Part II: Italian Immigration and Settlement

Chapter 5: The Distant Magnet: Italian Immigration to America (1870 – 1970)


Farewell, land of love, Italy, Sister-land of Paradise; With my own feet I have trodden thee, Have seen with mine own eyes; I remember, thou forgettest me, I remember thee. (Christina Georgina Rossetti, daughter of Italian exile poet Gabriele Rossetti)
Farewell, land of love, Italy, Sister-land of Paradise; With my own feet I have trodden thee, Have seen with mine own eyes; I remember, thou forgettest me, I remember thee. (Christina Georgina Rossetti, daughter of Italian exile poet Gabriele Rossetti)


Reasons for Migration

There is a general false impression that Italians came to this country as an immediate and spontaneous result of vague political upheavals in Italy during the latter part of the 19th century. It seems that there were hardly any Italians anywhere before 1870 and after that date 600,000 were miraculously appearing each year at American immigration centers. Indeed, like the Jews, Poles and Irish, Italians were indiscriminately launched from their homeland and most landed in a helter-skelter fashion on America’s shores and proceeded to populate American urban ghettos.

The evidence simply does not support these generalizations. In 1850 there were about 5000 identifiable Italian immigrants in the United States. Some had come as political or religious refugees but most were employed in this country as skilled craftsmen or professionals. Many were from northern Italy and immigration averaged less than 300 per year from 1820 to 1850. Before the mass exodus of Italians began in the 1880’s, 64,361 Italians had immigrated to America since 1850.[1] They had settled in some twenty states and established colonies. These early settlers acted as one of the most important catalysts for later immigration by their countrymen.

For example, New York’s Little Italy, Mulberry Street and Five Points, were already Italian centers during the Civil War. In 1849 the first Italian language paper, L’Eco d’Italia was founded, as were a number of Mutual Aid Societies. Chicago had only 100 Italians in 1860 but over 4000 by 1884. Little Italies were already in existence in Rochester, Philadelphia and New Orleans prior to the war. In the West, San Francisco in 1851 had about 600 Italians; there were over 6000 in the state of California.[2] In 1866 Salt Lake City received a group of 17 Italian families, some of whom were converted to the Mormon faith.

The Italians living in America during the Civil War were active participants in the struggle. During the war an Italian brigade known as the Garibaldi Guard was formed under the command of Colonel L. W. Tinelli. Comprised of Italian American volunteers, it saw action at Harper’s Ferry, Bull Run and Gettysburg. Over 200 officers of Italian descent fought in both armies; their names are scattered in the records of the Union and Confederate navies, U.S. government records, and each individual state’s accounts. It should be mentioned that President Lincoln offered Giuseppe Garibaldi a commission as Brigadier General during the first year of the conflict. But Garibaldi insisted on two stipulations. The first was that the President immediately announce the abolition of slavery as a war objective and second, that he be made commander of the entire army. Garibaldi did not press his demands because by 1860 he was already deeply involved in the liberation of his own country.

Because of the war there was a labor shortage, so that relatively open immigration was encouraged. Yet from 1860 to 1865 only about 4500 Italians came to the United States. Theirs was a special labor force, that of the contracted laborer under the direction of a padrone. This system enabled Italians to be assured of passage, a job and an elementary sense of security while in America. The padrone received his “commission” from the American employer, the worker (bracciante) and often the steamship company. He acted as the middleman between labor and management . . . for a slight fee. He usually encouraged the immigrants to learn English and to quickly become a naturalized citizen. Most important, he encouraged them to write back to friends and relatives, to send money, to give tangible evidence of new-found affluence. The padrone system afforded these immigrants security resembling that of the Old World family, especially since many of them came to this country initially without their wives and children.[3]

The conclusion reached is that the first Italian immigration to America, averaging about 1000 persons per year after 1860, provided a solid base for the later waves of immigrants. To these first “trapiantati” or “transplanted ones” the myths and clichés of the New World were real and they transmitted their dreams and illusions by letter and word of mouth. They urged others to come to America, and they sent money. They returned to Italy on visit. Their message of prosperity was carried to eager listeners whose own economic and social conditions, during the late 19th century, were becoming desperate. The dream of a new life, which became a reality to some and a nightmare to others, was first given form during this post-Civil War period.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the young French aristocrat who traveled in early 19th-century America, recorded his impressions in his marvelous Democracy in America. In discussing the immigrants who had come from England, France and Spain, he has left us a statement which provides a keen insight into the conditions necessitating Italian immigration. He wrote that “the happy and the powerful do not go into exile . . ,” a passage which accurately reflects the conditions of the Italian traveler in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although politically and socially apathetic, many were eager to leave the country after the unification process had skyrocketed taxes and made the plight of the worker unbearable. The history of mass Italian immigration begins, then, in the poverty and despair of southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, during the third quarter of the 19th century.

The political reawakening of Italy known as the Risorgimento had little or no effect upon the Italians living in the Mezzogiorno. The newly unified state ignored domestic problems and spent its energy and its meager wealth attempting to build an empire in North Africa and the Mediterranean. Increased taxes went to support these disastrous adventures, and those least able to afford the taxes were forced into financial ruin or flight.

In 1880 about 80% of Italy’s population depended for sustenance on agriculture. Although the rhetoric of the Risorgimento promised internal improvements and land redistribution, most Italians did not profit from the unification process. Indeed the problems of life were solved by doing essentially what one’s ancestors had done. Farming techniques had not changed since the Roman control of the peninsula; the hoe, the mattock and bare hands were the extent of available farming implements. Booker T. Washington, visiting Italy in 1911, was amazed at the primitive farming practices in use, comparing the tools to the ones black slaves had used in the ante-Bellum South.[4]

Italy’s agricultural problems were numerous and complex, to be sure. In the first place, land was concentrated in the hands of a few owners with landless peasants working the soil. One Italian historian, Antonio Genovesi, concluded that during the early 1800’s 59 out of 60 families in the south did not even own enough land to be buried in. Many were landless day laborers, or contadini, who vied for their daily wages with others of their class.

Secondly, population growth had outstripped the Gross National Product between 1870 and 1900, producing a drastic decline in personal per capita income. By 1900 there were some 100 people per square mile in Italy with the population on the increase. To counterbalance this phenomenon the laborers moved from one section of the country to another in search of minimal employment. In 1900, for example, 1,000,000 laborers left their homes in the south for periods lasting two months to one year to work in other provinces.[5] Some went to South America but the health hazards and oftentimes intolerable working conditions militated against immigration. Thus mobility for economic sustenance was already a part of the accepted mentality of the southern Italian laborer at the time of great immigration. It will be shown that this type of semi-transient life is a feature also of Italian-immigrant life in America.

Italy was not a particularly fertile land to work, exhausted after hundreds of years of continued use. Even more important was the competition of the semi-tropic lands of Florida and California, which produced traditionally Italian crops such as citrus fruits and virtually ruined thousands of growers in Sicily and Calabria. Imported wheat from the United States and Russia, combined with high tariffs, spelled economic ruin for the Italian landowner and disaster to millions of contadini.

Even when work was to be found, wages were pitiful. Agricultural workers averaged 16-30 cents a day while seasonal workers were receiving 50 cents per day. Carpenters in Italy were getting 30 cents to $1.40 a day or about $8.40 a week. In America, carpenters could expect about $18.00 for a 50-hour week. One immigrant, Giuseppe Freda, was an intern on Welfare Island in New York City and could not comprehend his first paycheck. “My God . . . this is more than even my professors got in Italy.”[6] Thus another positive inducement was added to the growing list in favor of leaving the old land and living in the new.

Overpopulation, lack of arable land, rising taxes, starvation all combined to produce a hopeless situation for most Italian farm laborers. The cities were worse, according to Booker T. Washington. He wrote that Negroes in the slums of New Orleans, Philadelphia or New York City were much better off than the “corresponding classes in Naples and other Italian cities.”[7] The urban centers did not provide an escape valve. By the turn of the century only immigration and relocation offered any plausible remedy for Italy’s millions. The “escape” was not especially difficult at first. Steerage from Naples to New York City was $15.00 in 1880 but nearly doubled to $28.00 by 1900.

Padrones and steamship companies employed agents on the peninsula who were only too eager to recruit immigrants. The Italian government quickly realized the benefits immigration would have in easing the economic and demographic burdens of her people.[8] Especially helpful to the Italian economy was the money sent back to relatives from America, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Since the average Italian arrived in America with less than $50.00, the drain on the Italian economy was slight.

Thus there were various motives, some negative to be sure, that stimulated Italian immigration to North America in the 1880’s. Some historians have labeled this combination of motives “push and pull.” In the first category were those conditions in the receiving society which appealed to the immigrant. One of these, often overlooked, was the positive reactions to America from friends and relatives who had already made the journey. In sum, the attractiveness of the new country politically, socially, and most important, economically, replaced the old country’s feeble attempt to provide the necessities and later the inspirations of everyday life.


Ellis Island, 1923
Ellis Island, 1923


Italian Immigrants climbing the iron steps leading to the reception hall, Ellis Island, 1905.
Italian Immigrants climbing the iron steps leading to the reception hall, Ellis Island, 1905.



Patterns of Migration

For whatever motives, over 5 million Italians immigrated to this country during the period 1875-1930. Of these about 80% were from the south of Italy. They were different in culture and outlook from the first Italians who had arrived, and this distinction was to become embedded in the statistical information provided by both the Italian and United States immigration figures. Wherever Italians would travel they would be immediately divided into two groups, designating their region of birth. It came to pass that those of southern origin were assumed, ipso facto, to be illiterate and semi-barbaric.

For the interested reader the following regional breakdown illustrates the migration patterns of the southern Italian during the years 1861-1961:[9]

Naples area 1,105,802  (27.4%)
Abruzzi and Molise 652,972  (16.2%)
Apulia 300,152  (7.4%)
Basilicata 232,389  (5.8%)
Calabria 522,422  (13.0%)
Sicily 1,205,788  (29.9%)
Sardinia 14,669 (.04%)

From the central and northern regions only 1,024,572 persons emigrated. Before 1860 the northern Italian had dominated the trickle of Italian emigration. But from 1876 to 1900 only some 99,000 were from the north out of a total of some 772,792 persons.

Many Italians had migrated to South America before 1895 and were heavily concentrated in Brazil and Argentina. Italian labor had built the city of Buenos Aires and had laid the country’s railroad lines. About half of the immigrants to Argentina from 1857 to 1926 were Italian. More than a third of all the immigrants to Brazil between 1884 and 1941 were Italians – the largest immigrant group in that country.[10] Yet only about one-third of all Italian immigrants finally settled in South American countries. What then was the attraction to the North American continent?

Beyond the mythology created by the American and foreign steamship lines, beyond the rhetoric of the padroni and their agents, there was the basic observable reality of economic opportunity and success in America. The money sent back to the villages from strange-sounding American cities like Knobview, Missouri; Canastota, New York; Valdese, North Carolina; and Olneyville, Rhode Island was potent evidence that America offered more than promises.

Statistical Information on Early Italian Immigrants

What do we know about the early Italian immigrant? By using the statistical data provided by the Reports of the United States Immigration Commission of 1912, we can arrive at a composite analysis of the Italian immigrant community for that year.[11] Of the 10,000 Italians questioned out of some 157,134 who immigrated in 1912, at least 50% had been engaged in farming or farm labor in Italy prior to immigrating. Only about 1000 were involved in manufacturing trades. Of the total number of immigrants almost 20,000 were classified as professional or skilled workers, including lawyers, engineers, musicians, physicians, tailors and jewelers. Only about 3000 of the 10,000 questioned arrived with $50.00 in cash on their persons. In 1900 the per capita amount had been $8.84 per immigrant.

Within five years after their arrival more than one-third would be speaking English and within 9 years about 70% would be fluent in the language. This statistic may seem surprising but it should be remembered that this figure indicates acculturation which would be primarily self-acquired. It was also one of the highest percentages that year when compared to 61% for Hungarians, 52% for Serbians, 63% for Slovenians and 49.5% for Poles living in this country less than 10 years.

Their living conditions were crowded but not excessively so, averaging 5.5 persons per apartment. In Cleveland, Italians had 1.4 persons per sleeping room, which was, incidentally, one of the highest rates in the country. One explanation for the condition may have been that almost 35% of the Italian families interviewed kept boarders, thus reducing the living space of the family. The North Italians especially were well known for this practice, having a 43% incidence of renting their apartments to boarders.

Economically Italians were among the most poorly paid while their women were among the highest paid. In 1912 the average income for a native white American was $14.37 per week, while a Negro earned about $10.66 a week. The North Italian immigrant averaged $11.28 a week; the southern Italian a meager $9.61. Compared with that of other immigrant groups this pay was indeed inadequate. For example, Germans averaged $13.63; Russian Hebrews, $12.71; Norwegians, $15.28; and Irish, $13.01. It can be easily perceived that the Italian was relatively low on the economic ladder. For this immigrant, the best paying jobs were the most dangerous: copper mining which paid $13.89 to $14.51 a week or work in the steel mills which paid about $13.00 for a 60-hour week. Italian women fared better than their female counterparts in the other ethnic groups. While most women over 18 averaged about $7.00 per week the Italian women engaged in the silk industry were making $9.32 per week, a salary approaching the earnings of the Southern Italian male.

The national average income in the United States in 1912 was $865 per year for whites and $517 for Negroes. Of the sixty-odd ethnic groups considered on the Immigration Commission’s Report the lowest yearly income was among the Serbians with $462 per year; the Scotch were highest with $1142. Italians were averaging $613 per year, that figure indicating the amount earned by the head of the household. If the wife and children could also work a more secure existence could be expected. Nevertheless a full 75% of all Italian families were making less than $750 yer year in 1912. For the Southern Italian the figure was only $600, one of the clearest indications of the economic plight of the Italian immigrant.

The charge has been made against Italians that they were “birds of passage,” itinerant laborers who came to this country, made their “fortunes” and returned to Palermo and Naples each year to redistribute their wealth among family and friends. Why Italians were singled out is not surprising as the statistics will indicate. In 1912 35% of all wives of Italian immigrants remained in Italy while their husbands emigrated to America to take on jobs. This factor will help to explain the migratory factor in Italian immigration, especially during the early 20th century. But the 34% figure is small compared to that of the East European and Balkan immigrants whose numbers range from 75% absenteeism for Greek wives to 90% for Bulgarian women. These statistics, when compared with those of the “older” immigrants such as the Germans and Irish, reinforced the impression that Southern and East Europeans were “birds of passage.”

Another fact reinforced this impression. The frequency of return to the homeland by the Italian male was another indication of the “shiftless” position of the Southern European immigrant. In 1912 about 168,000 Italian aliens were admitted to the United States while 118,489 returned to Italy. Of those who left about 71,000 had been in this country less than five years. Without doubt this was a very telling indictment against the alien; but it does not reveal the true reasons for this migration nor the frequency of the migration back to America. Obviously, many were returning to be with the families they had been forced to leave behind. Most returned to America after a few months to begin once again the ordeal of loneliness and toil in the American labor market.

A recent study by Francesco Cerase dealing with this continuing phenomenon of return immigration in more recent times suggests that the frequency of returned immigrants was in proportion to their stay in the United States. In other words, the longer an Italian lived in America the more was the likelihood that he would return at least once to the old country. When he did return he did so for periods of less than a year and returned to the United States. When he traveled to Italy for periods longer than a year he usually had lived in America for 20 years or more and was returning to Italy to retire.[12] In short, the great majority of Italian immigrants came to this country to stay and made one or two return trips back to Italy during their residence here, with almost 40% never returning to their former homeland.

Occupations of Early Immigrants

When they came to America during the early part of this century, what kinds of work did they do? Basically illiterate and unskilled, many Italians worked as common laborers, railroad employees, canal diggers, or in sewer construction. They harvested crops, then later grew crops in California and mined for copper in Nevada. In New York State every city and village that was touched by the railroad lines had its contingent of Italian day laborers. The old myth, half believed by the immigrant, that the streets of New York City were paved with gold, offered a rude lesson in life’s pitfalls. When they got to New York they immediately realized that the streets were not paved with gold. Secondly, the streets were not paved at all, and finally, they were expected to pave them! In short, any job which could be obtained through the padrone contract system, any daily work, fell upon the shoulders of the immigrant work force.

By 1910 signs of upward mobility among the sons and daughters of the immigrant were becoming increasingly evident. Day labor was no longer their only source of employment; they sought out and found more stable employment as clerks, telephone and telegraph operators and sales personnel. Some Italians in the western states became intimately involved with agriculture, such as Marco Giovanni Fontana, who began the “Del Monte” line of canned foods. As Iorizzo and Mondello concluded in their superb study of Italian Americans: “The Italians had confirmed the fact that geographic and upward job mobility were attainable in one short generation in America.”[13] This process was not unnoticed by the masses of Italians still remaining in Italy, about to embark on the great exodus of the twentieth century. The Italian’s success was also visible to the Anglo-American population who viewed the process with alarm and later with some of the most vehement campaigns directed against any ethnic community.

It should be mentioned at this point that the work patterns of the Italian male have changed little from one generation to the next. In the 1970 census, which included many third generation Italians, a minimal change is observable in the type of work engaged in by first, second and third generation men. For example, of the first generation males of Italian extraction 3% were engaged in professional endeavors, and only 6% of second generation males were classified as professionals. In 1950, 24% of first generation Italians were craftsmen and 22% of second generation men were still craftsmen. Sixty-six per cent in 1950 earned their living as craftsmen, operatives, service workers or laborers while the percentage of such work for their father’s generation was only slightly higher at 72%. In 1970, of all Italian-American males of all generations, the figure was still over 56% laborers. Second generation Italian-Americans were doing better than their parents only in the sense that they were doing better economically at essentially the same kind of work.

Present Italian Immigration to America

Immigration of the “traditional” ethnic groups has continually been perceived as a static phenomenon taking place roughly at the turn of the century and abruptly declining sometime after 1930. This estimation is hardly accurate and a gross oversimplification when applied to ethnic groups in general and Italians in particular. The peak year for Italian immigration was 1907, when 285,731 persons arrived, and was well over 200,000 yearly until 1919 when less than 2000 Italians were admitted. Despite rigid immigration restrictions aimed at curbing southern and eastern immigration, Italians immigrated at a rate of about 5000 per year until 1940.[14]

Since 1946 some 1,365,000 Italians have settled in the Americas, 725,000 in Canada and the United States and 640,000 in Latin America. Approximately 300,000 Italians have settled in the United States since 1946 with an insignificant number of immigrants returning to their homeland. Their numbers have increased the population of this country’s Italian-Americans but to what figure it is impossible to determine. Italian-American newspapers have placed the figure at 21 million, while the United States Census in 1970 reported 4,543,935 first and second generation Italians living in this country, or about 2.53% of the population.

The majority of Italian-Americans today live in urban centers, 91.8% to be exact, and tend to remain in the cities while many of the other ethnic groups have moved to the suburban environments. Seventy percent of all Italians live in that vast stretch of America known as Megalopolis, the area north of Boston to south of Norfolk, Virginia. Although some Italians continue to populate smaller ethnic enclaves such as Sunnyside and Tontitown, Arkansas; Rosati, Missouri; and Roseto, Pennsylvania, it is in the largest cities that most Italians have settled and continue to remain. The following chart lists some of the major concentrations of Italians, their numbers, and their percentage of the total population in 1970:[15]

New York City 1,531,352 10.3%
Philadelphia 248,558 5.7%
Chicago 217,788 1.0%
Boston 202,987 7.8%
Pittsburgh 138,429 5.7%
Cleveland 67,721 3.8%
New Haven, Conn. 49,172 15.8%
Waterbury, Conn. 25,987 14.3%

In 1970 about 22,000 Italians were granted immigrant visas. During the 10-year period 1964-1973 over 202,000 Italians have been granted visas, of whom 176,000 came from the Palermo and Naples region. It is reported by the Nationalities Services Center that Cleveland accounts for about 5,000 immigrants each year of whom approximately 500 come from Italy. But for all practical purposes the flood of Italian immigration has been channeled to the northeastern seaboard cities.

With Cuyahoga county in general and Cleveland especially losing population, it is to be expected that many Italians also are part of that exodus. Indeed the general shift of Italians in Cleveland can be demonstrated by the population chart of Table G. Internal migration in the 1970’s has replaced the immigration of the 1920’s and 1930’s for the Italians in Cleveland.

  1. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, U.S. Bureau of Census, Volume I, 1975, pp. 105-106.
  2. See Andrew F. Rolle's study The Immigrant Upraised for his work on Italian migration to the American West.
  3. For an interesting discussion of the Padrone system of labor see Luciano Iorizzo, "The Padrone and Immigrant Distribution" in Tomassi and Engel, eds., The Italian Experience in the United States (New York, 1970) pp. 42-76.
  4. Booker T. Washington, "Naples and the Land of the Emigrant," The Outlook, XCVIII (June, 1911) pp. 295-300.
  5. An excellent study of Italian life in the period just prior to the mass immigration from Italy is found in Joseph Lopreato's Italian Americans (New York: 1970).
  6. Quoted in Luciano Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello, The Italian Americans (New York: 1970) p. 38.
  7. B. T. Washington, loc. cit.
  8. A good account of the travails of immigrant travels can be found in Ann Novotny's Strangers at the Door (New York: 1971) and Terry Coleman's Going to America (New York: 1972).
  9. Un Secolo di statistiche Italiane: Nord e Sud (1861-1961) (Roma: 1961) p. 124.
  10. Robert F. Foerster, The Italian Immigration in our Time (Cambridge: 1919) pp. 223-310. See also Robert F. Harney, "Chiaroscuro: Italians in Toronto, 1885-1915" in Italian Americana, Volume I, No. 2, 1975.
  11. Reports to the U.S. Immigration Commission, 1912.
  12. Francesco Cerase, "Nostalgia or Disenchantment: Considerations on Return Migration," Tomassi and Engel, eds., The Italian Experience in the United States (New York, 1970) pp. 23-39.
  13. Iorizzo and Mondello, op. cit., p. 54.
  14. Joseph Velikonja, "Italian Immigrants in the U.S. in the Sixties" in Tomassi and Engel, eds., op. cit., pp. 23-39.
  15. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization of Immigrants, Annual Report, 1970.


Italian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

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