The pioneers of real emigration were those who did street jobs and were therefore able to pass on news and reliable information for long-term emigration.
In Tuscany, peasants moved to Corsica for farm work, and then to France, attracted by better wages, even though the most common qualified job was that of the image maker. Street musicians from all over Italy left for many European countries, and then for the Americas, while sellers of prints and haberdashery, together with woodmen and diggers, left the eastern regions of the peninsula.
The so-called “itinerant jobs” – musicians, acrobats or animal tamers, and sellers of various goods – were but a step removed from the unashamed street begging which had been endemic for centuries in times of great poverty.
With the improvement of transport and the beginning of large-scale emigration, the routes of the wanderers extended, first all across Europe, and then as far as America. The police did not look favourably upon them, as they were constantly accompanied by children whose role was to help keep the begging undetected. Their miserable fate aroused pity and indignation among the upper classes who, whether in favour of or against emigration, saw begging as evidence in support of their views. The phenomenon developed increasingly, while laws for regulation of juvenile work remained ineffective. Sometimes it was fathers who brought their own children with them, sometimes it was trusted acquaintances. The ultimate hope was that, along the highways and byways of the world, children would learn a job which would give them a livelihood.
Most emigrants were farm workers and, if forced to do so, could fall back on such work as clearing woodland or virgin territory, as well as unskilled labour in railway building or on large construction sites. They also found work in mines. Around half the emigrants came back to settle in Italy. In the United States, for instance, the “emigration campaign” of fifty percent of the men who left on their own lasted only a few years.
Often, their experience followed the same pattern: lack of interest in finding out more about the country in which they had arrived, meaning failure to integrate and learn the local language; saving as much money as possible, and in the shortest time possible, so as to accelerate their return; accepting, as a result, not only excessive work, but also a standard of living which it would be euphemistic to define as ‘Spartan’. The area of origin in Italy was associated with certain kinds of work. In the case of mass migration to Australia, emigrants from mountain areas worked as woodsmen or sugar cane cutters in Western Australia; those coming from plain areas became farmers or started working in the service sector.
A precise “vocation” in terms of destination can also be seen. In Europe, the direction of the migratory flow was west or east according to the emigrant’s region of origin: people emigrated from Piedmont to France, and from Veneto to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
An immense number of Italian emigrants participated in major public works, and many were victims of accidents. Much of the work on the Frejus, San Gottardo and Simplon tunnels, or the Transiberian and Tonking railways was done by Italians. A typical feature of employment in the building sector was its temporary nature and the organisation of working groups which included various trades and occupations, from bricklaying to the simple but arduous task of loading and unloading bricks. A certain number of emigrants achieved success as businessmen.
Economist Luigi Einaudi coined the appropriate expression “prince merchants” to define men who, often starting from nothing, were able to take every opportunity and eventually reach enviable positions. These are stories of men who quickly passed from rags to riches, achieving great prestige and rising to positions of prominence in their new homeland. Their success contributed to the spread of Italian products all over the world, particularly in the food sector.
Among these successful stories we can take one example: in Brazil, Giuseppe Giorgi started as a simple worker and became a railway builder thanks to his technical and organisational abilities; he obtained enormous orders from the local public administration and rose to prominence in a highly profitable sector which was normally the domain of the British.
Though Italian emigration has been extensively studied since the late 19th century, the considerable research on the subject has mainly focused on male emigration. Study of female emigration has reflected the ideological parameters of the period in which scholars were writing.
Women who remained at home were the first to suffer the consequences of male emigration: they looked after their children and elderly relatives, working both as housewives and in the fields. They made textiles and were also in charge of family finances, replacing their absent men folk. In many villages the society thus became strongly feminized, as entire family groups of men emigrated, together or within the span of a few years.
The phenomenon of women increasingly taking over male roles at the end of the nineteenth century is clearly shown in notaries’ deeds, which often name women as contractors of all kinds of agreements, and particularly in purchase contracts.
Then, little by little, women won their place in the world of paid employment.
The first industrial sector in which female emigrants found a place was the textile industry, starting from French factories in the Lyon area. Another increasingly common activity for housewives, especially in North America, was to offer bordo (board), that is to say to take in fellow Italians as boarders. This was a typically female job, combined with various kinds of cottage industry, because it allowed women to remain the “angels of the house”, while earning some money and contributing to the improvement of the family ménage.
For emigrants who devoted their energies to trade, the beginnings were almost always the same: after arriving in the new country they worked for some years as employees of relatives and friends who had encouraged and helped them to emigrate. Obviously, this initial phase was skipped by those who already had a small sum to invest and could set up their own small business. The family always played a crucial role, not only because it provided the initial financial resources, but also because several – or all – the members of the family directly involved in the business.
The first shops were small, mainly catering businesses, and their customers were initially Italians. Many shop windows proudly advertised genuine Italian products.
Most shop owners achieved maximum success when they managed to open a bigger shop. Some of these activities consolidated further over the years, and many shops later became major food companies, or large international distribution businesses.
Catering is the sector in which a huge number of Italian emigrants and their descendants have best established themselves all over the world. At first, they were street vendors of ice-cream in the summer, and of roast chestnuts in winter. Many came from the Lucca and Parma area. Once they had become resident, they had their first jobs – as waiters, scullery boys, and then as chefs in restaurants and hotels. And finally as owners of their own businesses.
As in other sectors, the family always played a crucial role in determining emigration patterns, as the various businesses were almost exclusively family-run. Italian chefs and restaurants are today considered among the most refined in the world, but in those far-off days cooks simply learned by observing the women of the family at work in the kitchen.
Catering set the pattern for extensive emigration towards the United Kingdom.
From London, the first immigrants gradually moved to the major provincial cities, like Manchester and Liverpool; to the industrial areas of South Wales; to Scotland, particularly Glasgow, and also to Ireland, mostly settling in Dublin. In all these places, they opened shops and bars.
In the early days, a curious reason for the huge success of these shops, which often sold only fish and chips, was that they differed from the traditional all-male domain of the pubs, where children were not admitted because of licensing laws for sale of alcohol. The Italian shops, which sold no alcohol, were open to women and children.
The same process occurred with ice-cream shops. The first step was to sell ice-cream from a street cart in the summer, then to open an ice-cream parlour. Because it was cold for most of the year, other products were sold too: mineral water, various beverages, coffee, sweets, jams and chocolate.