Italian Immigration

Italian Immigration

There was little Italian emigration to the United States before 1870. However, Italy was now one of the most overcrowded countries in Europe and many began to consider the possibility of leaving Italy to escape low wages and high taxes. Most of these immigrants were from rural communities with very little education. From 1890 to 1900, 655,888 arrived in the United States, of whom two-thirds were men. A survey carried out that most planned to return once they had built up some capital.

Most Italians found unskilled work in America's cities. There were large colonies in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit. From 1900 to 1910 over 2,100,00 arrived. Of these, around 40 per cent eventually returned to Italy.

Willing to work long hours on low wages, the Italians now began to rival the Irish for much of the unskilled work available in industrial areas. This sometimes led to hostilities breaking out between the two groups of workers. The Italians were also recruited into the garment industry and by the outbreak of the First World War had replaced the Jews as the main group in the sweated trades.

After the First World War Italians developed a reputation for becoming criminals. This was mainly due to high-profile criminals such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Joe Masseria, Albert Anastasia, Salvadore Marazano, Vito Genovese and Frank Costello. However, a study in Massachusetts revealed that the Italian-born, who comprised 8.0 per cent of the population of the state, made up only 4.2 per cent of those confined in penal institutions. The US Department of Justice also estimates that less than .0025 percent of Italian Americans have anything to do with organized crime.

Prejudice against Italians and anarchists contributed to the false conviction of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921.

Italians also became active in trade unions and produced several leaders such as Arthuro Giovannitti and Carlo Tresca. Second-generation Italians became important figures in progressive politics. This included figures such as Fiorello LaGuardia, Vito Marcantonio, and Emmanuel Celler.

During the period 1820 and 1920 over 4,190,000 people emigrated from Italy to the United States. Only Ireland (4,400,000) and Germany (5,500,000) came anywhere near these figures.

In the 1930s a large number of Italians who had opposed the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini arrived in the United States. This included Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segre, Salvador Luria, Arturo Toscanini and Gaetano Salvemini. By the Second World War there were more people of Italian stock living in New York City than in Rome.

The Italian community in the United States were divided over their views on fascism in Italy. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor almost all Italians supported the war effort against Benito Mussolini. and Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segre were both involved in the development of the atom bomb.

After the war Italian-Americans played an important role in the development of modern science. This included Enrico Fermi, Emilio Segre, Salvador Luria, Renato Dulbecco and Rita Levi-Montalcini.

An investigation carried out in 1978 revealled that since 1820 over 5,294,000 people emigrated to the United States from Italy. This amounted to 10.9 per cent of the total foreign immigration during this period.

Italian family arriving in New York in 1905.
Italian family arriving in New York in 1905.
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Nora Marks, a journalist working for the Chicago Tribune, attended an Italian Evening at the Hull House Settlement on 17th May, 1890. Her report on the meeting appeared in the newspaper two days later.

In my ramblings last week I discovered a letter of invitation to Mio Carissimo Amico that warmy urged the recipient to come to see Jane Addams and Ellen Starr on the evening of May 17 at No. 335 Halsted Street; to bring his family for a visit with American and Italian friends. This unique invitation went on to say that the Misses Addams and Starr were of a distinguished family and that they had come to live among these children of Italy and desired their friendship. After a great deal more in this strain it was signed: A. Mastro-Valerio.

There is no doubt that Mastro-Valerio is a devoted friend of his fellow-countrymen. Mastro-Valerio is a humble editor of L'Italia, but he is also the Chicago Garibaldi who is trying to lead the Italians out of the bondage of ignorance. He opened the door of No. 335 South Halsted Street himself the eventful night, looking like a Count Cavour, Garibaldi, and Leonardo da Vinci rolled into one.

"Mia carissima dianora!" he exclaimed in welcome, and ushered me right into a festa of Rome, held in the drawing-room of No. 335 South Halsted Street, with Mastro-Valerio as master of ceremonies and the Misses Starr and Addams the central figures. Agathno Harbaro had "brought his whole family"; as had Giovanni Vecchi and Valentino Riggio and all the pardrones of South Clark Street, the vendors and street-cleaners and fruit-dealers. They came in peasant dress, the American costume being good enough for only ordinary occasions. The women were bare-headed, except for a fanciful scarf from Rome or Florence; the babies wore earrings, and the men long locks and innocent expressions.

The Italians seemed to feel among friends. They unburdened their simple thoughts and reveled in simple pleasures. The undisguised family affection among them was something beautiful. Presently there was singing in Italian. The audience applauded heartily but judiciously and the performers all came back. There were more "conversazione" and music and then the guests said goodnight. Miss Addams, Miss Starr, and Mastro-Valerio shook everybody by the hand and asked all to come back. I never saw anything like it. Here was a simple emigrant people invited to spend a social evening with cultivated Americans and enjoying it. What does it mean?

(2) In 1904 Jacob Riis interviewed Dr. Antonio Stella about the high incidence of tuberculosis amongst Italians.

Six months of life in the tenements are sufficient to turn the sturdy youth from Calabria, the brawny fisherman of Sicily, the robust women from Abruzzi and Basilicata, into the pale, flabby, undersized creatures we see dragging along the streets of New York and Chicago, such a painful contrast to the native population. Six months more of the gradual deterioration, and the soil for the bacillus tuberculosis is amply prepared.

(3) Kate Richards O'Hare, wrote an article on child labour that was published in Appeal to Reason. The material on Roselie Randazzo, an Italian immigrant, was collected while she worked in an artificial flower factory in New York City (19th November, 1904)

Walking up the steps I came upon Roselie, the little Italian girl who sat next to me at the long work table. Roselie, whose fingers were the most deft in the shop and whose blue-black curls and velvety eyes I had almost envied as I often wondered why nature should have bestowed so much more than an equal share of beauty on the little Italian. Overtaking her I noticed she clung to the banister with one hand and held a crumpled mitten to the lips with the other. As we entered the cloak room she noticed my look of sympathy and weakly smiling said in broken English. "Oh, so cold! It hurta me here," and she laid her hand on her throat.

Seated at the long table the forelady brought a great box of the most exquisite red satin roses, and glancing sharply at Roselie said; "I hope you're not sick this morning; we must have these roses and you are the only one who can do them; have them ready by noon."

Soon a busy hum filled the room and in the hurry and excitement of my work I forgot Roselie until a shrill scream from the little Jewess across the table reached me and I turned in time to see Roselie fall forward among the flowers. As I lifted her up the hot blood spurted from her lips, staining my hands and spattering the flowers as it fell.

The blood-soaked roses were gathered up, the forelady grumbling because many were ruined, and soon the hum of industry went on as before. But I noticed that one of the great red roses had a splotch of red in its golden heart, a tiny drop of Rosie's heart's blood and the picture of the rose was burned in my brain.

The next morning I entered the grim, gray portals of Bellevue Hospital and asked for Roselie. "Roselie Randazzo," the clerk read from the great register. "Roselie Randazzo, seventeen; lives East Fourth street; taken from Marks' Artificial Flower Factory; hemorrhage; died 12.30 p.m." When I said that it was hard that she should die, so young and so beautiful, the clerk answered: "Yes, that's true, but this climate is hard on the Italians; and if the climate don't finish them the sweat shops or flower factories do," and then he turned to answer the questions of the woman who stood beside me and the life story of the little flower maker was finished.

(4) Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)

The Italian and Bohemian peasants who live in Chicago still put on their bright holiday clothes on a Sunday and go to visit their cousins. They tramp along with at least a suggestion of having once walked over plowed fields and breathed country air. The second generation of city poor too often have no holiday clothes and consider their relations a "bad lot." I have heard a drunken man in a maudlin stage babble of his good country mother and imagine he was driving the cows home, and I knew that his little son who laughed loud at him would be drunk earlier in life and would have no pastoral interlude to his ravings. Hospitality still survives among foreigners, although it is buried under false pride among the poorest Americans. One thing seemed clear in regard to entertaining immigrants; to preserve and keep whatever of value their past life contained and to bring them in contact with a better type of Americans. For several years, every Saturday evening the entire families of our Italian neighbors were our guests. These evenings were very popular during our first winters at Hull-House. Many educated Italians helped us, and the house became known as a place where Italians were welcome and where national holidays were observed. They come to us with their petty lawsuits, sad relics of the vendetta, with their incorrigible boys, with their hospital cases, with their aspirations for American clothes, and with their needs for an interpreter.

An editor of an Italian paper made a genuine connection between us and the Italian colony, not only with the Neapolitans and the Sicilians of the immediate neighborhood, but with the educated connazionali throughout the city, until he went south to start an agricultural colony in Alabama, in the establishment of which Hull-House heartily coöperated.

(5) Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (1910)

I recall a certain Italian girl who came every Saturday evening to a cooking class in the same building in which her mother spun in the Labor Museum exhibit; and yet Angelina always left her mother at the front door while she herself went around to a side door because she did not wish to be too closely identified in the eyes of the rest of the cooking class with an Italian woman who wore a kerchief over her head, uncouth boots, and short petticoats.

I recall a play written by an Italian playwright of our neighborhood, which depicted the insolent break between Americanized sons and old country parents, so touchingly that it moved to tears all the older Italians in the audience. Did the tears of each express relief in finding the others had had the same experience as himself, and did the knowledge free each one from a sense of isolation and an injured belief that his children were the worst of all.

(6) Carmella Gustaferre, a Italian-born schoolgirl, was interviewed about the future by The Survey magazine (18th July, 1914)

I should like to have a nice looking house with a garden like I had it at my old home in Italy. I would like to have a nice educated house and I like to have all the things that I have not got in my house. I would like to have a piano, a parlor and a room full of flowers. I would like to have a back yard with a swing in it and a sink, and a large tree with branches that I would seat on the bench and read in the summer.

(7) Jane Addams, Hull House Maps and Papers (1895)

No trades are so overcrowded as the sewing-trades; for the needle has ever been the refuge of the unskilled woman. The wages paid throughout the manufacture of clothing are less than those in any other trade. The residents of Hull House have carefully investigated many cases, and are ready to assert that the Italian widow who finishes the cheapest goods, although she sews from six in the morning until eleven at night, can only get enough to keep her children clothed and fed; while for her rent and fuel she must always depend upon charity or the hospitality of her countrymen.

If the American sewing-woman, supporting herself alone, lives on bread and butter and tea, she finds a Bohemian woman next door whose diet of black bread and coffee enables her to undercut. She competes with a wife who is eager to have home finishing that she may add something to the family comfort; or with a daughter who takes it that she may buy a wedding outfit.

The Hebrew tailor, the man with a family to support, who, but for this competition of unskilled women and girls, might earn a wage upon which a family could subsist, is obliged, in order to support them at all, to put his little children at work as soon as they can sew buttons.

The mother who sews on a gross of buttons for seven cents, in order to buy a blue ribbon with which to tie up her little daughter's hair, or the mother who finishes a dozen vests for five cents, with which to buy her children a loaf of bread, commits unwittingly a crime against her fellow-workers, although our hearts may thrill with admiration for her heroism, and ache with pity over her misery.

(8) Angelo Pellegrini, American-Italian writer interviewed in 1956.

Many of them had come maybe a generation before us, maybe they were second generation immigrants - Norwegians, Irish and Germans - and yet they soon made us understand that the attitude of the "native American", as we called them, towards us was roughly what the attitude of the American has been toward Negroes.

(9) John Carr, The Coming of the Italian (The Outlook, 24th February, 1906)

In common with Mexicans and Jews, the Italians are pilloried by insulting nicknames. They are charged with pauperism, crime, and degraded living, and they are judged unheard and almost unseen. These short and sturdy laborers, who swing along the streets with their heavy stride early in the morning and late at night, deserve better of the country. They are doing the work of men, and they are the full equals of any national army of peasant adventurers that ever landed on our shores. He comes because the country has the most urgent need of unskilled labor. Almost eighty per cent of them are males; over eighty per cent between the ages of fourteen and forty-five; over eighty per cent are from the southern provinces, and nearly the same percentage are unskilled labourers, who include a large majority of the illiterates.

(10) Samuel Gompers, Schemes to Distribute Immigrants (1912)

More than 2,00,000 Italians have come to the United States in the last ten years: 1901-1905, 974,236; 1906-1910, 1,129,975. Here from a single nationality has been the revenue of $70,000,000 to the steamships. If a million Italians have gone back, they have paid for transportation thirty to forty million dollars more. The advertisements in the New York daily Italian newspapers, of which there are no less than six, are a revelation of the financial interests which are maintained by the Italians in the metropolis who are not yet sufficiently Americanized to depend on American newspapers for their daily reading. The revenues of any one of these newspapers would be reduced by a good percentage, perhaps below the sustaining point, if the steamship advertisements were withdrawn. The bankers, the doctors, the transportation agents, the dealers in Italian food supplies are all enterprising advertisers.

(11) John Landesco, a Rumanian immigrant, interviewed Rocco Marcantonio from Chicago, about his criminal activities, for the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (March, 1933).

My father has been in America for 32 years. His home town was Montfalcone, situated in about central Italy. Something happened toward the last months while I was still an altar boy that made me lose faith in the church, and I wasn't so religious after that. I came running in to the priest and found him eating chicken on Friday. He reached for a towel and hurried to cover the chicken before I could see it, but I saw it.

About in the 6th grade, when I was 14 years old, I began to have trouble at school. By this time we were bumming and stealing. We first started stealing from clothes lines while bumming from school. We (Pete, Louie and Babe Ruth) took the street car with a little sack under our arm and filled it and came home. We picked silk shirts and would sell them for only a dollar or two dollars apiece.

A little later we began to steal bicycles, as did others in the neighborhood. We would sell these bicycles, sometimes worth $55 or $65, for four, ten or fifteen dollars. We averaged about $75 a week. This went on until 1924. Then we started getting in with the older clique. They were 20 and 21 years of age. They were in the big money, after butter and egg trucks. They were driving Chryslers; they were having better and bigger times.

My biggest raps were suspect for manslaughter in a hit-and-run case, burglary of a cigar store, theft of an auto, shooting through windows of a school in the neighborhood. I have been convicted only once, but I have been held for trial in the county jail several times. Of the last time I was in the county jail after I was shot in the back while trying to stick up a dope cache.