The Way It Was: Italian America in the 1950s

We had nothing but each other to get by, and it was all we ever needed.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor

They came from the “old” country—that’s what the immigrants called Italy. As a first-generation Italian American, of the 40s and 50s, I have some emotive memories growing up Italian. I remember them well.

The thing I most cherished about “growing up Italian,” was the closeness and camaraderie shared among family and friends.

One has to understand the difficulties of Italian immigrants. In the early migration, most came from the southern regions of Italy, driven here by famine, unemployment, natural disasters, and, yes, discrimination from their own. They hoped for a better way of life. What they got was more discrimination and unemployment. They were ridiculed, hung from the gallows, and labeled enemies of the state. Although many returned to Italy, others, to wit, our ancestors stayed, toughed it out and persevered creating “Little Italy” districts, along the way.

Our community was predominately Italian, but there were also the Irish, Germans, Polish and African-Americans. We all got along with each other. Many of my friends, from attending public schools, were “mericani,” a catch-all term identifying anyone who wasn’t Italian. And, since we spoke mostly Italian at home, it was through these “mericani” that my siblings and I became familiar with the American way.

Brushton was our community. It sat at the eastern boundary of Pittsburgh and was the doorway to future suburbs. What lay beyond those boundaries were open tracts and cultivated farmlands.

It was in these fields where Italian Moms, armed with small paring knives and shopping bags, went on the hunt for areas of flourishing “chicory,” i.e., dandelions. The greens the American neighbors called weeds. Springtime was the best time to pick them, after the rains, while the stems and leaves were fresh and snappy crisp—and before the flowers bloomed.

Single homes weren’t the norm for most Italian immigrants, as many shared living space in apartments or row houses. At first, we shared a home with two other related families, each occupying a separate floor. After Pop got a steady job, we moved into a typical four-unit row dwelling. Today, they call them ‘patioor town’ homes. The thing about the row homes was they had a large front porch. In a way, those porches served as the family room, where families spent hours socializing. Then, too, it wasn’t unusual to find someone sleeping on these porches on hot, muggy nights. At the time, air conditioning wasn’t an everyday luxury for most.

Since we had no TV, in the evenings, we often sat on those big porches listening to the old timers “che raccontavono le lori storie della Patria.” No question from their conversations, they missed their homeland, but they thanked God they were in America.

Times were difficult for many Italian immigrants; they were going through a depression and in the middle of a war. Although the war industries were thriving, it was tough as an Italian, to get a good job. My father and many like him, when they could get work, it was as laborers, ditch diggers, street sweepers, or in the backbreaking coal mines. But they did whatever to survive and feed their families.

Life was tough, but the Italian immigrant families made the best with what they had. It was a sparing, almost austere life. Most didn’t have much, and yet they didn’t seem to dwell on their economic status. They were of sturdy stock!

The Italians shared with family and neighbors. They planted gardens, canned food items, made fresh sausage, pepperoni, and sun-dried “la conserva.” Speaking of sauce, who could forget Sundays, when the aroma of homemade sauce, simmered on the stove for hours, wafting out the doors and throughout the surrounding community!

Indeed, it was a simple life, but not a dull one. The immigrants had an active social life, with the family as the central focus of the Italian social experience, added to by events offered by friends and Fraternal organizations.

They may have had little, but in many ways, they had much. In the words of those who lived it, “C’er poco, ma c’era tutto, ora c’era tutto, ma non c’e’ niente.”

There was little, but there was everything…


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