Italian Americans in Western Pennsylvania

Senator John Heinz History Center

Thirty years ago, the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania embarked on a mission to preserve and interpret the history of Italian migrants that settled in Western Pennsylvania. Today, Pennsylvania has roughly 1.4 million people claiming Italian ancestry and, in Western Pennsylvania, nearly 15 percent of the population identifies as Italian American. Thanks to the generosity of this community, the History Center has amassed one of the largest collections of Italian American material culture in the U.S., housing thousands of objects and archives reflecting the Italian American experience. 

Passionist mantle (1950s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Italian migrants did not travel to the United States in significant numbers until the late 1870s, not long after the unification of Italy and Reconstruction in America. In newly formed Italy, high unemployment and taxes coupled with natural disasters, disease, poverty, and famine gave many a reason to look for opportunities abroad. Some of the first Italian immigrants in America were Catholic missionaries; in Pittsburgh, St. Paul of the Cross Monastery was established in 1852 as the first site of the Passionists in North America by four European missionaries, three from Italy.

Donahoe Coal Co Coal Tipple (1925)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Western Pennsylvania, as well as West Virginia and Eastern Ohio, is situated in an area of America rich with bituminous coal. During the Second Industrial Revolution, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as African Americans from the South, migrated into the region and worked in the mines and mills. In 1880, the state of Pennsylvania had 2,800 Italian-born residents; by 1920, the Italian-born population was 222,764, a nearly 80 percent increase.

Steamship trunk (1910s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

By the  1890s,  new European migrants  arrived  in such  quantity  that newspapers across America reported on  the influx of  “undesirable” immigrants.  As laborers moved in, out, and around the region, communities developed from the coal patches and boarding houses into dynamic districts and neighborhoods with churches, small businesses, club houses, and adorned spaces reminiscent of the homeland left behind. Steamship trunks were popular with migrants who lived in temporary housing situations since they could double as closets and wardrobes.

Emigration document (1923)Original Source: Italian American Collection at the Heinz History Center

While some expressed their disdain for Italian immigrants, no restrictions existed on how many could enter the country until 1921. Two immigration acts—the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924—placed restrictions on immigrants entering the United States. Limitations were determined by the National Origins Formula, a policy in use from 1921 through 1965 as a means of curtailing the number of unskilled laborers migrating from Southern and Eastern Europe.  

Child's Blouse (c. 1905)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The trip to North America took an average of 10 days by steamship and a majority of immigrants traveled as third-class passengers. From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island after a harrowing journey across the Atlantic Ocean. The image of the disheveled peasant remains a historical stereotype. In reality, migrants put effort into looking their best upon arrival as evident by this child’s blouse. Almost one third of Americans trace their family story through this historic port of entry.

Miner's helmet (c. 1948)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

The promise of work attracted hundreds of thousands of migrants to the Northwest. Between the coal mines, coke ovens, steel mills, and railroads, Western Pennsylvania was home to an industrial complex in need of able-bodied men. This miner’s helmet was damaged when Richard Furgiuele was driving a cart for the Redlands Coal Company in Indiana County; his head became lodged between the mine’s ceiling and his vehicle’s steering wheel. It took mine safety rescue workers more than an hour to free him. 

Midwife records (1911)Original Source: Italian American Collection at the Heinz History Center

During the period of New Immigration, Italian men worked in the United States earning money to bring their families to America. It was common for  women  to stay in Italy raising children and caring for elderly relatives.  A decade may seem extreme, but  in this  era, it wasn’t unusual  for families to be separated for long periods of time.  Many women  found ways to supplement the household income by taking in piece work or laundry, running a boarding house, or teaching lessons in the home.  Maria Bertolino worked as a midwife in Westmoreland County.

Railroad shop sign (1910s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Language played a big role in the stratification of industrial jobs and laborers were often placed in departments based on nationality. In some cases, discrimination kept individuals from certain ethnic or religious groups from even applying for jobs. This sign from Carnegie Steel Company was found in a locomotive repair shop. The word for “danger” is written in five languages: English, Italian, Hungarian, Slovak, and Serbo-Croatian. The sign warns workers to beware of hazards in the workplace.

Vimco PastaOriginal Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Almost as soon as Italian migrants moved into Western Pennsylvania, they established businesses to service the growing community. This action rooted Italian immigrants in the region in a more permanent way. A few grew their small businesses into large companies, and most earned more than they had in Italy. Viviano Macaroni Company is one example of such companies. It was once one of the nation’s largest macaroni factories, manufacturing approximately 100,000 pounds of noodles per day. This feat earned its owner Salvatore Viviano, an immigrant from Sicily, the nickname “Spaghetti King.”

Olive oil canister (1960s) by Pennsylvania Macaroni CompanyOriginal Source: Italian American Collection at the Heinz History Center

When Italian immigrants began migrating in large numbers to the United States, American taste was different than it is today. Ingredients used in Italian cooking—tomatoes, eggplants, garlic, zucchini—weren’t foods Americans had been exposed to. And Italian migrants, who were used to staples found in arid Mediterranean climates such as olives, grapes, citrus fruits, and by-products from goats and sheep, found American cuisine unpalatable. Savvy businesses like Pennsylvania Macaroni imported olive oil and packaged it with their branding.

Maria Santissima Incoronata di Foggia (1920s)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

One of the main sources of support for Italian immigrants the United States was the Catholic Church. In Western Pennsylvania, the Catholic Diocese responded by opening parishes catering to Italian-speaking migrants as barriers prevented them from finding a place within churches established by regional Irish and German communities. In the Italian Catholic tradition, veneration of saints is a common practice. Feast days may include special foods or traditions, including attending Mass in the morning and participating in a procession with the saint’s statue. 

Beneficial Society of North Italy (1946)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

Chain migration, a phenomenon that occurs when migrants attract others from their homeland, was rampant in Western Pennsylvania. Because regionalism defined identity in post-unification Italy, Italian immigrants settled in areas where they could live alongside other paesani (Italian for countrymen). Community resources offered support that was instrumental in helping newcomers settle and assimilate. The Beneficial Society of North Italy’s building was in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Created in 1930, the club was for  immigrants from northern Italian regions, such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Veneto, Lombardy, and Piedmont. 

Del's bar sign (1990s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

Italian dishes influenced American cuisine and foods such as pasta, pizza, and lasagna made it onto the tables of families without Italian heritage. Likewise, American abundance changed how Italian American families made recipes inherited from Italian ancestors. After World War II, it was clear that Americans of Italian origin had developed a new style of cuisine. Del’s Ristorante and Bar began as a grocery store at Larimer Avenue and Meadow Street in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. After the DelPizzo family sold their East Liberty restaurant in 1949, they open their location on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.

Sicilian dance costume (1980s)Original Source: Heinz History Center Museum Collections

By the second half of the 20th century, Italian Americans became one of the nation’s largest ethnic groups, and their impact on the region’s political, economic, religious, and cultural landscapes could not be disputed. I Campagnoli was a folk troupe sponsored by the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA). Less focused on campanilismo than the mutual aid societies of the first half of the century, the ISDA promoted pan-Italian culture. The group formed in 1964 during the ethnic folk revival in the United States. Their repertoire included Neapolitan love songs, Southern tarantellas, Eastern European-influenced mazurkas, Sardinian sword dances, and other examples from all corners of Italy.

Franco's Italian Army (1972)Original Source: Detre Library & Archives at the Heinz History Center

By the time of the ethnic revival in the United States, the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants were into the third (and sometimes fourth) generation in America. Organized during a time when ethnic pride was on the rise in the region, Franco’s Italian Army was formed. This Pittsburgh Steelers fan group began with a group of second and third  generation Italian Americans descended from Spigno Saturnia in the region of Lazio.  In the 1970s, they cheered on rookie running back Franco Harris, son of an African American solider and Italian war bride.

Credits: Story

These stories have been taken from the book, Highlights from the Italian American Collection, by Melissa E. Marinaro, Director of the Italian American Program at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Learn more about the Italian American Program at the History Center.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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