In our US history course, we're learning about the 1920s era (New Era, Jazz Age, Roaring Twenties, etc), which was characterized by a wave of conservatism and nativism. We also learned that as part of the nativist desire to maintain a uniform national identity following WWI, the government passed the National Origins Act of 1924, which limited the number of foreigners who could come to the US from a particular foreign country to 2% of that country's people residing in the US at the time the 1890 census was taken.

Did it use the 1890 census because there were fewer immigrants in the US at the time? If so, why didn't the government use any previous censuses, such as the 1880 census, seeing as how there would have been even fewer foreigners in the US at that time?

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    Perhaps because (Ashkenazi) Jewish immigration had increased dramatically after 1890, due to pogroms in Eastern Europe nd Russia. Oct 27, 2016 at 20:57
  • Are you saying our government was biased anti-semetically? Oct 27, 2016 at 21:45
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    It was actually biased towards pretty much anything that was non-white, Protestant, and American (so yes, that included Jews, as well as Catholics). That was pretty much the essence of nativism. Oct 27, 2016 at 21:59

3 Answers 3


If the immigration scare that led to the 1924 act was that the majority of migrants no longer came from "desirable" previous patterns from northern and western Europe but instead had changed to "undesirable" sources in southern and eastern Europe, then basing quotas on migrant populations on earlier desirable patterns was an obvious attempt to change back to earlier patterns.

A bonus from this approach is that it was likely to gain political support from politicians representing established communities of US citizens whose families had migrated at an earlier stage (such as Irish, German and Scandinavian communities), while Italians and others were still politically weak. Generosity to Irish migrants has featured in most subsequent US immigration rules for precisely this political reason.

The Act was racist in another way, in that previous 19th century immigration from east, south and south-east Asia did not lead to high quotas for new migrants from those parts of the world; people from these countries were described as "aliens ineligible for citizenship" and simply barred from migration.

Curiously, Latin America did not face quota restrictions while Africa was treated relatively generously (possibly because there was little African migration at that time to restrict).

  • Citations would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Oct 28, 2016 at 16:44
  • The first paragraph makes a lot of sense! I agree with Mark that some citations would help Oct 28, 2016 at 17:46

The use of the 1890 census was a temporary and transitional measure. It was expected to last three years until a new, more complex formula could be implemented on the basis of 1920 data. So the purpose was to begin reducing overall immigration immediately (starting July 1, 1924) while the data was being analyzed according to the new formula.

The old formula was a blanket quota on all immigration regardless of national origin, which was very easy to calculate. The new system distinguished / discriminated according to national origin. That would take time to implement, but the bill's authors clearly did not want to wait to restrict immigration. Even on the basis of 1920 data, the new formula also imposed a tighter quota overall than the old formula applied to the 1890 data. So applying the old formula to 1890 data was just an easy way to begin restricting overall immigration in the short term.


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    I think I could probably write an answer completely disagreeing with this one based on that same source. For example, their unexplained purposeful exclusion of anyone from Latin America is highly suspect. Its a wonderful source though, so you get an upvote from me just for that.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 28, 2016 at 16:26
  • Just to clarify my understanding, why couldn't the "old formula" be applied to the 1920 census data? Oct 28, 2016 at 17:45
  • @AleksandrH: It could have been... But that would have defeated the intended purpose of the bill, which was to reduce immigration.
    – Brian Z
    Oct 30, 2016 at 21:09

In order to understand why 1890 was used and not 1880, it is important to note that the there were three waves of "immigration."

The first wave was up to 1840. That is, most Americans of that year were descendants of "settlers" (including slaves) over the previous 200 years, which meant that the number of immigrants in any given year was small compared to the descendants of previous arrivals. Apart from African-American slaves, these settlers were mainly of British, French or "Dutch" descent (including some west Germans.)

Beginning in 1840, in the "middle" wave, the rate of immigration rose sharply, but this was considered mainly "desirable" immigration from Germany (including eastern Germany), Ireland, and Scandinavia; that is, from northern and western Europe. This was reflected in a the growth of the American population by 46 million from 17 million in 1840 to 63 million in 1890, with about one-third of the growth represented by "first generation" Americans.

In 1890, a third or "late" wave of immigration began, with a different mix of people, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, and also from Asia. This led to an equivalent growth of 43 million, to 106 million by 1920, with the newer group of immigrants being considered "less desirable" than the older ones.

The 1924 Act had two thrusts. The first was to cap the overall rate of immigration to 2% of the U.S. population a year (actually more like 1% because the cap was 2% of the 1890 population) to prevent immigrants from being an ever-larger proportion of the population. The second impact was to revert the immigrant mix to the "desired" ethnic (not immigration) mix of 1890. As another poster pointed out, the choice of 1890 rather than 1880 allowed politicians to cater to the "middle," mid-century immigrant groups.

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