100 Years Later: Making Statistics Usable Again

Last semester, I wrote a historiography on Jewish immigration to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, a period that is typically defined as ranging from 1881 to 1924. During this time, approximately 23 million immigrants came to this country, about 2 million of which were Jews from Eastern Europe.

While researching books to write about, I found a fascinating dissertation (political science PhD at Columbia University) on the subject: Jewish immigration to the United States from 1881 to 1910 by Samuel Joseph, notable because it was written in 1914, while mass immigration was still happening!

In his dissertation, Joseph took a primarily statistical approach, quantifying newcomers into categories based on things like country of origin, destination, port of entry, occupation, and even literacy levels.

When I read this book last year, I realized that this information might be really useful in  my work at NMAJH. However, while this book has been digitized, Joseph’s statistics are presented only in chart form, which is difficult both to interpret and to feed through an OCR.

Destination of Jewish Immigrants, 1899 to 1910, by division. The percentages help to visualize the difference in these numbers, but can this be improved?

So for his assignment, I wanted to see how I could make these statistics more useful, both to visualize them, and to make them more convenient than having to scroll through a slowly-loading 200 page book on Hathi Trust. I made the following charts through Excel, which I had to learn how to do last year to create board reports at work. Here are a few reasons why I love Excel:

  1. You can make a variety of charts super quickly.
  2. You can manipulate/fix the data and see how that changes your chart.
  3. It’s really easy to customize how the chart looks, such as making colors easier to read, including data values, etc.
Here is that same chart, which I translated into a pie chart. Now it’s a little easier to quickly see that same distribution! If I had a little bit more specific information (such as how he’s defining these divisions), I would consider a heat map of the U.S. that shows people’s destinations.


These show the number of Jews with certain occupations in the Russian Empire in 1897, and then what percentage that was of the total amount of people with those occupations. So even though the most Jews work in manufacturing, those Jews only occupy 10% of total manufacturing jobs. I tried to fit these two data sets into a single chart but couldn’t figure out how to do it without having two axis or simply labeling the first bar chart with the percentages.

This line graph shows, over time, how many immigrants were arriving in Philadelphia from each country. A footnote on the graph explains that, in 1891, Austria-Hungary and Roumania [sic] were counted as “Others.”
I think it could prove useful to eventually continue doing this for the rest of the book, or at least transcribing Joseph’s charts into plain text. If possible, that would involve checking his statistics against his original sources, which come from a variety of places (census records, synagogue and charity reports, etc), so this information can be made more consistent and to clear up any uncertainties.


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