19th-Century Advertising & Anti-Chinese Sentiments

"No more Chinese cheap labor," exclusionist, c. 1880


Today’s post comes to us from Wendy Rouse who teaches United States history at San Jose State University.  Her book “Children of Chinatown: Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, 1850-1920” examines the unique experiences of Chinese immigrant children living in San Francisco during the exclusion era.

Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States in large numbers following the discovery of gold in California in 1848.  After work in the mines dwindled, many Chinese immigrants found employment for the railroads, in agriculture or in factories.  Others opened their own businesses operating laundries, restaurants, and stores. Economic depression and nativist sentiment created hostility toward foreigners in the 1870s.  White laborers worried that a cheap Chinese labor force represented a threat to their own jobs.   Hostility often led to violent attempts to oust the Chinese from cities and towns in the West. Anti-Chinese politicians and labor leaders gained political power especially in places like California.  These groups successfully lobbied for the passage of legislation that would restrict the number of Chinese who could immigrate into the country.  In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act effectively banned Chinese immigrants from coming to the United States.

The above advertisement for celluloid collars was created during this era of intense anti-Chinese sentiment and is especially useful in helping students understand the intensity of the hostility toward Chinese immigrants.  The Chinese laundryman in the image is visibly upset about the potential of losing his business as a result of the invention of “celluloid cuffs, collars & bosoms” which required less starching and washing than traditional collars and would therefore eliminate the need for services offered by Chinese laundries. A happy Uncle Sam looks on as Columbia points to the writing on the wall which indicates that the invention means “no more Chinese cheap labor.”  The caption “Othello’s Occupation’s Gone” suggests identification between Shakespeare’s character Othello and the Chinese immigrant.  This advertisement reflects the popular attitude of the era that the “Chinese must go.”  In this case, however, it is not exclusion laws or violence that drives the Chinese out, but invention and therefore the advance of industrialization and modern civilization which is driving out the Chinese immigrant.

For more on this topic see Roland Marchand’s documentary source problem “THE CHINESE MUST GO!!!–The debate over the California Constitutional Convention available for university, high school and middle school classrooms.