THE BOOK CORNER
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY; ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS IN BUFFALO 1880 - 1930
by BEVERLY J. BAUDA
By 1910, more than 3/4 of all Buffalo residents were foreign immigrants. Buffalo ranked behind only New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Newark, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City as an Italian-American city. Between 1900 and 1920, the Italian population grew from 6000 to 16,000 people. By 1920, Italian-Americans represented 10% of foreigners and 7% of the total citizens. Italians and Canadians were the only groups to continue to emigrate in large numbers after 1930.
As indicated in PART 1, local Italians tended to send for families in Italy because of a strong support system here, and they usually clustered together with other "paesani". The 1905 census reported that over half of Immigrants coming to Buffalo were with families. This was very different from the statistics of other ethnic groups at that time, who generally left families behind.
"Little Italy" began originally on the southwest corner of Main Street. "By 1922, it extended from Niagara Street's northern tip westward to the waterfront." (1)
The author notes that Italians were the last large European group to enter Buffalo, and faced widespread discrimination.
Due to extremely poor housing and inadequate nutrition, infectious diseases and high infant mortality rates were prevalent. Economic hardships were severe because Italian families were still large, and many men worked only about five or six months per year.
Despite harsh conditions, families adjusted even though prospects for success were grim. However, "Italians immigrating to Buffalo found themselves in new situations with a variety of options, and they adapted their Old World traits accordingly." (2)
Early twentieth century Buffalo was considered one of the world's great grain ports. Because Italian men were largely used to agricultural work, especially with grain and fruit production, they tended to stay away from factory work, unlike the Poles who were more used to industry in eastern European cities.
Due to their previously established work patterns in Italy, Italians here generally turned toward seasonal and part time outdoor work to supplement their incomes. This included canning factories and work in the Niagara and Chautauqua area vineyards. This was a natural adaptation for the Italians and canning factories here offered several advantages. First, jobs in canneries were considered more respectable than other industrial work. This allowed women to enter the workplace and to eliminate the stigma of welfare, which was avoided at all costs. Italians had one of the lowest rates of welfare acceptance than any other ethnic group. Although the Italian family was largely male-dominated, Italian women were highly praised by Buffalo's Il Corriere newspaper and other observers in 1905. They "have one thousand talents superior to the other women around them", "and are seen as paradigms of virtue, thrift, and chastity." (3) Because of these qualities, Italian women were able to help their husbands at the canning factories, involve the entire family in the work, and combine the income of all the family members to help sustain them during the months of unemployment.
According to the Immigration Commission of 1910, "very thrifty families saved considerable sums of money every summer, enough to get through a winter of probable unemployment for the fathers." (4)
A canning factory in Albion always requested that entire Italian families work for the summer because they were more stable and apt to remain throughout the season. "While 90% of the American-born children, many of them local residents, came to the cannery as independent workers, all the Italian youngsters worked and traveled with their parents." (5)
In 1900, only about 2% of Italian immigrants owned their own homes in Buffalo. But because of the strong desire of the Italian to own property, and thanks to a frugal and resourceful spirit, the Italian dream began to become a reality. "In 1927, a local banker estimated that Italian-Americans held twenty thousand bank accounts with average holdings of $700." (6)
By the second generation when Italians began encouraging occupational mobility for their sons, parents helped sons choose occupations that would be in the best interests of the family, such as business, law, medicine , and pharmacy.
Italian-Americans in the Buffalo area can feel truly proud and awed by the achievements of their ancestors!
1.p. 59; 2. p. 23; 3. p. 248; Il Corriere, Dec. 23, 1905
4. p. 187; 5. p. 189; 6. P. 174
© Beverly J. Bauda, August, 1998