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D - 30 : Bye Bye Italy - Hello America

Three years ago, my friend Ryan, with whom I closely worked on Wallstreet for almost ten years, told me that his ancestors were from Northern Italy, just at the foot of the Alps. Up to that moment, I associated Italian Emigration with Southern Italy. But his story made me think and explore the history of the Italian Diaspora a bit further. It was probably the biggest mass emigration the world had ever seen – and mass emigration needed mass transportation. Well – that is what Genoa offered!

Italian immigrants on the way to America around 1900


The Italian unification in 1861 had a profound impact on Italian society. The new Italian State was modelled after France and quickly disbanded the old feudal system, which tied farmers to the lands. Around 1/3 of Italy’s land was owned by church and nobility. Both enjoyed large tax privileges. The farmers on these lands, however, were highly indebted and lived their life as servants, never able to leave. The unification lifted these restrictions. Suddenly, the farmers were free. Theoretically, they could buy the land – but that was the theory. Nobody had the funds to do so.


Contrary to the English Midlands or the Germany Ruhr Area, where coal and steel formed the base of new industries, Italy could not absorb the surplus labor from the countryside. The young nation had neither coal nor iron deposits. Industrialization had to wait until waterpower could be put to use. When it eventually started, the textile industry would lead. Electric power was next. Due to its precious nature, manufacturing moved to the hills.

Raw materials could be brought by train from far away. Wages were not expensive and Italy’s industry competitive – but it was mostly too late for preventing the mass exodus.


With nowhere to go, many Italians opted for emigration. The unification may not have provided jobs but it gave access to mass transportation. For the first time, travelling was affordable. By 1870, the key railway lines were completed and the big towns linked. Genoa, Italy’s busiest deep-sea harbor was all of a sudden within reach. And with it, the steam liners which would take people around the world. All that was needed was the pooling of a family’s money and send the most adventurous youngsters over the Atlantic. Once they found work, they would send money back. The other family members could follow. Ellis Island is full of such stories. So are the archives of the ports in Montreal, Canada, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. 14 – 16 million Italians emigrated until the first World War. 9 million stayed abroad for good.

Italian Railway Network by 1870


The emigration took place in two big waves. 1875 - 1900 and 1900 – 1914. Of the 14 million emigrants, 5.6 million left in the first wave. It was an enormous drain on Italy which had only 25 – 30 million people at the time. Contrary to my believe, the first wave came mostly from the alpine regions. Friuli, Veneto, Lombardy and Piedmont contribution over 3.5 million emigrants or two thirds. Now I understand the origin of many beautiful and spacious houses in the Valle Maggia, one of the larger valleys in Italian speaking Switzerland. They were built by returning emigrants who made new homes with the savings from America. In the second wave the southern part of Italy caught up. Naples and Palermo became the other big ports of departure.

Italian emigration from 1875 – 1914


With only the belonging they could carry, the future emigrants walked for days to the next train station, then took the train to Genoa and eventually arrived at their first destination: Genoa. Here they would buy a ticket. They often had to wait for days or even weeks until space was available. Decisions on whether to choose North over South America were not seldom made based on the ocean liner just available. None of the emigrants could afford to stay long in Genoa. It was a crowded, busy and hectic town. Finding a room over your head was a challenge and getting food expensive. Many had only the money for the tickets and stayed in the open harbor area, sleeping rough and fasting until their ship would depart. The people who left were hardened individuals though. Living where they came from had never been easy and suffering deprivations in Genoa was far better than in the mountains. At least there was hope and they got food on their 12 days’ journey over the Atlantic. The crowding of Genoa had another unintended side effect. There were too many people to feed with the traditional infrastructure – faster food was required. Making pasta with canned tomato sauce, having a quick pizza with a few toppings or eating a fresh from the oven Focaccia, the famous Genovese flat bread we love, was the beginning of fast food. Culinary creativity arises when there is a need.

The busy Genoa harbor front in 1850


Steamships ready to cross the Atlantic in the harbor of Genoa around 1900


Many of the boats shipping emigrants over the Atlantic were actually built in the harbor of Genoa. It had first started with repair work but over time entire ships were made. By the end of the 19th century, a proper shipbuilding industry had developed that could compete with the English and the Germans. Without it, the powerful Italian Navy could never have been built.



Italian immigrants maintained the close family ties when they arrived in North America. Family members looked after family members, gave them the first jobs, helped to find a place to live and organized their social life in a land that talked an incomprehensible language. Also, in their new home country, everybody was protestant – the devils the Catholic inquisition had so hard tried to suppress. But in the new environment, this mattered less. America needed to be built. And religious freedom was enshrined in the Constitution. It is amazing to see that still today most American- Italians are clustered around New England (New Nork, Boston, Philadelphia and others).

Distribution of American Italians today


Last but not least, a word on Italian food in America. With their arrival, the new immigrants also brought their culinary tradition. As we have seen in previous blogs, an Italian cuisine as such never existed. It is deeply local or regional reflecting territory, history, geography and climate. In America though, these cuisines amalgamated and the ones with fast good character gained the upper hand. Pizza from Naples, Pasta from Sicily and Minestrone from Liguria became staple dishes. Am not yet sure with the wine though. Was it Merlot? Just as a grape? Or Chianti? Something to find out!

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