Historical Development of the Push Factors of Italian Emigration to America


In the United States, we often hear the stories of Ellis Island and the great increase in immigration that the US experienced in the late 1800s/early 1900s. However, what we are taught in schools is pretty one-sided. We hear about the land of opportunity that America was, but we never really learn about the perspectives of the immigrants themselves. One of the largest constituent groups was the Italians. From looking at the history of Italy, we can come to understand the reasons why so many Italians chose to embark on the treacherous journey to America. The domestic reasons for emigration include economic challenges, social issues, and political influence; these are known as push factors. Understanding these push factors gives us the other half of the story and through the contrast of these elements between the two countries, we can recognize the appeal of America to migrants.

Economic Factors

The first thing that we must recognize is the economic struggles of Italy at the time. Over the course of Italian history, economic hardship has always been present in the South. This could be attributed to many things such as lack of education and opportunities, but the real question is, why is this the case. First, the South was and still is primarily dominated by agriculture in terms of its economic opportunity. The integration of a feudal economic system by the ruling Normans in the middle ages solidified this as the case. The feudal system was good for the king and barons of the fiefs, but it created a reliance on agriculture as the primary form of income and halted innovation. In comparison to the North, the South was way behind in terms of urbanization and economic progression. The Northern city-states mainly relied on commerce and trade as their primary source of income while in agreement with outside towns to trade material goods for crops. Due to the opportunity found in trade in Northern cities, wealthy merchants and business owners flocked to them. As a benchmark, it is believed that where there is more money, there is more growth, and this is due to the opportunity that money provides. As money was being injected into the economy through the trade economy, the city-states gained a reputation as being urban hubs full of opportunity. People from all regions and walks of life migrated to the cities in the hopes of finding an opportunity to either grow their empire or start their empire. As urbanization increased, the economy of the North became more stable and in turn allowed for further growth and progression. The South, on the other hand, was not littered with economic opportunities like the North. The South did have some cities that experienced success due to trade; however, though “Trade and commerce were huge for these southern cities…they were influentially weak throughout the inland territory of the southern regions,” (Alampi). Therefore, those that were further from the sea or those that did not have an appealing economy did not see the benefits of trade.

It is also important to mention that the geographical differences between the North and South played an integral role in the development of the regions. The North was easy to traverse, which allowed Roman expansion and influence. However, “Historically, the southern regions were heavily wooded within the mountainous landscape…[and] basically, the internal southern regions were too remote and dangerous for Roman expansion into the inland areas of the southern regions,” (Alampi).

The map shows the terrain of Italy. It is clear that the landscape was much harder to traverse in the south thus concealing the intermediate cities from outside influence.

Thus, by the geographical layout of Italy, the South was doomed from the beginning. The land was fertile enough to grow crops that supported the economy, but the interior regions of the south were so treacherous that it deterred the influence of strong financial powers like Rome in the North and Naples in the south. Therefore, without the economic and cultural influence of the North, the South failed to progress as quickly as the cities in the North. Furthermore, the feudal system kept the economy uniform. If we look at coastal cities such as Naples and Messina, we see large economic growth. This was completely due to the fact that these cities were hubs for trade. As mentioned before, where there is economic opportunity, there is likely to be an increase in urbanization. Therefore, since the central-southern cities were inaccessible to trade, they were at an automatic disadvantage. 

Social Factors

Following the Unification of Italy in 1861, poverty was only perpetuated in the South. “By the late 19th century, the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but the land and the people were by no means unified,” (The Great Arrival). The formation of a national identity was a tough task. There were so many different cultures and languages in Italy that it was almost impossible for the people to define themselves as one group.  Though the biggest disparity formed between the North and the South. The South had garnered a reputation as being lesser than the North. Now, we are able to look back and assess the history of the South and why it may have been perceived in this way. However, much of the published literature of the time came from those that had the financial resources to in fact publish it. As we know, those with financial power dominated the North, and the Northern perception of the South was more naive than the perception that we can form now.

A photo of a female brigand. Could show the way northern media constructed stories as it does seem odd that a brigand would pose like this for northern company.

In support of this point, an examination of the literature of the time states “letters from Calabria are peppered with literary allusion and include the kind of amateur ethnography typical of colonialist travel books,” (Dickie). In modern times, any work that follows the guidelines of colonial ethnography should be discredited. This practice is often referred to as “armchair anthropology” because instead of getting a true understanding of how the population lives, one is able to conduct a study from their armchair by just relying on stories and rumors to influence their conclusions. Here, we see how the Northern perception of southern Italy was extremely flawed. Following Unification, the South suffered an economic decline. “The conduct of the war also shows clearly enough how determined were the Piedmontese Moderates who directed the establishment of the new Italy to negotiate the crisis of unification without conceding any social change,” (Dickie). Basically, the protagonists in the story of the unification failed to implement a social safety net, but then again, all of Italy was in massive debt following the preceding wars against Austria, and therefore was in no position to create a fail-safe plan. 

Some issues that plagued the South following unification include, a tax on milling wheat, free trade tariffs, lack of government regulation in the workforce, and unstable jobs. Generally, when a population struggles to gain money, they become more desperate. The southern peasants were forced to accept jobs for minimal wages and were in constant competition with one another for jobs that were determined by who would accept the lowest wage. The unification absolutely decimated the southern population and as things became tougher, people became more desperate. The ultimate call for change was the emergence of brigandage. Generally, this encompasses the banditry that spread across the south. The bandits were just peasants who could not survive the economic hardship anymore. Circling back to the aforementioned point of Northern literature, almost all of it vilified the South because of the brigandage. Due to the economic history of the south and the inequalities that arose from this, the Northern perception of the South was that the people were lesser; false narratives were even published that aimed to support this point on the basis of biology and race.

Northern media often depicted southern citizens in unsatisfactory ways. Here, these southerners are seen shoeless and eating with their bare hands.

Financial power and the ability to publish allowed the demonization of the South to become widespread. Depictions of southern bandits were not flattering, however, they were perfectly correct in the minds of those whose only knowledge of the situation came from the false narratives of Northern economic powers. With the power of the national army on their side, the North eventually overcame the South, however, the damage was already done. There was further social division between the populations and the Southern economy was destroyed. 

Political Factors

This social structure then ties into the political push factor. “Immediately following World War I, while Italy was overwhelmed by extreme economic difficulties and internal tensions, the ‘push factors” of emigration that had characterized the prewar period, during which  872,000 immigrants left Italy in 1913 alone…” (Cannistraro/Rosoli). In this quote, it is important to note that the Fascist government led by Mussolini had not done much to combat the economic situation that developed, and at first, liberal emigration policies aimed to “…ease the economic burden of the overpopulated and impoverished regions in southern Italy,” (Thorpe). Statistically, over Mussolini’s entire reign, the emigration rate declined, but that is only due to policies that were put into effect later on that artificially deflated the numbers. As noted, this decrease in emigration numbers “was not accompanied by an elimination of the problems and inequities that had initially compelled [it]…” (Cannistraro/Rosoli). Emigration from Italy was actually converted to propaganda by the fascist government. It was seen as beneficial that Italy had so many citizens living around the world because this just meant that the ideas of Fascism would spread. In fact, Mussolini organized Fascist societies to conserve patriotism and Fascist ideals in the foreign Italian communities.

“No longer will Italy be supplying emigrants to the world; it will now send the glorious genius of its race around the globe,” – Mussolini

(Mussolini – Cannistraro/Rosolio)

Though, much of what Mussolini believed would come from emigration did not materialize. At one point there was a realization that Italy was sending its best around the world with little in return. Here, the government made clear that permanent emigration was no longer tolerated. There was also the implementation of measures designed to bring migrants back to Italy, but they were unsuccessful as the motivation to emigrate in the first place was only preserved by the fascist government. 


The “American pull factors” are pretty obvious in relation to the push factors stated above. The main pull factor was economic. All throughout history, there is always a strong demand for economic opportunity. As mentioned above, the most successful cities in Italy were successful in part because of urbanization caused by an influx of people that were looking for any way to make money. The immigration to America mainly appealed to Southern peasants because of how desperate they were for opportunities of any kind, including both educational and economic. In the movie “Golden Door,” the characters are seen observing postcards that depicted people in America with crops that were impossibly large and there are instances where they repeat rumors they have heard, describing America as a magical land.

In “Golden Door,” the main character dreams of impossibly large crops and of “rivers of milk;” a rumor regarding the bounty of America, that spread in the community of migrants featured in the movie. Obviously, this shows the unrealistic perception of America that many immigrants had, but it also shows the excitement that comes with the thought of opportunity.

For peasants in a suffering economy, facing discrimination from those with power, the trip to America was definitely worth it in order to either start a new life or make money to send back home to those who remained. Social pull factors were also apparent after the first wave of immigration. Many Italian citizens would hear stories about America that traveled through the “grapevine,” and there is a good chance that many immigrants were influenced by the thought of living with their fellow Italians in a new and more prosperous land. However, in this instance, the push factors such as discrimination and early fascist policy were probably more influential. Either way, the history of Italy from the middle ages to the unification and through fascism, developed undeniable push factors that forced emigration from the country. Economic challenges, social issues, and political issues created an unsatisfied population, and America, the land of dreams, was a beacon of hope. 

Works Cited

  1. Alampi, M. (n.d.). Underdevelopment in southern Italy: Traditional setbacks … Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1047&context=intlstudies_masters.
  2. The great arrival  :  Italian  :  immigration and relocation in U.S. history  :  classroom materials at the library of congress  :  library of Congress. The Library of Congress. (n.d.). Retrieved November 23, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/immigration/italian/the-great-arrival/.
  3. Thorpe, Julie. “Chapter 4. Population Politics in the Fascist Era.” Chapter 4. Population Politics in the Fascist Era, http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p14661/html/ch04.html. 
  4. Dickie, John. A Word at War: the Italian Army and Brigandage 1860-1870. https://northeastern.instructure.com/courses/85966/files/10730909/download?wrap=1. 
  5. Cannistraro, Philip V., and Gianfausto Rosoli. “Fascist Emigration Policy in the 1920s: An Interpretive Framework.” pp. 1–21. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2545181.pdf

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