By Sallee Zearing, Ryne Poelker, Zak Morek

Immigrants to the United States during this time had three characteristics; they were of the working class, they lived primarily in the urban centers, and they were from the southeastern Europe. By the twentieth century most immigrant neighborhoods were in or near to the industrial sectors of cities. Because of this closeness to industrial production, and the low wages earned working within these industries, most immigrants were subject to poor living conditions. However, it is certain that jobs were at the forefront of most immigrant's minds upon coming here, as seen in the Interview donated from Amella Joseph. Within here, a man recounts his father and his trip from Italy to the United States, through a series of factories, and ultimately ending in Chicago as a candy store employee.

The role of the neighborhood in Chicago during the early to mid 1900s was vastly important to the immigrating Italians. Since 1850, Italians had been present in Chicago, but it was not until 1900 that there were a great number of them present; some 16,000 were counted as Chicago residents in that year. Many came due to global economic change and the economic policies of an uncaring government; they were widely poor and illiterate folk, looking for work in order to support their families abroad. These immigrants searched also for emotional and religious support in familiar and ethnic environments, thus neighborhoods emerged around ethnic identity in Chicago.

These neighborhoods were incredibly dense in population, with up to 2,000 people on a city block. There was an incredible amount of pollution, and there were no municipally owned city services. Trash pickup during this time was private, and people tapped their own wells for water. These unsanitary neighborhoods led to high infant mortality and sickness. The average wage for immigrant industrial workers was $380 per year, in today’s money, about $10,000 per year. Not only did they have to live off of 10-17 cents per hour, they had to endure cyclical recessions or depressions occurring amount every ten years from the 1870s to the 1890s. During these periods of recessions or depression, there was up to 10 or 15% unemployment rate. In the 1900s, 40% of the nation was under the poverty level.

The Catholic Church’s response to the poverty of immigrants was one of offering aid. The church saw itself as something that can help via charity. Their schools had low tuitions, they owned orphanages, and hospitals with free services. Though in the late nineteenth century, Catholic workers began to want more than just charity, they wanted justice. To achieve this, they joined labor unions to get power in the workplace, and to adjust their poor living conditions. There are very few unions during this time, most of them were just sodalities repurposed to address new issues. The church would respond to this as well with the issuing of Rerum Novarum in 1891, in which the church blessed all of the labor organizations within the United States, making labor organization as Catholic doctrine. In a short period of time, the church has repurposed itself from a place people can go not only for religious relief and aid, but also for daily purpose such as union organization.

Since most Italian immigrants were Catholic, their church helped to uphold their ethnicity and support their livelihood.  Italian neighborhoods developed around Italian Catholic churches; the community thus became very close-knit and ethnically traditional. The forming of Mutual Benefit Societies, groups with paying members whose sole purpose was to help support its community when in need, called upon the church to recognize that its parishioners needed ethnic support as much as religious support. This in turn created the National Perish network. These parishes were dedicated to sustaining the ethnic identity of its parishioners. Through these parishes, sodalities were formed in ethnic communities and catered to the social and working lives of its members. They helped newly arriving immigrants acquire jobs, which were almost always factory jobs, Italians being a large number of the factory workers in Chicago. The sodalities also helped these new immigrants to become acclimated in their new American culture, reinforce gender roles, form debate societies, and above all preserve their ethnic identity.

The brutal working-conditions of most Italian immigrants did not go unchallenged by the communities that were haunted by them. In fact, Italian-Americans hold a long complex eventful narrative in America’s labor history. From the anarchists in the famous International Workers of the World to even rank and file organizers in America’s Communist Party, Italian-American immigrants are to be found in the thick of working-class struggles. Historians Philip V. Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer write, “The general occupational profile of Italian-American immigrants and most of their children corresponded to sectors of the population most prone to radicalism…Italian American radicals developed distinct cultures and alternative societies that reflected their own values and were designed to provide the immigrant community with a substitute for religion and the hegemonic culture” (Cannistraro and Meyer 9-12).  The Italian immigrant often became a symbol to American workers for proletariat rebellion and often made cross-ethnic alliances with other immigrants to stand in solidarity against bosses.  Many strikes, pickets and sabotage contained participation from an assortment of immigrants: Irish, German, Polish and, of course, Italian.

One of the most well-known episodes of this Italian-American labor history was the infamous Triangle Factory Fire where 146 garment workers in New York City were killed by being locked into their factory as it lit up in flames. This corporate negligence received international attention, and quickly became a target for labor agitators in Italian-American ghettos. Chicago labor activist, Elizabeth Schulte, explains, “The Triangle fire radicalized a new set of workers and made union militants even more determined to fight. Meetings took place all over the city to memorialize the slain workers—some organized by radicals and unions, others by government officials and charitable organizations—and in most instances, audiences of angry workers and their families let their anger be heard.” The campaign became uncontrollable by forces within the company. The massacre became a rallying cry for Italian garment workers across the United States. Such blood spilled became a relentless reminder to fight and continue the struggle onward. Today the fruits of such diligence can be seen in America’s Italian communities. Decent working-conditions, wages and standards of living were won. The relative comfort many Italian-American families have today would not at all be possible without these sacrifices of their fore fathers and mothers.

Italian immigrants even sponsored Chicago’s first Columbus Day Parade in 1868. This shows their commitment to a new life, and is hugely symbolic; they are celebrating the person who claimed the United States by planting a Spanish flag and a Catholic cross in the ground, and they are partaking in the upcoming American culture of Catholic involvement not only in the home, but also in the workplace. The neighborhood did not escape these new ways of adapting to American culture, as Italians held festas, feast days to saints down their block. These religious devotions were centered around their religious lives, and the figures within them. These celebrations helped the community retain their traditions within the new context they have placed themselves, and promote the continuation of their ethnicity.

Not only were they a major part in the railroad workforce, but they also were important in the production of textiles in the clothing industry. These people founded the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), a union for clothing workers from Eastern and Southern Europe. They united the entire industry in Chicago by 1919 with 40,000 members. These unions would get them better working conditions, more reasonable hours, and a better wage for the work done. However, with the Great Depression and World War II, membership declined. Having lost nearly all their members by 1979, 3,000 members of the ACWA merged with the Textile Workers Union of America and formed their new union, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. They would later rename themselves in 1995 to the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) after the International Ladies Garment Workers Union joined them as well.

Within the Scrapbook donation from Rose Marie Anichini, detailed handwritten notes on how to sew garments, take measurements, and create parts of clothing are seen. This large collection of notes not only includes handwritten notes, but also sketches and actual bits of fabric showing the techniques written about in the previous pages. This collection is important, and shows a unique aspect to the immigrant Italians of this time. They didn't just come here to work, they came to learn and continue their trade. Anyone could sit in a factory for hours making clothes without all that much skill; a few simple stitches and the piece moves down the line. However, these notes leads one to believe that there was care and genuine interest in the trades they took part in, so much so that there is an entire notebook of details on how to do a garment the proper way. These notes would be produced for prosperity, possibly a second generation, or an apprentice who would be taking on the business of the person who wrote the notes.

With all of this in mind, it is easy to see the crucial role in United States history that immigrants played in its development. They began the first worker's rights movements, they established the first unions, and all while enduring racism, prejudice, and economic disadvantages. Italians revolutionized the way textile workers remained in the work force, and moved the economies of both Chicago and the United States forward.

Further Reading

Dominic Candeloro,  “Chicago's Italians: A Survey of the Ethnic Factor, 1850–1990.” in Ethnic Chicago: A Multicultural Portrait, ed. Peter D'A. Jones and Melvin G. Holli, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 229–259.

Gerald Meyer, The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

Rudolph J.Vecoli,  “The Formation of Chicago's ‘Little Italies.’” Journal of American Ethnic History 2 (Spring 1983): 5–20.