On Board

At least until the end of nineteenth century, Italian emigrants crossed the ocean on obsolete sailing ships which were rightly called “Navi di Lazzaro”. The journey, which could take as long as a month even in the early years of the last century, was made in conditions that would be unimaginable today. And the worst part was the accommodation.

Berths, all on the lowest deck, opened on to corridors which received air only from the hatches. Conditions were cramped everywhere. As a result, in the morning everyone was forced to move to the main deck, on the bridge, regardless of weather conditions. Respiratory and intestinal diseases  were rampant and mortality was very high.

The suitcase has long been a symbol for emigration. And before the suitcase, there was the so-called “fagotto”: a piece of cloth, or a shawl in the best case scenario, in which one could wrap up the few things to take away to the new country.  In some of the pictures published here you can see women “infagottate” (bundled up), acting in lieu of the luggage they did not possess by wearing layers and layers of clothes, in order not to leave their poor but precious belongings unguarded in the hold. And inside the fagotto, or the suitcase, there would be a whole “world”: memories of a family now far away, a ticket for a relative or for a fellow citizen, sometimes a letter of presentation for someone who could hopefully give a hand, perhaps some food, a musical instrument - seemingly little but in its way a world.

And, for the far-sighted, a sort of makeshift dictionary. In the Cresci Foundation archives is an example of a booklet with phrases and expressions in English, containing sentences such as:

“Ianmen, ai nide bai santin ciu it, iu uil scio mi becher sciop Giovanotto,

io abbisogno comprare qualche cosa da mangiare, voi volete mostrarmi panettiere bottega”.

From the 1920s on, the duration of the journey and conditions on board significantly improved, with the advent of the huge passenger steamers on which large numbers of emigrants sailed.

Emigrants on the main deck, early 1900s
Emigrants on the main deck, early 1900s
Women on deck. 1900
Women on deck. 1900
Cross-section of a steamer
Cross-section of a steamer