America Immigration: Italians


Figure 1.-- Here Italian benevolent associations are collecting money on the East Side, New York City. The money is for needy people in Italy. The photograph was taken January 10, 1909. The 1900s was the peak decade of Italian immigration. Notice the red, white, and green sashes. There was still considerable poverty among Italians on the East Side. Still they are donating for the people back home. I'm unsure how the money was actually used in Italy. Image courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).

Italians began coming to America in large numbers during the late-19th century. The Italian immigration is notable not only for the number who stayed and made successful lives in America, but also or the number who returned to Italy. Perhaps because of strong family ties, many came to America to earn money and then return to Italy. An estimated half of the 4 million Italians who came to America returned. These were Italians often from deprived backgrounds who returned to Italy with money and were able to buy land and live in vastly improved circumstances. Their tales of life in America helped create an image of America which caused more Italians to immigrate. The impact on Italy itself must have been significant, but I do not yet know of a study which addresses this. Perhaps our Italian readers will be more familiar with the literature. The Italians were among the most preyed upon of all the European immigrants and largely by the earlier generation of Italian immigrants. Many Italians, especially those from southern Italy were largely uneducated. Many were illiterate even in their own language and thus easy prey for the padroni who served as employment brokers. We have several images of Italian immigrants archived on HBC.

Emigration

Italy was cradle of the Renaissance, the great intellectual revival that helped to make modern Europe. Ironically the Renaissance did not transform Italy as it did the great European powers to the north. Part of the reason for this was that Italy never experienced the Reformation as a result of the success of the Catholic Counter Reformation. The Church not only suppressed the scientific thought and inquiry that flourished in northern Europe, but it allied itself with foreign monarchies and local land owners. The result was that Italy did not develop as a strong unified nation state as was the case of other European countries. Also the Church allied itself with the local power structure meaning landowners. As a result large areas of Italy, especially in the south remained essentially feudal. Land ownership was concentrated in relatively few hands. And hereditary land possession governed an individual's social status as well as political influence. As land owners had enormous political influence the economic development of Italy even after unification was impaired. At the same time the Italian population was rapidly expanding. This created the conditions favorable for emigration at the same time that improved nautical technology made low-cost trans-Atlantic voyages possible. This created conditions by which in the late 19th and early 20th century, 0.5 million Italians were leaving their country annually. Not all of them went to America. Some went to other European countries (especially France and Germany). Others went to South America (especially Argentina). But the single most important destination was the United States. Emigration was only one response to the economic conditions and over population. The other was colonization.

Chronology

Italians began coming to America in large numbers during the late 19th century. Some Italians had arrived earlier. A few thousand Italian immigrants are noted in the immigration statistics before the 1870s. The most famous being the Capitol painter Constantino Brumedi who was a refugee of the failed 1848 Revolutions. Really large-scale emigration only began after the Civil War in the 1870s. At first, America was not the principal country of destination for Italian immigrants, large numbers of whom went to South America. The great bulk of Italians arrived in America 1884-1920. An estimated 4.1 million Italians reached America during this period. Only 12,000 Italians entered America in the 1860s, but this increased to 55,000 in the 1870s and over 300,000 in the 1880s. Immigration approached 700,000 in the 1890s. The peak of Italian immigration occurred during 1901-10 when over 2 million Italians came to America. This would have been equaled or exceeded in 1911-1920 had it not been for World War I. The nature of emigration to America changed dramatically over time. At first most of the immigrants were young men, mostly 18-40 years of age. Many had no intention of making their lives in America. Rather their goal was to get a job, earn some money and then return to Italy where the money they earned would allow them to buy land or a shop. The high level of returnees complicates immigration data. This gradually changed. By the turn of the 20th century the immigrants included more women and children, often the family that earlier male immigrants who decided to make America their home could now afford to bring to America. And more importantly, child and women immigrants were much more likely to remain in America.

Motivation

The primary motivation for Italian emigration was poverty. Italy was a very poor country in the late 19th century and conditions were not improving, but rather deteriorating. This was a major factor for emigration throughout Europe, but in other countries political oppression was also a factor. Europe was dominated by multi-ethnic empires (Austria-Hungary, the Ottomans, and Russia) and to a lesser extent Germany. Each of these empires suppressed not only political activity, but also the culture and language of subject peoples to varying degrees. Italy was, however, unified (1861) just before large-scale emigration began to America. Unification was not, however, the panacea that many Italians had imagined. Southern Italy was still virtually feudal. Peasants in the south had little opportunity and hope of a decent life. Landlords controlled large estates and charged high rents. Italy had a growing population and agriculture not only did not keep pace, but production of wheat and some other key crops actually declined. Italian peasants and workers had trouble even feeding their families let alone purchase luxuries. Malnutrition became a serious problem in the late 19th century. In contrast American agriculture created a huge surplus of food. And expanding industry created large numbers of jobs for the newly arriving immigrants. We note American school textbooks emphasizing the povery of inner city immigrant communities at the turn of the 20th century. And of course this is accurate when compared to modern times. But the comparison should be made with contemprary conditions in Europe. We see boys living in abject poverty in Italy. Period photographs from Naples show this graphically. In addition to the obvious poverty also important is the fact that many Italian boys, especially in the south, did not attend school while most American immigrant children did.

Numbers

Immigration to America had a self-perpetuating mechanism. Italian immigration increased by a kind of chain migration. The earliest immigrants wrote home about the opportunities in America. They often embellished their own success, perhaps bragging a little. But most were able to achieve a level of personal success that would not have been possible at home. Even those who returned to Italy, returned with money which also tended to promote immigration. And individuals hesitant to emigrate to an entirely alien country, were encouraged when they had friends and family in America who they could rely upon for support. We notice estimates of over 4 million Italian immigrants during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Importance

The great bulk of Italians arrived in America 1884-1920. An estimated 4.1 million Italians reached America during this period. Until the wave of Hispanic immigration following the 1960s immigration reform, no other ethnic group entered the United States in so short a time in such large numbers. [Daniels, p. 188.] Immigration of this level had a major impact on America. Actually the numbers suggest a far greater potential impact than actually occurred. This is because of the high level of returns. . The level of Italian immigration is very high. But it does not match the Americans of Italian Americans in the national census. This is because a very large number of Italians, especially single men, who returned to Italy--the "retournati". They often returned with their savings after working for several years. And the subject is further complicated by the fact that some of those who returned subsequently re-immigrated to America. As a result, the Italian imprint on America may be more similar to the Jews who arrived in about half the numbers of the Italians, but few Jews returned to Russia and the other European countries from where they emigrated.

Regional Trend

Most Italian immigrants came from southern Italy. The first immigrants mostly arrived from northern and central Italy, but over time immigration increased from the impoverished south. The bulk of Italian immigrants reaching America during the 1880s-1910s came from southern Italy including Sicily. When the Allies invaded Sicily and southern Italy (1943),there was scarcely a village they entered in which there were not Italians who had lived in America or had relatives in America.

Government Policy

The Italian Government did not significantly inhibit emigration. The primary concern seems to have been the loss of potential military recruits. Prospective emigrants had to obtain a nullaosta from Government authorities. The emigrants submitted their birth certificates to the police who checked to make sure men of military age had completed their military service. They also checked to ensure that the individual did not have a criminal record. Here the purpose was not to ensure that criminals did not enter America, but rather to make sure they were escaping from Italian justice. It was, however, useful to present to American authorities to demonstrate that the emigrant was an individual of good character.

Ports

The most important Italian port for emigration was Naples. Not only was Naples an important port, but it was located in the south. Most Italian emigrants to America came from southern Italy. The emigrants there were assisted by the Emigrant Aid Society (Opera Assistenza Emigranti).

Staying and Returning--The Retournati

The Italian immigration is notable not only for the number who stayed and made successful lives in America, but also or the number who returned to Italy. Perhaps because of strong family ties, many came to America to earn money and then return to Italy. We do not yet have data on this, but we believe many of the Retournati were men, especially single men. We believe that women and children were much more likely to stay. The Retournati were commonly Italians often from deprived backgrounds who returned to Italy with money and were able to buy land and live in vastly improved circumstances. There is no statistical data on this. Scholars have estimated that returns may have totaled anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the immigrants who entered the United States. [Archdeacon] Even the Retoirnati stimulated immigration. Their tales of life in America helped create an image of America which caused more Italians to immigrate. The impact on Italy itself must have been significant, but I do not yet know of a study which addresses this. Perhaps our Italian readers will be more familiar with the literature. A reader writes, "Most Italian immigrants dreamed of returning, especially the single men that came. Those that did were commonly called "Birds of Passage." My brother-in-law returned to Italy recently for a visit after an absence of about 50 years. One thing he said was that the family members kidded him on how he spoke Italian. They said he had a very "old fashioned" way of speaking. This shows how languages change over time. Also, there is more emphasis on speaking Italian as it is taught in school these days, rather than the local dialect. Italians in America , for the most part, worked very hard to save as much money as possible, either to return to Italy, or send to the family "back home". I remember reading one account of three Italian immigrants who lived in a boarding house, each one working a different shift in a factory, so that they occupied a bed 24 hours a day to save money."

Settlement

Before the massive immigration of the late-19th century, New Orleans had the largest Italian community. With the mass immigration of the late-19th century, New York became the preeminent IItalian center in America. Most Italian immigrants entered the United States through New York City. Despite the fact that many Italian had rural backgrounds, most decided to settle in cities rather than become farmers. Italians settled in many American cities, primarily in the Northeast. The two most important were New York City and Chicago. Few Italians moved into the Mid-West--except for Chicago. Some Italians did reach California.--specially San Francisco. There mostly Genoese immigrants played a major role in building the city. The most famous of course is Amadeo Pietro Giannini who founded the Bank of America. Because of the level of Italian immigration, Italian neighborhoods developed in many cities--often called Little Italy. Newly arriving immigrants would seek out family or friends and aquaintences from their home town in Italy. Mew York had a huge Italian community and it was possible to find tenement houses which were entirely occupied by immigrants from the same Italian town or village.

Occupations

Relatively few Italian immigrants attempted to farm in America. This is a little surprising because of is believed that about 75 percent of Italians immigrants were peasant farmers. One estimate suggests that despite their rural peasant backgrounds, less than 10 percent of Italian immigrants attempted to farm. There was still home steading when Italians first began immigrating in large numbers during the 1870s. We are not entirely sure why this was. A factor here is that early Italian immigrants were often motivated to make money an return to Italy. Starting a farm was more of a long-term commitment. Thus work in cities was more common for Italians. There were some interest in farming. Everyone knows of the Gallo vineyards in California. Italians also played a major role in American fisheries, especially along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coasts. The great majority of Italians began work as unskilled urban laborers. They worked on the docks and construction projects. Many found work on railroad gangs. New immigrants who rarely spoke English commonly turned to the local "padrone" to find jobs. The padrone was normally an earlier immigrant. In the long run the padrone system probably worked against Italian immigrants.

Boy Immigrants

A particularly unfortunate aspect of the padrone system was the recruitment of young boys in Italy to emigrate. This occurred in both Italy and Greece. The Italian boys tended to be used as street musicians and acrobats. The Greek boys worked as fruit and candy vendors and often shoeshine boys. [Daniels, p. 196.]

Religion

Almost all Italian immigrants were Catholic. Men varied in their devotion to the Church. Women tended to be much more fervently Catholic. The first immigrants sought out Catholic churches in a still largely Protestant country. The Catholic churches that did exist were mostly Irish. While Catholic, Irish priests did not speak Italian or have any knowledge of Ritalin culture. The Italians began building their own churches. As the Italian population grew in major cities, soon there were celebrations honoring Italian patron saints with the traditional feasts and street parades associated with those parades. The Italian attitude toward the Church was very different that that of other major Catholic immigrant groups (Irish and Poles). This is because the Church in both these countries was the center of resistance to non-Catholic occupying powers. In Italy the Church generally allied itself with both the occupying Austrians (or rulers supported by the Austrians) or the local landlord. Another factor was that Italians were less likely to enter the priesthood. One manifestation of this difference is that Italians Americans were less likely to support parochial schools than some of the other Catholic immigrant groups. [Daniels, p.197-98.]

Crime

The Italians were among the most preyed upon of all the European immigrants and largely by the earlier generation of Italian immigrants. Many Italians, especially those from southern Italy were largely uneducated. Many were illiterate even in their own language and thus easy prey for the padroni who served as employment brokers. The Italians have acquired the image of association with crime. It is not clear that the Italians were any more prone to crime than other ethnic groups. It probably is true that because of their experiences in Italy, Italian immigrants were less trusting of government authority, including the police, than many other ethnic groups. It is also true that it was the Italians that were the largest immigrant group at a time when investigative journalism was becoming a major American phenomenon. nd of course some of the most high-profile gangsters were Ritalin--most notably Al "Scarface" Capone. Important books and movies have helped perpetuate the myth of Italian criminality.

Political Role

Italian immigrants were somewhat less likely to become naturalized citizens than many other immigrant groups. [Daniels, p. 199.] We suspect this was in part that many were poorly educated and, coming from southern Italy, had negative attitudes toward government authority. The level of immigration was probably another factor. Italians could live in the Italian neighborhoods without learning English and entering into American life. This of course changed with the second generation who upon birth in America were automatically American citizens. But many of the actual immigrants did not become naturalized citizens. Italian political participation was at first also low. There were few notable Italian-American politicians in the 19th or even early 20th century. In fact the best known Italians associated with politics were two anarchists accused of murder--Niccolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both executed despite international protests (1927). The first notable Italian-American politician was the popular mayor of New York City--Fiollero La Guardia (1882-1947). While less has been written about the Italian-American political role than other important immigrant groups, it has become very important. Italians like other immigrant groups were an important part of the New Deal Democratic coalition. In part because of the success of the New Deal pro-union policies, Italian Americans have achieved considerable economic success. Since the Eisenhower election of the 1950s they have become a swing group. While many are sympathetic to the Democratic party, they tend to be supporters of a string national defense and socially conservative thus Republican candidates have had some success in persuading Italian voters. Democratic candidates like Gore (2000) and Keary (2004) lost in part because of their inability to keep Italian Americans in the Democratic coalition.

Individuals

We have several images of Italian immigrants archived on HBC. One example is the Calvo Brothers in 1912. Probably the best known Italian American was Frank Sinatra. We note a portrait of him as a boy in his First Communion suit during 1923. We note a photograph of Al Capone's son Buddy in 1931.

Prejudice

An Italian-American reader writes, "With regard to prejudice against Italians, I remember my grandmother saying she could not get a job in Newark, New Jersey because she had an Italian name. When she changed her approach and said she was French, she got a job in a department store. I remember seeing an article in the Newark Evening News from the early 1900s, stating an opinion that ten Italians were "worth one white person". This gives you some idea how people felt toward the group, who looked and dressed differently, had different customs, etc.

American Mainstream

Through Wirld War II a substantial part of the Italian-American population lived in the mjor cities of the North-east and Mid-West. The many Little Italies were an important part of mny big cities. Italian Americans has become an important part of th merican ethnic mix, but many Italian-meicans were not yet fully assimilated into the american minstream. Not only were they concentrated in the major cities, but they had not yet broken into the professional and corporate America in a big way. Relatively few Itlian-Americans attended university which is of course was a virtual guaratee for success. Most Italians were blue-collar workers. All of this begn to change with World War wjich mixed people together as never before. But the New Deal empowerment of labor unions and then World War II strongly promoted assimilation and the entrance into the mainstream. The G.I. Bill opened up university education to many who could have never afforded it before. And the post-War boom helped increase wages o the point that many working-class American could enter the middle class. We see Italian Americns joining the migration from the inner-cities to the suburbs. And we see the Italian-American entry into the American mainstream in many ways. Pizza is no longer seen as Italian fare, but an American stple, just look at the frozen food aisle of any grocery store. And in the process pizza changed as many Americans tourists were have found to their surrise when ordring pizza in Italy. Relatively few Italian-Americans now speak Italian. Italian voting behavior is a reflection of this. Italians have become one of the most-Republican of the various ethnic groups, although here it is difficult to separate ethnic and religious (Catholic) influnces.

Sources

Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History (New York, 1983).

Bolen, William J.E., "The Changing Geography of Italian Immigrants in the United States: A Case Study of the Ironbound Colony, Newark, New Jersey". Rutgers University, 1986. With interviews of local people who lived at the turn of the century, reading daily newspapers from the 1880s to 1920, census data analysis, etc. etc., I was able to immerse myself into the subject matter to an extent that I felt like I was living in Newark at the time.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in Americam Life (Princeton, N.J: HarperPerennia, 1991), 515p.

Hutchmacher, Joseph. A Nation of Newcomers (New York: Delacorte Press, 1967).






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Created: 11:53 PM 8/30/2005
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Last updated: 12:48 AM 1/19/2017