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Picturing Difference

Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District


Grade Level:
6 to 8


Ethnic stereotypes have a long history in U.S. popular culture. Such images generally represent members of different ethnic groups as having exaggerated and often ludicrously distorted body parts. Sometimes these representations are humorous, sometimes they are very disturbing.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, visual caricatures of ethnic groups proliferated as the popular press grew and migrants thronged to the U.S. Mass media and advertising used such images to communicate and perpetuate fixed and generally oversimplified ideas about entire groups of people.

Historical Context

Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I, nearly 30 million immigrants came to the United States. Together they created the most ethnically heterogeneous nation in the world.Not only was this a period of massive immigration, it was also a period of profound changes in the sources and nature of that immigration. Up to the last decades of the nineteenth century, migrants to the U.S. had come primarily from northern Europe--England, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. As the disruptive effects of the industrial revolution spread, new migrants increasingly came from Italy and the multi-ethnic empires of eastern Europe.

This was also a period of changing attitudes regarding the place of ethnic groups in America. During the antebellum period, the attitude had been predominantly one of Anglo-conformity--rapid and complete assimilation to the English-speaking core who had achieved cultural and political hegemony. By the early 20th century, more progressive thinkers responded with the model of the Melting Pot--that each group of immigrants contributed to the creation of a unique American culture.

The popular press played a key role in disseminating such ideas. Newspapers and magazines not only increased in number during this time period, but also decreased in cost, making them accessible to a wider number of readers. Their widespread dissemination and quick publication schedules made them the perfect medium for capturing and reflecting public opinion and controversy, such as fears and tensions about the impact of immigration on the American workplace.

Review the primary images for the lesson and, if desired, review the following two background sources on reactions to immigration in nineteenth-century America more generally:

Roger Daniels, The Triumph of Nativism, from A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life(New York: Harper Collins, 1990), pp. 265-284 (a full-text PDF of this essay is available online at http://www.hsp.org/files/comingtoamericareading.pdf).

Michigan State University's online exhibition: Immigration and Caricature: Ethnic Images from the Appel Collection. This exhibition includes information about a period of changing attitudes regarding the place of ethnic groups in America, and addresses how stereotypes of a variety of ethnicities circulated in print.


ethnic conflict, prejudice, stereotypes

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will understand:

1. What forces contributed to the instability of early nineteenth-century city life.

2. How to compare and contrast stereotypes and discuss the forces behind such images.

3. Draw conclusions about how artists/authors and audiences shape the content and meaning of primary documents.


STANDARD 6.1 (Social Studies Skills) All students will utilize historical thinking, problem solving, and research skills to maximize their understanding of civics, history, geography, and economics.

STANDARD 6.2 (Civics) All students will know, understand, and appreciate the values and principles of American democracy and the rights, responsibilities, and roles of a citizen in the nation and the World.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Copies of 6 anti-immigrant images (if you prefer to show images as a powerpoint, high-resolution PDFs of each image are available at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania website at: http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=394#images). Copies of each image also appear at the end of this lesson plan.

Image Analysis Worksheet

Details of Activity

PART I: Examining the Images (20 min.)

Distribute the attached 6 images of anti-immigrant sentiment. Explain that these images circulated in the popular press (magazines and newspapers) during the 1840s to 1890s.

Using the attached Image Analysis Worksheet, guide students through ways of seeing and reading these images. Have students carefully examine the images about different ethnic groups. What patterns do they see in these representations?

Students should record specific examples of what they consider to be negative attitudes under the following headings: Race, Religion, Work/Economics, Violence, and Politics. If you choose, divide students into small groups and assign each group to focus on a different heading.


Race: Irish are racially other, non-white, dirty, monkey-like [note similarity to how African Americans were portrayed in the same era]

Work: Irish are lazy, manual laborers, poor

Religion: Irish are Catholics and Catholicism is a foreign religion

Violence: Irish are inherently violent, troublemakers, savage or barbaric

Politics: As Catholics the Irish are loyal to the pope over American president, links to monarchy threaten American freedom

PART 2: Class Discussion (20 min.)

Discuss the following questions as a class:

1. What patterns do you see in the representation of ethnic groups in the nineteenth century? Do these patterns surprise you? Why or why not?

2.How are representations of ethnic groups distorted or stereotypical?

3. Why do you think people held these attitudes?

4. How might contemporary viewers have responded to these images and attitudes? Do they encourage violence or discrimination against immigrants? If so, how?

Practice and Reinforcement

Have students collect images of different racial and ethnic groups in contemporary newspapers and magazines. You may choose to assign different groups of people, or ask students to brainstorm a list to choose from.

Display images by group in class and ask if they see any patterns:

Are there similarities or differences in the images they see within a group? Between groups?

Do they represent a group through particular activities (i.e. farming, factory work, at home)?

Do they focus on specific kinds of people to represent a group (the elderly, women, or children)?

Finally, do they see any bias or prejudice in any images? If so, what and how might the image be changed to eliminate it?


This lesson plan is adapted from Anti-Immigrant Images, part of the Pennsylvania Ethnic History curriculum guide produced by the Education Department of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania: http://www.hsp.org.

For more information about industrialization, urbanization and ethnic violence see:

Gary Nash, First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of American Memory (Penn Press, 2002), chapter 5, A City in Flux.

David Montgomery, The Shuttle and the Cross: Weavers and Artisans in the Kensington Riots of 1844, Journal of Social History Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer 1972): 411-446.

Supplementary Materials


For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here