“The Buttonhook”

In celebration of American Archives Month, the National Archives is teaming up with the Academy of American Poets. Throughout the month we’ll be publishing original poems inspired by the holdings of the National Archives. To view the poets performing their original works, visit the National Archives YouTube Channel.  

Ellis Island, N.Y. Line Inspection of Arriving Aliens, 1923 (National Archives Identifier 6116683)

Ellis Island, NY, Line Inspection of Arriving Aliens, 1923 (National Archives Identifie 6116683)

Today’s poem, “The Buttonhook” by Mary Jo Salter, was inspired by a National Archives photograph of Ellis Island showing uniformed inspectors examining newly arriving immigrants eyes.

In 1892 the Federal Government assumed the responsibility for inspecting and admitting or rejecting all immigrants seeking entry to the United States.

At immigration stations such as Ellis Island, arriving immigrants encountered immigration inspectors, who determined if they met the legal requirements for admission, and medical officers from the US Public Health Service (USPHS), like those pictured here, who examined them for evidence of “loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases,” which could be grounds for exclusion.

During the early years of the 20th century, trachoma, an infectious eye disease that could lead to blindness if left untreated, became one of the leading reasons for excluding immigrants on medical grounds. To check for trachoma USPHS officers would flip back immigrants’ eyelids using their fingers or a buttonhook, an implement originally intended for fastening the small buttons common on shoes and clothing at the time.

Put to a new use on Ellis Island, the buttonhook became a memorable part of many immigrants’ journey to the United States.

This photo is just one of the millions and millions of photographs housed within the National Archives. Many photographs can be viewed in our online catalog and on our Flickr page.

THE BUTTONHOOK

By Mary Jo Salter

President Roosevelt, touring Ellis Island
in 1906, watched the people from steerage
line up for their six-second physical.

Might not, he wondered aloud, the ungloved handling
of aliens who were ill infect the healthy?
Yet for years more it was done.  I imagine

my grandmother, a girl in that Great Hall’s
polyglot, reverberating vault
more terrible than church, dazed by the stars

and stripes in the vast banner up in front
where the blessed ones had passed through. Then she did too,
to a room like a little chapel, where her mother

might take Communion.  A man in a blue cap
and a blue uniform—a doctor? a policeman?
(Papa would have known, but he had sailed

all alone before them and was waiting
now in New York; yet wasn’t this New York?)—
a man in a blue cap reached for her mother.

Without a word (didn’t he speak Italian?)
he stuck one finger into her mother’s eye,
then turned its lid up with a buttonhook,

the long, curved thing for doing up your boots
when buttons were too many or too small.
You couldn’t be American if you were blind

or going to be blind.  That much she understood.
She’d go to school, she’d learn to read and write
and teach her parents. The eye man reached to touch

her own face next; she figured she was ready.
She felt big, like that woman in the sea
holding up not a buttonhook but a torch.

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