The economic condition in Italy, from 1870 to 1914, were no different that those of most countries of southern and eastern Europe. That is, conditions were so terrible that the allure of opportunity in the Americans caused some four million Italians to emigrate during those years. Italy was faced with overpopulation; it lacked needed resources for industrialization, land suitable for farming was scarce and social/economic mobility was limited.
The average Italian from southern Italy (where conditions were worst) at first saw his trip abroad as temporary. Italians, after working the outdoor season in Italy, often traveled abroad (usually France and Argentina) to work the off season. They would work the fields of those countries until the work season began in Italy. There they would return laden with monies saved abroad. The United States was to be no different. Their Italian predecessors from the northern part of Italy had come for the purpose of “making it” in the new land. They came from the more industrial cities of the north. They had families and skills to offer. They were not migrant. They had planned to stay.
These “new” Italian immigrants were not accepted by the “native born” Americans, as were their neighbors from the north. They were often the objects of prejudice and contempt. They were seen as “unlettered, unskilled ghetto dwellers” that were destined to destroy the moral fibers of American society (or so the Dillingham Commission thought).
The Italian newcomers would inhabit the houses vacated by their northern predecessors whose skills (and timing) had allowed them the economic and social success necessary for residential mobility. They quickly began to move to the middle-class sections of town. The newcomer did not inhabit these buildings out of choice (old and closed factories and mansions quickly converted to tenement houses; makeshift dwellings of discarded materials; four to a room; attic and basement quarters and garage conversations). They went there for a variety of reasons; they were all that the “broke” immigrant could afford; they had established institutions to look after the newcomer (Italian); it was the neighborhood that their countrymen lived in; and it’s where their family and/or friends had beckoned them from.
Italians were thought to be of a clannish nature. This tendency to move and settle, as a group, in Italian communities was thought to be a detriment to assimilation. Those communities, however, served a very useful function both for the immigrant and the community at large. They served to ease the transition from a rural lifestyle to that of an urban dweller. There the new arrivals lived and worked among fellow countrymen until they learned the ways of urban life and were ready to make the advance to something “better." In addition to reeducating the rural man, it also handled a lot of the social services that would have normally been the responsibility of society. It also helped to stop conflict between the two groups.
In Italy the family was primary. In the urban cities where problems were many (and complicated) the immigrant had to look beyond the immediate family for help. The family was relegated to a position of lesser importance and elevated to fill its position was the concept of the community (the Italians had begun the transition from “immigrant to ethnic”).
Some of the groups seeking to aid and lead the Italian community were the mutual benefit societies, the church and the Italian language newspapers. These groups stepped in to fill the void—in terms of socialization—left by a society that sought to forget, not aid the the newcomers.
In spite of all the prejudice, discrimination and hatred heaped upon him, the Italian was able to overcome those obstacles in time to see the second generation Italian began to realize the fruits of their fathers’ labor. Communities like those in San Francisco, New York and Chicago all boasted having extensive list of successful Italians in banking, fish brokerage, truck farming, food processing, wine making, trade, medicine and law, etc.
The early 1890’s saw Italian become involved in public employment. Machine politics dominated the immigrant community. Ward bosses were expected to take care of the people in the district and those people often supported them at the polls. Since Italian success in the political arena depended heavily on the “machine” their success was limited mostly to victories on the ward or city level.