Becoming American

In the 19th and 20th centuries, millions of people from nations around the world made the remarkable decision to leave their homes and travel to another country, in search of a better life.  Many came from Italy and settled in the United States, developing a legacy of Italian influence on American culture that transcends the struggle that so many went through to achieve equality and success.

There were three main forces for the mass migration to America, for not just Italians, but people of all nations- religious persecution, political oppression, and economic hardship. It is nearly impossible to relate the overwhelming circumstances to the experience of one immigrant, or even of one family. Even though more than 12 million people passed through the gates of Ellis Island, each came through one at a time, and should be remembered as the individuals they were.

Italians began immigrating to the United States as early as the 1760s, some even fighting in the American Revolutionary War. Over the next hundred years, hundreds of thousands came, and from the 1880s to the outbreak of World War I, millions emigrated to the U.S. Most settled in the industrial East and Midwest, in cities of all sizes. The first Italian immigrants to arrive in America were from northern Italy. A few settled during the colonial period, but increasing numbers of northern Italians arrived after 1820. The discovery of gold in 1848 made America more attractive, as did Italy’s political unrest in the 1870s.

The largest wave of Italian immigration was between 1890 and 1917. An estimated 13 million people left the country, making Italy the scene of the largest voluntary emigration in recorded world history. Four million Italian immigrants arrived in the United States, the majority from 1900 to 1914. Some did not remain, having intended to stay for a limited time, returning to Italy with enough savings to re-establish themselves there.

The Journey to America

Obtaining a ticket for the steamship journey was easy, as steerage tickets were sold without space reservations. Principal shipping lines had hundreds of agencies in the U.S. and freelance ticket agents traveled throughout parts of Europe, moving from village to village, selling tickets. After 1900, in addition to a ticket, immigrants had to secure a passport from their home country.

In the same period the American economy prospered and a class of wealthy Americans began to travel in luxury. Steamship companies designed their finest accommodations with these passengers in mind. High style and society made ocean liners famous, but the ships relied on the immigrant trade as their main source of income into the 1920s.
Rich and poor crossed the ocean just a few decks apart.

For many, just getting to the port was a major journey, traveling by train, wagon, donkey, or even by foot. Sometimes travelers would have to wait for days or weeks at the port, either for their paperwork to be completed or for their ship to arrive because train schedules were not coordinated with sailing dates.