Profiling the Female Emigrant: A Method of Linguistic Inquiry for Examining Correspondence Collections

Emma Moreton

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    Mass emigration from Ireland to the United States in the nineteenth century has been examined in terms of its economic, political and social impact on both home and the New World. Drawing on a range of sources such as census information, shipping records and other public documentation, research suggests that during this period there was an increase in migration amongst females, mostly single women in their late teens and early twenties.1 Knowing that it was unlikely they would ever return to Ireland, the letter was the main method through which these young women kept in touch with loved ones back home. Over the past few decades there has been a growing interest in the emigrant letter and how this type of source might inform our understanding of social history during the postal era of globalisation. The sourcing, preservation and documentation of emigrant letter collections are growing, and whilst their value as sociohistorical artefacts is generally accepted, finding the best means to exploit such resources is yet to be agreed upon. For David Gerber, emigrant letters have generally been used in one of two ways: to ‘provide color and drama in historical narratives, or to document societal-level and group-level generalizations’, or as edited collections which ‘let the letter-writers speak for themselves, while providing some background information that enables readers to place the [author] in the general societal framework of a certain place and time’.2 Influential studies such as William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Charlotte Erickson’s Invisible Immigrants: The Adaptation of English and Scottish Immigrants in Nineteenth-Century America, Kerby Miller’s Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, and Walter Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich and Ulrike Sommer’s News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home, have demonstrated the value in using personal letters to gain a fuller, multi-perspectival understanding of both the complex social processes of emigration (such as push/pull factors and the role of institutions and communities) and the conditions and daily lives of the emigrants themselves.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)617-646
    JournalGender and History - Special Issue: Gender History Across Epistemologies
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


    • female emigrant letters
    • Irish migration to America
    • corpus linguistics
    • gender history.


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