In conversations about diversity in the United States, we often hear the term “Melting Pot” being used to refer to the mix of cultures and practices throughout regions. You may hear someone referring to a populous city as a Melting Pot. This term, commonly seen as a positive display of cultural diversity, originally referred to the contrary.
This article is part of the "Did You Know?" series, where I will take deep dives into the histories, changing perceptions, and socio-cultural context of different things characterized by topics. The topic for this post and its succeeding posts is communication: Music, Culture, Words, Wording, and Slang.
History: The Origins of The Term
In 1782 when French-American immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur wrote Letters From an American Farmer.
This book was composed of fictional letters written during the Civil War. These letters call attention to the political climate in the United States at the time.
Crèvecoeur wrote a letter about the mass immigration of Europeans into the United States, using melting as a metaphor for Americanization¹ and cultural assimilation, stating, “Individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
This was the birth of the melting metaphor.
This metaphor popularized already existing discussions about Americanization and cultural assimilation that were ongoing in the time period.
By 1887, such conversations had birthed the American Protective Association (APA), a secret anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant society founded by Protestants in Clinton, Iowa. The APA's primary goal was to combat the perceived threat of Roman Catholicism to the United States. The group's members believed that Catholics were loyal to the pope rather than to the United States government, and that they were trying to subvert American institutions and values.
The APA's rhetoric was often inflammatory and xenophobic. The group's leaders accused Catholics of being un-American, unpatriotic, and even dangerous. They warned that Catholics were planning to take over the government and establish a Catholic theocracy.
The organization grew rapidly in the early 1890s, reaching a membership of over 2 million by 1896. The group was particularly popular in the Midwest, where it endorsed Republican candidates for office. The APA's political influence peaked in 1894, when it helped to elect several Republican governors and senators.
Then, in 1908, Israel Zangwill used the term Melting Pot for the first time in his famous play, The Melting Pot.
The play follows a Russian and Jewish immigrant family in the United States, just like Zangwill's. The play’s protagonist, David Quixano, falls in love with an Orthodox Christian Greek girl from Russia. Throughout the play, Quixano reflects on the assimilation of himself and other immigrants into American culture, stating, “America is God's Crucible**, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians – into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."
The play was very successful, popularizing Zangwill’s metaphor for cultural assimilation now known as the Melting Pot Theory, which refers to the United States as a Melting Pot, defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a place where a variety of peoples, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.”
So, who used the term Melting Point? Who did those people refer to in conversations about the American Melting Pot? What did the term mean in the context that people used it? When and where did conversations about the Melting Pot take place? Why was the term used?
Historical Usage: What the Term Meant
Who: Although immigrants primarily had conversations about the Melting Pot, the conversation was a popular topic for all Americans.
What: As defined before, this term referred to cultural assimilation.
When/ Where: While still used in conversion, this term was highly utilized throughout politics² and literature.
Why: This term was used to promote cultural assimilation in the United States.
It is also important to note, that in the majority of its uses, this term was a positive descriptor as cultural assimilation was seen as a goal. So, when I say the conversation was popular, it was– but not in the same socio-cultural context as it is now. Many immigrant groups even identified with the metaphor.
Modern Usage: What the Term Means Now
Many Americans claim to be proud to live in a Melting Pot without knowing what the metaphor truly represents. This common misconception is problematic because it erases the history of oppression and xenophobia that have been associated with the term.
The term's casual usage has wholly strayed away from its original meaning. Ironically, instead of being a negative descriptor of the problems plaguing American society, this term is used to promote and advertise the complex and diverse cultures within the United States.
As discussions about the Melting Pot theory continue, the emergence of a similar metaphor, the Salad Bowl, has also begun to surface.
In contrast to the “Melting Pot” the “Salad Bowl” metaphor is often used to describe the diversity of American culture, where different cultures retain their unique identities while also contributing to the larger American culture.
In my opinion, we should use a “Salad Bowl” like perspective when looking at the United States, as to promote cultural diversity and integration. In order to achieve such goal of integration³, we⁴ must work to create a place for immigrants, so that they can thrive economically and socially while maintaining their own cultures and traditions.
On the community/ grassroots level, this can mean local cultural events, job opportunities, and language classes. Together, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society for everyone living in the United States.
¹: “In terms of immigration and the assimilation of immigrants, Americanization is the process through which an immigrant and their family forsakes their native cultural practices and replaces them with practices from American culture. This may involve them forsaking their ethnic identity or another type of identity” (Hepler 2022).
²: Alongside the anti-immigrant and pro-Americanization propaganda that has persisted throughout time in the United States, this term was also used heavily during World War II, as a promotion of conformity and the ideal nuclear family.
³: “Integration is the process by which individuals and groups come to interact freely and equally in society without regard to distinctions of skin color [or ethnic background]. In a completely racially integrated society, no systemic or institutional discrimination exists against the members of any racial group” (Encyclopedia 2018)
⁴: We meaning American citizens, particularly those born in the United States and those who have lived in the United States since birth or for a long period of time.
You must be a registered user to add a comment. If you've already registered, sign in. Otherwise, register and sign in.