Siegmund Lubin, a poor though not destitute Jew, seemed almost destined to come to America. Possessed of unbounded energy and ambition, he chaffed against the restrictions of German society and left for the United States fully invested in its promise of fame and fortune for those bold enough to reach.
Germany had been his parents’ refuge from an oppressive Poland. However, life for a Jew in 19th-century Germany was hampered by limited economic opportunities and a cultural anti-Semitism that kept most Jews ghettoized. This was despite legal emancipation for Jews in 1869.
Contrasted against this hard life, European emigration agents, guidebooks, newspapers, and journals were all encouraging people just like Lubin to emigrate. Indeed, nearly 20 million immigrants came to the United States in the 19th Century seeking economic and political opportunities that eluded them in their homelands.
Lubin first left for the United States in 1868, preceded by his cousin, Joseph, perhaps making his decision to leave home a bit easier. Siegmund intended to sell trinkets to Native Americans but with nobody buying he was forced to return to Germany within a year. Such a return was not unusual, many immigrants never intended a permanent move and there was a steady flow back and forth across the Atlantic. Estimates place the number of such sojourners as high as 1 in 3 . He remained convinced, however, that America was indeed a land of unparalleled opportunity and was determined to return as soon as he finished his education.
Returning to Heidelberg, he earned a degree in ophthalmology, and made his return trip to the United States soon thereafter, in 1876. Armed with the degree he was able to leverage this training into his film empire. He started small, moving throughout the country pedaling eyeglasses on city streets, eventually opening up his own successful optometry shop. It was truly the immigrants dream. But for him it was just the beginning. He was a technophile with knowledge of lenses and a tinkerer’s heart. He innately understood moving pictures and the potential the new technology had and he dove in. America’s promise of riches delivered, at least until his last few years when the collapse of his studio plunged him into bankruptcy. Even then, he spent the rest of his life proudly proclaiming his American credentials, and not without sincerity.
- ^ “Immigration and Immigrants.” Encyclopedia of the United States in the Nineteenth Century. electronic. Farmington: Gale, 2000.