Mass migrations to America in the 1880’s changed the Yankee flavor of New Haven forever. New arrivals like the Italians, Pole, and Eastern European Jews combined with earlier settlers from Ireland and a sprinkling of Germans to outnumber the inhabitants of British stock for the first time in New Haven’s history.
The earliest known Italian inhabitant of New Haven was William Diodate, who lived here from 1717 to 1751. He was of noble lineage and his ancestors included a well-known theologian. His granddaughter married John Griswold, the son of Connecticut’s first governor. The next recorded Italian residents were Venetian Jews. Ezra Stiles’ diary reported their arrival in an entry on September 13, 1772. The family consisted of three adult brothers, their aged mother, and a widow and her children; Stiles was unsure of the exact size of the contingent.
More than a century passed before records showed a real beginning of an Italian settlement in New Haven. Among the early Italian inhabitants of the city were Francisco Bacigapolo, the operator of a hand organ in 1861; Lorenzo De Bella, Giroamo D’Angelo, and G. Milazzo, all barbers in 1864. An Angelo Salerno arrived in New Haven in 1868 but moved away in 1869. A few dozen Italians were known to be living in the city in 1875. By 1880 the census listed 102 Italian residents of New Haven. This tiny Italian settlement increased in population slowly but steadily until the mass migration began in the 1890’s.
Besides barbers and wandering bands of musicians, the earliest Italian immigrants included sailors who had docked in New Haven, bootblacks, day laborers, street vendors, and young boys under the padrone system. Native New Haveners criticized the padroni as “slave masters.” A more objective examination of the padrone system showed that it was neither wholly good nor wholly evil. Parents sold their sons, services for four or five years at $20 a year to a padrone. Parents were responsible for paying their childrens’ medical expenses and also risked forfeiting the boys’ wages and incurring an $80 fine if the boys ran away during their period of service. No doubt some padroni were harsh and unscrupulous, but immigrants reported others as kind and helpful and an even larger number as neutral.
The earliest Italian settlement in New Haven was on the fringes of Wooster Square. The immigrants frequently got their first jobs as unskilled laborers or semi-skilled factory workers. J. B. Sargent & Company, a hardware manufacturing shop then located at Water, Wallace, and Hamilton Streets, was a major employer of Italian labor. Other significant employers were the Candee Rubber Company on Greene Street and the Rubber Manufacturing Company on East and Main Streets. The need to live near their place of employment resulted in a sizeable concentration of Italians in the Wooster Square area.
The Italian population grew in the Hill neighborhood also. An Italian presence had been felt there as early as 1874 when Paul Russo, who had come to New Haven two years earlier as a musician, opened the first Italian grocery store in New Haven at the corner of Congress Avenue and Oak Street. The store served the growing numbers of Italian peddlers, rag and junk dealers, musicians, and barbers. The proximity of the Hill to the railroad yards made it a suitable residence for the many Italian laborers employed by the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad. The railroad was responsible in part for scattering Italian emigrants along its route, not only in New Haven but in other Connecticut towns and cities through which its coaches passed.
Early settlers often “roomed” on Hill Street, lower Congress Avenue, and especially on Oak Street and the adjoining section of the lower Hill. The Oak Street area covered a whole neighborhood (much of which was demolished during the urban renewal programs of the 1950’s and 1960’s), bounded by George Street on the north, Broad Street on the west, Cedar Street on the southwest, Congress Avenue on the southeast, and Temple Street on the east. Italian laborers shared this poor district with Eastern European Jews and the last of the Irish immigrants.
The early settlements were overwhelmingly male. The typical pattern for Italian immigration was for the single man to arrive alone. These “swallows” or “birds of passage,” as they were called, worked and saved until they could afford enough to return to Italy to find an appropriate bride from their villages. A married man would save until he could afford to bring his wife, children, and other relatives here.