History of Italian Immigration

by Alexandra Molnar




Italian immigrants to the United States from 1890 onward became a part of what is known as “New Immigration,” which is the third and largest wave of immigration from Europe and consisted of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. This “New Immigration” was a major change from the “Old Immigration” which consisted of Germans, Irish, British, and Scandinavians and occurred throughout the 19th century.

Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, which was the largest nationality of “new immigrants.” These immigrants, mostly artisans and peasants, represented all regions of Italy, but mainly came from the mezzogiorno, Southern Italy. Between 1876 and 1930, out of the 5 million immigrants who came to the United States, 4/5 were from the South, representing such regions as Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, and Sicily. The majority (2/3 of the immigrant population) were farm laborers or laborers, or contadini. The laborers were mostly agricultural and did not have much experience in industry such as mining and textiles. The laborers who did work in industry had come from textile factories in Piedmont and Tuscany and mines in Umbria and Sicily.

Though the majority of Italian immigrants were laborers, a small population of craftsmen also immigrated to the United States. They comprised less than 20% of all Italian immigrants and enjoyed a higher status than that of the contadini. The majority of craftsmen was from the South and could read and write; they included carpenters, brick layers, masons, tailors, and barbers.

1913 was the year where a record high of Italian citizens immigrated to the United States. Most of these emigrants came from Northern Italy, but more came per capita from the South. Due to the large numbers of Italian immigrants, Italians became a vital component of the organized labor supply in America. They comprised a large segment of the following three labor forces: mining, textiles, and clothing manufacturing. In fact, Italians were the largest immigrant population to work in the mines. In 1910, 20,000 Italians were employed in mills in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

An interesting feature of Italian immigrants to the United States between 1901 and 1920 was the high percentage that returned to Italy after they had earned money in the United States. About 50% of Italians repatriated, which meant that often times the immigrants did not care about learning English or assimilating into American society because they new that they would not remain in America permanently. The work system into which Italians entered demonstrates this fact clearly. For, the newly arrived immigrants found a padrone, a boss and middleman between the immigrants and American employers. The padrone was an immigrant from Italy who had been living in America for a while. He was useful for immigrants because he provided lodging, handled savings, and found work for the immigrants. All in all, he helped American employers by organizing a supply of labor.


Italian population chart

Facing prejudice

Both contadini and tradesmen faced economic as well as ethnic prejudices upon entering the labor force in America. The economic-caused hostility derived from Italian immigrants’ roles as “strikebreakers” and “wage cutters” from 1870 onward. American workers feared the new machinery introduced to multiple industries, therefore they held strikes and the Italians filled their jobs as scabs. Prejudices were especially aimed at Southern Italians who became scabs during strikes in construction, railroad, mining, long shoring, and industry. Often times these southern Italian workers were called derogatory names such as “guineas” or “dagoes” and were the only workers to work along side black people.

Employees often preferred Slovaks and Poles to Italians; railroad superintendents “ranked Southern Italians last because of their small stature and lack of strength” (Vecoli 262). In the mining industry especially there was an ethnic hierarchy: English-speaking workers held the skilled and supervisory positions while the Italians were hired as laborers, loaders, and pick miners. Even educated and skilled immigrants could not obtain other jobs besides labor. It was not until the 1920s that Italians became more integrated into the American working class. More immigrants started to work semi-skilled jobs in factories as well as skilled positions. However, one-third of the population remained unskilled.

Even the tradesmen faced prejudice in the workplace where they were subordinate members in trade unions. Meetings were held in English and Italians were not elected to official positions.


Why immigrate?

Poverty was a main reason for immigrating, but political hardship and the dream to return to Italy with enough money to buy land were motivators as well. For 80% of Italians, agriculture was their livelihood. Many of the farming tools were inefficient due to their antiquity and lack of modern technology, which did not allow for prospects for improvement. Often the farmers lived in harsh conditions, residing in one-room houses with no plumbing or privacy. In addition, many peasants were isolated due to a lack of roads in Italy. Landlords ruled the land—and charged high rents, low pay, and provided very unsteady employment. The idea of immigrating to America was attractive because of the higher wages American workers received. For example, agricultural workers who farmed year-round would receive a meager 16-30 cents per day in Italy. A carpenter in Italy would receive 30 cents to $1.40 per day, making a 6-day week’s pay $1.80 to $8.40. In America on the other hand, a carpenter who worked a 56-hour week would earn $18. Besides the already unfortunate situation of many Italian farmers, a 19th century agricultural crisis in Italy led to falling grain prices and loss of markets for fruit and wine. Specifically a disease, phylloxera, destroyed grape vines used to produce wine. Therefore, the United States was pictured as a nation with abundant land, high wages, lower taxes, and interestingly enough, no military draft.

Many Italians wanted to acquire land in Italy. Therefore, they moved to America to work and earn money, then repatriated.      

Political hardship was also a factor in motivating immigration. Starting in the 1870s the government took measures to repress political views such as anarchy and socialism. In general, Italians came to the United States to escape political policie