Where Did "The Melting Pot" Come From?


People are familiar with the American idea of the immigration “melting pot,” but few would guess where it came from. We got the term “melting pot” from the arts.

At a time of massive American immigration, a 1908 play called The Melting Pot premiered in Washington, DC from British writer Israel Zangwill. The play's protagonist David Quixano sought to write a great symphony called The Crucible dedicated to immigration in America. David declares that “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” and quarrels with an antagonist, wealthy Quincy Davenport Jr., who as the only American-born character in the play wants to “stop all alien immigration.” David says “the real American has not yet arrived.  He is only in the Crucible, I tell you.” 

Israel Zangwill.  Source: Wikipedia

Israel Zangwill.  Source: Wikipedia

Play's program cover shows immigrants streaming past Statue of Liberty into crucible.  Source: Wikipedia

Play's program cover shows immigrants streaming past Statue of Liberty into crucible.  Source: Wikipedia

A Russian Jewish immigrant to New York who had escaped pogroms in his home country, main character David finishes his symphony, has it performed to great acclaim, and proposes to marry his love Vera, a Russian Christian immigrant. David proclaims the “glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!”[1]

As the curtain came down on its opening night, US President Teddy Roosevelt is said to have shouted from his box, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.”  Roosevelt later wrote a letter to Zangwill saying that The Melting Pot would always be “among the very strong and real influences upon my thought and my life.”

The Melting Pot took its central metaphor – depicted on its program cover – from the making of steel. Raw iron gets liquefied in a smelting pot or crucible to purify, mix, and pour it into a useful form. This metaphor took hold in the heart of the Industrial Revolution, when making steel was necessarily seen as making progress. The play captured enough of the public imagination that the “melting pot” metaphor is still a part of American culture. 

I learned about the play The Melting Pot while finishing my album, also called Melting Pot, which releases September 14, 2018.



[1] Israel Zangwill, The Melting Pot, The American Jewish Book Company, New York, 1921 (available as a free Amazon Kindle book).