Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

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Italian Immigrants in New York in the 1890s 

And Mulberry Bend


Hyphenated- Italians

RB and GP

NYC: 1900




Italian Immigrant 'Haves' and 'Have-nots"

Poverty was a relative term...

Skilled Farm Laborers


Naturalists and Inventors, Designers and Artists

Luigi Palma di Cesnola, Soldier, Diplomat, Archeologist

First Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Poor Italians in New York

Mulberry Bend

Lodging Houses

Tenement Buildings

The "Padrone"

Waste Disposal as an Italian Trade

Gambling and Own-Justice

Italian Immigrants as Opposed to Others

Stale-Beer Dives

From Slum to Paradise Park

Social Climbing


Italian Immigrant 'Haves' and 'Have-nots"

There were two classes of Italian immigrants to the U.S. in the 1800s:  

  • the educated and skilled, 
  • and the uneducated and unskilled.

If you were skilled, educated, multilingual, cultured and had a financial cushion, you could generally take up a relatively good position in American society.

If you were unskilled, illiterate, uncultured, and poor, you usually fell into the same situation in the U.S. that you had left behind, which was a life of poverty in a slum.

(The image to the right is of Aldolfo Baldizzi, an Italian immigrant to New York.  You can learn more about him and his family's life in a New York tenement at the Tenement Museum site.)


Two Italian immigrant women from circa 1906 who arrived at Ellis Island


Poverty was a relative term...

However, the idea that U.S. streets were "paved with gold" was not entirely wrong for even the poor immigrants.  There were many things that made poverty in the U.S. better than poverty in newly-unified Italy, and lead to many poor Italian immigrants emerging from poverty into the middle classes and beyond.

  • A robust economy, with dips, but generally much more vibrant than Italy's landed economy
  • Active charitable organizations that worked to better the immigrant's situation 
  • Active government intervention to better the immigrant's situation
  • State-sponsored education for children and adults
  • Land for purchase, unlike in Italy where the land was controlled by the landed-aristocracy
  • More space to move around in to find work, a community, a new home


Skilled Farm Laborers

Skilled farm laborers often moved to farming communities already settled by Italian immigrants from the previous waves of immigrants.  This was especially true of immigrants from Liguria who joined communities in California's farming communities.  Once there, they earned a living, sent their children to local schools, some set up small businesses, and acted as a support network for later arrivals, both relations and village compatriots.



One "industry" that had it's roots in Italy became a famous business for some Italian immigrants:  banking.  Experienced, multi-lingual bankers joined the ranks of  the investment houses in New York and San Francisco.  A. P. Gianninni set up shop in San Francisco, establishing The Bank of Italy, later to become The Bank of America.  Mr. Gianninni's bank was instrumental in the reconstruction of San Francisco after the catastrophic earthquake and fire of 1906.

Another famous Italian banker who made a fortune in the U.S. was Egisto P. Fabbri (pictured right).  He invested in shipping, and later became an associate of J. P. Morgan's investment house/bank in New York.  He was one of the 'new wealthy' who joined together to form the New York Metropolitan Opera as an alternative to the more selective 'old wealthy' Academy of the Arts concert hall.

His brother Ernesto (pictured below) was also an immigrant to the U.S., marrying a Dutch-American from New York, Sara Randall, from the distinguished Knickerbocker community, and excelling in banking and business. 

When Ernesto died young, Egisto took responsibility for the widow and the eight children, sending them back to Italy, to a life of luxury in Florence, but the boys eventually returned to the U.S.  (Images of Palazzo Capponi, the family home at that time, and today as a stupendous venue for events in Florence.)

One of those five children, also named Ernesto,  married another famous New Yorker, Edith Shepard, the great-grand-daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad billionaire. 

Ernesto joined his uncle in the banking industry in New York, lived in the house pictured here, which was a wedding gift from his mother-in-law, and eventually became the president of the Society of Italian Immigrants in New York.


Naturalists and Inventors, Designers and Artists

Two of Ernesto's brothers also emigrated back to the U.S.  

Alessandro Fabbri became a noted naturalist and inventor, most famously backing Giulielmo Marconi's work with radio waves.  

Egisto Fabbri (pictured left) became a noted artist, art collector, designer and architect.  His most famous work in New York city, pictured right, is now called the House of the Redeemer and it's Renaissance Revival decor can be visited and admired, and even used as the setting for special events.

(Thanks to Emily Randall for the images and wonderful research on the site about Jonas Randall and his Descendants (the Fabbris appear about a 1/4 of the way down the page).  There are also some special pages about the Fabbris.  Family of Ernesto and Egisto Fabbri Egisto Fabbri, Artist and Architect Family of Ernesto Fabbri and Sara Ann Randall Palazzo CapponiGrazie mille!)


General Luigi Palma di Cesnola, Soldier, Diplomat, Archeologist

Perhaps one of the most distinguished Italian immigrants of that period was General Luigi Palma di Cesnola.  

After an army career in Europe, Mr. di Cesnola emigrated to New York.  There he taught French and English, and set up a school for army officers.  

At the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War, Mr. di Cesnola fought valiantly for the Union forces as an officer, suffering a spell as a prisoner of war, but returning to duty to fight on, ending his career as a Brigadier-General and being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conspicuous military service.

General di Cesnola was then rewarded with a U.S. consul position in Cyprus, where became an amateur archeologist, as all archeologists were at the time.  

He expertly excavated the largest collection of Cyprian antiquities ever put together by one man.  He sold the collection to the newly established Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and became the museum's first director

His brother, Alessandro Palma di Cesnola was also an archeologist, and also served in the U.S. diplomatic corps with distinction.


First Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

There's an interesting story about General di Cesnola when he was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1897.  Muck-raking journalists, as investigative journalists were called at the time, exposed an elitist entrance policy at the new museum.  Only well-dressed white people were allowed entry by the guards at the front doors.  

In response, varying statements came from guards, Met policemen, and museum committee members about who should be allowed into the museum and who should be excluded:

  • only let in those clean and properly dressed
  • only let in those with clothes on, whether poor or not
  • not let in men in overalls or shirtsleeves, or women with a shawls on their heads
  • let in anyone dressed as if going to church
  • let in anyone who conducts himself in an orderly manner irregardless of dress
  • and one confirmed bigot who ran the front door said they shouldn't let in any black people.

This view of the Met is from 1895.

When the matter landed on General di Cesnola's desk, he agreed that people should be dressed respectfully as if going to church, and should behave well or they would be asked to leave.  He did not support excluding the poor or blacks as a ruleAnd the idea that women with shawls over their heads should be excluded, especially roused him because that would exclude many Italian immigrant women.

"Why, there are dozens of Italian women to be seen here every Sunday with shawls over their heads, and dirty shawls at that.  You can see all sorts of ragamuffins here.  We don't want to exclude the poor, but we reserve to ourselves the right to make any rules that we think necessary to protect the public."


Poor Italians in New York

Sadly, the vast majority of Italian immigrants who remained in New York City were poor and lived in appalling conditions.  

Mr. Jacob Riis (pronounced Reese, pictured right) a poor immigrant from Denmark, first learned English to a level that allowed him to become a journalist, and then exposed those conditions, and orchestrated programs to improve conditions for all the poor in New York City. 

The terrible slums in New York at this time were not the result of a conspiracy against foreigners or the poor, but a result of explosive population growth in a city ill-prepared for it, and poorly run by a corrupt local government.  Three quarters of all people living in New York City in the 1890s lived in tenement buildings because there was no place else to live.

In 1812, New York City's population was a mere 150,000.  By 1889, the city's population was estimated at 1.5 million but already in 1890 it was reaching 2 million.  From 1880 to 1890 the entire U.S. population doubled due to immigration from 37 million to 75 million.  Over 5 million immigrants had landed in New York in a space of 20 years, from 1869 to 1889, and that's only counting the immigrants from outside of the U.S.  Many stopped in New York City before moving on.  The majority of the immigrants from abroad came from Germany and Ireland, but large numbers came from Scandinavia, Spain, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, China, Arab countries, and Italy.  

Many internal immigrants came to New York City from the southern states as freed slaves, and there were many bankrupted farmers and out-of-work farm laborers from the mid-west.  

Here are some of Mr. Riis's observations from his books (How the Other Half Lives from 1890 and  The Battle of the Slum from 1892) and some of his famous photographic images from that era (also at the Masters of Photography site).  These excerpts I've collected together concern the Italian immigrants in New York City.  I've supplied other images too, and put sources so you can research this further, if you wish to.

Italian immigrants in New York tended to congregate in two areas of similar dilapidation:  

  • The Bend (or Mulberry Bend) and  

  • 'Little Italy' in Harlem.


Mulberry Bend

Mulberry Bend, where Mulberry Street turned, now Columbus Park, was an Italian immigrant enclave in the late 1800s, the remnants of which can still be found today.

This amazing view of The Bend, after it was turned into Mulberry Park in 1897, is from a drawing of New York City from circa 1900, found on-line at the Library of Congress site.  You can zoom into the image to see the incredible detail, including elevated railway tracks, street tracks of horse and steam drawn trams, tenements, rear tenements (built in the former gardens), bridges, even building facades.

“The Five Points had been cleansed, as far as the immediate neighborhood was concerned, but the Mulberry Street Bend was fast outdoing it in foulness not a stone's throw away, and new centres of corruption were continually springing up and getting the upper hand whenever vigilance was relaxed for ever so short a time.  It is one of the curses of the tenement-house system that the worst houses exercise a levelling influence upon all the rest, just as one bad boy in a schoolroom will spoil the whole class.”


Lodging Houses


A lodging house 'bed'; and people lined up waiting for the Mulberry Street Police Station lodging house to open for the evening.

 “…a midnight inspection in Mulberry Street unearths a hundred and fifty "lodgers" sleeping on filthy floors in two buildings.  In spite of brown-stone trimmings, plate-glass and mosaic vestibule floors, the water does not rise in summer to the second story, while the beer flows unchecked to the all-night picnics on the roof.  The saloon with the side-door and the landlord divide the prosperity of the place between them, and the tenant, in sullen submission, foots the bills.”


Tenement Buildings

The earliest tenements (multiple-family dwellings) were family homes divided up into separate living units.  Later additions were the rear-tenements built in the family-home gardens.  In the images above, you can see the space that would normally be garden space, is completely built in with irregular buildings, added later, to capitalize on the housing shortage in the city.

Eventually purpose-built buildings were erected where homes had been torn down, or on any cheap land a builder could find, even land he didn't own!  By 1900 tenement had been built all over Manhattan island, along the rivers, up through Harlem, to the city line and beyond.  And reformers' early dreams of wide open spaces in suburbia died a quick death when tenements were built throughout fast-growing Brooklyn.

After much suffering on the part of the tenants, finally city officials legislated health and safety rules to save lives in these death traps.  Thousands died each year from epidemics, heat exhaustion, fire, suffocation...


The space allowed by law between the backs of tenements, from which tenants got their 'fresh' air and 'light', was barely 10 feet.  Then as now in New York, the higher the apartment, the higher the rent.  You must pay extra for 'air' and 'light'.  This often meant an 8 story walk-up.  Men, women and children died every summer by rolling off the rooftops in their sleep, where they took refuge in the sweltering heat.


The Padrone

“Recent Congressional inquiries have shown the nature of the "assistance" he (ed. the Italian immigrant) receives from greedy steamship agents and "bankers," who persuade him by false promises to mortgage his home, his few belongings, and his wages for months to come for a ticket to the land where plenty of work is to be had at princely wages."

"The padrone--the "banker," is nothing else--having made his ten per cent out of him en route, receives him at the landing and turns him to double account as a wage-earner and a rent-payer.  In each of these roles he is made to yield a profit to his unscrupulous countryman, whom he trusts implicitly with the instinct of utter helplessness." 

"The man is so ignorant that, as one of the sharpers who prey upon him put it once, it "would be downright sinful not to take him in."  His ignorance and unconquerable suspicion of strangers dig the pit into which he falls.  He not only knows no word of English, but he does not know enough to learn.  Rarely only can he write his own language.”

Sheds built of scraps of wood, homes for extended families, as seen above.  You could pay a dollar a month per adult to sleep there, or 5 cents got you a place to sleep on the floor, at any time of day or night.  A roof-top where people went to get light and air.

Poor English skills make them vulnerable:  “the Italian learns slowly, if at all. Even his boy, born here, often speaks his native tongue indifferently.  He is forced, therefore, to have constant recourse to the middle-man, who makes him pay handsomely at every turn.  He hires him out to the railroad contractor, receiving a commission from the employer as well as from the laborer, and repeats the performance monthly, or as often as he can have him dismissed. In the city he contracts for his lodging, subletting to him space in the vilest tenements at extortionate rents, and sets an example that does not lack imitators."

"The "princely wages" have vanished with his coming, and in their place hardships and a dollar a day, beheft with the padrone's merciless mortgage, confront him.  Bred to even worse fare, he takes both as a matter of course, and, applying the maxim that it is not what one makes but what he saves that makes him rich, manages to turn the very dirt of the streets into a hoard of gold, with which he either returns to his Southern home, or brings over his family to join in his work and in his fortunes the next season.”


Waste Disposal as an Italian Trade

Italian 'rag-pickers' with their pickings, in their 'homes'.

“The discovery was made by earlier explorers that there is money in New York's ash-barrel (ed. this is a garbage container of sorts that sat on the sidewalks, in which people dumped the remains from their stoves, really all their burned up garbage), but it was left to the genius of the padrone to develop the full resources of the mine that has become the exclusive preserve of the Italian immigrant."  

"Only a few years ago, when rag­picking was carried on in a desultory and irresponsible sort of way, the city hired gangs of men to trim the ash-scows before they were sent out to sea.  The trimming consisted in levelling out the dirt as it was dumped from the carts, so that the scow might be evenly loaded.  The men were paid a dollar and a half a day, kept what they found that was worth having, and allowed the swarms of Italians who hung about the dumps to do the heavy work for them, letting them have their pick of the loads for their trouble."

"To-day Italians contract for the work, paying large sums to be permitted to do it.  The city received not less than $80,000 last year for the sale of this privilege to the contractors, who in addition have to pay gangs of their countrymen for sorting out the bones, rags tin cans and other waste that are found in the ashes and form the staples of their trade and their sources of revenue." 

An Italian woman 'rag-picker' in her living space, with her packs of junk, few possessions including her straw hat hung on the wall behind her, and a child in her lap.

"The effect has been vastly to increase the power of the padrone, or his ally, the contractor, by giving him exclusive control of the one industry in which the Italian was formerly independent "dealer," and reducing him literally to the plane of the dump.  Whenever the back of the sanitary police is turned, he will make his home in the filthy burrows where he works by day, sleeping and eating his meals under the dump, on the edge of slimy depths and amid surroundings full of unutterable horror." 

"The city did not bargain to house, though it is content to board him so long as he can make the ash-barrels yield the food to keep him alive, and a vigorous campaign is carried on at intervals against these unlicensed dump settlements; but the temptation of having to pay no rent is too strong, and they are driven from one dump only to find lodgement under another a few blocks farther up or down the river.  The fiercest warfare is waged over the patronage of the dumps by rival factions represented by opposing contractors”


Gambling and Own-Justice

Tenements off the street were often constructed of timber on un-sound foundations.  This is a view of barely-standing wooden rear-tenements in The Bend.

“Ordinarily he is easily enough governed by authority--always excepting Sunday, when he settles down to a game of cards and lets loose all his bad passions.  Like the Chinese, the Italian is a born gambler.  His soul is in the game from the moment the cards are on the table, and very frequently his knife is in it too before the game is ended."

"No Sunday has passed in New York since "the Bend" became a suburb of Naples without one or more of these murderous affrays coming to the notice of the police.  As a rule that happens only when the man the game went against is either dead or so badly wounded as to require instant surgical help.  As to the other, unless he be caught red-handed, the chances that the police will ever get him are slim indeed.  The wounded man can seldom be persuaded to betray him.  He wards off all inquiries with a wicked "I fix him myself," and there the matter rests until he either dies or recovers.  If the latter, the community hears after a while of another Italian affray, a man stabbed in a quarrel, dead or dying, and the police know that "he" has been fixed, and the account squared.”


Italian Immigrants as Opposed to Other Immigrants

Children of Italian immigrants playing on a coal 'slide'.  The streets were their play-ground until Mulberry Park was built, and later a children's play-ground added to it.  The second image is of children on Mulberry street sleeping outdoors because of the heat indoors.

A school principle working near The Bend, hoped to fight the annual epidemics by having his teachers begin each school day with the children responding to this question: "What must I do to be healthy?".  The children were to respond with what was nearly impossible for them at that time:  "I must keep my skin clean, wear clean clothes, breathe pure air, and live in the sunlight."

“Italian immigrant has his redeeming traits.  He is as honest as he is hot-headed.  There are no Italian burglars in the Rogues' Gallery; the ex-brigand toils peacefully with pickaxe and shovel on American ground.  His boy occasionally shows, as a pick-pocket, the results of his training with the toughs of the Sixth Ward slums."

"The only criminal business to which the father occasionally lends his hand, outside of murder, is a bunco game, of which his confiding countrymen, returning with their hoard to their native land, are the victims."

"The women are faithful wives and devoted mothers.  Their vivid and picturesque costumes lend a tinge of color to the otherwise dull monotony of the slums they inhabit.  The Italian is gay, lighthearted and, if his fur is not stroked the wrong way, inoffensive as a child.  His worst offense is that he keeps the stale-beer dives.  Where his headquarters is, in the Mulberry Street Bend, these vile dens flourish and gather about them all the wrecks, the utterly wretched, the hopelessly lost, on the lowest slope of depraved humanity.  And out of their misery he makes a profit.”


Stale-Beer Dives

 “…the stale-beer dive, is known about "the Bend" by the more dignified name of the two-cent restaurant. Usually, as in this instance, it is in some cellar giving on a back alley.  Doctored, unlicensed beer is its chief ware.  Sometimes a cup of "coffee" and a stale roll may be had for two cents.  The men pay the score.  To the women--unutterable horror of the suggestion--the place is free."

"The beer is collected from the kegs put on the sidewalk by the saloon-keeper to await the brewer's cart, and is touched up with drugs to put a froth on it.  The privilege to sit all night on a chair, or sleep on a table, or in a barrel, goes with each round of drinks.  Generally an Italian, sometimes a negro, occasionally a woman, "runs" the dive."


A back alley off which many stale-beer dives could be found in the cellar rooms, and a cellar room with women and men drinking stale-beer.

"Their customers, alike homeless and hopeless in their utter wretchedness, are the professional tramps, and these only... Repulsive as the business is, its profits to the Italian dive-keeper are considerable; in fact, barring a slight outlay in the ingredients that serve to give "life" to the beer-dregs, it is all profit."

"The "banker" who curses the Italian colony does not despise taking a hand in it, and such a thing as a stale-beer trust on a Mulberry Street scale may yet be among the possibilities.  One of these bankers, who was once known to the police as the keeper of one notorious stale-beer dive and the active backer of others, is to-day an extensive manufacturer of macaroni, the owner of several big tenements and other real estate; and the capital, it is said, has all come out of his old business.” 


From Slum to Paradise Park



Mulberry Bend Park opened in 1897.  (These images of before and after are from the Library of Congress Site.  Click on the image to go to the corresponding map.)  Also called variously over the years:  Five Points Park, Paradise Park, and now Columbus Park.  It is now under renovation.  Parks were off limits to the poor until Riis's campaign to build more of them right in the worst areas.  He campaigned for years to get the horrible, un-fixable, tenements of Mulberry Bend torn down and this park put in their place, to provide some green, some light, some air to the families living there.

“I came upon a couple of youngsters in a Mulberry Street yard a while ago that were chalking on the fence their first lesson in "writin'."  And this is what they wrote: "Keeb of te Grass."  They had it by heart, for there was not, I verily believe, a green sod within a quarter of a mile.  Home to them is an empty name. "

"A gentleman once catechized a ragged class in a down-town public school on this point, and recorded the result: Out of forty-eight boys twenty had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge that was scarcely five minutes' walk away, three only had been in Central Park, fifteen had known the joy of a ride in a horse-car.  The street, with its ash-barrels and its dirt, the river that runs foul with mud, are their domain.”

“As the green dies out of the landscape and increases in political importance, the police find more to do. Where it disappears altogether from sight, lapsing into a mere sentiment, police-beats are shortened and the force patrols double at night. Neither the man nor the sentiment is wholly responsible for this. It is the tenement unadorned that is."

"The changing of Tompkins Square from a sand lot into a beautiful park put an end for good and all to the Bread and Blood riots of which it used to be the scene, and transformed a nest of dangerous agitators into a harmless, beer-craving band of Anarchists.  They have scarcely been heard of since.  Opponents of the small parks system as a means of relieving the congested population of tenement districts, please take note.”

These two images from Earth-orbiting satellites show Columbus Park today (former Mulberry Bend Park).  The image on the right has added outlines of all the buildings next to the park, to show that the housing shortage in New York is just as chronic as it was a century ago.  The spaces between the buildings are required by law for light and air, otherwise they would surely be built up as well.  

The biggest difference between then and now, is indoor plumbing.  A century ago, outdoor water-closets were located in the alleys and courtyards around buildings, and a fire-hydrant served as the only water source for most tenements.  And to make it all worse, animals were often stabled in the same courtyards and alleys, adding to the rancid smells that wafted up the light and air shafts.  A special law had to be passed to stop people housing pigs in the city and letting them 'graze' freely on the street trash.


Social Climbing

Unlike many others during his time, Mr. Riis believed that moral citizens, given a chance to improve their lives, will take that chance and rise out of poverty into the middle class.  He insisted that organized, systematic charity, sponsored by private wealth, together with strict laws setting high standards for decent living conditions and outlawing exploitation could work miracles in slum areas.  He saw much of that happen in his lifetime, as a direct result of his efforts.

“Such an impulse toward better things there certainly is.  The German rag-picker of thirty years ago, quite as low in the scale as his Italian successor, is the thrifty tradesman or prosperous farmer of to-day.  The Italian scavenger of our time is fast graduating into exclusive control of the corner fruit-stands, while his black-eyed boy monopolizes the boot-blacking industry in which a few years ago he was an intruder.”  

This is a beautiful tribute via YouTube to Jacob Riis's haunting photographs of turn-of-the-century New York City.  My only suggestion would be to let the images remain on the screen longer for better reflection of the amazing contents of each frame.



Here's a link to an audio file of a jazz number at the Internet Archive, from 1919 called 'Night Time in Little Italy' by the Frisco Jazz Band.  This instrumental jazzes up Italian popular music classics like 'Torna al Sorriento'.  It's fast, fresh, funny, and a ball to listen to!  Show how Italian immigrant culture could blend into the perfectly American culture of jazz.

Here's a mystery novel is set in Mulberry Bend at the turn of the last century.  Novels are good ways to bring history to life, and so are these books on social history.


More immigrant experience books on my Non-Fiction page


Visit my Enrico Caruso, Gigli, Tetrazzini page

Visit my Photo Tours of Italy page

See two views of NYC from 1885 and 1905