By: Elizabeth Flynn
From Columbus finding the New World to today, Italians have immigrated to the United States. However, there was an era that saw a particularly large influx of Italians in the United States and this is now referred to as The Great Arrival.
Ellis Island was the place where most Italians took their first steps on American soil and this place is now legendary for its part in The Great Arrival. The 1880s saw the first surge of Italian immigrants with numbers exceeding 300,000. However, the numbers continued to rise as the 890s saw the arrival of over 600,000 Italians and in the first decade of the twentieth century, the United States welcomed more than two million Italians. Over four million Italians had arrived in the United States by 1920.
There were multiple reasons why there was a sudden surge of immigrants at this time and these differed from one family or individual to the next. The situation in Italy was one of the predominant motivations for people to seek a new life. There was a lot of political and social unrest in the country and this had caused widespread poverty. Several natural disasters also occurred but the government did not have the means to help its people. Travel to America became more affordable and people realized that it was an opportunity to live a better life, earn more money and get away from the issues in Italy.
Prior to the 1880s, there were Italian immigrants in the United States but these had consisted mainly of shopkeepers and artisans. The new immigrants were somewhat different as the majority were either laborers or farmers seeking work. A large percentage of immigrants were men who came alone. Between 30 and 50 percent of the immigrants who arrived during The Great Arrival returned home to Italy within five years. Often, their intention was to earn enough money to buy land in Italy, which they did on their return. Those who did this were called the ‘ritornati’.
However, there were many Italian immigrants who stayed in the United States and made a life for themselves and their families. Those who had family still living in Italy would often send home money to their families. Government records estimated that anywhere between $4 million and $30 million was sent to Italy each year. This had a significant impact on the improved economy in Italy.
By 1920, the Italians were making a significant contribution in the workplace and many secured higher paying jobs than those they had initially taken on their arrival. The ‘Little Italy’ neighborhoods in some of the major cities were now well-established communities. However, some chose to move away from the security of these small Italian communities to move to more affluent neighborhoods.