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Presentation Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History

Building Institutions, Shaping Tastes

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 light, fizzy 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 quintessentially American.

For example, the U.S. education system, from the lowest grades to the highest, 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.

German immigrants also brought their reforming zeal to America's recreational life--it can even be argued that Germans invented the American weekend. Before the arrival of the Germans, many communities in the American colonies observed a Puritan sabbath, with an emphasis on rest and family time spent at home. Germans, however, had a long tradition of organized Sunday recreation and were enthusiastic devotees of the Sunday outing. 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. Germans were also fond of social clubs, and formed singing societies, theater groups, and lodges. 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.

German Couple, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Traditions that many think of as being fundamentally American, as being part of the nation's heritage since time immemorial, were either introduced or popularized by German immigrants in the 19th century. Several of the most familiar elements of the American Christmas celebration, from the Christmas tree to the gift-giving Santa Claus, were gifts from the Germans, as was the Easter bunny.

By the end of the 19th century, German Americans and German culture were generally accepted as necessary threads in the fabric of American life. They were less geographically and culturally isolated than in previous generations and increasingly spoke English as a first, rather than a second, language, all the while maintaining a vital written culture in German. German was widely taught in American public schools and was studied by German and non-German students alike. German Americans were occasionally portrayed as figures of fun in the popular press, but they were seldom demonized. The coming years would see German Americans rise to even greater heights in American life; however, German American culture would not fare so well.

What other foods, celebrations, or traditions might be linked to German heritage?