This is a general article on Italian Americans that appeared in the Dictionary of American History
Italian influence on American history can be traced back to Christopher Columbus and Americo Vespucci. The Founding Fathers, especially Jefferson and Franklin, were familiar with the Italian language and culture and with Roman history. Jefferson was a supporter of Filippo Mazzei and encouraged him in the early 1770s to bring Italian vintners to Virginia. Though not successful in that venture, Mazzei became actively involved in the colonists’ struggle with England. Writing in the Virginia newspapers as “Furioso,” he was one of the first to urge Americans to declare independence and form a unified constitution to govern all thirteen colonies. Some of his phraseology later found its way into Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. William Paca, an early Governor of Maryland, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of Italian-named missionaries such as Fr. Eucebio Kino and Fr. Samuel Mazzuchelli operated in what is now Arizona and in the Wisconsin-Michigan area, respectively.
Though the presence of Italian individuals in the U.S. was sparse before 1850, Lorenzo da Ponte, librettist for Mozart, taught Italian language and literature at Columbia University. In 1825, he produced his Don Giovanni in New York.
The design of buildings in Washington, D.C. was heavily influenced by Italian style and Italian artisans. Constantino Brumidi painted numerous frescoes in the Capitol Building between 1855 and 1880. There was a modest migration of Italians to California during and after the Gold Rush. Many in this group became prosperous farmers, vintners, and business leaders including Domenico Ghiradelli, (the Chocolate maker), the Gallo and Mondavi families (wine producers), and Amadeo Giannini (the founder of the Bank of America ).
Though New York City had an Italian colony in the 1850s, Italians did not have serious impact until the mass migration of the 1880s. Italian Unification in the 1860s failed to bring economic prosperity and in many places in the South, the new government policies intensified “La miseria” (poverty). Moreover, basic advances in medicine in this period lowered the death rate and swelled the population. This led to massive migration of contadini (peasants), first to Latin America, and then, in the 1880s, to the United States.
Most early Italian migrants were young men who originally intended to work for a season or two on the railroads or in the mines. Living frugally, they could save most of their meager wages and send remittances back to their mothers and wives. In the period from 1880 to 1920 about $750,000,000 was send back to Italy. The impact of these remittances or the investments of returning Italian Americans (rimpatriati) or the know-how that they transferred back to Italy is impossible to calculate precisely. Yet it is clear that Italian migration to the United States was a two-way street. It is also clear that migrations were not unique, one-time events, but represented a continuous relationship sometimes lasting over a century.
Estimates of the number of Italian immigrants are made murky by repeated crossings by the same individual, the undocumented entry of untold thousands and inconsistencies in the spelling of names. The Ellis Island Web Site provides fascinating primary source documentation of each immigrant who passes through. About 4.5 million Italians made the trip to the U.S. and readily found work as unskilled laborers in the burgeoning industrial American economy. America needed the immigrants as much as the immigrants needed America. Between 1900 and 1910 2 million Italians emigrated. The numbers peaked in 1907 at 285,000, 1914 at 284,000 and 1921 at 222,000. After 1900 Italian immigrants began in earnest to bring their families to join them and Italian neighborhoods in large cities began to have more stability. In this “chain migration” paesani (townspeople) from a particular town in Italy, transferred (over varying time periods) to specific neighborhoods and suburbs in the U.S. In this manner, they created a near-replica of their home town, adhering more or less to the social customs, dialect, and family patterns of the Old Country, even while beginning their journey to Americanization.
Italians brought with them an agrarian, Catholic and family-based culture. Hard work and self-sufficiency were facts of life. Of all the social institutions in Italian society, the family was the only one that could be relied on consistently. And it was ironic that, the early immigrants had to leave their families in order to save their families. The immigrants founded Societa’ di Mutuo Soccorso (Mutual Benefit Societies) that often hired a physician on retainer and that provided modest benefits to survivors in case of death.
Italian immigrants were ambivalent toward the Church. On the one hand, they were all baptized Catholics, they believed in the saints and were devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; on the other hand, the Church was a large landholder, deeply involved in Italian politics in coalition with the upper classes and opposed to unification. In contrast to Irish and Polish immigrants whose national identity was championed by the Church, Italian nationalists saw the Church as an enemy. The immigrants brought with them a certain anti-clericalism, a casual attitude toward strict rules, and a devotion to folk practices including a belief in mal occhio (the evil eye). The establishment by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of the Missionary of St. Charles Borromeo in the 1890s was the first concentrated effort by the Catholic Church to minister to the needs of migrants. Over the century that followed, the order has built and staffed hundreds of churches, schools and hospitals in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and Australia. Among the disciples of Scalabrini was St. Frances (Mother) Cabrini.
The first Italian newspaper in the U.S. was New York’s L’Eco D’Italia in 1849. Dozens of Italian American socialist, anarchist, religious, fascist, anti-fascist, unionist, and literary magazines have been published in the period since then. Il Progresso Italo-Americano , (New York, 1880-1989) is the most continuous mirror of Italian American history. Since its daily circulation was above 100,000, Generoso Pope, its editor during the 1930s and 1940s, was perhaps the most influential Italian leader of his time.
There was virtually no migration during World War I. General racism, the Red Scare, the anarchist bombings of 1919-1920, and pressure from organized labor led to the harsh immigration quotas of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This reduced the allowable number of Italian immigrants from over 200,000 to 6,000. This law, the policies of Mussolini which sought to keep Italians in Italy, the economic Depression of the 1930s and World War II kept Italian migration numbers very low between 1924 and the end of World War II.
By the end of the 1930s the number of American born had surpassed the number of emigrants in the Italian American population. Although Mussolini’s regime had been popular among both the elite and the general American public, the socialists and other Italian American elements waged a spirited, but unsuccessful campaign to undermine immigrant support for Il Duce. When Italy joined the Axis, and when the war began, public opinion shifted drastically. In 1942, especially on the West Coast suspected Italian Fascist sympathizers and fishermen were arrested and harassed. Though the scale of this maltreatment in no way compares to the incarceration of Japanese Americans, it has become a sore point for modern day Italian American activists.
The age cohort for the second generation of Italian Americans coincided closely with the age group most suitable for military service.. More than a million Italian American males in their late teens and twenties served in the U.S. armed services in World War II. For many, it was their first experience beyond their own neighborhood. All of them were “Americanized” to one degree or another by the military and most of them subsequently benefited from military training and the educational/home-loan benefits of the GI Bill. All of these forces worked to draw young people away from the old neighborhood, its culture and the Italian language.
In World War II the Italy experienced defeat abroad, the fall of the Fascist government, occupation by Germans, invasion by American forces, and what amounted to a civil war in many parts of the peninsula. The devastation and poverty of the post-war period triggered another wave of migration out of Italy to Canada, Latin America, Australia, and the United States. Various provisions for refugees and for the relatives of Italian immigrants who had acquired claims to U.S. Citizenship allowed for considerable migration that reunited families and continued the chain migration into the 1970s. The Marshall plan helped create the Italian “Economic Miracle” of the 1960s and by the early 1990s the Italian Gross National Product surpassed that of England. These developments, the attainment in Italy of zero population growth, and the progress of the European Union virtually ended out-migration of Italians.
The social mobility of Italian Americans has been steady throughout the twentieth century. In the early years group members were likely to be the object of social work in settlement houses like Jane Addams’ Hull House. They were likely to be victimized by sharp politicians and labor agents. The 1920s were prosperous times for most Americans and many Italian American colonies received infusions of capital derived from the near-universal practice of breaking Prohibition laws. Hard hit by the Depression, Italian Americans reacted by becoming part of the Roosevelt Democratic coalition. The full employment of the war years and general prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s brought the vast majority of Italian Americans safely into the middle class. More precisely, a strategy of underconsumption, the pooling of extended family resources, hard work in small family businesses, and entry into unionized skilled and unskilled jobs earned middle class status for the vast majority of Italian Americans. By the mid 1970s Italian American young people were attending college at the national average.
The public image of Italian immigrants has been a continuing source of conflict. Salvatore LaGumina’s WOP: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination enumerates and quotes a vicious race prejudice against Italian workers in the articles and editorial cartoons of nation’s finest magazines. Into the 1920s, social “science” professionals fabricated an elaborate pecking order that established the superiority and inferiority of the races and nationalities of the world. Italians turned up near the bottom. The fact that the earliest Italian neighborhoods were overcrowded, crime-ridden and dominated by padroni (often unscrupulous labor agents) intensified the negative image. Sensational newspaper stories of cases of blackmail and vendettas among Italian immigrants gave rise to the mafia myth that has dogged Italian ethnics in the U.S. for more than a century.
This climate of public opinion played a role in the 1891 lynching in New Orleans of 11 Italians. There were more victims in this incident than in any other lynching in U.S. history.
The controversial execution in 1927 of anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a murder-robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920 haunted the headlines for over seven years. The flamboyance and style of Italian American bootleggers during Prohibition overshadowed the image of all other gangsters in that period and has since become the baseline stereotype of Italian Americans. The thousands of books and media productions on the subject of Italian gangsters include some of the best and some of the worst artistic expression in American culture. But whatever the quality of the art, in the eyes of the Italian American leadership, the result was the same: the intensification in the public’s mind of a negative image of Italians Americans.
On the other hand in the world of Pop Culture, some of the nation’s universally admired entertainers and sports figures like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Madonna Joe Di Maggio, Vince Lombardi, Tommy LaSorda, Yogi Berra have been Italian Americans. Moreover, the image of Italians as leaders in fashion, cuisine, and savoir faire has never been stronger.
Statistics vary widely when talking of ethnicity in the third, fourth and fifth generations. Many Americans can claim four or five ethnicities. Surnames can be confusing when there are “mixed” marriages. Ethnic organizations exaggerate their numbers for obvious reason. And the politics of the U.S. Census make it much easier to know how many Aleuts there are in Alaska than it is to find how many Italian Americans or Polish Americans there are in the USA. The 2000 census estimates about 16 million Americans ( or 6% of the total U.S. population) to be of Italian ancestry.
The most heavily Italian American states are New Jersey (1.5 million, 18.5%), Connecticut (653,000, 19.8%) and Rhode Island (202,735 or about 20% ). The Italian American population of New York is about 2.7 million or 14.8% , Pennsylvania 1,497162 or 13%, Nevada 142,658 or 7.3%, California 1,411,054 or 4.3%,. and Massachusetts 890,000 or 14.5%. Other states with significant Italian American populations are Illinois 706,000 (5.8%), Florida 1,034,026 (6.5%), Ohio 713,015 (6.7%) and Louisiana 360,333 (5.2%).
This ethnic concentration during the past century has resulted in the election of Italian American political leaders including Fiorello LaGuardia (Mayor of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s), John O. Pastore of Rhode Island (the nation’s first Italian American in the US Senate), New York Governor Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro (New York Congresswoman and Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1984), New York Senator Alphonse D’Amato, Connecticut Governor Ella Grasso, and Rudolph Giuliani ,the former Mayor of New York.
Contemporary Italian Americans rarely vote as a block. Their politics seem to be based on social class and income rather than ethnicity. There appear to be few overriding ethnic-based issues as there might be for African American or Jewish voters. Moreover, in many places on the East Coast, Italian-named candidates from diverse parties and philosophical camps often run against each other..
Alba, Richard D., Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1985. Discusses intermarriage and ethic identity.
Alfonsi, Ferdinando, Ed. Poeti Italo-americani: Italo-american Poets, a Bilingual Anthology, Catanzaro, Italy, 1985.
American Italian Historical Association, Proceedings of Annual Conferences, New York, 1970 present, 33 volumes. Contains some 500 articles on all aspects of Italian American life. Web site http:www.mobilito.com/aiha.
Barolini, Helen, ed. The Dream Book: an Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women, New York, 1985.
Giordano, Paolo, Ed., Ethnicity Selected Poems by Joseph Tusiani. Boca Raton, FL, 2000. Accessible poems that focus on the full spectrum of Italian American history and culture. Includes commentary by the editor.
H-ItAm listserv. Part of H-Net, this listserv of 300 members also has a searchable archive at http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/~itam/.
Italian American Review: A Social Science Journal of the Italian American Experience, John Calandra Institute, Queens College.
Italian Americana: A Cultural and Historical Review, University of Rhode Island, since 1982.
LaGumina, Salvatore et al, The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia, New York, 2000. Exhaustive and authoritative.
Mangione, Jerre and Ben Morreale, La Storia. New York, 1992.
Tamburri, Anthony J., Paolo Giordano and Fred L. Gardaphé, Eds. From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. West Lafayette, IN, 1991. Anthology of contemporary Italian-American poets, writers and critics.
VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, A Literary and Cultural Review. Since 1990 has published cutting edge poetry, short stories, non-fiction, interviews and literary criticism.
Governors State University