To America!

Conrad Conzett, Nach Amerika! Handbuch für Auswanderer. Nach eigenen Erfahrungen geschrieben.

Self-published by the author, Chur 1871.

Almost 6 million Germans emigrated to the USA in the 19th century. Due to the gradual impoverishment of farmers and factory workers after the onset of the industrialisation, a lot of people were willing to emigrate. Plus, after the failure of the German revolutions of 1848/9, if not earlier, America attracted many liberals with its promise of more freedom.

But for Swiss emigrants, too, the path to the country of endless opportunity often started at the German ports of Hamburg or Bremen. One of these emigrants was Conrad Conzett (*1848 to +1897). Time and again, he was inspired to leave his tranquil Swiss hometown of Chur to explore the wide world: Three times he ventured across the big pond, and three times he returned again. The trained printer summarised his experiences in a manual for future emigrants which he self-published in 1871. We’ll take a closer look at the little booklet, which is full to the brim with useful information. And we are amazed at all the things the author thought of.

German settlers in the USA, 1872.

Emigration – For Many a Profitable Business

German emigrants boarding a steamer headed for the USA.

In the 19th century, Europe experienced an unprecedented mass emigration. The driving forces behind this phenomenon were hunger (the devastating potato famine in Ireland), religious persecution (pogroms against Jews in Russia) and economic hardship. Industrialisation had aggravated the situation of German farmers to such an extent that about a quarter of them could no longer live off the yields of their land in the mid-19th century. A future in America seemed promising: A small farmer who owned only half a hectare of land in Germany could acquire up to 64 hectares within a few years of working in the USA. It was hopes like these that convinced people to risk everything they had and venture into the unknown.

After all, the journey was expensive. The ticket cost roughly an annual salary of a worker. And the shipping companies made a lot of money from it. On the journey from Europe to New York, the steamships were loaded with passengers, and on the way back with cargo. Provided the ship was fully loaded, the investment in such an emigrant ship paid for itself after only four or five voyages. It goes without saying that restaurants and hotels near the ports also raised their prices considerably. Business was booming in Hamburg, Bremen, Le Havre and Southampton.

And just like today, many swindlers also saw an opportunity to make money from emigrants by making false promises. When the number of attempted frauds increased drastically, Hamburg banned emigration in 1825. Until they realized that those who most profited from this regulation were their competitors in Bremen – and the senate abolished the law again.

A family of German settlers in the 1880s at the border of Nebraska.

The Ultimate Self-Help Book for Emigrants

To warn potential emigrants against such fraudsters and provide them with a trusty guide, Conrad Conzett published his book Nach Amerika! Handbuch für Auswanderer (English: To America! Guidebook for Emigrants) in 1871. Conzett, who had already lived and worked in the USA for a few years, wanted to write a comprehensive, independent and affordable manual for all emigrants to America. Existing books, Conzett said, were either incomplete, too expensive or biased – because some states “sponsored” authors to write positively about them.

A “modern” reader like me was surprised by how little the basic structure of such an emigration self-help book has actually changed until today. Although you can hardly compare the technical infrastructure of the 19th century with that of the 21st, the basic questions emigrants face still seem to be the same: Is this really a good idea or do I have unrealistic, overly romantic ideas of what to expect? Where exactly should I emigrate to? How do I access my bank account from over there? What about health insurance? Where can I get a job? Which professionals are in demand right now and which aren’t? If I miss German bread too much at some point, how much does it cost for my family to send me a care package? This book answers all these questions and provides useful tips.

Why You Should Emigrate… And Why You Shouldn’t

Conzett starts his booklet with the usual warning: Think twice before you emigrate. He writes about his contemporaries: “Life in America is often imagined here with the most vivid fantasy; indeed one thinks of a wonderful paradise and dreams of America’s immense riches, just lying in the street, waiting to be picked up by you.” Readers should refrain from engaging in such illusions, he says. However, he continues, those who did go to America were by all means “bold, ambitious and hard-working people” and if you did it right, you could definitely make it over there.

Culture, Geography, Jobs, Language, Prices

The main part of the book systematically presents all the things you should know about. There is not only a list of the most important professions but also detailed information on how much you can earn and how great the demand or competition in that field is. For instance, demand for painters is generally high in America, which is why it is easy to find a job without having any special qualifications. On the other hand, there isn’t such a high demand for pharmacist assistants. That’s why you need very good skills and ideally good connections to get a job. Thirdly, the author even provides information on which jobs are in particular demand in which cities. As a goldsmith, for example, Massachusetts, New York or Chicago was a good choice.

Furthermore, the manual contains information about the individual states (geography, climate, major cities), prices of important everyday items (telegrams, letter rates), timetables of the steamers and important railway lines, American culture and, as a bonus, a crash course for learning English. For one thing hasn’t changed to this day: If you speak the language of your new home country, you’ll be greeted with open doors. If you don’t, you have a problem.

…And Most Importantly: Beer!

In general, Conrad Conzett finds that the customs and the culture of Germans and Americans aren’t that different. However, there are three points that I especially enjoyed reading about and want to share with you. Firstly: American women are lazier than German women. They hate housework, let the maids do it whenever possible and spend too much money on clothes. Secondly: Regarding shop opening hours, the USA was already far ahead of Germany in 1870. At that time, people must have enjoyed shopping in the city between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. – because the shops were open that long. And last but not least: There was good beer! So emigrants didn’t need to worry as “the favourite drink of the Germans, the lager, is also served in America, and is usually of excellent quality.”

Conrad Conzett.

Conrad Conzett: The Man Behind the Book

Conrad Conzett was born in the Swiss town of Chur in 1848, the year of the German revolution, as the son of a shoemaker. After a long dispute with his parents about whether he would be allowed to attend university or not, he became a book printer. Even as a young man he wanted to escape the confines of his Swiss birthplace. He first moved to Leipzig and later to America, staying three times for extended periods. There he worked as an ice cutter, at a hairdresser’s and finally founded his own print shop and two newspapers. Both he and his wife Verena Conzett had socialist leanings and were very active in the labour movement; their political involvement repeatedly got them into trouble. After some heavy blows of fate, Conrad Conzett took his own life in Zürich in 1897. His wife continued to run the printing company, which was on the verge of bankruptcy at the time, and turned Conzett & Huber into an important publishing house. The Conzett family’s enthusiasm for books continues to this day – for instance with Jürg Conzett, the great-grandson of Verena Conzett and the publisher of Bookophile.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

We explored the discovery of the world and the fascination with the unknown in detail in an exhibition at the MoneyMuseum. The entire exhibition “Our Journey Into the Unknown: How we came to discover the secrets of our world” can be viewed online.

This German revolutionary and later American statesman was a contemporary of Conrad Conzett and one of the most famous German emigrants. Here we present the biography of Carl Schurz.

Did you know that Bremerhaven has an entire museum dedicated to the subject of emigration? Here’s the website of the German Emigration Center.

One of the most exciting literary stories set on an emigration steamer is Stefan Zweig’s The Royal Game. If you use audible, you can listen to the audiobook of the aureon publishing house here.

Antonín Dvorák also went to America in the 1890s and set his experiences to music in his symphony “From the New World”.

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