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January 25, 2021

20 Amazing Photographs That Show Italian Immigrants Living Conditions at the Turn of the Century

Urban life was often filled with hazards for the new immigrant, and housing could be one of the greatest dangers. At the turn of the century more than half the population of New York City, and most immigrants, lived in tenement houses, narrow, low-rise apartment buildings that were usually grossly overcrowded by their landlords. Cramped, poorly lit, under ventilated, and usually without indoor plumbing, the tenements were hotbeds of vermin and disease, and were frequently swept by cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis. The investigative journalist Jacob Riis, himself a Danish immigrant, launched a public campaign to expose and eradicate the exploitative housing new immigrants were forced to endure.

For Italians, this way of living came as an enormous shock. In Italy, many rural families had slept in small, cramped houses; however, they spent most of their waking hours out of the house, working, socializing, and taking their meals in the outdoors. In New York, they found themselves confined to a claustrophobic indoor existence, using the same small room for eating, sleeping, and even working. A substantial percentage of immigrant families worked at home performing piecework—that is, doing work that paid them by the piece, such as stitching together garments or hand-assembling machinery. In a situation like this, an immigrant woman or child might go days without seeing sunlight.

Immigrants’ work places could be as unhealthy as their homes. A substantial number of southern Italian immigrants had only worked as farmers, and were thus qualified only for unskilled, and more dangerous, urban labor. Many Italians went to work on the growing city’s municipal works projects, digging canals, laying paving and gas lines, building bridges, and tunneling out the New York subway system. In 1890, nearly 90 percent of the laborers in New York’s Department of Public Works were Italian immigrants.

By no means was all Italian immigrants’ work grim and hazardous. Italians found work throughout the city, in many of the improvised trades that have long been a haven for immigrants, such as shoemaking, masonry, bartending, and barbering. For a time, some observers felt that Italians operated every fruit-vendor's cart in the city. For many immigrants, though, and especially women and children, work could only be found in sweatshops, the dark, unsafe factories that sprang up around New York. When a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in 1911, killing 146 workers, nearly half of the victims were young Italian women.

Poverty was a main reason for immigrating, but political hardship and the dream to return to Italy with enough money to buy land were motivators as well. For 80% of Italians, agriculture was their livelihood. Many of the farming tools were inefficient due to their antiquity and lack of modern technology, which did not allow for prospects for improvement. Often the farmers lived in harsh conditions, residing in one-room houses with no plumbing or privacy. In addition, many peasants were isolated due to a lack of roads in Italy. Landlords ruled the land—and charged high rents, low pay, and provided very unsteady employment.

The idea of immigrating to America was attractive because of the higher wages American workers received. For example, agricultural workers who farmed year-round would receive a meager 16-30 cents per day in Italy. A carpenter in Italy would receive 30 cents to $1.40 per day, making a 6-day week’s pay $1.80 to $8.40. In America on the other hand, a carpenter who worked a 56-hour week would earn $18. Besides the already unfortunate situation of many Italian farmers, a 19th century agricultural crisis in Italy led to falling grain prices and loss of markets for fruit and wine. Specifically a disease, phylloxera, destroyed grape vines used to produce wine. Therefore, the United States was pictured as a nation with abundant land, high wages, lower taxes, and interestingly enough, no military draft.

Many Italians wanted to acquire land in Italy. Therefore, they moved to America to work and earn money, then repatriated. Political hardship was also a factor in motivating immigration.

Starting in the 1870s the government took measures to repress political views such as anarchy and socialism. In general, Italians came to the United States to escape political policies.

These amazing vintage photographs captured Italian immigrants conditions at the turn of the century:

(via Library of Congress)


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