Greek Immigrants and Labor

The United States saw a rapid increase in Greek immigration at the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1890 and 1900, 16,000 Greeks arrived in the U.S., compared to the mere 3,000 who entered the country over the whole of the previous ninety years.[1] Economic and political strife in Greece drove many to America in search of the work that they could not find in their homelands.[2]Many of the first Greek immigrants to arrive in the United States were young men focused on only a temporary residency. “The Greek immigrant left his homeland….to find work so that he could send funds back to his parents, brothers and sisters to ease the strain on their lives.”[3] These immigrants intended to find unskilled labor, earn enough money to improve the lives of their families and neighbors back in Greece, and eventually return home. Due to this motivation, Greeks were drawn to areas where work could be found quickly.

Regional differences affected the occupations that Greeks engaged in.  Those who settled in New England found employment in textile mills, particularly those in Lowell, Massachusetts.[4] There were also Greeks who traveled into the American West, most of them attracted by labor agents who promised economic success.[5] Greeks in the West labored in mines and lumber yards, as well as in the construction and railroad industries. In the late 1910s, approximately 22% of the labor force on the Western railroads was made up of Greek immigrants.[6] However, some occupations were common in all urban areas that Greeks settled in. Peddling served as a first job for many newly arrived immigrants, selling wares such as fruits, vegetables, and flowers out of street carts.[7] A large number of Greeks found work in the food service industry in the form of restaurants, lunch rooms, and hotels, and it was this industry that provided Greeks with the most opportunities to start their own small businesses.[8] Cities such as New York and Chicago had particularly high numbers of Greek entrepreneurs in the food service industry.[9] Chicago was notable for its high number of Greek confectioners and quickly became a center of the candy business in the United States[10] Greek entrepreneurs commonly began their careers as peddlers and worked their way up the businesses ladder to reach the goal of small business ownership.[11] Greek immigrants were attracted to business ownership out a desire to achieve middle class respectability and establish themselves in their new communities.[12] While Greek immigrants were able to succeed in their chosen fields across the United States, the culture of the Southern states created an unusual path to entrepreneurship for Greeks.

Greeks in the South were largely deprived of many opportunities that other immigrants had in terms of unskilled labor. While Greeks in the American North and West found plentiful industrial work, Southern Greeks were in a region where such labor was not as common. As a result, Greeks in the South were even more drawn towards small business ownership.[13] Not only were food service business in demand in the South, but entrepreneurship also allowed Greeks to “fit into the distinct, southern environment.”[14] The graphs below represent occupations held by Greeks in Alexandria in 1920 and 1940, as listed in the Alexandria censuses of the respective years. Food service and entrepreneurship remained important to Greek immigrants from the first wave in 1890 to well into the 20th century.

Occupations listed by Greeks in the 1920 Alexandria census

Occupations listed by Greeks in the 1940 Alexandria census

Time of arrival, the nature of the available labor markets, and the size of the Greek community all contributed to determining the region in which one would settle. As Karpathakis, and Geograkas explain, “time of arrival in a specific region has enormous impact on what kind of work is readily available. Regional differences would go on to foster different type of adaptation for Greek immigrants.[15] The southern variant theory cannot be applied as an over generalization for Greek immigrants. Odzak states that it is “better to look at specific experiences in identifiable locations over periods of time, rather than making a generalized model” [16] Although the theory seems to be more applicable to Greeks in Southern cities than their Northern counterparts does not take away from the fact that Greeks in the North at times were able to establish their own businesses and achieve upward mobility.



[1] Dan Georgakas, “The Greeks in America” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora no. 1&2 (Spring-Summer 1987), 5.

[2] Nicholas J. Velis, “Greek Immigration as Part of United States History” Organon no.2 (January 1971), 43

[3]. Velis, 44

[4] Theodore Saloutos, The Greeks in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), 47.

[5] Georgakas, 20

[6] Ibid

[7] Velis, 48

[8] Lazar Odzak, Demetrios is Now Jimmy (Durham: Monograph Publishers, 2011), 31.

[9] Saloutos, 262.

[10] Saloutos, 262.

[11] Saloutos, 259.

[12] Saloutos, 258

[13] Odzak, 32

[14] Odzak, 20

[15] Anna Karpathakis and Dan Georgakas, “Demythologizing Greek American Families,” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 36, no. 1/2 (June 2010): 45.

[16] Odzack, 44