With the increasing popularity of sites such as Ancestry.com, 23 and Me, and many others more and more people can trace their familial origins. Though these sources help identify which regions many Italian Americans came from they don’t answer the question of why?
The oversimplified explanation is job opportunities.
Cities like New York and Chicago were industrial meccas that lured in laborers from all across Europe. Once the first Italian immigrants settled in they would send for their families. These family members had inevitably been talking with their friends and neighbors about their inevitable departure and exciting opportunities. After hearing all about how wonderful their friends and family were getting along in America other Italians decided to head for the great promise land.
A number of sources put the estimated total of Italian immigrants arriving in America between 1890 to the early 1920s anywhere around 3 million to 5 million.
Yes, there were plenty of jobs to entice these individuals to America but they were also fleeing from the social and political situations in Italy.
According to a New York Times article written by Helene Stapinski, some Italian people were escaping the abusive and sadistic practices of the wealthy Italian landowners who “employed” many of these individuals. I say “employed” as these people were essentially slaves but with a daily wage of 40 cents which is the equivalent of about $12.00 a day in 2020.
Italy was also facing a tenuous political transition. Before the 1860s, the country was made of provinces that ruled themselves individually. Eventually a desire to unite the regions began to spread culminating in 1861 with the Proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. This united most of the northern provinces but left the southern regions still individually held. Eventually, the Kingdom of Italy grew into the country we know today but it was not without hardships.
The southern parts of the country were seized with the use of military force. This put a considerable strain on the Italian citizens as well as local resources. This forced unification brought with it higher taxes and the loss of individual government. Faced with an uncertain future, many Italians opted for the unknown prospects of America.
Once some of these individuals arrived and saw the state of American factories and cities they may have wanted to sail back home. In fact, one academic article stated about 50% of Italians returned to Italy after they made enough money to purchase a piece of land back in the country they loved.
But the other 50% stayed.
They stayed and they worked hard and they built a new life for their families. They spread out throughout the country finding work in the factories, coal mines, quarries, harbors, and farms. Communities began to grow and it led to the rich history that so many Italian Americans enjoy to this day.
- When America Barred Italians [New York Times]
- History of Italian Immigration [Mtholyoke]
- Working Across the Country [Library of Congress]
- Italian American History and Culture [US Citizenship]
- Unification of Italian States [Office of the Historian]
- Feature Picture [Library of Congress]