Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven's Working Class, 1870-1940

Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven's Working Class, 1870-1940

by Stephen Lassonde

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300128901
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Stephen Lassonde is dean of Calhoun College and lecturer in history at Yale University.

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Schooling and Family Life in New Haven's Working Class, 1870-1940s
By Stephen Lassonde

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13433-9

Chapter One


The citizens of New Haven are familiar with the fact that the city is growing ... but many of them fail to realize how rapid and how profound these changes are likely to be in the near future.... Many of those now living will see the completion of the process by which it is being transformed from the pleasant little New England college town of the middle nineteenth century, with a population of relatively independent, individualistic and self-sufficing householders, into the widespread urban metropolis of the twentieth century, the citizens of which will be wholly dependent upon joint action for a very large proportion of the good things of civic life. -Cass Gilbert and Frederick Law Olmstead, "Report of the New Haven Civic Improvement Commission"

After the 1840s the composition of New Haven's neighborhoods changed almost continuously and kaleidoscopically. As the city's economy shifted from maritime and mercantile pursuits early in thenineteenth century to an industrial manufacturing base and the economic fortunes of its parts prospered, declined, and revived, property changed hands cyclically and routinely. The same pattern was repeated throughout the city in areas wherever manufacturing grew up under the stimulus of industrial capitalism: residential districts developed by the merchant class fell out of favor or were sold off piecemeal for industrial or commercial uses and, often, eventually working-class occupancy. The new economy transformed New Haven's neighborhoods in every direction: on Howard Avenue at the city's south end; to the north in Newhallville, where an early New Haven carriage factory flourished; and later, on the blocks surrounding the mammoth Winchester factory, along Oak Street and Legion Avenue; and around Wooster Square. One-family homes built by prosperous industrialists or more modest shopkeepers were eventually tendered to skilled workers and shop foremen as the upper and middle classes moved, by the end of the nineteenth century, toward the city's outer reaches or up Prospect Street or Whitney and Whalley Avenues. Many of the residences they left behind were partitioned and leased to fetch as much rent as the market would bear with the influx of rural and immigrant families into New Haven. Tenements as well as two- and three-family houses sprang up in parts of the city where industry attracted labor, followed by a demand for inexpensive housing.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the arrival of tens of thousands of people from Eastern and Southern Europe swelled New Haven's population. Between 1890 and 1920 the city's population nearly doubled, expanding from 86,000 to 162,000, largely as a result of the mass migration across the Atlantic to North and South America. And although New Haven's increase from midcentury to 1890 had been even more dramatic, quadrupling between 1830 and 1890, the provenance of immigrants to the city as it reached industrial maturity was decidedly non-Protestant and non-English speaking (see fig. 1.1).

Immigrants stepping off trains they had boarded in New York for New Haven could journey a mile and a half west, northwest, or south and find themselves surrounded by speakers of Croatian, German, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, and Yiddish, as well as the dialects of most of the regions of Italy. In clusters of settlements around the city they molded a multitude of communities out of the convulsive sprawl of iron, brick, grime, and soot they came to inhabit. In shanties, tenements, "deep lots," and cold-water flats German and Irish immigrants at mid-century were followed by Italians, Poles, Russian and Polish Jews, and "Slavs" from the 1880s to World War I. Each group in its turn sought to reconstruct the web of relations that had furnished whatever measure of security and comfort they had relied upon in the ancient towns from which they had emigrated.

The primary area of settlement for every immigrant group in New Haven since the mid-nineteenth century was the "Hill" district, which extends from the city's railroad terminal westward across Oak Street and Legion Avenue to the West River, where it juts sharply south toward City Point-New Haven harbor's western reach. Home to Union Station, the hinge of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the Hill's proximity to the city's major point of embarkation made its neighborhoods the likeliest first stop for peoples new to the city and its environs. German and Irish immigrants came before the rail. Indeed, Irish labor made later immigration and industrial expansion possible. Irish immigrant workers excavated the state's south-central section of the Farmington Canal with picks and shovels during the mid-1820s. After the canal failed, Irish workers were harnessed once again to construct the railroad beds, lay the track, and build the yards that linked the trains they carried to a vast continental network, a feat that signaled the birth during the 1840s and 1850s of the United States as a future industrial giant.

Although the Irish outnumbered all other immigrants until 1900, Italians were the largest (and poorest) of New Haven's new peoples by the time immigration effectively ceased in 1924. Two sections within the Hill's teeming triangle of people, commerce, and industry-the lower Hill and Oak Street-received many of the early Italian immigrants. The first Italians to take up residency in New Haven were from the northern and central provinces of Italy but prominently from the Marches, which lay just north and east of Rome. These "Marchigiani" settled in the southeastern section of the Hill toward the rail yards and the harbor in an area more prosperous than the Italian settlements that followed. Here a greater proportion of New Haven's Italians owned their own homes, and among them resided the community's most skilled craftsmen and earliest professionals.

Until the 1880s there were still relatively few Italians in the city. During that decade, however, a large group from Benevento, approaching about five hundred in all, had been drawn to New Haven to lay the expansion of railroad track between New York and New Haven. This group settled in the lower Hill, which also became home to compatriots from Caserta and Avellino-neighboring cities in Campania, the region around Naples. They moved in among lingering Irish immigrants and the first of the city's growing Russian Jewish population. This furnished the first influx of southerners to New Haven and foreshadowed a migration that would transform the city's complexion over the next three decades.

Before 1900 young Italian male migrant workers ("birds of passage" as they were known in the United States, because they returned to Italy's shores as frequently as they arrived in New York) were but a trickle of the immigrants arriving in New Haven in search of work after 1900. They sought to escape worsening economic conditions in southern Italy, many in the hope of returning to their native land one day, secure or even prosperous. This migratory pattern was not new, of course. The attempt to supplement family earnings by journeying abroad for work had proceeded for centuries across the length of Italy (though with greater effect in the North than in the South), but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the search for seasonal employment reached beyond the sphere of European labor markets.

Improvements in the Atlantic passage made possible by the steamship after 1870 reduced the travel time from Europe to the Americas from as much as six weeks to as little as seven days by 1890. This improvement was not simply a matter of enhancing the convenience of passage either. It greatly increased the volume of transatlantic migration by drastically diminishing the danger of the spread of disease, which often flourished on long oceanic voyages. Moreover, the number of passengers who could be accommodated was enlarged by the introduction of mammoth vessels at century's end, as well as by the expansion of steamship fleets. Add to this the sponsorship of workers' passage by industries hungry for European labor and almost overnight the more remunerative labor markets of North America were placed within easy reach of Europe's traditional population of migratory workers and the growing pool of laborers displaced by the "creative destruction" of industrial capitalism.

Cheap, rapid travel between Europe and America made the phenomenon of "return migration" increasingly possible, and Italian immigrants exploited the abbreviated ocean transit in greater numbers than any other European immigrant group after the turn of the century. Nonetheless, like every immigrant group that preceded them, the longer Italians remained in the Americas the more likely they were to attract family and kin who would seek work in the same factories and shelter in the same neighborhoods, partially reconstituting in North and South American cities the southern Italian villages from which they had come. From 1900 to the outbreak of World War I, rates of outmigration from parts of the Italian peninsula below Naples (including Sicily) ranged from 50 percent to as much as 100 percent. Since one of two emigrants came back in the same year, in some villages half of everyone left and returned only to leave again in the same calendar year.

The very conditions that inspired emigrants' departure for the Americas persisted from 1880 to 1920, "pushing" others out of Italy to join their kin in Argentina, Brazil, or the United States. Agricultural productivity, especially in the remote mountain hamlets of Italy, where the bulk of southern emigrants came from, continued to spiral downward, causing the meager wealth of small landholders to deteriorate, edging subsistence into desperation and flight. What is more, Italian immigrants in America unwittingly exacerbated the problem: On one hand, their reports home of abundant work and high wages in the United States raised the sights of kin and countrymen, swelling the annual tides of migratory labor that flooded American ports of entry. On the other hand, by sending part of their income home (the major portion of earnings in many cases), they triggered an inflationary trend that progressively devalued Italy's currency over the period, worsening the poverty of the poor and lowering the standard of living of everyone who was not a steady beneficiary of these birds of passage. By the turn of the century Italian immigration was in full swing, and the Italians arriving in the Americas were no longer just young men, but young and old women, fathers and mothers of men in search of work, as well as cousins, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. The familial character of twentieth-century Italian immigration bespoke another change: while the pattern of return migration continued, increasingly immigrants from the South came to the United States to stay.

Although the Italians of the lower Hill thought themselves superior to those who arrived at the turn of the century and after, it was Oak Street that attracted the greatest number of arrivals and was soon the Hill's most dense, vital section. This was especially so by the early twentieth century, when Oak Street and its offshoot, Legion Avenue, came to be dominated by the butcher shops, junk stores, green grocers, bakeries, synagogues, and tenements of New Haven's Russian Jews. After 1900 New Haven's Italian immigrants came almost exclusively from the South rather than from northern and central Italy-from Abruzzi, Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, and Campania-from Naples down to the toe of the Italian peninsula and Sicily. As much as possible, these peoples clustered on blocks whose residents spoke the same dialect and had come from the very villages that they themselves had abandoned to find work in the United States. As Italians and Russian Jews moved into the Hill, the more affluent Irish moved out-to Westville, along upper State Street, and in large numbers to Fair Haven across the Mill River, due east of the downtown area. Yet the attempt to reconstitute the social fabric of the Italian village met with only fleeting success, it seems, for the Hill was not as geographically delimiting as the other major area of Italian settlement, Wooster Square.

The Wooster Square settlement was a compact mixture of residences, small businesses, factories, and warehouses huddled around an English-style city park, which had been laid out in 1825 and named for a locally renowned hero of the American War of Independence. Two of its borders were formed by the first railroad constructed in Connecticut. Framed on the west by tracks that looped the edge of downtown heading north to Hartford, the rails jogged east on their way out of New Haven, defining the square's northern edge before meeting up with the Mill River, whose left bank collaborates to make the district's third side as it meanders south to the flats of the city harbor. Wooster Square sprang up as a new settlement just east of the city's historic nine squares, aiming to capitalize on its location at the nexus of New Haven's cresting maritime commerce and the next wave of economic prosperity, which would come, it was believed, with the construction of the Farmington Canal. The canal skirted the square's western flank but was soon annulled by the coming of the railroad, which literally dispossessed the canal of the channel that had been carved out for it. No matter that the square's founders were utterly mistaken in their speculations on the canal's role in New Haven's future. The railroad accomplished in a stroke the purposes of the city's industrial pioneers by permanently uniting New Haven's deep water port with the New England hinterlands and beyond. Rail was superior both in its carrying capacity and in its independence from the natural but arbitrary advantages of water power.

Before locomotion, the canal was seen as the cheapest and most efficient means of connecting up sites of production formerly stunted by their lack of access to water power and relative distance from river shipping. But hundreds of local railroad companies sprouted up throughout the Northeast during the mid-nineteenth century, both outstripping the canals' capacity to move cargo and negating whatever competitive obstacles nature had inserted between maker and market. One of these companies-the New York, New Haven, and Hartford line-became a behemoth. Gathering up dozens of local railroad companies between the 1870s and the turn of the century, it created one vast system of rails along the coast of southern New England and reached north, penetrating deep into its interior.

Wooster Square, whose stately houses gazed out upon the Long Island Sound, sat at the center of this the dynamic juncture of New Haven's rail and shipping terminals. By the mid-nineteenth century it had become home to many of New Haven's emerging industrial titans, but as its merchant- and manufacturer-residents prospered before and after the Civil War, they gradually deserted the square to build the mansions that now adorn Prospect Street, stretching from Grove Street Cemetery a mile and a half to the north. As they moved out, many of their homes were transformed into tenements and flats to shelter the crowds of laborers who came to work in the area's nearby workshops, factories, and warehouses.


Excerpted from LEARNING TO FORGET by Stephen Lassonde Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1 Immigrants and Immigrant Neighborhoods: Economic and Residential Change in New Haven, 1850-1930....................13
2 Learning and Earning: Schooling, Juvenile Employment, and the Early Life Course in Late-Nineteenth-Century New Haven....................24
3 The Painful Contrast: Italian Immigrant Children at Home and at School....................53
4 Hands to Mouths: The Changing Economy of Giving and Taking in Italian Immigrant Families....................81
5 From Courtship to Dating: The Marriage Market, Schooling, and the Family Economy....................103
6 The Landscape of Ambition: Geography, Ethnicity, and Class in Children's School Experiences....................122
7 "Too Good for That": Effort and Opportunity in the "New" High School....................155
Conclusion: Elm City's Youth....................189

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