Discovery the Italian-American Experience

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The Italian-American Experience

James Farley

L. Smith


The Third Wave of Italian Immigration (1900-1920)
Italian mass immigration began in the 1880’s and did not end until mid-1920. Within this approximate 40 year time period, the influx of Italian immigration increased dramatically. The effects of new-founded Italian presence permanently shaped American culture and economy as a whole. Italians faced many hardships coming into the United States. Living in a community dominated mainly by Protestantism was not easy for the average Italian Catholic coming off the boat in search for new-founded opportunity. Though an anti-foreigner sentiment was present, it did not deter hard working Italians from finding the jobs they needed in order to support their families, send money back home to mainland Italy, and build their future in America. The valiant determination of the average Italian American was rooted in their fight to preserve native identity and what little of the homeland that they had taken with them to remember who they were and where they came from.

The third and most significant wave of Italian immigration lasted from 1900 to the mid 1920’s. Within these years lay the greatest spike in the influx of Italians arriving on American shores. As a result, “1907 was the peak year for Italian immigration, it reached 300,000 new immigrants.” (Crispino, 22) and between 1910 and 1920, 2 million Italians arrived in the peak period within the later part of the third wave (“Key Dates and Landmarks in United States Immigration History”). American industrialization required workers to become parts of the machine and as such, many Italians satisfied the U.S. demand for labor to further develop and strengthen the infrastructure of the American economy. In order to provide a full analytical perspective it is necessary to look at the Italian economy, and the flaws therein, that persuaded many Italians to search for new prospects in America.

Italy’s economy was primarily based on agriculture. Italy’s agricultural system was outdated and primitive farming methods led to inadequate crop yields. The entrance of cheap American goods on the Italian market also dominated and devaluated the demand for Italian products which were set at a higher price. In addition, the overburdening governmental taxation swallowed such a large amount of income that the average Italian had little to nothing left to provide for the family. As a direct result of economic scarcity, “The southern Italian peasantry driven by economic deprivation, oppressive tax burdens and backbreaking physical labor with meager returns, moved off the land en masse…the greater part to join the urban working class in America” (Crispino, 18). News from Italians who were in America receiving good wages for their labor spread like wildfire back in Italy. Many Italians, especially from the southernmost regions, came to America with high hopes but soon found that the conditions for survival within the U.S. industrial boom were difficult to say the least.

Upon arrival, immigrants were often greeted with hostility, prejudice, and racism. The worst anti-foreigner and nativist sentiments against Italian Americans were present in the 1890’s and lasted throughout the third wave of immigration until the 1920’s. Italian immigrant hopes of a better future were weighed down by the growing animosity of the predominately white Anglo-Saxon community. Italian-Immigrants were blamed for taking U.S. jobs and U.S. nationalist ideology was spread that stated that Mediterranean Europeans were inferior to those of Northern European descent through song, caricature drawings, and other forms of propaganda. The power of the Klu Klux Clan increased while Catholic Churches were burned and Italians were beaten and lynched by mobs. The U.S. Congress brang an end to the third wave as it placed extreme restrictions on the influx of immigration which brought an end to Italians entering the United States. (“Immigration Italian- Under Attack) Despite the malice and prejudice of mainstream American society, Italian-Americans excelled in all the social, economic and political endeavors which they dared to put their hands to.

Income was hard-earned and highly valued among Italian immigrants. A good steady job meant food on the table, amidst the harsh living conditions that were endured in order to benefit from the American economic industrial boom. Even though Italians had better job opportunities and higher wages in America, they still faced many hardships in the process of carving out their own culture and identity as Catholic Italian-Americans amidst the assimilating and hostile Protest mainstream U.S. culture. The Labor Commissioner’s survey of 1903 and the Dillingham Immigration Report of 1909 reveal the reality of the Italian economic experience:

Italians consistently were at the bottom in family income and of male and female income in contrast to all other foreign-born workers. In each case they were lower than two-thirds of the New Immigrants and in most case were at the very bottom of the scale. (Klein, 324)

The fight to compete and earn wages was a difficult and valiant struggle for many Italian-Americans. Many other immigrant nationalities were arriving from all over Europe at the same time as the Italians were. American goods were mass-produced and sold at a highly efficient rate on the world market. Italians immigrants provided the labor that fueled the industrial machine of the U.S. economy.

Italian-Americans held a limited variety of occupations concentrated in the manual labor of the workforce. Wages were highest in the cities and urban industrial centers in major cities such as New York and Chicago. The bulk of Italian-American wages was centered on heavy labor. The majority of Italian-Americans were “young men in their teens and twenties, who planned to work, save money, and return home. They left behind their parents, young wives, and children, home, indications that their absence would not be long” (Mintz). The Italian-American youth saw the opportunity to profit off capitalism and return home with wages enough to live a good life back in Italy.

Whether working for temporary profit or choosing to carve out a permanent future in American, Italian immigrants had a limited variety of occupations to choose from. Men took jobs in urban labor/construction, shoemaking, masonry, bartending and barbering. Women and children earned their wages in the dangerous sweatshops located within New York City. (“Tenements and Toil”) Much of the Italian-American populace comprised the working class, which was characteristic of unskilled labor. Higher paying skilled jobs and upper-level business opportunities were reserved for the Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites of American society. From an analytical standpoint the U.S. economy was in demand of workers who could be used as expendable operating pieces of industrial machinery that could be used and replaced if needed, rather than valued individuals who contributed their hard work and effort to building the infrastructure of the U.S. economy.

Though Italian immigrants represented an extremely large part of the work force, their contributions to the U.S. economy rarely went recognized by America until much later in history. Italians were seen as being assets to capital rather than human beings worth investing in. The mindset of U.S. businessman is clearly summed up in the following questions found in The Italian in America:

Who will question that a healthy, honest, willing laborer in any field of employment is an addition to the working power and productive capital of a nation? Has our growth reached the limit of expansion, or possible utilization of working capital and productive force? If not, why should we shun now what so many countries have vainly sought- the attraction to our shores of new workers to develop our resources?” (Lord, 177)
In the eyes of the Italian-immigrant once one job was completed another job arose. In the eyes of an American elite industrial businessman, the worker worked, and the worker was paid. If the worker became disabled, or for any reason was not able to perform his/her task, then they were simply replaced. The only relationship any Italian-American had outside Little Italy was based on money. Money earned outside the Italian neighborhood was brought back into the neighborhood to provide for the basic family necessities of food, water, shelter, and clothing. The money left over from providing for the basic needs was then saved for the investment of the future whether it be in Italian-America or back in mainland Italy.

Those that chose to immigrate and become permanent Italian Americans faced a variety of different obstacles ranging from financial uncertainty poor living conditions. Jobs were never guaranteed and everywhere one went, there was always risk of injury. The majority of immigrants lived in cheap and dangerous housing known as tenements. Tenements were cheap housing that lacked the necessities to maintain proper and healthy living conditions. These tenements were often regarded as being just as hazardous as workplaces in terms of danger and health violations:

At the turn of the century more than half the population of New York City, and most immigrants, lived in tenement houses, narrow, low-rise apartment buildings that were usually grossly overcrowded by their landlords. Cramped, poorly lit, under ventilated, and usually without indoor plumbing, the tenements were hotbeds of vermin and disease, and were frequently swept by cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis. (“Immigration Italian- Tenements and Toil”)
Poor living conditions led to many negative consequences. For one, it was hard to raise a family with such living conditions. Times were hard on children and it became very difficult to keep family values intact. The preservation of Italian culture became a fight and the process of transculturation began as the overarching American culture dominated and naturally assimilated select aspects of culture that were eventually incorporated into the recessive Italian way of life. (Pratt, 6) English became necessary to learn in order to find jobs, carry out everyday business, and for the children to do well in school. English often separated youth from the older Italian speaking generations as Italian was spoken in the home and English became the public method of communication. In an intimidating and unfamiliar society, parent and child alike made sacrifices in order to ensure survival for the family. Children had to find jobs in order to support the family and mothers and fathers brought work home from their jobs, which in turn took away from valuable family time. All of these factors had an immense effect on what it meant to be Italian in an ever-changing American society.

Despite all of the challenges faced, Italian-Americans have rightfully earned their place in American society for their major contributions to the whole of American economy and culture. Starting in the 1920’s & 30’s, Italian-Americans began to make major strides into the mainstream U.S. economy and culture. In the economic sector, workers became more skilled and used that knowledge to eventually become business owners and project managers. Italian artists and writers, such as Enrico Caruso, entered the scene at the same time Italian-Americans began to run for political positions. In the 1940’s, Italians-Americans gained respect as many fought for their country in World War II. After World War II, major Italian names such as Marlon Brando, Rocky Marciano, Diane Di Prima, Enrico Fermi, Joe DiMaggio, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Hoboken, and Frank Sinatra became famous all over the country. (“Immigration Italian- A Century in the Spotlight”)

The third wave of Italian mass immigration lasting from 1900-1920 was met with a host of obstacles from nativist hostility to poor unhealthy living and dangerous working conditions. Despite all, Italian-Americans worked hard, fought for, and rose to the highest levels of American society by contributing to the development of American economy and culture as a whole. Italian immigrants of the third wave entered the U.S. at a time of economic prosperity and took advantage of the opportunities available through hard work and endurance. Even after the third wave had ended, when economic prosperity turned to economic disparity in the Great Depression, Italian Americans endured throughout the crisis and rose to the forefront of American mainstream society. The greatest achievements of American science, art, literature, and entertainment belong to the endeavors of those Italian Immigrants who dared to endeavor to make their voices heard in the pursuit and development of the United States of America.

Works Cited

Crispino, James A. The Assimilation of Ethnic Groups: The Italian Case. New York:The Center of Migration Studies, 1980.

The Assimilation of Ethnic Groups: The Italian Case provides a variety of information pertaining to Italian Americans in American society. Chapter 2 in particular provides very useful information on Italian-Americans and the political, social and economic reasons for immigration. Chapter two highlights the problems in Italy that resulted in immigration to the, the conditions upon arrival. The characteristics and differences of first, second and third generations of Italian Americans in the United States are also elaborated upon in detail. This was an unbiased source of information on Italian Americans.
"Tenements and Toil." Immigration: Italian. 02 Jun 2004. Library of Congress. 22 Feb 2008 .

This website, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress, is an excellent resource for examining the history of Italian mass immigration. From the earliest Italians predating the 1880’s to the end of mass immigration in the 1930’s, this source gives a detailed and accurate account of the Italian experience. Working and living conditions are described, as well as the fight for survival amidst nativist/anti-foreigner sentiment. The contributions of Italians to mainstream culture were also made note of. Overall, this source contains a lot of great unbiased information that I was able to use and learn from.

Klein , Herbert S. "The Integration of Italian Immigrants into the United States and Argentina: A Comparative Analysis." The American Historical Review Vol. 88, No. 2Apr 1983 306-329. 8 Feb 2008 .

This JSTOR article highlights facts and statistics of Italian immigration to both American and Argentina. The information on the conditions of immigration, particularly the amount of wages earned as compared to other immigrant groups, was most beneficial in identifying the Italian economic experience amongst other ethnic groups. Without a doubt, this source was unbiased and scholarly to say the least.

Lord, Elliot, Trenon, John, Barrows, Samuel. The Italian in America. New York: BF Buck & Company, 1905.

The Italian in America highlighted the social, economic and political status of the Italian amidst mainstream society. As a primary source, the book was biased in some ways as it carried a particular nativist sentiment tone. The authors displayed this by shedding particular light upon the capitalist view of the American business elite as superior to the average immigrant who were viewed as capital that could be used to further the development of the economic industrial machine of the United States. Rather than not using this source due to its biased nature, I thought it necessary to incorporate this book into my argument to show full evidence of the bias and collective thought of the American business elite in regards to the average Italian immigrant.
Mintz, S.. "Italian Immigration." Digital History- using new technologies to enhance teaching and research. 01 Mar 08. 1 Mar 2008 .

This authoritative and scholarly source talks about the difficulties, factors, conditions and causes of Italian mass immigration. It was last updated on March 1st, 2008 and speaks in detail on a particular number of issues characteristic of the Italian-American experience. The source is informatively unbiased and provides a wealth of knowledge pertaining to Italian immigration and Italian Americans in the United States.

"Timeline- Key Dates and Landmarks in The United States Immigration History." Open Collections Program: Immigration to the United States 1789-1930. 17 Oct 2006. Harvard University Library. 22 Feb 2008 .

The timeline of “Key Dates and Landmarks in The United States Immigration History” provided a scholarly view of major dates in U.S. immigration from past to present. I was able to compare Italian mass immigration with other world events that were either taking place before or after the third wave of Italian immigration lasting between 1900 and 1920. This analysis enabled me to see Italian immigration and how it was affected by other events happening within the United States at the time. The source was objectively unbiased in all that was presented.

Pratt, Mary Louise, “Introduction,” in Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, New York: Routledge, 1994.

Mary Louise Pratt’s work emphasizes the concept of transculturation. Though different, the concept of the contact zone resulting from imperial interaction of the colonizer and the colonized can be applied to the Italian mass immigration through the process of transculturation. Transculturation is critical in understanding the struggle of Italian Americans to preserve their culture and identity amidst its assimilation into mainstream U.S. culture. This unbiased source proved most beneficial in integrating the concepts of the effect of economic exploitation from the periods of European imperialism and American industrialization.

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