German Immigrant Influence on American Culture

By the middle of the 18th century, German immigrants occupied a central place in American life. Germans accounted for one-third of the population of the American colonies, and were second in number only to the English. The German language was widely spoken in nearly every colonial city.

German immigration boomed in the 19th century. Wars in Europe and America had slowed the arrival of immigrants for several decades starting in the 1770s, but by 1830 German immigration had increased dramatically. Once established in their new home, these settlers wrote to family and friends in Europe describing the opportunities available in the U.S.

As Germans became one of the predominant immigrant groups of the 19th century, it was only natural that they would come to have a powerful influence over the development of American culture. Some German contributions to U.S. life are easy to pinpoint - sauerkraut, for example, or the tuba, or the national fondness for beer. However, the German influence on life in the United States runs much deeper, influencing many of the institutions, traditions, and daily habits that many today think of as being American.

For example, the U.S. education system would be unrecognizable without ideas championed by German immigrants. German culture has long cultivated a strong commitment to education, and Germans brought this dedication with them to their new home. In 1855, German immigrants in Wisconsin launched the first kindergarten in America, based on the kindergartens of Germany. Germans introduced physical education and vocational education into the public schools, and were responsible for the inclusion of gymnasiums in school buildings. More important, they were leaders in the call for universal education, a notion not common in the U.S. at the time.

It may even be argued that Germans invented the American weekend. Before the arrival of the Germans, many communities in the American colonies observed the sabbath, with an emphasis on rest and family time spent at home. Germans, however, had a long tradition of organized Sunday recreation. After the arrival of German immigrants, new large-scale recreational facilities began to appear in U.S. towns--picnic grounds, bandstands, sports clubs, concert halls, bowling alleys, and playgrounds, all suitable for a weekend excursion with the family. Anyone who uses one of today’s theme parks, civic orchestras, swimming pools, or urban parks owes a debt to the German passion for recreation.

Many traditions that we think of as being fundamentally American, were either introduced or popularized by German immigrants in the 19th century. We can thank German immigrants for the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny.

For more than a century, hundreds of thousands of the newest German immigrants made their way to America’s farm country, where they helped form the backbone of the nation’s agriculture. As previous generations of Germans had before them, these immigrants made their homes on the outskirts of European settlement, where land was affordable.

Even while German farmers were moving west, the urban German American population was growing as never before. Skilled German workers rolled into American cities during the 19th century, bringing with them specialized skills from their homeland.German Americans were employed in many urban craft trades, especially baking, carpentry, and the needle trades. Many German Americans worked in factories founded by the new generation of German American industrialists, such as John Bausch and Henry Lomb, who created the first American optical company; Steinway, Knabe and Schnabel (pianos); Rockefeller (petroleum); Studebaker and Chrysler (cars); H.J. Heinz (food); and Frederick Weyerhaeuser (lumber).

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