Published by EH.Net (May 2014)

Drew Keeling, The Business of Transatlantic Migration between Europe and the United States, 1900-1914.  Zurich: Chronos, 2012. xix + 345 pp. $44 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-3-0340-1152-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Richard Sicotte, Department of Economics, University of Vermont.

In The Business of Transatlantic Migration, Drew Keeling provides a history of early twentieth century migration from Europe to the United States that focuses on the decisions and interactions of migrants, shipping companies and immigration policy-makers.  The book provides a wealth of statistical and narrative information that will be of exceptional utility to future scholars.  Keeling’s encyclopedic knowledge of sources and his ability to synthesize them are on brilliant display.

As the title suggests, the focus is on the nuts and bolts of the act of migration itself.  Keeling employs a business history approach that combines careful observations from an astonishing breadth of primary and secondary sources, including a mass of quantitative data that he has gathered on his own.  One way to view the content of this book is as a careful study of important aspects of the shipping industry’s supply of, and migrants demand for, ocean transportation.

On the supply side, Keeling discusses the main steamship firms, their executives and business strategies.  For example, Keeling has a very informative and concise description of the complexities surrounding J.P. Morgan’s organization of International Mercantile Marine, a combination of several steamship companies.  Furthermore, he clearly describes the consequences of Morgan’s venture for the “balance of power” among the major shipping firms.  Keeling also carefully describes the circumstances leading to a major price war in 1904.  There is an interesting discussion of how the shipping lines improved the quality of the accommodations offered to migrants over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as an explanation of the pattern of investment in new ships.  Additionally, Keeling provides information on the efforts of firms to establish and maintain cartel agreements, a development that he seems to view in a generally positive light.

Keeling’s thesis on migrant demand for transport is that it was derivative of the overall flow of migration, and was quite price inelastic.  Indeed, his position is that migrants’ expected gains from migration were always, or almost always positive, but that the returns to migration had a high variance.  The uncertainty associated with the returns is what kept more from migrating.  He does not view transport costs as an important factor in the migration decision during this period.  For this reason, he maintains that shipping cartels did not affect migrant flows or the composition of migrants.  On the first point, I disagree.  In previous work, George Deltas, Pete Tomczak and I (2008) provide econometric evidence of a large negative effect of shipping firms’ collusion on migration.  There is no direct evidence on the second point yet, although recent work by Abramitzky, Boustan and Eriksson (2012), and Spitzer and Zimran (2014) suggest that the data and approach necessary for a rigorous test are now available.

The fact that many migrants returned to Europe, either permanently or temporarily, provided an important eastbound demand for shipping firms.  Westbound flows normally greatly exceeded eastbound flows, yet one can view the provision of both as a joint product.  Keeling makes keen observations about the implications of this eastbound demand for ship owners’ incentives to improve quality which westbound migrants also enjoyed.  He also provides estimates of the extent of repeat and return migration, although the latter is considerably lower than the calculations made by Bandiera, Rasul and Viarengo (2013).  Without question, this topic is an important and relatively neglected aspect of early twentieth century migration, and Keeling’s work here will help lead the way.

The literature on transatlantic travel and transport has benefited from a number of excellent contributions in recent years, such as those by Torsten Feys (2013), Raymond Cohn (2008), and DuPont, Gandhi and Weiss (2012).  The Business of Transatlantic Migration by Drew Keeling is an outstanding contribution to this literature, and is highly recommended to scholars of the history of both transportation and migration.


Abramitzky, Ran, Leah Boustan and Katherine Eriksson. 2012. “Europe’s Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses: Self-Selection and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration.” American Economic Review, 102: 1832-1856.

Bandiera, Oriana, Imran Rasul and Martina Viarengo. 2013. “The Making of Modern America: Migratory Flows in the Age of Mass Migration.” Journal of Development Economics, 102:  23-47.

Cohn, Raymond. 2008. Mass Migration Under Sail: European Immigration to the Antebellum United States. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Deltas, George, Richard Sicotte and Pete Tomczak. 2008. “Passenger Shipping Cartels and Their Effect on Trans-Atlantic Migration.” Review of Economics and Statistics, 90: 119-133.

DuPont, Brandon, Alka Gandhi and Thomas Weiss. 2012. “The Long-Term Rise in Overseas Travel by Americans, 1820-2000.” Economic History Review, 65: 144-167.

Feys, Torsten. 2013.  The Battle for Migrants: The Introduction of Steamshipping on the North Atlantic and Its Impact on the European Exodus. St. John’s, Newfoundland: International Maritime History Association.

Spitzer, Yannay and Ariell Zimran. 2014.  “Migrant Self-Selection: Anthropometric Evidence from the Mass Migration of Italians to the United States.” Working paper.

Richard Sicotte is author of several articles on the economic history of the shipping industry.  He is currently researching procurement and renegotiation of highway construction contracts.

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