An average of 135,000 migrants left Italy every year between 1876 and 1900, according to historian Anna Maria Ratti. This was a prelude to even larger migration flows in the years leading up to World War I, when Italian emigration peaked at 873,000 in 1913. Not all these migrants left Italy for North America; Anna Maria Ratti’s analysis shows that, prior to 1897, more Italians migrated to Brazil and Argentina than to the United States.

Poverty

Prior to 1886, the majority of Italian migrants originated in the north of the country, but in the final decades of the 19th century southern Italy became increasingly prominent in migration statistics. Southern Italy, known as the “Mezzogiorno,” was a rural society very different to the industrialized north. Resources were scarce and jobs few, while falling death rates and high birth rates created population pressure in the region. Disease and natural disaster also played a part: Italian vineyards were decimated in the 1880s by an outbreak of phylloxera.

Employment

Employment was a key factor drawing Italian migrants to the United States. In the years before 1900, most Italian migrants -- an estimated 78 per cent -- were young men seeking to sell their labor. Most had few skills and an estimated 54 per cent were illiterate. As a result they headed for North American cities where they felt their chances of employment were highest. The jobs they ended up doing were often heavy manual roles: in 1890, 99 per cent of public works employees in New York were Italian, as were an estimated 90 per cent of street sweepers in Chicago.

Wages

Despite the arduous nature of their work, migrants were prepared to do it because wages were higher than they could expect to receive in Italy. Wages in the United States were also higher than those in Argentina and Brazil, helping to explain the northward movement of the migrant flow between 1880 and 1900. Many young migrants sent money back to their families in Italy, and lived as cheaply as possible to maximize their earnings. They slept crammed into overcrowded rooms in squalid tenements, paying a few cents to lodge for the night.

“Birds of Passage”

Not all Italian migrants to the United States stayed. Thinking of their time in North America as temporary, many traveled to and fro between their Italian homes and cities like New York and Pittsburgh. Known as “birds of passage,” these men worked part of the year in the United States before returning to Italy. Some “birds of passage” acted as “padrones,” recruiting new migrants during their stay in Italy and adding to their personal income by charging a fee for their help in setting up jobs and accommodation in the United States.