Italian immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a large-scale influx of Italian immigrants to the United States. Most of them settled in East Coast cities such as New York and Philadelphia. By the early twenty-first century, people of Italian heritage constituted 6 percent of the total American population and ranked as the fifth-largest ethnic group in the United States.

Italian immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1911.

(Library of Congress)

Italians began immigrating to North America during the early colonial period, but massive Italian immigration began only during the late nineteenth century. The new immigrants faced problems similar to those encountered by earlier waves of foreign immigrants, such as the Irish. Most of them tended to gravitate to the eastern cities, in which they created Little Italies“Little Italies.” Their assimilation progressed slowly and was often hampered by the perception that many Italians were members of the criminal Mafia;stereotypesMafia. By the late twentieth century, however, Italian Americans occupied prominent positions in most sectors of American life.Italian immigrantsItalian immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Italian immigrants[02940][cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Italian immigrants[02940]

Early Immigration

Immigration from Italy to the United States was only a trickle before the 1880’s. The British colonies contained small pockets of Italians, who brought Italian horticulture and Wine industry;Italian immigrantswinemaking to North America as early as the seventeenth century. During the late eighteenth century Revolutionary War era and in the early days of the independent American republic, political philosopher Mazzei, FilippoFilippo Mazzei was probably the most prominent Italian in the United States. He was a close friend of Jefferson, Thomas[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and Filippo Mazzei[Mazzei]Thomas Jefferson and had a plantation near Jefferson’s Virginia home. The two men conversed in Italian, and Mazzei is believed to have given Jefferson the phrase “that all Men are created equal,” which Jefferson famously rendered “all Men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.

Later Italian immigrants were important in the development of the early wine industry in California;wine industryCalifornia;Italian immigrantsCalifornia. During the nineteenth century, Italian artists and musicians made significant contributions to art, architecture, and music, especially opera. However, their numbers were small until late in the century.

Late Nineteenth Century Immigration

The political unification of Italy in 1879 did not bring better lives to the majority of Italians, who began to emigrate in large numbers to Brazil, Argentina;Italian immigrantsArgentina, and the United States. Life for the new immigrants was difficult in all these countries, but Italians continued to emigrate. Many hoped to accumulate enough money to return to Italy to buy land and lead better lives in their homeland. Most sent Remittances of earnings;Italiansremittances to family members in Italy in the meantime. By 1900, about 500,000 Italians were living in the United States, mostly in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England. About 150,000 Italians lived in New York City;Italian immigrantsNew York City alone, and Philadelphia;Italian immigrantsPhiladelphia and Chicago;Italian immigrantsChicago also had growing Italian communities.

Twentieth Century Trends

Anti-Italian sentiments among native-born Americans grew along with the burgeoning numbers of Italian immigrants. Propaganda against the Italian immigrants usually focused on fears of the Mafia. Throughout the United States, Italian immigrants were targets of violence, even lynching, by anti-immigrant Nativism;and anti-Italian movement[antiItalian movement]nativist groups that were alarmed by the new wave of immigration. To help mitigate their difficult situations, Italians established mutual aid societies that provided services ranging from medical care to funerals to members. Many immigrants cities got moral support from living in Little ItaliesLittle Italies, in which they were surrounded by fellow countrymen (paesani) and could enjoy many of the trappings of the culture of their homeland. Italian grocery stores and other services helped in the transition, especially among those still unable to speak English.

Some immigrants returned to Italy, but most remained in the United States permanently. Male heads of families generally arrived in the United States first. As they became established, they sent for the rest of their families. Over time, notions of returning to Italy faded. Occasionally, however, some family members remained in the United States while others returned to Italy, traveling back and forth whenever possible. This was especially true after World War II.

Immigrants who came to the United States during the twentieth century, especially after World War I (1914-1918), enjoyed a brief period of relative prosperity. However, the Great Depression of the 1930’s proved an especially difficult time. By then, Italy was under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist rule, so returning to Italy was out of the question for many immigrants. In 1939, Italy followed Nazi Germany into World War II and became a declared enemy of the United States.

Italian Religion and Culture

Historically, most Italians have been Roman Catholics;ItaliansRoman Catholics, and immigrants have continued in that religious faith in the United States. However, early Italian immigrants were not entirely comfortable in American Catholic churches, which were dominated by Irish American clergy. In cities in which Italians were concentrated, the immigrants gravitated toward predominantly Italian parishes, which tried to keep alive the Italian language and culture.

Although a majority of Italian Americans have remained Catholics, they have not occupied a place in the leadership of the American church that reflects their numbers. Some Italian American men and women entered the Catholic clergy and religious orders but not in the same numbers as Irish Catholics have done. Consequently, the American church has continued to have a predominantly Irish imprint. Despite the large numbers of Italians in New York City, there has never been an Italian American cardinal in the city’s archdiocese.

Not all Italians were or are Catholic. Some have joined Protestant churches in small communities lacking Catholic churches. Others have left the Roman Catholic Church after getting divorced and remarrying–practices on which Catholics frown. By the early twenty-first century, Italian Americans were prominent in a variety of Protestant denominations.

Families

An Families;Italianimportant center of Italian immigrant life has been the family. Family members have tended to live near one another, especially with the big cities’ Little Italies. Italian youths were encouraged to marry not only within the Roman Catholic faith but also within the Italian community. Marrying outside the Italian community was rare among early immigrants, but it became more common after several generations had passed. First-generation immigrant families strongly discouraged marriage with “Americans”–the general designation for anyone not of Italian descent.

The Americanization of an Italian family is a subtheme of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather filmsGodfather film trilogy. The films trace the evolution of an Italian family from the youthful Vito Corleone’s initiation into the harsh criminal world of New York City’s Little Italy to his son Michael Corleone’s lavish lifestyle in the Far West, showing how the family’s customs and lifestyle changed. After a poverty-stricken beginning as an immigrant orphan, Vito eventually prospered but hung onto a traditional Italian lifestyle. In contrast, Michael lived like an American millionaire on a large estate with few signs of Italian culture.

Women Women;Italian played a major role in Italian immigrant families and in the workplace. Although men were usually the first to come to the United States, many Italian women also immigrated alone, either as single women seeking better lives or as heads of households. When whole families immigrated together, the women tended to assume matriarchal roles within the families, allowing their husbands to retain their traditional Italian roles as family heads. Some women did part-time piecework at home for wages, while others worked in factories, entered domestic service, or, together with their husbands and other family members, operated Family businesses;Italiansmall businesses. Some families ran small grocery stores, or similar establishments, attached to their homes.

The Italian immigrant culture encouraged education as a central part of the goal of achieving better lives. Consequently, Italian Americans have had higher-than-average graduation rates from high schools and average to above-average rates of completion of higher degrees. The Italian family culture subscribed to the concept of the "American Dream"[American Dream]“American Dream,” and encouraged their children to pursue education as a way of getting ahead in the new society. Families in the Little Italies tended to be competitive and were proud to boast of their children’s achievements.

Italian Stereotypes

Few Stereotyping, ethnic;ItalianEuropean immigrant groups have faced as much ethnic prejudice as Italians. Epithets such as “wop,” “dago,” and even “Eye-talian” have been only surface manifestations of anti-Italian sentiments. The popular tendency to associate Italians with the Mafia;stereotypesMafia and other criminal elements was long widespread. The federal Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of southern and eastern Europeans who could migrate to the United States. The measure can be seen as at least partly motivated by anti-Italian sentiment.

The conviction of Sacco, NicolaNicola Sacco and Vanzetti, BartolomeoBartolomeo Vanzetti for robbery and murder in 1927 has often been cited as an example of anti-Italian xenophobia because the evidence used against them was weak. Their long trial process was highly politicized. Instead of concentrating on the evidence concerning the crimes of robbery and murder, the trial focused on the defendants’ anarchist political views, which probably played a greater role in their conviction and eventual execution than the actual evidence in their case.

As time passed and Italians moved into the American cultural mainstream, groups such as the Italian American Civil Rights League (formerly the Italian American Anti-Defamation League) and the National Italian-American Foundation[National Italian American Foundation]National Italian-American Foundation worked to combat negative Stereotyping, ethnic;Italianstereotypes. The fact that criminals in films Stereotyping, ethnic;and television[television]Television;and stereotyping[stereotyping]and television dramas often had Italian surnames contributed to the stereotypes. However, the Godfather filmsGodfather films that seemed to romanticize the Mafia also made the American public more aware of the warmth of Italian family life and family values. By the early twenty-first century, stereotyping of Italians was declining, even though the popular cable television series The Sopranos was keeping alive public perceptions of criminal Italians.

Italian Contributions to American Cuisine

The art of cooking has always been part of the Italian domestic landscape. From Foodways;Italiantheir earliest arrivals, Italian immigrants have brought vineyards and other forms of horticulture to the United States. Later immigrants, particularly those from southern Italy, also contributed such dishes as pizza, spaghetti, meatballs, and lasagna to the American cuisine. Many immigrants opened restaurants within Italian neighborhoods, and some of these acquired national reputations. Italians have also contributed espresso, cappuccino, and lattes to American coffeehouses.Italian immigrants

Further Reading
  • Brodsky, Alyn. The Great Mayor: Fiorello LaGuardia and the Making of the City of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003. Biography of New York City’s famous Italian mayor that emphasizes his role in the city’s development.
  • Cannistrero, Philip, and Gerald Meyer, eds. The Lost World of Italian American Radicalism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Collection of essays about the various facets of Italian radicalism, especially after World War I.
  • Ciongoli, A. Kenneth, and Jay Parini. Passage to Liberty: The Story of Italian Immigration and the Rebirth of America. New York: Regan Books, 2002. Glossy and engaging history of Italians in America, going back to the eras of Christopher Columbus and Filippo Mazzei.
  • Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. History of Chicago’s Italian community that focuses on racial aspects of the Italian experience, from characterizations of Italians by themselves and other groups to their relations with the African American community.
  • Iorizzo, Luciano J., and Salvatore Mondello. The Italian Americans. 3d ed. Youngstown, N.Y.: Cambria Press, 2002. Well-written scholarly history of the evolution of the Italian American community in the United States.
  • Poe, Tracy N. “The Labour and Leisure of Food Production as a Mode of Ethnic Identity Building Among Italians in Chicago, 1890-1940.” Rethinking History 5, no. 1 (2001): 131-148. Study of Italians in Chicago that focuses on food, culture, and residential patterns.
  • Vecchio, Diane C. Merchants, Midwives and Laboring Women: Italian Migrants in Urban America. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Brief history of Italian immigrant women in the United States.
  • Vecoli, Rudolph J. “European Americans: From Immigrants to Ethnics.” International Migration Review 6, no. 4 (Winter, 1972): 403-434. Analysis of the historiography of European immigration that reviews the approaches of some of the major immigration historians, revealing the interpretations that evolved over time.

Anti-Catholicism

Argentine immigrants

Atlas, Charles

European immigrants

Films

Godfather trilogy

History of immigration after 1891

Immigration waves

Italian American press

Little Italies

Ponzi, Charles

Sacco and Vanzetti trial

Tammany Hall

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