Italian emigration lasted from the last decades of the 1800s up to the 1970s, spreading all over the world.
The main factors pushing Italians to emigrate were related to agriculture – cheap imports of American wheat and other cereals, competition from various European countries in the oil and wine trade and, especially in southern regions, the extension of the latifondo, together with primitive farming techniques.
In other regions, mechanized industry was leaving many skilled craftsmen and workers jobless. They moved abroad, where they could find better opportunities to achieve social and financial goals which would have been unthinkable in Italy. For these men, emigration was just one of the possible courses they could commit themselves to.
The decision to leave, which was often made at the beckoning of relatives or friends already abroad, found a further rationale in the so-called “emigrant guides”, often published by those countries which aimed at attracting labour from all over Europe. These guides showed images of earthly paradises: boundless plains with lush vegetation, clean houses, and orderly city districts. Shamelessly misleading advertising of this kind was unscrupulously displayed by travel agencies and by agents of shipping companies in order to convince the undecided to leave. Agents were sometimes, in practice, emissaries of foreign companies or governments. For example, in the last decades of the 19th century Brazil increased immigration from Europe by offering a free journey from the port of departure to the final destination in the fazendas, in which every family of emigrants would be assigned their own lot of arable land.
The emigration procedure involved application for, and subsequent grant of, a passport. For a long time, starting in the early twentieth century, the passport of emigrants had a red cover. In the case of a man with a family, his wife, children, parents and grandparents could also be included on the passport. For those registered for national service, an additional authorization from the military authorities was also required.
By the mid 19th century there were small communities of Italian emigrants in North and South America who had moved abroad after the failure of the various revolutions which accompanied the Risorgimento. From the late 19th century on, a substantial migratory flow moved towards other European countries, mainly from northern regions – most of all from Liguria. Only subsequently did this phenomenon involve the southern regions, though these continued to show a clear preference for overseas destinations. The choice between the two Americas was made according to whether the emigrant had money available. It was more expensive to travel to Latin America, where financial opportunities were greater, language problems could be easily overcome and cultural differences were not as great. A ticket for the United States was cheaper and, since the country was constantly growing and developing, it was easy to find skilled or unskilled work, in farming or industry. Work on sites in the infrastructure sector was sometimes seasonal, allowing periodic journeys back home.
Genoa, Naples and Palermo were the main ports of embarkation for emigrants.
By train, one could reach other European countries, as well as the port of Le Havre in France, where it was easier for the emigrants from the North to embark for the Americas. The number of departures grew and grew until shortly before the beginning of World War I – this was the “great emigration” era.
At the end of the war, following the progressive closing of access to America, European destinations became popular, albeit on a smaller scale. Trieste became an important port of emigration.
After the end of World War II, departures towards all destinations, whether continental or intercontinental, began again and rapidly increased.