The novel opens in the year 1902, in the town of New Rochelle, New York, with a description of an unnamed upper-class family. The narrator identifies the family members only as Father, Mother, the little boy, and Mother's Younger Brother. Father has made his fortune in the manufacturing of "accoutrements of patriotism" such as flags and fireworks. The story of Harry K. Thaw's murder of Stanford White over the famous beauty Evelyn Nesbit dominates the newspapers. Mother's Younger Brother falls in love with Evelyn Nesbit and believes she needs a man precisely like him at such a time. The little boy, often feeling as if he longs to escape from his family and his town, accordingly develops an admiration for the famous escape artist Harry Houdini, who one day appears on the road by his house. Houdini's car has broken down, and Father invites him in for a short visit. Father tells him of his plans to travel to the Arctic; Houdini soon concludes his visit, and the little boy watches him ride away.
Father prepares for his trip to the Arctic, and his family accompanies him to the New Rochelle train station to bid him farewell. The next morning, the explorer Peary and his crew, including Father, set off on their ship the Roosevelt. Shortly after, the ship passes a boat full of many immigrants, and Father reacts to the sight of their forlorn faces with despair.
The narrator describes the lot of the immigrants who steadily pour into New York City. The city's residents, even older immigrants, do not look favorably upon the new immigrants, and treat them with perpetual disrespect. An immigrant family, Mameh, Tateh, and The Little Girl, live a life typical of the immigrant situation. Mameh and The Little Girl sew for a living, while Tateh has a peddler's business. The owner of the business for which she works offers her money to sleep with him, and she often does. Jacob Riis, a journalist, asks the architect Stanford White, whose designs are grand and expensive, if he ever thinks about housing for the poor.
From the first few pages of the novel, E.L. Doctorow describes a major turning point in America's history. This novel, which begins at the turn of the century, reflects many of the changes the nation faced at that time. The mood of the opening scene implies that the family and its way of life will soon encounter sudden and irrevocable change. This change also reflects, national trends at the turn of the century. Doctorow effectively conveys a sense of the changing population by juxtaposing two passages within the first few pages of the novel. He writes, "Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants." Soon after, after his description of the murder of Stanford White, Doctorow introduces this important theme, "Evelyn fainted. She had been a well-known artist's model at the age of fifteen. Her underclothes were white. Her husband habitually whipped her. She happened once to meet Emma Goldman, the revolutionary. Goldman lashed her with her tongue. Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants."
E.L. Doctorow states on the very first page of the novel that "Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900's." Father's occupation as a manufacturer of "accoutrements of patriotism" is more than a simple coincidence; the author uses this relationship to highlight the position of individuals such as Father in the nation at that time. In addition, Doctorow demonstrates the historical tension between the heavy influx of immigrant populations and the strong and often resentful nativism and patriotism of the time. Father's reaction to the boat of immigrants he spots on his way out of the harbor epitomizes this tension. At the end of the second chapter, Doctorow writes, "Thousands of male heads in derbies. Thousands of female heads covered with shawls. It was a rag ship with a million dark eyes staring at him. Father, a normally resolute person, suddenly foundered in his soul. A weird despair seized him."
Ragtime also addresses the tension that existed between older and newer immigrant populations. The complex hierarchy of the immigrant situation, as well as the competitive capitalist nature of the New York City economy, fueled older immigrants' resentment toward and poor treatment of immigrants who had recently arrived in the United States. In addition, as Doctorow implies, the older immigrants do not recognize that they themselves, or perhaps their parents, once had to endure such cruel conditions, but rather continue to treat the newer immigrants as they themselves once were treated. What Jacob Riis called the "crazy quilt of humanity," comprised of many ethnic groups, often yielded tension and fighting in the streets. At the end of the third chapter, Doctorow once again addresses the clash between the high-class lifestyle and the growing presence of the poor and desperate immigrant by recounting an interaction between Jacob Riis and Stanford White. Jacob Riis, a journalist who has become concerned with the immigrant condition, challenges Stanford to think about housing for the poor. Stanford, however, demonstrates his greater concern for his aesthetic vision.