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Ellis Island: Land of Hopes & Fears

Ellis Island: Land of Hopes & Fears by Denise ((bonaimo)) Sarram 26" x 16" x 3" Assemblage 2020

vintage thread spools, button hook tool, plastic doll eye, typewriter keys, eyeglass lens, buttons, compass, snaps, fabric, metal stencil, stitching, ephemera, antique tin type photos, ancestor photo, glass, maps, lace, printing press letters, game pieces,  letter board letters,  ship's manifest, metal wings,fabric,  raw silk

(Click on the middle of the image to view in full screen mode for the best view)

Imagine with me for a moment the story I have put together in my head after researching about what it was like to immigrate to America at the turn of the 20th century. 


You've made the difficult decision to leave your homeland and the day has come that you've been saving for. It's a long (7-10 day) journey from Europe. Traveling with the clothes on your back and whatever treasured belongings you could carry you have no idea what will come next.  Third class steerage on a steamship is in the belly of the boat on the rough open sea. There are no windows and very little ventilation. You sleep stacked in a wooden cubby. The smell of every bodily function all around you is unbearable. You finally arrive in America. You are already one of the lucky ones, some of the other passengers didn't make it. 

You step off the boat to Ellis Island. You are a nervous bundle of excitement and apprehension. You've heard the stories of people being turned away for a various number of medical and mental health reasons. Will you be able to pass the inspectors tests?

My maternal Great Grandmother Felicia and Grandma Caterina experienced this in 1920. Felicia lost her husband to WW1 and her twin boys to the Influenza Epidemic in 1918 (Spanish Flu). My ancestors were unaccompanied females, hoping to make a happy life in America. When they arrived at Ellis Island they were detained until Felicia's male cousin could come to release them.

This assemblage highlights some of the medical conditions that could get you denied entry to America, or sometimes a trip to the Ellis Island hospital to recuperate. Each immigrant had to undergo a series of tests and were asked several questions to weed out people with mental health conditions, illiterate individuals, anarchists, polygamists and those too sick to benefit the American workforce.

The button hook tool below the blue eye in this artwork is an example of the tool the doctors used to inspect the inside of one's eyelids for a highly contagious eye disease called "trachoma" that causes blindness. It was a very uncomfortable screening that the immigrants did not look forward to.

Another interesting thing that happened at Ellis Island is there is a very long staircase in the grand hall that each immigrant had to walk up as soon as they entered the building. If someone seemed to be struggling the inspectors would put a blue chalk "X" mark on their clothing. This meant they were to be pulled aside for further evaluation. The metal stencil "X" in this assemblage represents this process.

The words around the edge of this assemblage are individually hand stamped with antique rubber letter stamps. They represent the abbreviations for the medical and psychiatric conditions they screened for. Terms that today we would consider derogatory such as "imbecile", "feeble minded" and "idiot".

The thread spools are a common theme in this collection, as my Grandma, and several of my Great Aunts  were seamstresses.

Notable is the central photo of Felicia and Caterina which was taken at Ellis Island. The ship manifest included here has their names with notations such as "Under 16". On the line with their typed names are handwritten notes about them being detained and a stamp stating the fact that they were eventually "Admitted".


These strong women, whom I am proud to be descended from, give me strength when I feel troubled. Resilience doesn't even begin to describe their character. If it's possible for this quality to be passed on in DNA, I'm a lucky woman.

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