The Italian Women and Their Families 1919


DESIRE for better economic opportunity has been the leading motive of Italian immigration to the United States. Causes that have attracted some peoples, such as desire for political or religious freedom, or the spirit of adventure, have not drawn the Italian emigrant from his native land. Economic pressure in Italy—wages so low that they permitted only very poor standards of living and no outlook for improvement—caused both men and women to seek new fields of labor in a strange country. From the hills and vineyards of Lombardy and Tuscany, from the mountains of Abruzzi, from the farms of Basilicata and the mines of Sicily, they have come with the one common purpose of getting better paid work.

While in 1880 Italian-born Italians in the United States numbered 44,230, by 1910 they had reached a total population of 1,343,125. In that year the total number of Italians in the United States, born in Italy, or children of Italian parents, was 2,098,360. New York City alone included 544,4492 in its population of four and a half million, and had within its boundaries as many persons of Italian stock as Naples, the largest city in Italy. Two-thirds of these, or 340,765, were immigrants of Italian birth, while the other third, 203,684, had been born here of Italian-born parents.

Italian Colonies In New York City

Like the earlier immigrants from other countries, Italians have drifted into particular neighborhoods of the city where their countrymen had already made their homes. Several such settlements have grown up in various parts of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. The principal districts, however, lie in Manhattan, and the section below Fourteenth Street still claims about a third of the Italians in the city. Even here they are concentrated still further into four or five neighborhoods. One is on the lower east side, above the Manhattan end of Brooklyn Bridge. Another lies a little farther north, between Fourteenth Street and East Houston Street; and a third, the most densely populated, extends from the Bowery to Broadway above old Chinatown. On the west side, extending roughly from West Broadway to the Hudson River and from Canal Street to West Fourth Street, is the district most varied in its Italian population. Here are found families whose parents were emigrants from Genoa thirty or forty years ago, together with the emigrants from Sicily who have recently passed through Ellis Island. Into this neighborhood, too, families have moved from the east side as they have become more prosperous, so that both poor families and those comfortably well off live on the same block.

The name "Little Italy" is frequently applied to each of these districts, and not inappropriately. They form small communities in themselves, almost independent of the life of the great city. Here the people may follow the customs and ways of their forefathers. They speak' their own language, trade in stores kept by countrymen, and put their savings into Italian banks. Italian newspapers supply them with the day's news; Italian theaters and moving-picture shows furnish their recreation. Italian priests minister to their spiritual needs in the Catholic churches, and societies composed only of Italians are organized for mutual aid and benefit. The stores all bear Italian names, the special bargains and souvenirs of the day are advertised in Italian, and they offer for sale the wines and olive oils, "pasta," and other favorite foods of the people.

Religious feasts and holidays are observed with as much pomp as they were in the villages from which these peasants came. The new-born babe is wrapped tightly in a swaddling sheet and its birth is celebrated by much drinking of wine and neighborly rejoicing. Marriages are frequently arranged by the parents, sometimes even with the help of a marriage broker. The father and oldest son have full authority over the members of their household and the wife and daughters abide by their rule. A single woman, young or old, cannot go out alone in the evening without risk to her good name.

While emigrants from all parts of Italy may be found in any district, differences of dialect, customs, and standards of living prevent much social intercourse unless they come from the same province. Northern Italians will refer to people from Naples and Sicily as "low" Italians, and those from the south assert that the north speaks a different tongue. A woman from the vicinity of Naples scornfully remarked that "in our language ladies don't go out to work after they are married, but they do in Sicily."

Immigrants when they first arrive will naturally seek out a street or house where others from the same village live. Sometimes a five-story tenement with its 20 or 30 apartments may be filled entirely with friends and relatives from the same village or farm district. After they have been here a few years, the line of demarcation becomes fainter. In the older Italian neighborhoods, as on the west side, Sicilian, Genoese, and Neapolitans may be found in the same house; and their scorn of one another has become tempered with the mild forbearance of dwellers in the same tenement. The social character of the Italian soon induces the woman from Naples to take her home work into the rooms of her Sicilian neighbor, or Theresa from Genoa to ask her foreman to take Maria into his factory, even though Maria comes from Basilicata.

The tenements in which the Italians lived differed widely in the comforts they provided. Some had bathrooms, one had the luxury of hot water three times a week, but the sole water supply of many, cold at that, was a sink in a public hallway. The majority of families did not have a private toilet, but had to use one in common with others in the tenement, sometimes as many as four families using the one toilet, often filthy, dark, and with plumbing out of order. Little activity was shown on the part of the landlords in making improvements in these tenements, and if tubs or cupboards were installed, a dollar or two a month was added to the rent. The halls, dark or lighted by a single gas jet, were seldom provided with oilcloth, and the rickety wooden stairs, grimy and littered, were hard to keep clean. Usually the janitor was not energetic enough to make war on the dirt accumulating from the footsteps of the hundred or more occupants of the building. Nor were the apartments much better kept. When new tenants moved in the walls might be recovered with a new coat of paint so thin that the old paint was still visible, but landlords were slow to repair broken plumbing or leaking sinks. If any repairing was to be done for an old tenant, he was sometimes called upon to pay part of the cost. Each tenant had to supply his own cook-stove, and some apartments were not even supplied with gas, dangerous oil lamps still being used. Some families, however, were fortunate enough to live in newer tenements with stone stairways and fairly well lighted halls, not, however, always well cared for. Even in these tenements, dark rooms were to be found.

But whether the families lived in old houses which had formerly served as the home for one small family but now did service for eight or ten, or in old tenements with small, dark rooms, or in the newer tenements fitted with "all improvements," an extraordinary amount of overcrowding prevailed. Seventy per cent of all the persons in these Italian households were living under congested conditions; that is, with more than one and one-half persons per room, 54 per cent averaged two or more persons to a room, while in one family in every 10 the household counted three or more persons per room.

The Women Investigated

Such were the homes of the 1,095 wage-earning women who were interviewed for this study. All but 27 lived in the Italian districts below Fourteenth Street, and over three-fourths, or 772, were in the lower west side colony in the neighborhood of Richmond Hill House.

The majority of this group of women were very young, two-thirds being under twenty-one years of age, while a tenth were under sixteen. Only 66, or 6 per cent, were over thirty-five years old.

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Website: The History
Article Name: The Italian Women and Their Families 1919
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  Italian Women In Industry; A Study of Conditions in New York City by Louise C. Odencrantz; Russell Sage Foundation-New York 1919
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