Italian Life in New York

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Italian Life in New York

Magazine article

By: Charlotte Adams

Date: April 1881

Source: Adams, Charlotte. "Italian Life in New York." Harper's New Monthly (April 1881).

About the Author: Charlotte Adams was a regular contributor to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, which began in 1850 as a publisher of fiction, essays, and cultural and political commentary.


Although an Italian named Christopher Columbus discovered America, only thirty thousand Italians came to North America before 1870. Most of the migrants were northern Italians. Large-scale migration from Italy south of Rome and from Sicily began only after 1880. By the time Italian immigration dropped dramatically in 1920, four million Italians had arrived in the United States. From no other ethnic group have so many come so fast.

Most Italian immigrants were males. Over time, greater gender balance developed in many communities, but in some cities, the percentage of female Italian immigrants remained below forty percent as late as 1920. Most of the immigrants were unskilled peasants. In the U.S., they chiefly worked as laborers in railroad and road construction as well as the building trades. With the largest "Little Italy" in the U.S. located in New York City, many used New York as a base from which they migrated for seasonal work in surrounding areas. A minority worked in agriculture in California, where they established the wine industry.

Once established in the U.S., immigrants tried to recreate the life that they had known in Italy. For many, this included the development of institutions that literally spoke their language. Almost all Italian immigrants were Catholic and they strongly supported parish churches. The first Italian-language newspaper, Progresso Italo-Americano, appeared in 1879. By the mid-1920s, it had a nationwide circulation of 120,000 and remained in existence until 1988. Italians refused to adopt the food habits of Anglo-Americans, famously refusing to feed their children oats because that is what the horses ate. Some of the immigrants opened fresh pasta shops, while others started Italian bakeries, restaurants, and pizzerias. The Italian grocery was a common feature of urban life in the Northeast until the development of large supermarkets after World War II.


The fact that Italian immigration is constantly on the increase in New York makes it expedient to consider both the condition and status of these future citizens of the republic. The higher walks of American life, in art, science, commerce, literature, and society, have, as is well known, long included many talented and charming Italians; but an article under the above title must necessarily deal with the subject in its lower and more recent aspect. During the year 1879 seven thousand two hundred Italian immigrants were landed at this port, one-third of which number remained in the city, and there are now over twenty thousand Italians scattered among the population of New York. The more recently arrived herd together in colonies, such as those in Baxter and Mott streets, in Eleventh Street, in Yorkville, and in Hoboken. Many of the most important industries of the city are in the hands of Italians as employers and employed, such as the manufacture of macaroni, of objects of art, confectionery, artificial flowers; and Italian workmen may be found everywhere mingled with those of other nationalities. It is no uncommon thing to see at noon some swarthy Italian, engaged on a building in process of erection, resting and dining from his tin kettle, while his brown-skinned wife sits by his side, brave in her gold earrings and beads, with a red flower in her hair, all of which at home were kept for feast days. But here in America increased wages make every day a feast day in the matter of food and raiment; and why, indeed, should not the architectural principle of beauty supplementing necessity be applied even to the daily round of hod-carrying? Teresa from the Ligurian mountains is certainly a more picturesque object than Bridget from Cork, and quite as worthy of incorporation in our new civilization. She is a better wife and mother, and under equal circumstances far outstrips the latter in that improvement of her condition evoked by the activity of the New World. Her children attend the public schools, and develop very early an amount of energy and initiative which, added to the quick intuition of Italian blood, makes them valuable factors in the population. That the Italians are an idle and thriftless people is a superstition which time will remove from the American mind. A little kindly guidance and teaching can mould them into almost any form….

In the second generation many Italians easily pass for Americans, and prefer to do so, since a most unjust and unwarranted prejudice against Italians exists in many quarters, and interferes with their success in their trades and callings. It is much to be regretted that the sins of a few turbulent and quarrelsome Neapolitans and Calabrians should be visited upon the heads of their quiet, gentle, and hard-working compatriots. All Italians are proud and high-spirited, but yield easily to kindness, and are only defiant and revengeful when ill-treated.


Despite their numbers, Italians remained a marginalized and poverty-stricken group well into the twentieth century. Prejudice against the new Catholic immigrants with the strange cultural habits limited their opportunities for advancement. The voices of tolerance were generally ignored. Italian immigration was greatly curtailed by the Immigration Act of 1924. The law, one of the Quota Acts, intentionally discriminated against immigrants from eastern and southern Europe.

Not until Italian Americans returned from fighting in World War II with a new sense of pride were they fully integrated into American society. By this point, most Italian emigrants chose to move to Argentina or Australia. For a few years after the Immigration Act of 1965, Italians were the most numerous immigrant group admitted to the U.S., but few have come since then.



Gabaccia, Donna R. From Sicily to Elizabeth Street: Housing and Social Change among Italian Immigrants, 1880–1930. Albany, N.Y.: State University Press of New York, 1984.

Mangione, Jerre and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Salomone, Frank A. Italians in Rochester, New York, 1900–1940. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.