This last year, I have felt a little “on hold” creatively. My big canvases were packed up, I’ve been trying to clean out a very messy studio, trying to organize. I’ve focused on my writing with the process of rewriting Oz for NaNoWriMo as well as a short story challenge with my writing partner, Bridgette.
As I talked about in The Battle of Creativity, I’m a bit all over the place. I tend to call it creative or artistic ADD; I struggle with keeping a focus on a single project over time. I didn’t finish Oz (I made it to the Emerald City) and I didn’t finish a full year of short stories (I finished 25).
Thinking we were moving in the near future had a certain hold over me; packing, cleaning things out, organizing, just sitting and enjoying my current reality where I can see both the sunset and the moon rise.
The realities of the housing market in California (and most everywhere in the United States) have touched us directly. Our dreams of building a home have ended in double and triple the building costs due to supply chains and inflation. Our search for homes already built have led to an inflated market at a time when the United States may be moving into a recession. Interest rates and loans are building dramatically.
I am anxious to be closer to my aging parents, I am anxious to be a regular help to them in their lives. I dreamed of moving before my daughter started college so that it would feel like her home too.
After many tears and a bit of heartbreak, we decided to be patient and wait. And so, while I still feel the need to clean and clear and organize and pack, I also feel the need to paint.
I signed up for an online class (Abyssimo School of Art by Maria Grossbaum). You might wonder, why would I spend money on an online class when I already have my tools and my style and art is a part of who I am? The answer is, we should never be afraid to learn from someone else to make our own skills stronger.
I don’t care how much I think I might know, my brain can always learn more; I can always be better. By taking classes, I have the opportunity to learn new tools that I can incorporate into my own style making something that is uniquely me. When I began using polymer in my paintings, it was only due to classes I took with Klew, a groundbreaking polymer clay artist. Everything I do in life, every class I take, adds to my well of knowledge.
The other gift of taking a class is that it provides me with direction. We all go through stages of burnout. We are often unsure of what to do next.
I often walk into my studio with the intention of creativity, look around, get overwhelmed, and walk out. Because creativity is messy, I often don’t know where to start or with what tools. Taking a class removes those obstacles and moves me forward without doubt.
The class I signed up for (Capturing the Elusive Beauty of the Dragonfly) required some tools that I don’t just naturally have laying around my studio; heavy watercolor paper, metallic watercolors, and adhesive for gold leaf.
I ordered the items, a gift to my creative self, a gift that will last much longer than the class. I also finally bought myself a set of professional watercolors, something I’ve wanted to do for some time. I don’t know how to watercolor. I’ve always been interested, but I’ve never learned beyond the simple watercoloring we do as children.
My watercolors arrived and, oh how beautiful the pigment is in a professional set! I’m so used to the faded colors of the play sets. I painted a pallet so that I could see what each paint looked like outside of the pan.
Painting a pallet is much like writing morning pages in Artist Way; it calms the mind while getting the creative juices flowing. It acts as an artist date, seeing how the colors move with water and the depth of their pigment.
I followed the steps of the class and began the abstract practice of skills; taping the canvas, adding a base, gold (in my case copper) leaf, white gel pens, adding light and shadow.
Having always worked with mediums such as acrylic, I didn’t know the absolute beauty of laying watercolors for light and dark! There is a richness to it that I haven’t experienced in other mediums. I have long imagined a watercolor collection of landscapes, and now I am beginning to see its formation.
While I wait patiently for what comes next in life, I will paint. I will explore classes. I will imagine a dream home (with views of both the sunset and the moonrise) becoming available to us so that I can be closer to my parents and have a place my daughter will feel is hers to come home to when she goes to college.
We can’t let go of creativity when big things happen; creativity is the secret to helping us though.
We may not always remember our dreams, but they are there, existing in the dark corners of our subconscious.
Dreams can often be a discarding of information but they can also be a processing of information that we don’t have access to in our waking life. They can help us solve problems. They can give us a fuller experience of our time in this life. They can lead us in new directions and make us ask ourselves hard questions.
So how do we interpret our dreams?
Dreams are personal. The symbolism of dreams are specific to you and your life experiences.
While I will be discussing specific symbols in future blogs, this one is a more generalized exploration at how the relationship to symbols will vary.
But first, you need to work to remember your dreams.
First, you work to remember your dreams.
Remembering your dreams is a practice. The more time you spend, the easier it becomes, just like any other practice.
Before going to sleep, create a way to record your dreams that is quick and accessible to you. For some, this is setting a journal next to your bed with a working pen. For others, this may be a recording device that you can talk into. (I used to do this and found dream messages to myself that I had forgotten when I awoke. Sleeping in a bed with a partner can make this awkward, and so I became self-conscious about recording them over time.) What works for me is having my notes app open on my phone near the bed and then typing in what I remember.
Your dreams may still be elusive. Try jotting down a feeling or any details you remember–it could simply be a color or a single image.
Another helpful process is to sit down and write morning pages in a journal. (Morning pages are an aspect of Artist Way by Julia Cameron, but vitally beneficial to anyone wanting to live a deeper experience with regards to their own life.) The process of Morning Pages is to sit and quickly free-write 3 pages of whatever pops in your head. The goal is simply 3 pages, not to plan anything or create anything, not to solve the world’s problems.
This type of writing often feels a bit like dreaming to me; my brain relaxes and thoughts come that I didn’t expect. (For anyone who can’t find words, you can quite literally write, “I don’t know what to write,” over and over again until you have a thought, and then you write that thought down, it could be, “this is dumb” or “I don’t like this.”)
I often find while doing the dump-style of writing, dreams from the night before pop into my memory and I can then write about those images and feelings and experiences, following that path where it chooses to lead me.
Another practice is sketching any images you remember, or using watercolors to remember the colors. Doodling with a pen (try just drawing spirals) can also bring dreams closer to the surface or your memory.
I remember my dreams, now what?
This is where the symbols and experiences become so personal.
You can write your dreams fully, like a story.
You can simply take notes of the things that stood out.
You can list anything important.
You can sketch.
You can talk about the images with someone else.
No matter how you choose to record your dreams, start to look for the symbols that stand out. If you write your dreams fully, you can highlight them and then make a list.
What do those symbols mean to you, and what are your experiences around those symbols?
What do you mean about symbols being personal?
Imagine you dream of a snake, which is actually a common image in dreams. Ask yourself what your experience with snakes has been.
If you have been raised in a Christian community, the snake can be seen as a Biblical temptation. The snake is a form of the devil and through the manipulation of Eve, humanity was punished and removed from the Garden of Eden. The snake in this dream may be one of temptation; something you want to do but feel guilty about or anxious that there would be dire consequences if you were to proceed.
If you have been raised in a Pagan community, the snake can be a symbol of wisdom. As a matter of fact, most ancient cultures considered the snake as a symbol of wisdom or a God. While it is mostly considered a myth now, many have been raised to believe that St. Patrick chasing the snakes from Ireland was a metaphor for him chasing out the Pagans and specifically the Druid elders while bringing Christianity to Ireland. (I’ve included articles below on why this is now considered a myth.)
If you have been raised as a Pagan or in an old religion that reveres the snake, its appearance in your dream could be one of wisdom and honor. There could be a message of learning or something that will lead you in a better direction.
If you’ve been bitten by a snake in real life, dreaming of one may be extremely fearful. There may be something in your life that is bringing you anxiety and you are afraid will hurt you.
If you have raised snakes and consider them your friends, dreaming of them may be about friendship.
Let’s say that you have raised snakes your whole life; you love them and trust them. In your dream, the snake turns and bites you. A dream of this sort may suggest that someone you trust is not as reliable as you expected them to be, and they may be out to hurt you. Perhaps in the same dream, the snake that bit you did so out of protecting itself. In this dream, perhaps it is you that has caused conflict in a friendship and they are now defending themselves.
Just a beginning…
This is just the beginning of talking about dreams. In future weeks I’ll be breaking down my dreams, the dreams of family and friends, and perhaps even your dreams. I want to show the process of dreams and how to explore their meanings on a personal level. I’ll also explore some universal symbols (such as the snake) and how they influence our personal symbols.
Dreaming has always been an important aspect of my life; the images I see often feel like they are leading my direction or cluing me into some subconscious knowledge. Sometimes the images are just a jumble of chaos, processing extraneous information and setting it aside for later. Grasping these messages in waking life can feel like a puzzle.
Over the years, I’ve had many friends and family come to me to talk about dreams and their interpretations. This subject is something I want to dive more deeply into, as I continue to struggle in my own life with nightmares, nocturnal panic attacks, and complex nocturnal hallucinations.
In the next few weeks (months, years), I’ll be exploring a blog on how to interpret your dreams. This has nothing to do with looking up the symbolism on the internet or, as I did growing up, in a series of dream interpretation books. This will involve diving into real dreams, working through interpretation, reviewing books, and working on a personal dream journal.
I would like to invite you, if you have a dream you’d like to discuss, to reach out to me. With your permission, we will break down your dream, find the important symbols, find out how you respond to that symbol, and see if we can make sense of your visions while sharing the fundamental symbols here.
Some dreams are just the dumping of information; identifying which ones have more to tell us is a part of the process. Others give us insight into decisions we need to make and allow us direction. Reoccurring dreams often have important information that we are choosing to ignore or can’t quite find the seed of the message.
Along with individual dream interpretation, I’ll be looking at different symbols that are common in dreams and look at how these symbols have been interpreted over time and through different cultures.
I like to look at dreams as a personal tarot deck, with your own symbols and your own interpretation. Let us work to create your own tarot deck of dreams, your own dream interpretation bible, and find an entryway into each of our subconscious lives.
Calling All Dreamers
Have a dream you’d like to work on that you’re willing to share here? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my contact page. I will only be working with one dream a week, although this may expand in the future.
When I was in high school, we were asked to read a biography or autobiography and present that person’s life story as if we were them. Immediately, I wanted to be Vincent van Gogh. His work touched me deeply, and while I knew little about his life other than the notorious ear incident, I felt like my soul knew his. The closest I can come to compare was a modern-day celebrity crush where you are certain if you met in person, you would become fast friends.
I still feel that way.
I chose to read Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh and a deeper love for this man was born. He is not only a visual artist but an artist of words. Every night after painting, he sat down and poured his soul into his letters to his brother.
Reading his words, I felt his overwhelming perceptions of beauty in the world countering his grief and pain. His words somehow reflected my philosophies on nature and humanity.
In 2016, we were able to visit the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. There is a room there filled only with Van Gogh’s paintings. I never wanted to leave. I stood so close that I could see his brush strokes. He had created these textures on canvas. He had stood in front of a blank page and left a small part of his overflowing soul.
I cried in that museum room, surrounded by the work of this artist.
And so when I first heard of the immersive Van Gogh exhibit, I dreamed of one day going. At first, it was only being offered in a warehouse in Paris. I dreamed of hopping on a flight and disappearing for a few hours into the world of Vincent.
It was an unrealistic dream; I knew I wasn’t going to run off to Paris, but it was still a dream.
And then Covid came. The world shut down. There were no flights to Paris, even if it were a reality.
But as the world began to open up, I began to hear whispers of Van Gogh exhibits here in the United States. Perhaps I would not have to fly to Europe. Perhaps I would not have to fly anywhere. Perhaps I would even be able to drive.
Los Angeles – Immersive Van Gogh
When Immersive Van Gogh came to Los Angeles, I knew it was finally a possibility. We found tickets over Christmas 2021 and made a mini vacation of it. I knew, taking my husband and daughter, that they would not have the enthusiasm that I did. I knew they would not want to linger the way I would.
I knew that it would be a balancing act of experiencing everything I could without forcing an unreasonable amount of time on my family.
When the day arrived, we walked down the long dark hallway, quietly through crooked frames is if we were entering his world; which essentially we were. At the end of the hallway was one of his paintings, Starry Night Over the Rhone. His unique way of showing light reflected on the water.
As we left the hallway, we entered a room with a wall of sunflowers and folded letters from Vincent twisted up across the ceiling. A replica of The Night Cafe had been constructed in a small side room. Interactive computers told the story of his life and created a letter from him to you. Music poured through nearby doors, a mix of classical and French, leading you to the immersion of light and sound and color.
As we entered the warehouse, I became a part of Van Gogh’s world. There were circles painted on the ground and we were given cushions to sit on. This was one way of keeping six feet of distance while Covid restrictions were a part of our daily life.
There were a few benches scattered around the room in two warehouse spaces; the same progression of music and images in each with a balcony looking over the larger of the rooms.
For me, I just wanted to sit in one spot without moving; one complete time through the exhibition. I wanted to see the whole story they created. I wished I had a journal or drawing pad to express what I felt. I knew, that if I ever came back, I would want to come alone with unlimited time and something to write with.
My family was patient with me. We watched it through once and then I watched it through a second time, changing perspectives, seeing the way mirrors altered perception, watching from the balcony.
In the elevated space, they had a single wall that showed the whole presentation in its full panoramic perspective without distortion.
Fresno – Beyond van Gogh
When I saw that Beyond Van Gogh was being offered in Fresno, not far from where my sister lives, I decided to go again. While I offered to take my sister and daughter, they understood that I would be taking my journal this time with no timeline. They each declined.
I believed that the Fresno version was going to be a slightly different version than the Los Angeles one; modified to fit the space and perhaps having a slightly different look at Vincent’s life.
What I did not expect is a completely different presentation. I have learned that there are no less than five different companies producing versions of the Van Gogh experience. The Immersive Van Gogh by Massimiliano Siccardi is the version we saw in Los Angeles and is the original French design that began in Paris. The Fresno Beyond Van Gogh is one of several traveling shows that move from city to city.
In Fresno, I first entered a room filled with panels telling the story of Van Gogh’s life; a beautiful introduction to the man and the artist he was. The room was dark and the panels were full of light and color. They led to a transition room, before the warehouse space, that dripped paint and color as well as his portrait, giving a sense of the movement his paintings reflect.
Entering the warehouse space, there were signs telling visitors not to sit on the floor. There were a few benches around pillars, but mostly, people were standing. Because I came towards the final dates of Beyond Van Gogh in the Fresno location, it was fairly empty. My sister, who had gone when the exhibit first opened, said the standing crowds made it difficult to really see the presentation in its entirety.
The ability to sit on the floor in Los Angeles allowed everyone a clear and uninterrupted view.
I found a bench and once again watched the entire presentation through.
While beautiful, this version had a very different feel. In Los Angeles, there was a darkness to Vincent’s story. The music and images reflected his depth of humanity as well as the beauty of his work. The music accompanying the images matched the energy of where he was in his life; whether that was a space of darkness or hope. In Fresno, the images felt more like a retrospective of an artist’s life. The music was classical and light in nature. Fresno also had a greater focus on Van Gogh’s words.
In Los Angeles, I felt like we were exploring his life through time, seeing how his art developed through moments and lifespan. In Fresno, I felt like we were exploring his work through style; the landscapes together, the portraits together, the still lives together.
While both experiences were beautiful and essential in their own right, I appreciated the depth of emotion that Los Angeles gave. Fresno gave me a new appreciation of Vincent’s words and takes me back to his letters to Theo.
From my journal in Fresno
When I see Van Gogh’s work, I am reminded that I am not alone in my sensitivities. When I read his words, I understand that I see the world how he did. I do not think this makes me unique or special in any way. It is that a few in this world see the intensity of dark and light differently.
There was a quote in the first room, where Vincent asked his brother, when they saw each other again, he would like to know what his brother saw. He should like to know if they saw things in the same way. I understand what he means in that: I believe I see the world much as he did, and I often feel alone in that.
I cry when I see his work. the strokes of his paintbrush. I understand the depth of his emotions when looking at his world; the grief that is expressed in color, the pain, and the beauty. His soul cried out in the beauty of it all. The color of a leaf touched him.
He loved deeply but it also caused him such deep turmoil.
I would like to explore flowers and faces the way he has.
Differences from LA–this [Fresno] is much lighter in tone. It is more painterly and classical. The music is uplifting and does less to take us into the depths of his despair. LA took on the darker tones of Van Gogh’s life and allowed some of his grief and pain. The music was often heavier and with more drama. The movement of the art is also different. LA gave us more of his life story by often (but not always) moving in a more linear direction. The art here is more content driven, with locations, styles, portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. LA felt more like a passage of time. Fresno feels like a body of work.
We said goodbye to the Statue of Liberty, boarded the ferry on the south side of the island, and set sail for our next destination; Ellis Island. Ellis Island has always captivated my attention, has always drawn me into the stories of the lives that stepped foot there. This spot of history had become essential if I were ever to go to New York City. Finally, I would see this place that had only been pictures in my head.
None of my own family, that I know of, came through Ellis Island. Much of my family came to the United States in the years before Ellis Island, dating back to some of the earliest settlers. Others, my Russian Molokan family, came at the turn of the century, escaping political prosecution for their religious beliefs through Galveston, Texas.
Our boat docked between two sections of the island. To the north was the Registry Room which is open to the general public. To the south was the quarantine hospital, a building in decay and only open as an additional tour, the fee going to Save Ellis Island, a non-profit created to restore the 29 unused buildings on Ellis Island.
We donned our hardhats and traveled down the long brick hallways, moving from one island to the next. The red brick was stained white; damage from the waterline of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This slowed and reversed some of the restorative work being done on this part of Ellis Island.
While the hospital on the main island could care for 275 in 1910, contagious diseases often needed to be cared for in specific quarantine hospitals on the mainland. This created a need for a quarantine hospital on Ellis Island itself.
Besides the main island with the registry room and standard hospital, two other islands were created with only a narrow strip of land connecting them. (Today, the two southernmost islands stand as one, the water between them now turned into an empty park using the dirt from the development of the New York Subway system. This area is off-limits to tourists.)
As we walked down the hallways, you could imagine what this space had once been, with doctors and nurses in their uniforms traveling back and forth. The quarantine took children from their families and loved ones from their partners. Children in the quarantine hospital were required to be cared for with money sent from families allowed to go ashore or through help from charity aid societies.
I imagine my grief at being allowed passage after a long journey, escaping some horror in my homeland, only to have my child taken from me because of a suspected illness. My child feeling like she had been abandoned or forgotten in the twisting hallways. I imagine trying to start a new life and make enough money to pay for my child to stay at the hospital until she is better so that she will not be returned to our homeland.
Down the hallway, we come to a large room, the ceiling has fallen from time and weather. There are leaves piled on the floor. We turn to the right and find ourselves in an ancient laundry. The shadows of memories stand in the window, the installation of French artist, JR. These pieces will peak at us through our entire tour, designed to decay with the building.
The electric box stands open on the wall, large switches in the position, their boxes filled with leaves. There is no power currently on this part of the island or none that I can see. Our tour walks in the sunlight which travels through broken windows.
The enormous industrial washing machines and dryers stand open in the middle of the room. The ground is dusty, the paint has peeled and been scraped. I imagine the workers and the constant washing of garments, especially the garments of those with contagious diseases. My mind sees orderlies rushing around, keeping constantly busy.
We step from the laundry, passing what was once the ward for those thought to be mentally unfit. We pass the outdoor recreation pavilion, a narrow covered brick space that would have once sat on the bay. In many illnesses of the time, it was believed that fresh air was one of the best medicines for a patient. This covered pavilion would have allowed patients to sit or lay and look at the water. Fresh air was also used in the hospital, even when snow fell and the wind was ice.
Moving past the outdoor recreation pavilion, we move to the southernmost island. The dormitory buildings here do not line up, they stretch off a central corridor and no doors are ever across from each other.
It was believed at the time that viruses in the air could not turn corners. Therefore, quarantine dormitories could not face other quarantine dormitories. The ceilings did not have sharp corners in these rooms because it was believed that viruses would fill those corners and get stuck there, never moving out through the open windows.
Illnesses of the same type were kept together. Children with measles were kept in a single room with other children with measles. Their windows were kept open, even at the coldest time of year, so that the virus would not be concentrated in the room. It was believed that viruses could not be blown overwater, this is why the island was separated by the bay with only a connecting pathway. Radiators sat against the wall to keep the rooms warm against the chill of the weather.
The art of JR follows us and allows us to see the ghosts of this place as they dream of a new life. They are faded but still present. Beyond the images, you feel the presence of what was once here, the sadness and the hope.
A beautiful, sad, haunting look at the quarantine hospital is seen in a film also created by JR and stars Robert Deniro, called “Ellis”. You can watch it on YouTube here, or I have included the link below. It allows you to understand what it is to walk these halls, to feel the history of the hospital.
In the Tuberculosis ward, patients were not kept together as they were in other spaces. The rooms were not across from each other, but alternating down a hallway. Each patient had their own room with two sinks; the first to wash and the second to spit.
Tuberculosis spit is highly contagious and these sinks had their own plumbing which was flushed to the incinerator. Their windows were not left open the way other rooms were but rather vented in a way that the patient could not escape.
One of the saddest stories was in the room looking out over the Statue of Liberty. While some believed the statue gave them hope for a new life, others saw her standing with her back turned on them. It was a daily reminder that the United States had turned its back on them and their dreams of taking a step in their new land.
The installation in the director’s house at the far end of the island somehow touched me the most. “This Place Matters.”
The place matters, it truly does.
This is the foundation that our country was built upon. Immigrants placed all of their hope, all of their dreams within their chosen country. Many were turned away, families were broken, but more were allowed their new home.
This woman reminds me of my great-grandma when she came from Russia. They have a similar look to them, and the lines on their face tell a similar story.
The hospital was one of the best in the country and one of the best in the world. Patients were treated well as per the standards of the time and within the fight of anti-immigration sentiment and law.
No contagious spread of disease was ever traced back to a patient who left the hospital, and most patients did eventually leave the hospital and start the new life they dreamed of.
The History of Ellis Island
Originally, Ellis island was called Kioshk, or Gull Island, by the Mohican Native American Tribe living along the shore of the Hudson River. The island itself was a small sandbank lined with waterbirds. In the 1630s, a Dutchman named Michael Paauw purchased the island from the native people and renamed it Oyster Island for the shellfish beds surrounding it.
Through the turmoil of history and as the settler’s claim to this land was questioned and fought over, the ownership of the island itself continued to change hands. At one point it was called Gibbet Island in reference to the public execution of pirates hung there. In the 1780s Samuel Ellis came to own the island giving it the name it carries today, using it for recreation. Ellis sold it once again in 1988 for $3,200 to John A. Berry, the last private owner.
In 1808, the United States War Department bought the island for $10,000. There was fear due to rising tensions of the Napoleonic War and so the government purchased the island to become a fort, Fort Gibson, and be used as a line of defense to protect what is now Lower Manhattan. During the War of 1812, the British blocked the harbor but never attacked any of New York’s fortifications. Fort Gibson itself was used to jail prisoners of war.
The War of 1812 did not officially end until February of 1815 and Ellis Island was left deserted. In the 1830s, the island was used for storage of gunpowder and became a munitions dump during the Civil War. Its close proximity to both New York and New Jersey created fear through the possibility of the munitions being attacked or hit by lightning and causing devastation to the communities around it. In 1890, Congress passed legislation to clear the island of munitions and passed a bill for $75,000 to improve the island for purposes of immigration.
In 1847, the Irish Potato Famine sent approximately one million Irishmen to look for new homes. (The famine itself is estimated to have killed another million, the population of Ireland declined by approximately 25%.) Ellis Island was suggested as a place for immigrants to recover from their journey across the Atlantic, but New York decided instead to renovate Castle Clinton on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Immigration, as it seems is always the case, became a conflicting issue for the people of the United States. On one hand, immigrants brought skilled workers, strong bodies, and an economy that could help strengthen the country. On the other hand, some saw immigrants and the hungry poor with contagious diseases that would strain the government through social support.
This became the foundation of immigration; who would be admitted and who would be denied.
In 1882, two laws were passed. The first banned all Chinese and denied citizenship to any Chinese already established in the country. The second law denied entry to “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.”
In 1891, the law banned paupers, prostitutes, polygamists, or any person with a dangerous contagious disease.
In 1885, the Alien Contract Labor Law was passed. This law was meant to protect American workers from companies importing cheaper labor while protecting immigrants from manipulation. The law led to corruption within Castle Garden and embarrassment to the Federal government as stories of abuse were the headlines of the newspapers of the day.
In 1890, the contract with the New York State immigration commissioners was terminated and immigration inspection was given to the federal government. An island was sought in an effort to keep separate anyone needing to be detained.
Governors island was chosen first, but the War Department refused. Chosen next was Bedloe Island where the Statue of Liberty stands. There was an ironic outcry; the public did not want “Europe’s garbage” to be put at Liberty’s feet.
Finally, Ellis Island was selected, despite the fact that the water was too shallow for boats to dock there.
Ellis Island was doubled in size using ship ballast (heavy material placed low in a ship to maintain balance) as landfill; a deep ferry landing was built.
On January 1, 1892, Annie Moore, 15 years old from Ireland, was the first immigrant to enter Ellis Island. The building was designed to process 10,000 immigrants a day.
The depot quickly fell into disrepair and in 1897, a fire burned it to the ground.
In planning for a rebuild, a second island, attached by only a narrow connection, was planned. It would be built from landfill from the new subway system being developed in New York City. The main building was designed to process 500,000 immigrants a year, but immigration had slowed and only approximately 250,000 souls were arriving through New York annually.
The main (and current building) opened on December 17, 1900. In 1901, 389,000 immigrants came through the registration room. In 1907, immigration peaked when over one million came through. Between the 1840s and 1924 (when Congress instituted “ethnic quotas) approximately 34 million immigrants landed in the United States through Ellis Island.
Ships filled with immigrants sailed into the Upper Bay and were boarded around The Narrows. First-class (and sometimes second-class passengers) were inspected. It was generally assumed that if they could afford the ticket, they would not be a burden on society and were considered less likely to be carrying a dangerous and contagious disease.
These passengers did not have to go through Ellis Island immigration but disembarked before the rest of the passengers were taken via ferry to be inspected.
Third-class passengers were called “steerage”. The trip was often crowded and unsanitary in the bowels of the steamships; disease was common. These passengers were moved onto open-air ferries without toilets or medical care. Death by exposure was not uncommon. It is thought that of children arriving with measles, 30% died due to exposure on the ferries.
We like to think of a ferry as a quick trip across the bay, however, the bay was often filled with steamships, with thousands of passengers waiting to disembark. They were often left in steerage for days, waiting for their turn. The ferries then lined up, waiting to disembark at Ellis Island.
When the time came that an immigrant stepped foot on the island, carrying everything they owned, a number was pinned to their clothing identifying their position on the ship manifest. This allowed inspectors to know where they came from and whether they had a “right” to be there.
An average of 2% were denied entry. While that number may seem small, it is 2 of every 100 people, thousands over the course of a month.
The lines stretched from the docks and around the buildings, through baggage rooms, upstairs, and into the 2-story Registry Room. They were met by doctors who looked for any little sign of disability, even before the immigrant knew they were being watched. Children were taken from their mother’s arms and made to walk to be sure that they were able; they were asked their names to be sure that they could hear and speak.
Doctors checked for 60 different symptoms which would point to disease or disability. Two that I had never heard of, which were common at the time, were favus (a fungal infection of the scalp and nails) and trachoma (an eye infection from a strain of Chlamydia, which could lead to blindness and death in people living in the same home.)
Doctors checked every immigrant for trachoma by using a buttonhook or hairpin to flip back the eyelid looking for inflammation of the inner lid. These doctors were called “buttonhook men” and immigrants describe it as the most painful part of their inspection.
Immigrants with signs of illness or disability were marked with chalk on their clothing. They were taken to the Ellis Island main hospital for observation and care. More complicated illnesses were taken to the quartine hospital. When they recovered, they could continue to their legal inspection.
If they were incurable or disabled, they were returned to their country of origin at the expense of the steamship that brought them over. This put the responsibility on the ships to filter out who they brought to New York.
Beyond the chalk mark, people were marked with specific letters for specific conditions. Pregnant women were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until they had given birth; they were marked with Pg. (Over 350 babies were born on Ellis Island and there was some debate if these children were born American citizens.)
If an immigrant was thought to be feeble-minded (and approximately 9 out of every 100 immigrants were pulled out and detained) they were marked with an X and were required to go through further testing. These tests varied and included things like putting together a puzzle or counting. The tests varied as different cultural backgrounds did not work for each test.
After the medical inspection, immigrants wound in lines through the main part of the registry room for legal inspection. It took, on average, 5 hours to pass through the inspection process.
Inspectors stood with translators who worked to figure out that immigrant’s language and dialect. They verified information from the ship manifest, names were recorded with an attempt at spelling it correctly. (However, countries that do not use the Latin lettering system of English took some interpretation. My Russian last name would be translated from the Cyrillic alphabet which is why any spelling of Loscotoff is most likely related to my family in some way; Loscutoff, Loskotoff, Luskatov.) Inspectors asked questions that would identify where they would fit into this new society.
In 1917, immigrants began to be required to pass a literacy test in their own language, with many being required to read the Bible in their own language.
If an immigrant could not prove their right to be here, they were forced to attend a hearing. They were not allowed a lawyer as they were not legally entitled to come to the United States. They were, however, allowed to have friends and family speak on their behalf. Most were approved, those who were not could appeal to Washing DC and could hire a lawyer at this point.
Women and children without guardians were not allowed to leave Ellis Island until a letter or ticket from a relative assured the government that they had a place to go. Single women were not allowed to leave with a man who was unrelated.
Immigration brides were common, with letters and pictures being sent across the sea. Men would crowd barges to meet bride ships, with brides holding up pictures to match to their fiances. Many of these couple married on Ellis Island in order to be allowed to leave. Women unhappy or who felt fooled by their choice were required to stay on the island until they could find a new husband or a woman’s charity came to their aid.
After passing the medical and legal inspection, immigrants moved down from the registry room to the “Stairs of Separation” which led to their new lives; railroad ticket offices, meeting points with waiting families, and ferries to take them off the island.
Due to the increase in laws against immigration, Ellis island came to a rapid decline in the early 1920s. After World War I, embassies around the world were established which took care of immigration paperwork and medical inspections. After 1924, Ellis island was used for war refugees and those having trouble with immigration paperwork. During WWII, it became a detention center and was managed by the United States Coast Guard until 1954.
Unfortunately, all hospital records on the island were destroyed while under the care of the Coast Guard.
We returned to New York City, now imagining what it would be to have sat on a boat in the bay, seeing this new world for the first time and not knowing if you would ever step foot there; not knowing if your family would be torn apart. As we boarded the subway, I imagined all this earth forming the foundation of three small islands in the bay, and how this dirt supported the immigration of America.
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