Italian Immigration to Providence

SOCIAL STUDIES – Learn about Italian Immigration to Providence.

Learning Objectives:

  • By learning about Italian immigration to Providence, students will understand push and pull factors in immigration.
  • Students will be able to identify how legislation can affect immigration to the United States.
  • Students will view a local example of an Italian immigrant, and learn about his life in Providence through primary sources.


  1. Explain what push and pull factors are in immigration.
  2. Have students complete the reading on Italian immigration. You can download a pdf version here and assign it as pre-reading.
  3. Student will then click through the tags on the interactive image under the heading Interactive Activity to learn more about Gerardo D’Amico’s journey to America and his life as an Italian American.
  4. Finally, students will complete the short answer questions listed below or found on the pdf of student resources linked above.

Italian Immigration

New political realities came with the unification of Italy in 1860. Rather than liberate the poor from economic exploitation, the creation of modern Italy complicated their relationship to the land, its products, and the ability to feed themselves. The macinato (grist tax) was placed on every bag of grain brought to the mill. In Sicily and Naples, multiple peasant uprisings occurred to protest this. Taxes on draft animals like mules also made it harder for the poor to feed themselves. The rich often found ways to evade these taxes with political connections.

“Leaving Italy for a better life, 1890s” , Oil painting by R. Gambogi.

Poverty worsened with modernization and overpopulation. In the late 19th century, the unified nation coincided with a vast increase in population. Italy as a whole went from 26.8 million in 1871 to 28.46 million 10 years later. In the two decades before statehood, Sicily’s population had grown by 19%, but in the next 40 years it would double. Between 1861 – 1901, the population of the Italian south as a whole doubled as well, even despite constant emigration.

A series of government surveys beginning in the 1870s through World War I estimated that the average poor family in Italy spent 75% to 85% of their income on food. Natural disasters–crop failures, droughts, storms–jeopardized food supply. A 1909 study based heavily on governmental reports noted “cases of death from starvation are very rare, but there is a terrible permanent lack of food.” The people mostly lived on the regional staples of rice, corn, or wheat and almost never ate meat. In addition to a low food supply, landowners insisted on being paid first, leaving little money for whatever food they could purchase.

Coming to Rhode Island

Crowded home – Italians RI: (For Child Welfare Exhibit 1912-13.) Crowded Italian home, 46 Crary St., Providence, R.I. Nov. 26, 1912. Property owned by wealthy family. Location: Providence, Rhode Island. Library of Congress.

Immigration to Providence, Rhode Island, prior to World War I consisted mainly of people of Italian or Portuguese descent, replacing the previous wave of immigrants that were largely from Ireland, France, Canada, and Switzerland. Many Italians left Europe because of poor economic conditions and Rhode Island was attractive because of the need for inexpensive labor in the textile mills. The Italians hoped for a better life for themselves and their families in Rhode Island. Many settled in Federal Hill, Silver Lake, the North End, Johnston, North Providence, western Cranston and West Warwick. They worked in the mills or on small farms. The Portuguese mainly went to Fall River and New Bedford. Smaller communities settled on Cape Cod, the East Bay in Rhode Island, and Fox Point in Providence.

After migration, foods, particularly meats that the rich once doled out on holidays, were  now available everyday. Meat was consumed once or twice a week compared to back home when they ate it about three times a year. Immigrants from the scattered towns and villages of the Italian peninsula thus became Italian in America as food culture created an emergence of their new identity. “As sacred food was turned into everyday food, it became more sacred. Connected as it was to the essence of being Italian, this food culture emerged as a pillar of identity …”

Many Italian immigrants came to America ignorant of the cuisines beyond their region, but here in America, the Southern Italian learned about osso buco and veal scaloppini, and his neighbor from the north experienced pizza and eggplant Parmesan. Spaghetti and meatballs was invented in America and became a staple in Italian homes.

Olive oil’s widespread  use, despite its scarcity in early years of  migration, signified the immigrants desire for foods that were once only available to the rich. Despite poverty and criticisms by Americans for wasting money on such a luxury, Italians considered olive oil a staple. Big Sunday dinners always had meat. Pasta and olive oil, along with meat and cheese, defined a good life, a life of choice that they didn’t have in Italy. Local merchants made it possible for immigrants to eat well by extending them credit. Italians typically shopped at neighborhood stores owned by other Italians.

 An Italian farm woman near Providence, Rhode Island preparing spaghetti. Photo by Jack Delano, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

New foods and drink crept into their food culture. They drank beer and ate “Italian sausage.” Sausage back home was not only a rare dish, usually reserved for some religious feste, it was specific to particular towns, primarily in the north. In Italy only the upper class used food for socializing. Once in America, the poor took up the practice of hospitality with food, behaving like the elites of their former towns.

Italians worked in the construction and garment industries, and also as laborers, shoemakers, stone workers, barbers and piano makers in the early days of migration. These Italian workers often banded together to demand better wages and conditions. They would organize against Italian employers and target the padrone (labor boss), but generally they did not strike. Rarely did they organize when it came to making pasta, processing tomatoes, or manufacturing the foods so deeply entrenched in their cultural landscape.

A Port of Call in Providence

Immigration to Providence
SS Providence of the Fabre Line. From the Jess Welt Collection, SSHSA Archives.

The demand for immigrant labor was so great that the Fabre Line selected Providence as its chief port in 1911. At the beginning of the 20th century, Providence began projects to improve the harbor at the head of Narragansett Bay to allow for increased shipping. Rail lines connected it to the rest of the country. At the same time, the port of New York experienced increased congestion and Providence’s maritime commerce continued to grow. In 1909, voters authorized $500,000 to be allocated to purchasing and improving shore property. Around 1910, preparations began in Providence Harbor for transatlantic shipping. By 1911, the Fabre Line had announced its intention to call at Providence.

Immigration to Providence
From Patrick T. Conley and William J. Jennings Jr.’s Aboard the Fabre Line: Immigration to Providence, Rhode Island.

It felt Providence was marketable to immigrants, especially to the Italians and Portuguese, because of the city’s already-established ethnic communities. The Fabre Line’s Madonna would sail from Marseilles, France, on June 3, 1911, and visit Italy, call in the Azores and then continue on to Providence and New York. Between 1911 and 1914, the Fabre Line carried 30,000 passengers to Providence, most of them immigrants.

The company began marketing to Europeans, stressing that cargo could be transported to America more cheaply through Providence rather than New York. However, with the onset of World War I (1914-1918), the numbers for passenger travel diminished, as did the hopes for the port of Providence and business. During the war, many of the Fabre steamships served as hospitals and carried French colonial troops to the western front from North Africa at the request of the French government.

The federal Literacy Test Act of 1917 also limited immigration. It required immigrants over the age of 16 to be able to read “not less than 30 nor more than 80 words in ordinary use.” Laws and war deeply affected immigration, but so did the general American attitude after the war and the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. As immigration began to surge once again, this time with Slavs, Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Portuguese and Italians, some Americans viewed these new immigrants as threats to American values and culture. By the beginning of 1920, the Fabre line resumed business at pre-war levels, especially with its immigrant travel. At the same time, many local Portuguese returned to their native land to visit relatives they could not see during the war.

The next decade brought additional difficulties for the Fabre Line in terms of its immigration traffic. The Emergency Quota Act became law on May 19, 1921, and took effect July 1. It added two new features to American immigration law: numerical limits on immigration and the use of a quota system for establishing those limits.

Immigration to Providence
Steerage passengers on board the Kaiser Wilhem Der Grosse, c. 1902. SSHSA Archives.

The second legislative act aimed at limiting immigration was more stringent. The National Origins Act of May 24, 1924, put a cap on immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe after the war. At the time, Americans felt that these people with different linguistic, cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds could not be assimilated. This attitude toward immigration continued through the Fabre Line’s operation in Providence and lasted until 1965.

With these increased restrictions on immigration, the Fabre Line sought to diversify and include more eligible immigrants. In 1923, it began service eastward in the Mediterranean. The Providence Journal began reporting the nationality of these new immigrants. They included: persecuted Armenians from Turkey, Christian Syrian and Lebanese fleeing Muslim rule, Greeks, Jews from a number of countries, and Ukrainians and Romanians leaving the Black Sea area. Some immigrants from Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Armenian lands began using fraudulent return permits to enter the United States. The quotas for these countries were small and therefore filled up quickly. Inspectors began to tighten security at American ports.

Between the end of the 19th century and the 1920s, 4 million Italians came to America. During the 1920s, Providence was ranked third in immigrant-receiving ports along the Atlantic coast.

More immigrants aboard the Fabre Line disembarked in Providence compared to New York during the 23 years that Providence was a transatlantic port of call. Immigrants came to the United States for many reasons throughout the years: economic hardship, religious persecution, war, or famine. Whatever the reason, steamship companies like the Fabre Line reaped the benefits. Passenger travel, with immigrants making up the largest portion of passenger manifests, kept the Fabre Line afloat economically. Immigration began to slow down significantly and the economic downturn of the 1930s forced the Fabre Line to end its operations in Providence in the summer of 1934.

Interactive Activity

Questions for Further Thought

  1. What were the push factors that led many Italians to flee their recently unified nation?
  2. How did the American public view immigrants of certain nationalities during the Fabre Line years and can we see any similarities or differences to how Americans view immigration today?
  3. Have the reasons for immigration to the United States changed since the early 1900s? If so, how? Give examples.
  4. What role has legislation played in increasing or decreasing immigration to the United States?

Additional Resources

Learn more about the D’Amico family with research and writing by Christina D’Amico Alvernas and graphic design by Lynda D’Amico.

A PLACE TO GO TO: THE ORAL HISTORY OF FEDERAL HILL – listen to oral histories from the Federal Hill Project within Rhode Island College Special Collections’ Ethnic Heritage Studies Project.

Read an article by the New England Historical Society, “How the Italian Immigrants Came to New England.”

Learn about the Macaroni Riot on Federal Hill in Providence, “Pasta la Vista – F.P. Ventrone Sparks the Providence Macaroni Riots” by the New England Historical Society.

Read about St. Joseph’s Day in Providence from NPR.

More on St. Joseph’s Day and the importance of zeppole from the New England Historical Society.

Check out this interview with Jerome Krase (Author of America’s Little Italies: Past, Present and Future).

View complete lists of passengers on the Fabre Line. 


William J. Jennings and Patrick T. Conley, Aboard the Fabre Line to Providence: Immigration to Rhode Island (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013).

Patrick T. Conley, “Providence and the Fabre Line,” Steamboat Bill (v. 270, pg. 21).

Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America; Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Education Standards

National Council for Social Studies

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.