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Immigration History

Italian Migration to the United States - The Barbi Side 
(From The Italian Immigrant Experience in America (1870-1920) by Joan Rapczynski)

Between 1880 and 1920 over four million Italians were recorded as entering the United States. No other ethnic group has sent so many immigrants in such a short time. Prior to the 1870's only scattered thousands of Italians had come to areas outside of Europe to either North or South America. Up to 1900 most Italians had emigrated to either Argentina or Brazil. Those entering the United States were mostly male and many intended to return to Italy after making some money. However, for various reasons many of them ended up staying in America.

The immigrant at this time left one thing behind and that was poverty. At home there was unemployment, and underemployment, high mortality, little or no medical care, little or no schooling, poor housing, semi-starvation, rigid class structure, and exploitation.  The majority of immigrants around the turn of the century were males between the ages of 24 and 45. Many expected to stay in the United States only long enough to earn money to improve their family situation. Others intended to send for their families as soon as they could.

Major improvements in transatlantic travel were achieved by the 1870's when larger ships entered the trade and steam powered vessels which were safer and faster outnumbered sailing vessels. Since the majority of the Italian immigrants crossed the Atlantic after 1870, their journey was shorter than those who had crossed in the l830's. The average crossing in the early l800's was around 40 days depending on the weather, and the conditions aboard the ship were deplorable. By 1900 the average crossing took one week. Conditions improved somewhat, but they were by no means easy. The average steerage fare at this time was thirty dollars. Rarely allowed on deck, the third class or steerage passengers spent most of their time crowded together, sleeping in the same clothes alongside their luggage because there was no room for it elsewhere. They usually were provided with soup or stew. They had to wash themselves with salt water which sometimes caused skin irritations and infections.

As soon as the immigrants landed in New York, a New York State quarantine inspector boarded the ship and had to approve the passengers before they entered. Next a U.S. medical inspector had to approve all native born Americans as well as first and second class passengers. These people would then move directly into New York. All steerage passengers were taken in barges to Ellis Island for processing. The immigrants disembarked with all of their belongings and they were tagged with a number that designated which ship they had traveled on. Their first view of the inside of the building was the baggage room where they were told to check their belongings. They then were told to walk single file up the stairway to the second floor Registry Room. In this way they could quickly be observed by medical personnel for any obvious deformities or handicaps. Whenever a case aroused suspicion ,a large X would be marked on their coat followed by another symbol such as L for lameness, CT for Trachoma, S for senility, G for goiter, H for heart, Pg for pregnancy and so on. Next ,came a test to determine mental deficiency, for this could be grounds for deportment. Immigrants who showed no signs of mental or physical deficiencies were then sent to be questioned by immigration inspectors, many of whom could speak the same language as the immigrant. Answers to questions must match those original answers given to the ship's captain before leaving Europe.

Once the immigrants set foot in the United States they had an urgent financial problem. Most had come with a minimal amount of money; some with as little as seventeen dollars. Some Italians were traveling beyond New York city and already had purchased railroad tickets to places where they expected to find work or to live with relatives or friends.

Most of the immigrants settled in the cities where they could find work in the factories. There was hardly a city of any size in America that did not have a section designated as Little Italy. Italians would look to settle in these areas, for it was here that they felt most comfortable. They could speak their own language and be understood, and they could eat food familiar to them. This resulted in the formation of very definite ethnic communities. The ideals, language, and customs of the Italians were preserved because of these neighborhoods. Little Italies could be found in major cities like Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, New Britain, Torrington etc., where they were sealed off from the wider American society. This isolation served to nurture and maintain the Italian ways of life (food, language, close-knit family organization and religious practices)

Italians upon first arriving in New York city were forced to live in the worst section of New York referred to as Mulberry Bend. Jacob Riis, a police reporter for the New York Tribune and an immigrant himself, described the horrors of these tenements in his book How The Other Half Lives.  He reports "one room 12x12 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partitions, screen, chair or table."  This is an example of the worst type of living conditions, but the constant numbers of immigrants that needed a place to live in New York city allowed for rents to be at an all time high at the turn of the century In the tenements, it would not be unusual for an immigrant to pay ten to twelve dollars a month rent for two to three rooms. This would have to come out of his average monthly wage of thirty dollars. Life in the tenements was grim. The plaster was always falling down; there was no drinking water for days, pipes froze in the winter; bedbugs were commonplace. They suffered from oppressive heat in the summer, rats, flies, sickness, and the stink of cats.

Hungarian Migration to the United States - The Koenig Side
(From American Hungarian Relations 1918-1944 by Mark Imre Major)

During the fifteen-year period beginning in 1895 the ratio of Hungarian immigration to the total increased from 5 to 16 percent. Another interesting figure is that 87 percent of the Hungarian immigrants were between 14 and 45 years of age.

The main cause of the Hungarian emigration was neither political persecution nor religious discrimination. These were unknown in pre-war Hungary. Most of the emigrants were Catholics, the dominant religion in Hungary. Others were Protestants; but Protestantism enjoyed perfect freedom in Hungary.  Others were Jews who were not persecuted in Hungary at that time.

The high tide of the Hungarian migration to America started with the "new immigration" at the turn of the century. The United States immigration statistics began with three lone Hungarian immigrants in 1871. Three years later the figure rose to 1,347. In 1880, with 4,363 immigrants, the rush began. In 1884, 14,797 emigrants left Hungary for the United States. From this time on, the number was between 10,000 and 37,000 a year until the last year of the nineteenth century. Then the figures began rising. In 1900, there was a migration of 54,767 people from Hungary to the United States. The peak was reached in 1907 with 193.460, about 1 percent of the total population of Hungary. The yearly number rose from 76,928 to 122,944 between 1908 and 1912. In 1913, just before World War I, 117,580 immigrants left Hungary.

Two further facts characterized the Hungarian immigration. First, it was largely a male immigration. In the years around the turn of the century more than 73 percent of all Hungarian immigrants were male. Secondly, once the Hungarian immigrant left home he underwent a remarkable change. At home he had been a peasant, but when he reached America he never thought of going to work on the farm. He turned his back on the soil and turned toward the mine and factory. He did this possibly because he considered himself a transient. He hoped to make money quickly in the mine and in the factory and to return home and buy a piece of land.

The occupational statistics of the Hungarian immigrants, in the period preceding World War I, show that 67 percent of the total were farmers, 12.5 percent were unskilled workers of all kinds, 12.4 percent were miners and factory workers, 5.5 percent domestic servants, and the remainder belonged to "miscellaneous occupations". The size of the professional group was microscopic. It increased very slowly. amounting to one-half of 1 percent just before World War I. In spite of the fact, there are some remarkable names among them.

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This page last updated on Friday, August 11, 2017