Early 20th century Italian immigrant family on ferry docking at Ellis Island, New York
Early 20th century Italian immigrant family on ferry docking at Ellis Island, New York

The majority of immigration from Italy to the United States took place between 1880 and 1920. An estimated 4 million, mostly southern, Italians arrived on U.S. shores during those years. The Italians primarily came seeking economic opportunities they could not find at home. Southern Italy at that time suffered from a combination of unemployment, overpopulation and natural disaster.

Unification

Battle during Franco-Prussian war
Battle during Franco-Prussian war

In 1871, following the Franco-Prussian war, Italy fully unified and began to modernize. One early result of unification was an increase in taxes. As industrialization began to take place most of the factories and wealth remained in the north of the country, with the south remaining largely agricultural. Although the farms were in the south, most of them were owned by wealthy Italians in the north who offered the peasants terms similar to those given sharecroppers in the U.S. south following the civil war. Between 1861 and 1885 an estimated 26 million Italians, one quarter of the country, left for the United States and other countries.

Southern Italy

Grape vines at dawn
Grape vines at dawn

In addition to high taxes and low wages for farm workers Southern Italy was regularly stricken by drought during this time. In many townships, water became a luxury. A mysterious parasite also began destroying grapevines. In the late 1800s, the majority of the grapevines in southern Italy were destroyed causing many farms to fail and further raising unemployment. As unemployment rose among farmers and farm laborers, there was decreased demand throughout the economy and many skilled workers were thrown out of work.

Disease and Disaster

Mount Etna eruption at night
Mount Etna eruption at night

To add to the troubles of southern Italy, epidemics of cholera and malaria swept through the area causes waves of death. Starting in the early 20th Century, a wave of natural disasters also struck the region. Mount Etna erupted, as did Mount Vesuvius, burying a town near Naples. In 1908, an earthquake and tidal wave swept through the Strait of Messina which lies between Sicily and the Italian mainland. In the city of Messina alone, more than 100,000 people died.

20th Century

Little Italy neighborhood in New York City
Little Italy neighborhood in New York City

Most Italians came seeking work with the intention of returning home. An estimated 40 percent of the Italians who arrived in the U.S. between 1880 and 1920 did not stay. Among those who did stay, communities began to develop, many of which still bear the title 'Little Italy' in cities in North America and beyond. Once communities were established, other Italians came to join family and seek economic opportunity.