seems that migrants’ commitment to national projects was rarely as great as nation-builders desired. The knowledge that newspapers convey, in other words, is sometimes prescriptive and other times reflective.

Deeper research into the Austro-Hungarian migrant press will help historians to better understand migrants’ sources of knowledge and their roles in creating it. Although I cringe every time I unfold a migrant newspaper in the archive and the paper cracks, it is worth proceeding. Several newspapers exist on microfilm at the Immigration History Research Center Archives in Minneapolis; others have been digitized by the Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey, the Austrian National Library, and the Arcanum Digitheca in Hungary. There is much more to be discovered in the migrant press, particularly for labor historians seeking to understand how migrants used the press to find and report on jobs and for social historians exploring the power newspapers editors, publishers, and printers wielded in immigrant communities. What is clear, though, is that one cannot write migration history based on the press alone. The press is political, and must be read as such. The long arm of the Austro-Hungarian government reached across the Atlantic to use the press, where possible, in order to manage migrant loyalty in America. Homeland officials, like migrants, both mined the ethnic press for information and shaped it. Nevertheless, press sources capture for us what migrants knew and wanted their fellow migrants to know in navigating their experiences living and working abroad.14

Kristina E. Poznan is an editorial associate for Enslaved: Peoples of the Historical Slave Trade and was the inaugural editor of the Journal of Austrian-American History. She is currently at work on a book manuscript based on her dissertation, “Migrant Nation-Builders: The Development of Austria-Hungary’s National Projects in the United States, 1880s–1920s.”
  1. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 43 (2017): 326, 345. ↩︎
  2. Szabadság, April 8, 1909. ↩︎
  3. Immigration History Research Center Archives, Collection 979 (Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, MOL), Reels 18, 26. ↩︎
  4. See Paula K. Benkart, “The Hungarian Government, the American Magyar Churches, and Immigrant Ties to the Homeland, 1903-1917,” Church History 52, no. 3 (September 1983): 312-321; and Kristina E. Poznan, “Migrant Nation-Builders: The Development of Austria-Hungary’s National Projects in the United States, 1880s–1920s” (PhD diss., College of William & Mary, 2018). ↩︎
  5. Immigration History Research Center Archives, Collection 979 (Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, MOL), Reel 25. ↩︎
  6. Ewa Morawska, “The Internal Status Hierarchy in the East European Immigrant Communities of Johnstown, Pa 1890–1930’s,” Journal of Social History 16, no. 1, (Fall 1982): 84. ↩︎
  7. Amerikai Magyar Népszava, 57, 69–70 ↩︎
  8. Haus-, Hof-, und Staatsarchive, PA XXXIII, 99. ↩︎
  9. Ibid. ↩︎
  10. Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár, Országos Levéltára, K26, 575 cs., 20 t. ↩︎
  11. Immigration History Research Center Archives, Collection 979 (Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office, MOL), Reel 25. ↩︎
  12. “The Cesko-Americka Tiskova Kancelar,” Denní Hlasatel, April 29, 1912; “The Third Year of Activity of the Cesko-Americka Tiskova Kancelar,” Denní Hlasatel, November 17, 1912. ↩︎
  13. Denní Hlasatel, July 11, 1902 ↩︎
  14. For further reading, see Katalin Stráner, “Emigration Agents and the Agency of the Urban Press: Approaches to Transatlantic Migration in Hungary, 1880s–1914,” Journal of Migration History 2, no. 2 (2016): 352–74; and Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2017). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Kristina E. Poznan, "Transatlantic Migrants and Knowledge in the U.S. Immigrant Press," Migrant Knowledge, December 22, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/12/22/us-immigrant-press/.