Merchants, Midwives, and Laboring Women: Italian Migrants in Urban America

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Diane C. Vecchio's unique study challenges long-held patriarchal assumptions about Italian women's work in the United States by considering the work experiences of Italian immigrant women and their daughters in the previously unexamined regions of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Endicott, New York, during the turn of the twentieth century. Using Italian and American sources and rich oral histories, this study reveals that women in Italy had economic responsibilities that often included work experiences outside of the home, including positions as midwives and businesswomen.
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Merchants, Midwives, and Laboring Women

Italian Migrants in Urban America


Copyright © 2006 Diane C. Vecchio
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-252-03039-7

Chapter One

Encountering America

IN 1900, sixteen-year-old Catherine D'Aquisto left her family in Porticello, Sicily, for the United States, where she joined an older sister, who offered her a job in her New York bakery. Several years later, another sister called for her, and Catherine left New York for Milwaukee, where she eventually married, raised eight children, and operated a grocery store. In 1908, Amelia Bertoni, who initially immigrated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, was urged by a cousin to relocate to Endicott. Her cousin helped her get a job at Endicott Johnson, where she worked for the next twelve years.

Catherine D'Aquisto and Amelia Bertoni, similar to other immigrants, both male and female, were called to America by relatives who had established themselves earlier. Immigrants relied on personal contacts and communications with friends and relatives, a process of social networking, according to Sam Baily, that often began in the village of origin and continued outward with migration and incorporation into the host society.

Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women increasingly made up a larger proportion of Italian immigrants. From 1891 to 1900, 22.8 percent of all Italian immigrants were women, a percentage that increased to 39.4 between 1921 and 1930. The majority of Italian female migrants destined for Endicott and Milwaukee immigrated in family groups, but some women immigrated alone to join relatives already in the United States or to rejoin husbands who had immigrated earlier. While most immigrant women's employment represented familial obligation, it would be unwise to conclude that women worked only because economic realities forced them to do so or that women who worked outside the home took no enjoyment in their work experiences.

Undoubtedly, Italian families met harsh economic realities after settling in the United States. Rarely did an individual man or woman earn enough money to provide even a modest standard of living. The Dillingham Commission noted that in 1900, 33.2 percent of first-generation Italian males were laborers, the highest percentage of general laborers for any class of immigrants. These were often seasonal, low-paid street and municipal jobs. Recently arrived immigrants also had prior debts, the cost of passage, and commitments of financial aid to family members remaining in Italy. Even in prosperous periods, writes Alice Kessler-Harris, where one person's income could buy the family's bare necessities, the household relied on the contributions of other members in order to save for a small plot of land or a home.

Italian migrant women, whether single or married with children, employed several strategies to support themselves and their families. These strategies were based, in large part, on the specific environment in which Italians lived. The economic structures of Endicott and Milwaukee at the turn of the twentieth century provided a sharp contrast in opportunities for women's work that ultimately helped shape gender ideologies central to Italian family life.

Economic Opportunities in Endicott and Milwaukee

The economic development of Endicott at the turn of the twentieth century was deeply tied to the evolution of the Triple Cities, composed of Binghamton, Endicott, and Johnson City in Broome County, New York. During the late nineteenth century, two of the largest industries that evolved in Binghamton were the cigar and shoe industries. Both were based upon large-scale production for the national market. However, unlike Milwaukee, a city dominated by heavy industry, Binghamton and the rest of Broome County would be characterized by a variety of light-industrial enterprises. The county's expanding economy attracted European immigrants as well as migrants from rural areas to work in cigar making, in tanneries, and in shoe factories.

Cigar making became the largest industry during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Nearly one-third of all manufacturing workers were employed in that industry, most of them working in factories that employed more than one hundred people. The cigar industry mostly employed low-paid, unskilled, relatively young migrants from the countryside and, later, foreign immigrants from Ireland and eastern and southern Europe, the majority of whom were females (by 1890, women already comprised 40 percent of the labor force in the cigar industry). However, cigar making declined somewhat at the end of the century, and its leading role in the local economy was replaced by shoemaking.

Mass-production shoemaking signaled an important event in the economic history of Broome County: the establishment of the Endicott Johnson Company, which was to become the largest industry with the greatest number of foreign-born factory operatives in upstate New York. Its history dates to 1854, with the founding of the Lester Brothers Company in Binghamton. In 1888, after continual growth, the company president made plans to expand the shoe business outside the city limits, where the land was parceled and laid out as a village named Lestershire. He also arranged for a well-publicized land auction to attract both shoe workers and investors.

As Lester's business grew, it changed from a family business into a stock company and was reorganized as the Lestershire Boot and Shoe Company. In 1893, the company was reorganized again under the ownership of Henry B. Endicott, a major stockholder. George F. Johnson, a young man who had been the factory's assistant superintendent since 1887, became the new manager of the firm, and in 1900 Johnson became Endicott's partner.

Johnson began to formulate plans for dramatic growth, and in 1901 the company expanded into a nearby rural area located on the north shore of the Susquehanna River, about nine miles west of the city of Binghamton. By mid-1901, the quiet lumbering and farming area developed into an industrial community named Endicott.

In 1902, the Lestershire Boot and Shoe Company was renamed the Endicott Johnson Company and began expanding into the retail sales trade, opening more than a dozen stores throughout upstate New York. Promotional literature emphasized business opportunities and the advantages of locating in Endicott, citing the proximity of the Erie Railroad, with its new passenger and freight depots, and providing pictures of sample houses for working-class and middle-class buyers, described as "comfortable cottages."

Endicott Johnson grew into one of the world's largest shoe companies and the village's largest employer. In fact, between 1900 and World War I, there was constant growth in the company. The construction of the chrome tannery, the upper leather beam house and hide building, the pioneer annex, and the heeling and trimming factories brought hundreds of new workers and their families to Endicott. With massive plant expansion and the influx of thousands of workers, George F. Johnson embarked on a program of corporate welfare in an effort to ameliorate the problems associated with industrial growth. While Johnson's welfare philosophy was similar to that practiced by other Northern corporations and Southern mill owners, Endicott would not become a company town like Ford's or a "mill village" like those found in the textile-producing areas of the Piedmont in North and South Carolina. The Endicott Johnson Corporation, while the largest employer in Endicott, would not be the only employer in Endicott. While it remained a small town dominated by the shoe industry, Endicott would eventually become home to many small businesses and several other firms, including IBM.

The complex industrial life of Milwaukee provides a sharp contrast to the small village of Endicott, a community that was dominated by a single industry at the turn of the century. Nonetheless, Milwaukee and Endicott both experienced at least one important demographic trend in common: they attracted large numbers of European immigrants, among them, Italians.

Italians migrating to Milwaukee at the turn of the century entered an industrial stronghold and a center of commercial capital. Located on one of the largest of the Great Lakes, Milwaukee had two resources that contributed to its development as a major Midwestern port city: the largest bay and the deepest river on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

First settled by Yankee pioneers in the 1830s, the city's population reached six thousand in 1843, four years after the arrival of its first major European immigrants: "Old Lutheran" Germans. Drawn by location and cheap land, German immigrants shaped the city of Milwaukee, making it what one historian calls "the most German City in the most German State in America."

Other Europeans settled in Milwaukee, but no other single group approached Germans in size or influence. By 1850, 64 percent of Milwaukee's population was of foreign birth, and nearly two-thirds of that number had been born in Germany. Irish immigrants comprised 15 percent of the city's population, and in addition Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, and Bohemians were calling Milwaukee home by mid-century.


Excerpted from Merchants, Midwives, and Laboring Women by DIANE C. VECCHIO Copyright © 2006 by Diane C. Vecchio. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Prologue : before the crossing 11
1 Encountering America 17
2 Gender, economic opportunities, and Italian women workers in Endicott 32
3 Gender, economic opportunities, and Italian businesswomen in Milwaukee 61
4 Female professionals in the immigrant community : Italian-trained midwives 84
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