A Child of Immigrants Upward mobility and voting trends during the Great depression Mary Katherine Sowers

Photo by Lee

Hal H. Nerbovig was the child of Norwegian immigrants. The Federal Writers' Project, an organization created to give an idea of a common person's life during the Great Depression, conducted an interview with him, discovering the challenges and intimate details of his life. The Life History of Nerbovig provides an interesting and realistic perspective of what it was like to be a child of immigrants, while also being a natural-born citizen in the United States. It highlights how it carried over to all aspects of his life, specifically in his capacity for upward mobility and his voting trends.


Hal H. Nerbovig was born in 1876 in Winona, Minnesota to two Norwegian immigrant parents. His father was a watchmaker. For Nerbovig's first job, he worked at a movie theatre for four years. Afterward, he ran a chain of ten wholesale grocery stores.

Nerbovig later returned to his father’s business of watchmaking and finally settled down in Asheville, North Carolina. All of his brothers were watchmakers as well.

In 1902, Nerbovig married a woman of English heritage, and they had three daughters. His oldest daughter was the only one in the family to receive a college education.

When the article was written in 1939, he lived alone at a local hotel. However, it never mentioned where his wife was, if they were divorced or if she was deceased. Nerbovig continued to be a watchmaker for the rest of his life (Carter).

Watch Repairman (Lee)

Upward Mobility

In the life history of Nerbovig, his entire family were watchmakers. Upward mobility during this time was not likely, especially for immigrant families. Nerbovig's father, though he was successful in Norway, thought that he could provide his family with a better life in the United States (Carter). However, he would discover that the “American Dream” was not the dream he had heard it would be. According to Grantham, “The notion of the American Dream at this time existed to immigrants and meant merely to survive and be able to exist in a country that was free” (Grantham, 5). Nerbovig's father imagined a life of success and ease, but this was not likely for an immigrant family. Upward mobility was not usually possible.

The United States has been ranked among the lowest mobility rates for developed countries beginning in the 1920s. According to Peters, "in the US, someone born in the lowest economic bracket has about a 8% chance of making it to the top” (Peters, 3). This statistic negates the perception that success is possible for any person in the US. Since the 1920s, the upward mobility rate in the US has been decreasing (Peters). Even though Nerbovig never experienced poverty, he still never had the option of upward mobility.

Another issue that arises is that families of “high statue” would often pass down their “privileges” to their children or kin, sometimes even to distant relatives, in order to preserve their family name and status. According to Lipset, “in every stratified, complex society there is, as Plato suggested, a straining towards aristocracy and a limitation of mobility” (Lipset, 2). This hindered even further an immigrant's capacity for upward mobility, because they did not have the upper-class ancestors that many Americans inherited.

Title Page of Life History (Carter)

Voting Trends

In Nerbovig's life history, it says, "He does not bother to vote, now, and has not even registered here, but he leans toward the Democratic Party" (Carter, 7). This was not uncommon during this time for people not to vote. In 1923 the League of Women Voters started a campaign to get Americans to vote and by 1928 almost one thousand groups followed their lead (Gidlow).

According to Gidlow, “At a time when voter turnout had slumped to 49%, marking the first time in nearly a century when a majority of eligible voters had failed to turn out at the polls, an impressive array of civic leaders, most of them middle-class or wealthy and white, launched extensive campaigns of advertising and civic education to reverse the trend” (Gidlow, 922-923). Nonvoters totaled to almost half of the American population, meaning the outcome of an election could vastly shift if the other half voted.

During this time, many people thought the majority of nonvoters were white, middle to upper-class citizens. However, it was the opposite. According to Gidlow, in the 1930s "Voters were disproportionately middle-class and upper-class; nonvoters were disproportionately working-class. Voters were disproportionately native-born and white; nonvoters were disproportionately African American, foreign-born, or ethnic (having at least one foreign-born parent)" (Gidlow, 926). Since Nerbovig was part of the working-class and both of his parents were foreign-born, he matches the classification of the typical nonvoter.

The Polls on Election Day (Collins)

Federal Writers' Project


The Federal Writers' Project (FWP) was a group of people who captured the everyday stories of Americans through interviews during the Great Depression. According to Hill, the FWP was "part of an initiative instituted while Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president of the United States during the New Deal" (Hill, 64). It was created in 1935 to produce jobs for those working in the humanities fields, such as historians, writers, and other white-collar workers (New Deals Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources).


Though the FWP was established to have an authentic idea of what was actually happening during this time in history, some claim that it is an unreliable source. It could be considered unreliable, because the interviewers were not always qualified. Though there were some states that had a “greater pull of experienced and published writers from which to draw", according to Gorman, “in other places, the criteria had to be flexible; ‘writers’ were actually people who simply had typing skills” (Gorman, 2). Therefore, the interviewers were not necessarily capable of accurately converting the interview into a life history.

Life History

In Nerbovig’s life history, the author, Douglas Carter, changed the title from “Craftsmen” to “Craftsman Born.” "Craftsman" implies that he chose his profession. However, "Craftsman Born" implies that he had no choice but to become one. The original work of the life history allows people to analyze the initial details without alterations.


Works Cited

Carter, Douglas. "Craftsman Born." Federal Writers' Project, 13 Feb. 1939. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Gidlow, Liette. "Delegitimizing Democracy: 'Civic Slackers,' the Cultural Turn, and the Possibilities of Politics." The Journal of American History. Dec. 2002. Web. 13 Feb. 2017.

Gorman, Juliet. "The History of the Federal Writers' Project." New Deal Narratives: Visions of Florida. May 2001. Web. 19 Feb. 2017. http://www.oberlin.edu/library/papers/honorshistory/2001-Gorman/FWP/FWPhistory/fwphist2.html

Grantham, Savannah. "The American Dream in the 1920s & 30s." Cultural History of the United States. Web. 30 Jan. 2017. http://culturalhistoryus.weebly.com/the-american-dream/the-american-dream-in-the-1920s-30s

Hayduk, Ronald. "Democracy for All: Restoring Immigrant Voting Rights in the US." New Political Science 26 (2004): Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Hill, Lynda M. "Ex-Slave Narratives: The WPA Federal Writers Project Reappraised." Oral History Society. Spring 1988. Web. 09 Feb. 2017.

Lipset, Seymour Martin., and Reinhard Bendix. "Social Mobility in Industrial Society." Berkeley: U of California, 1959. Web. 05 Feb. 2017.

"New Deal Programs: Selected Library of Congress Resources." Federal Writers' Project: New Deal Web Guide (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress). The Library of Congress, Web. 08 Feb. 2017 http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/newdeal/fwp.html

Peters, Adele. "The American Dream Is Dead: Here's Where It Went." Co.Exist. 08 Sept. 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2017. https://www.fastcoexist.com/3049643/the-american-dream-is-dead-heres-where-it-went

Images Cited

Carter, Douglas. "Craftsman Born." Federal Writers' Project, 13 Feb. 1939. Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

Collins, Marjory. "Olney, Maryland. The polls on election day." Nov. 1942. Web. 9 Feb. 2017. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001012887/PP

Lee, Russell. "Jeweler and Watch Repairman. San Augustine, Texas." April 1939. Web. 03 Feb. 2017. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=fsa2000014128/PP

Lee, Russell. "Mr. H. Ormand, who is a leading jeweler in San Leandro, California, came to the United States from the Azores Islands twenty-three years ago when he was seventeen years old..." April 1942. Web. 08 Feb. 2017. http://photogrammar.yale.edu/records/index.php?record=owi2001004062/PP

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