Website Review

COLLAGE (Collection Online: Visual Materials of American Immigration and Ethnic History)

Scholars and teachers of the history of immigrant children will find useful materials at COLLAGE, a website hosted by the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center. COLLAGE is a sub-set of the Center's extensive research collections. The images available here come from various ethnic communities, organizations, and institutions across the United States and spans the 20th century. While the collections do not focus exclusively on children, searches for "youth," "children," "boys" and "girls" will yield rich veins of useful material for the study of childhood. Even though COLLAGE is specifically for photographs, its useful finding aids knowledgeably describe and define the institutions from which the photos derived. These descriptions are of pedagogical value, for they provide valuable histories of ethnic organizations.

One of the site's richest sources of images is the Central Cooperative Wholesale (CCW) collection, which documents the Finnish American farmer's co-op movement. The description explains that Finnish immigrant farmers at the turn of the last century formed consumers' cooperatives as a way to strengthen their communities' economic standing. The photographs in the CCW records – a subset of the Center's Finnish American collection – attest to the CCW's role as more than a business venture for adult farmers; it also served a role for the children of those families, providing them with a connection to their ethnic heritage while encouraging them to thrive and succeed in American life. For example, the CCW sponsored essay contests and hosted summer camps for youth, whom they photographed in these activities to promote the cooperative and its products. In this picture, boys at a CCW camp do crafts using the co-op's own brand of spray-paint. In other photos, essay-contest visitors make an appearance on local radio and watch demonstrations of CCW employees at work.

These photos from the 1930s and 1940s suggest that the CCWs camps and essay-contests were aimed at boys; the few photos of little girls in the CCW collection show them playing with dolls in a co-op store. However, some photographs from a later period – the 1950s and 1960s – show adolescent girls in Cooperative-sponsored activities, such as its "Youth Conference" in the late 1950s.

COLLAGE also contains images from other Finnish-American institutions that served youth; this photo, from 1930, shows Massachusetts teens in a "gymnastics group" organized by the Tyomies Society. As the finding-aid explains, "The Tyomies Society was a radical Finnish-American publishing company which produced the daily newspaper Tyomies. The Company began as a Finnish American Socialist organization, later Communist."

Indeed, COLLAGE has numerous photos from Socialist or Communist youth-organizations. Teachers could use this sort of material, not only to illustrate the importance of ethnic communities for first-generation children, but also to discuss the role of radical politics in the education of youth during the early 20th century. There was a strong Leftist strain in American politics of that period, particularly among immigrant laborer populations, and one prominent feature of that movement was its focus on youth-education. The COLLAGE photos demonstrate the intersections of ethnicity, social class, and politics in the lives of American immigrant youth.

Although the Finns seem to be the best-represented nationality on the COLLAGE site, they are by no means the only one. Materials from The International Institute of San Francisco include photos of teenage boys and girls dancing at a Chinese Youth Club, and performing at the Institute's "China Night", both in the 1960s. While the dancing teens seem "Americanized" in every way, the photos from "China Night" show youth engaged in a celebration of Chinese language and culture. The juxtaposition of such photos can help teach students that racial/national identities are often plural and fluid, not singular and static, in the lives of immigrant populations.

Visitors to COLLAGE can also see Greek-American teens of the 1950s studying Greek; Italian-American youth in an ethnic celebration in Massachusetts; Polish-American children marching in traditional costumes in a 1950s Boston parade; young folk-dancers at the 25th anniversary of the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine in New York; and covers from a magazine published in the 1970s for Belarusan youth.

The photographs at COLLAGE are, in themselves, valuable and engaging tools for research and teaching. The site's only failing – and this is a substantial one – is its poor organization and navigability. A visitor who searches the photo collections will want to read the finding aids' descriptions of the photos – yet once you are in the website's finding-aid section, there is no link provided to get back to the COLLAGE search. Nor are there any categories provided for browsing the photos. One can only browse the collections' names by title (many of which are named for private individuals, with no indication of which nationality or subjects the collection represents), or conduct a search by typing specific words into the search-box. If the Immigration History Center wants to improve its website for pedagogical purposes, it will need to group its photographs into numerous cross-listed subject headings. Until that time, teachers who wish to use these materials in classrooms will need to chart a path for themselves before-hand and bookmark the relevant materials.

How to Cite This Source

"COLLAGE (Collection Online: Visual Materials of American Immigration and Ethnic History)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #280, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/280 (accessed April 18, 2014).

The images available here come from various ethnic communities, organizations, and institutions across the United States and spans the 20th century.