Some of the Peculiarities, Both Picturesque and Otherwise, Of Our Italian Fellow Citizens

New York Tribune/July 12, 1903

From Sunny Italy

Immigrants Bring Their Saints’ Days With Them and Celebrate.

Scattered about the walls of the smoking room of the new lodging house for newly arrived immigrants, which the Italian Benevolent Society has just opened in West Houston Street, a few doors beyond Macdougal Street, are frames containing specimens of paper money issued some forty -odd years ago by the Confederate States of America. The inscription upon the card to which the bills are fastened begins “Importanza.” Then it proceeds to announce to the new arrival that the war is over.

There is no more apt illustration of the character of the swarthy men and women who for six or seven years now have been pouring in from the impoverished provinces of Italy. Most of them are the personification of guilelessness, and Confederate money is a rock that has wrecked many an Italian family bark before it was fairly out of the steerage.

Never before have the Italians of standing in this city taken such an interest in their incoming countrymen. There are many rich men in the various Italian colonies of Manhattan and Brooklyn, merchants, contractors, bankers and small manufacturers. They are contributing liberally to the support of the societies which look after immigrants.

The Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants has its headquarters in Pearl Street, near the Battery, and is doing a great work keeping new arrivals out of the hands of the runners for the padrone boarding house keepers. These runners are themselves Italians, as likely as not from the same province as the immigrant, and would have a free hand with them if it was not for the interference of the society’s agents.

The waiting room of the society’s headquarters is a most interesting place. Sitting around on benches the other afternoon were three young Italians from cities near Naples. At their sides or under their feet were the bags which contained their earthly possessions, which they guarded with the utmost care. They had been swaggering young bloods, perhaps, in their native Maddaloni or Marigliano—the rings in their ears, the brilliancy of their scarfs and the beads about their necks told that. But here in New York the swagger oozed out through the heels of their odd boots. They were mute, and shrank with apprehension with the noise of every truck that jolted over the Pearl Street cobbles. From the lapel of each dangled a ticket on which his destination up-State was plainly written. They fingered these from time to time, making sure that they were still in place—the only tangible thing to which they could cling.

The new lodging house, the one with the Confederate bill wall decoration, is as practical an Italian charity as could be devised. A large tenement has been taken and fitted up for one hundred men and women. In the basement are the smoking and baggage rooms. On the first floor are the dining room, kitchen and offices. Above are many dormitories and single rooms for families of immigrants who can afford to pay for extra services. The bedding on the low iron cots is spotless and everything about the place is as clean as a pin.

There were twenty immigrants in the lodgings when a Tribune reporter visited it. They had been in the country several days, and already they were beginning to take notice. They were waiting for friends to come for them or for employment at their various trades. Meantime they smoked long, black cheroots or short pipes, chatted quietly among themselves and looked out on the busy life of the street. In six months they will be speaking English after a fashion, and in a year or two they will have saved enough to send for their families or sweethearts. As soon as the legal time limit is passed they will take out their first papers and eventually become American voters—trust the Italian politician for that.

The contractors in the subway, in which many Italians are employed, had a chance a few weeks ago to learn how quickly the Italian laborer, the lowest class of immigrant, grasps American institutions. This particular institution was the strike, and the foreigners took to it as the babies of Mulberry Bend take to garlic and macaroni. Of course they had Irish walking delegates to start them, but it was not long until they outdid their teachers.

The walking delegates settled the strike to their satisfaction and personal profit. “You can go back to work,” they said to the Italians.

“Doa we getta de hours?” demanded the spokesman of one gang.

“We getta de morea pay?” inquired the head of another party, those who had gone out for an increase in wages.

“You go back to work,” ordered the walking delegate. “Same hours; same pay. We lost the strike.”

The Italians were not so sure about that. They were filled with the strike idea and they refused to dig until they got what they wanted. Other workmen were put on the job, but not for long. The Italians knew the answer. They dropped rocks into the excavations. Their wives and children easily worked themselves into a frenzy, and the substitutes fled under a storm of sticks and stones. Eventually the Italians were re-employed, and in several instances they gained their demands.

Settlement workers say that the iniquitous padrone system is disappearing in this city. Railroad contractors, who can herd their men together and keep them in gangs, are still able to work the ignorant Italian, giving him little more than enough to keep body and soul together. In the city, however, where the laborers live in separate tenements, they cannot long be buncoed, and soon secure fair wages.

There is one thing in which the Italian never wavers, no matter how great a change in his station immigration may effect. He holds by his Church and clings to all the religious festivals of his native town and province. If he does not know where the next meal is coming from he has a few pennies to buy candles for the patron saint of the Italian village which gave him birth. A mother’s children may be crying for bread, but until the fire escape is decorated for the festival they cry in vain. Little children patter bare-footed through the rain to place their offering on a bedraggled street shrine, and never think of spending the pennies for gummy Italian toffy with which the venders try to tempt them.

“I have been working in this district for two years now,” said a young woman connected with the West Side branch of the University Settlement, “and I’ve made a study of Italia and celebrations, but I cannot tell where one leaves off and another begins.”

This is due to the fact that people from widely separated parts of Italy are gathered together in the same district. There are almost as many saints as there are days in the year and someone is always celebrating. Then there are general festivals to the celebration of which Italians come from all parts of the city.

The Ascension of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of the biggest of the annual festivals, will begin on July 16 and last the remainder of the week. It is celebrated in “Little Italy,” one of the three big Italian colonies in Manhattan, because the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is within its bounds, in East One-hundred-and fifteenth Street, between First and Pleasant aves. Italians from all parts of the city will march into “Little Italy” on the big days of the festival, headed by their bands and marching societies, all gayly caparisoned. Hundreds will come in from nearby towns the day before the festival begins, and remain several days afterward.

Tomorrow “Little Italy” will begin to decorate and otherwise prepare to do the Lady of Mount Carmel more honor than has ever come to her before in New-York. Altars will be erected in several places. East One-hundred-and-twelfth and neighboring streets will be spanned with row after row of small cups of colored glass. Filled with olive oil and provided with wicks, these “night lights” will glow for hours and add much to the beauty of the celebration. There is further illumination on the tenement house fronts, hand painted transparencies, candles and oil caps being freely used. Italian and American flags fly from every possible point of vantage, and there is much green bunting in evidence.

The street altars are perhaps the most striking feature of the. festival. They are built on the sidewalk, usually where two big tenements meet, and rise forty or fifty feet. Generally they are of wood, enamelled or covered with bunting, with some attempt at fancy carving. The top pieces are most elaborate and follow various designs, generally allowing for floral decoration. Within the shrine are relief figures of the saints to be honored, and in front art; shelves for the candles of those who seek her favor. It is a poor shrine, indeed, that does not cost $1,000, and sometimes they are much more expensive. Shrines are erected in many of the tenement house windows. These are more simple, but an extravagance nevertheless, when one considers the means of those who erect them. The centre piece of the private shrines is a plaster figure of the patron saint. At night this is surrounded by candles. Poorer families have to be content with a cheap transparency of the saint illuminated with a single candle.

Marching in procession through the uptown streets will begin early next Thursday morning. The curbs, the stoops and the lower landings of the fire escapes will be packed with happy people, dressed in their best and brightest clothes. Marching clubs of one sort and another, with banners flying and their brass bands making no end of noise, will lead the way. As they pass the heads of the families which crowd the sidelines will halt their favorite society long enough to pin a few dollars in paper money to the society’s banner. Before the marchers have completed the round of the quarter the banners of popular societies are almost hidden behind these gifts. The money is used to defray the expenses of the celebration.

There are many women and children in the procession—pretty, dark eyed girls in white dresses, and, if they are doing a particular penance, in bare feet perhaps; expansive matrons, with infants snuggled in their arms, trudging along with the rest, and on every face a smile. In the right parades the women carry lighted candles in their hands, and some have specially constructed headpieces bearing anywhere from a dozen to fifty lighted candles. The morning procession ends at the church in One-hundred-and-fifteenth Street, where there is a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This shrine is decorated with jewel offerings to the extent of thousands of dollars. Rings, with flashing diamonds, gold watches, earrings, chairs and bracelets are given up freely under the spell of excitement which the festival casts. Nearly every one brings candles for the priests to burn in her honor. Some of these candles are ten feet in height and so heavy that it takes two men to carry them. The more expensive ones are hand painted or carved with figures of religious subjects. Decorated candles cost from $5 to $400, the belief being that the more ex pensive the candle, the greater favor will the saint return. During a. celebration like this several tons of candles will be left behind after the services.

No one has yet appeared with energy enough to figure out the annual cost of the religious festivals of the Italian quarters. Some families have to save the year round in order to make a satisfactory showing at festival time, and do sufficient honor to the saint who has their destinies in hand. Were it not for their extravagance at festival time, and the hundreds of dollars of unnecessary expenditure for funerals, there would be vastly less suffering in the quarters. It is doubtful, however, if the people would be any happier. Deprive an Italian of a chance to honor his particular saint, or force him to bury a dead child without a procession of a dozen carriages, a brass band and no end of floral pieces, and life is a miserable and worthless thing indeed to him.

Of the three distinctive Italian quarters in Manhattan—“Little Italy,” “Mulberry Bend” and “Richmond Hill”— the last, which is the newest, is perhaps the most interesting. One may be taking liberties in calling this new district “Richmond Hill,” but that is the historical name of the latest section of the city which the Italians have pre-empted. It is the old Aaron Burr estate at the southern edge of what used to be Greenwich Village. Thompson and Sullivan Sts., with those between Bleecker and Macdougal Sts., have few but Italian residents. Within six months Hancock Street has become Italian. High tenements are going up to replace the separate houses which once made this part of New York distinctively American.

Most of the residents of the “Richmond Hill” quarter are new arrivals. They found the East Side districts, both up and down town, too crowded for comfort, and the stream from Southern Europe turned across Broadway. The men of the quarter are laborers and bootblacks, or they are lazy and do practically nothing. There are few garment workers, the women and children working on flowers and feathers.

“In no part of New York are the young children harder worked than in this district,” said a resident of the settlement the other day. From three years of age until they are old enough to go into factories the children are forced to make pipe and cloth flowers in winter, and feathers for hat decoration in summer. The mother works at intervals between her housework, which is reduced to a minimum. The children who are in school work before and after. Even the older children who are employed in factories paste and twist flowers before breakfast and after they return at night. It matters not how tired they are or how unwilling to work. The mother or father is there with a stick, and necessity makes them hard taskmasters.

“A family where there are four or five children of working age can make as much as $6 a week out of flowers or feathers, according to the season. The average, however, is much less, say from $1 50 to $3.50 a week. This sum, with the husband’s wages, enables them to live, if not in comfort. Because of the poverty the religious celebrations are not so extensive as in the East Side quarters.

“This home work is a great incentive to truancy, if not to keep the children out of school entirely. Just before Easter this year, when the rush for flowers was at its height, two of our kindergarten children did not appear. Thinking they might be ill, I visited the home and found the tots at work on cheap cloth violets.

“ ‘Do you want to work?’ I asked. ‘We has to,’ ventured one of them with a fearsome look at the stick which his mother held.”

From the Bureau of Immigration at Washington comes the report that all records in the number of aliens arriving in the United States have been broken by those of the fiscal year ending June 30. Heretofore the banner immigration year was 1882, when the total reached 785,992. The total for eleven months of this year was 758,285, and more than 100,000 arrived during the month of June. Of this Italians led all other nations. In May 37,733 subjects of King Victor Emmanuel III landed on these shores, an increase of 875 over the same month last year. No one can say when the influx will stop. The Roman Catholic Church, to which practically all of the Italians belong, is finding difficulty in ministering to their religious needs. It is said that arrangements are being made to bring no less than two hundred priests from Italy to work in the Italian parishes of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Three new Italian churches are planned for Brooklyn.. In the region where these people have settled, and in various parts of the city American churches are being given over to them.

(Source: Chronicling America,