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Irish and Italian Social Mobility: 1850-1905 New York City

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Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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A comparison of Irish and Italian success in overcoming prejudices that hindered their social mobility while living in New York City from 1850-1905




Prejudices Faced

The Irish

The Italians

Overcoming Prejudices


Unskilled Labor/Illiteracy






Following the devastation of the Civil War, New York City became a city of dreams. As the economy changed from rural to urban, steady job opportunities led large groups of people into the city, as explained by the large population growth. These included Americans from across the country, yet also saw expansion in arriving immigrant groups from overseas. By 1910, the influx in immigration reached a pinnacle where 40.4% of the population would be foreign-born white, and 38.2% were native born of foreign or mixed parents in New York City.[1] Out of all of the immigrant groups that would pass through the gates, none were as large and impactful as the Irish and the Italians. Modern conflicts see similarities with the issues faced between Americans and the immigrant groups mentioned before during this time period, as the influx of immigration did not come without its problems. To understand these conflicts from a historical context, the interest arose to study the prejudices and actions of the two most prominent immigration groups in a specified time period.

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 Hence, this essay will answer the following question: to what extent did the Irish and italians overcome the prejudice against their social mobility living in New York City from 1850-1905? This will be done through an evaluation of each immigrant group’s background and prejudices. Their actions taken to overcome them will be compared in accordance to their results at the end of the century. Social mobility, for this essay, is defined as how an immigrant is able to move in regards to their economic status, included their housing and employment. Both groups during the time period. Both immigrant groups faced similar prejudices during this time period, each having a different amount of weight per group in their attempts at success. At the end of the century, both were able to overcome their prejudices but with no designated group that had the greater advantage.


 To understand how prejudices hindered the upward social mobility of these immigrant groups, one must understand what brought them and their counterparts to New York City. Prior to the massive immigration throughout the late-19th century, there were two major immigration periods - the era of colonialism and the beginning of the 19th century. The motivations that spurred the Italians and Irish to immigrate were similar to that of their English, French, and Dutch counterparts.

 On the dawn of colonialism, immigrants from England, Dutch, and France set out for the once-unknown New World in hopes to gain economic profit. With Spain exploiting land in South America for opportunity and profit, these groups hoped to reach the same levels of profit that they did. In addition, the possibility of a new land allowed for escape from the ongoing religious persecution, especially in England following Martin Luther’s denunciation of the church.[2] 180 years after this first influx of immigration, another influx of immigration involving the same parties. The Constitution, which secured the foundations for religious freedom, equality, and other ideals that the original English immigrants sought after alongside prosperity, attracted migrants to the newly established America. This included the recently-defeated English, which increased by 2 million as they sought escape from poverty and the class system.[3]

Like their earlier counterparts, one of the primary reasons the Irish and Italians took to New York City was because of the opportunities presented. Advertisements painted the city as a place of freedom; immigrating allowed escape “from evils which have made existence intolerable.” [4] Also painted as a land of riches, many desired monetary success. One statement summarizes this desire in that “American wages are the honey-pot that brings the alien flies.”[5] These advertisements spread across Europe through the “runner.” This runner, claiming to be “all-powerful” with numerous resources in the United States, would encourage many, including those diseased and unfit, to immigrate.[6]

 For the Irish and Italians, these reasons applied to the plights which they faced before, during, and after 1850. The Irish immigrants were still reeling from the Great Potato Famine which destroyed a major source of their economy and lifestyle.[7] With the famine recurring in three separate years (1846, 1848, and 1851 respectively),[8] one million Irish were dead by 1850 of starvation, and numerous Irish set off for a better life.[9]  While some attempted to immigrate to England, they were discriminated against as land-takers.[10] For the Irish, America was an option where they could stay in comparison to England and achieve economic success they lost during the famine. One success story includes Tilly, who earned enough money as a greenhorn to bring her whole family over. Following that point, all of her family members were able to become professionals in different careers and overall successful due to the freedom and wage opportunities that made it possible. That is America’s attractiveness and opportunity summarized,[11] and explains why ½ million Irish emigrated to America by 1850.[12]

The Italians had similar situations regarding their economic standing. Despite attempting political unity between North and South in the 1850’s and 60’s, political turmoil simmered. Many small states identified as their separate identities rather than unified Italians. In addition, economic turmoil added to the issues. Many staple crops, including olives and grapes, were harmed by disease and insects, destroying the biggest profits of rural Italians. Alongside this, taxes were placed on the Italian government to raise money in response to tariffs from other countries, deepening the already crippling poverty among the poor.[13]

 By 1850, most Italians desired money to support their families from the various outbreaks. With numerous stories of success told by the runners, Italians, especially Southern Italians being the most affected, became attracted to fulfill their goals. Among these success stories came one from an Italian blackboot who heard things about America, “where everybody was rich and that Italians went there and made plenty of money, so that they could return to Italy and live in pleasure ever after,” which aligned with their motivations.[14] Another story came from Rosa Cavalleri, an immigrant from Lombardy. In her biography she details her introduction to America, stating that “one dressed-up man with a cane waxed mustache” approached her and shook her hand. Seeing the man shaking hands with the poor, she expresses wonder and excitement for the prospect of living in America in stating that “this was America for sure!”[15]

Prejudices Faced

The Irish 

 Irish immigrants faced three major prejudices upon their arrival, one of which was their religion. Catholicism was feared for being something less than civilized during the time period, which can be attributed to the rise of evangelicalism in America as a whole. As most who were Catholic came from overseas where less was known about them, this sparked immediate tension as there was less known about the Catholic immigrants. Irish immigrants initially attempted to overcome this prejudice through separation in parochial schools. Bishop John Hughes of New York created a network of schools that kept children invested in Catholic rituals without intermingling with public education. However, this exacerbated the fear regarding Catholicism: the separation created the idea that these schools were suspiciously different in how the Irish isolated themselves from mainstream culture to create their own. With different behaviors, it could only be assumed what Irish immigrants were taught outside of public schooling. In addition, as Catholicism threatened the idea of “one hundred percent Americanism” in their differences in behavior, the Ku Klux Klan reorganized against the Irish and others that posed a similar threat.[16]

In addition, the potato famine left Irish immigrants with nothing as they arrived into America; most walked in on average with $17.13.[17] As most Irishmen who arrived were farmers affected by the famine, the majority of their entrance jobs fell under the unskilled sector, which required little education in order to perform the job. These sectors of work included canals, railroads, streets, houses, and sewer systems, with others working on the docks. Pay was around or under 75 cents for 10-12 hours of unskilled work. Irish women also found work in the domestic and factory sectors, however, their workloads were also strenuous. Irish women in domestic service often worked 16 hour days. In addition, those who worked in the garment industry often worked 13-14 hours per day and were paid six to ten cents per shirt they made based on their their piecework system. Since only nine shirts could be made per week, the maximum pay per week averaged 90 cents.[18]

Irish violence was seen in the slums and often used within politics, with the hopes that their chosen candidate would take office. However, this bred fear amongst Americans. Irish motives in politics were not clear as the groups could not see eye-to-eye. With a lack of understanding between the two, this placed the Irish in a position to become feared around New York City. Job offers they could normally receive were stripped from them, as well as housing opportunities. To keep away from violence, Americans pushed the Irish to the notorious Fifth Ward, where an average of nine people -- or 1.82 families, shared a room. The conditions were enough to lead to countless deaths; 1857 saw 2/3rds of its death in children under the age of five, with the majority on the Irish.[19]

The Italians

Italians faced the same prejudices as their Irish counterparts, if not hindered by the additional language factor. Immediately at a disadvantage in comparison to the Irish, it created a barrier of misunderstanding immediately in how Italians and Americans communicated with each other, whereas Irish and Americans could communicate with ease in English. As a result, this creates immediate tensions between the two groups; since the language difference was new for both, the attempts to understand each other became mixed with fears regarding language making Italians seem different from what they were here to do. It did not help that Italians had been isolated from most of the known world since the Roman Empire both geographically and militaristically. In industries that provided a hierarchy for jobs, such as mining, saw Italians taking laborious jobs while English-speakers took supervisory positions. In opportunities where there was a chance for promotions, Italians could not achieve them with a language barrier preventing them from understanding.[20] As a result, Italians would turn to the padronis who understood their goals in the city and move into the “Little Italies” that allowed them to belong in a foreign land.[21]

It did not help that Italians had a similar economic and illiterate background. On average, Southern Italians arrived with $8.67, second lowest only to the Hebrews.[22] Less than 20% of Italians were craftsman who read and write, hindering them from well-paying jobs in skilled and semi-skilled sectors where education was required.[23] Approximately three-quarters of Italian immigrants in New York City were blue collar workers in industries such as construction, transportation, factory, or domestic service, with only one-quarter being white-collar workers.[24]

Italian prejudices of violence stemmed from the ill-purposed Mafia, whose actions spread in rumors to the city. The rumors became exacerbated upon David Hennessey’s murder after he attempted to resolve the issues between two rival gangs.[25] Eleven Italians were lynched as a result, exacerbating the ‘Italophobia’ that had developed from initial rumors.[26]

Overcoming Prejudices


The Irish, unable to overcome the prejudice through their school system, only had one option to overcome existing prejudice: holding out and waiting for tensions to ease. Irish adjusted to religious life in separation from Americans, but still increased their actions in other sectors of their social mobility, mainly being their employment status in different unskilled sectors. Although their religion may not have been accepted, it was tolerated as greater threats to the nation came in the form of new immigrant groups; the most striking example being the Italians that followed suit in immigrating, as they differed in geographical location as well as in tongue.

Even with time on their side, anti-Catholic sentiment was not as prevalent in New York City as it was in England. Signs across stores overseas read “No Irish Need Apply” as a result of anti-Catholic sentiment. A song by the same name was created and sung by an Irish immigrant to express this discrimination. However, the final stanza in the song describes how America is “a country dear to [her]” in how is pictured as a place where “‘All Irish may apply,’” suggesting that there was more opportunity in America to grow without high prejudice on religion. In addition, “No Irish Need Apply” advertisements were few and far between in newspapers and storefronts. Throughout the time period, only two of them were found in the New York Times, with other newspapers saw less than two per decade.[27] Although fear was certainly sparked from their religion, it was not enough to hinder the Irish in the long-run as they assimilated into American society.

Italian prejudice for Catholicism was not mentioned above as it was the prejudice that affected them the least in hindering their social mobility. Upon their arrival, New York City’s wave of Catholicism fears with the Irish had passed over with some decades to ease tensions. Irish-Catholic tensions eased Italian-Catholics into America by softening the invectives regarding Catholicism. In addition, with other rising concerns at the start of the twentieth century, Catholicism became a lesser concern to Americans in comparison to other immigration groups that had similar striking differences with the Italians. Italian persecution would vanish as time passed, similar to the Irish, in which they would huddle to their communities if the issued pressed further. Unlike Irish Catholicism, however, removing tensions for Italian Catholicism did not assist them in a notable manner from other prejudices hindering with a larger impact. Although both immigration groups overcame their prejudice, overcoming their prejudice could not be based on their actions alone.

Unskilled Labor/Illiteracy

Although the Irish had more money on average when arriving, this did not give them as early of a head start in comparison to the Italians. Overcoming this prejudice depended upon their ability to remove other sentiments that hindered their social mobility, as their differences from the American people were the largest hindrance to their ability to get a job and promote within it. As Catholicism was not as pressing against the Irish in America, this eased their ability to find a job. Although violence inhibited this, the positions they gained as a result of their actions would provide them with the opportunity to ascend beyond the conditions they arrived with. As a result, trust was established in the industries that the Irish assimilated into. It can also be said that younger Irish generations were sent to schools in order to build upon their skills to contribute to life in America. Although learning took place in parochial schools, the parallel nature of these schools allowed them to learn the same abilities they could learn within public schooling. In turn, they could apply these skills to semi-skilled and skilled sectors -- including clothing, cigar making, and bricklaying -- and wages increased.[28] In dressmaking, for example, wages increased to an average of $1.48 per day by 1895 in comparison to the averages made based on the piecework system.[29] An average of $1.77 per day was made from cigar making in 1890 in comparison to $1.65 per day in 1881.[30]

Italians did not have the advantage of an early arrival in comparison to their Irish counterparts. Although they could overcome the prejudice in terms of getting employment, their wages were not as impressive as the Irish. Laborers, their most common employment, received $1.30 on average per day in 1880, with the pay only rising to $1.57 per day by 1890.[31] Bakers were not much better off, receiving an average of $1.65 in 1881, although it fell to $1.30 per day in 1890.[32]

In order to rise similar to the Irish, there were a few options. Later generations of Italians would be sent to school in order to learn the skills required an take on semi-skilled and skilled jobs. Unlike the Irish, I new Italians turned to padronis, or middlemen, to help them gain a better job and assimilate them into New York City. Padronis acted as servicemen to new immigrants as bankers, landlords, foremen, scribes, interpreters, ward bosses, legal advisors, and other roles. New Italian immigrants would have no need to turn to other foreign influences, such as Americans, when their own people could get them a steady job. Without padronis, immigrants with established family members in the country could turn to them. Families brought relatives into “Little Italies,” where jobs could be found within walking distance, and homes were of the family name. The issue with this, however, is in a lack of the social aspect in American society. Although this allowed them to overcome the economic standpoint of the prejudice, the social standpoint was exacerbated through heightened fears between Americans and Italians in isolation from the rest of the city.[33] Potentially more extensive jobs that provided a higher salary were locked


Irishmen struggled with this prejudice the greatest of the three mentioned. Overcoming this prejudice required them to gain a steady job, which could be done ironically with violence. Once a candidate was elected into office, the victor distributed the spoils to those that assisted them. The Irish would be given the tools necessary for ascension - a steady-paying patronage job and funds on their behalf.[34] In turn, this allowed them to hire on Irishmen in similar situations. With men assisting each other into these jobs, there was less need for violence as each immigrant could be given a job and a sturdy home as time passed.

 With more money in their pockets, the Irish could move away from the slums and into city apartments, allowing them to break away from their violent roots and become less isolated from fearful Americans. Old slums they inhabited would be taken up by Italians as foundations for their “Little Italies.” Fear dissipated as the Irish interacted more with the people, especially in regards to their positions as politicians where being open was required for understanding. These stories of success would carry to Ireland where prospective immigrants could listen from their families and neighbors, allowing them to learn the best methods of assimilation upon arrival in the city. As a result, Irish immigrants could avoid the same pitfalls that older generations did and avoid the prejudice. As time passed, Irish influence in government would spread to the point of practically running the city itself.[35] Although the method was contradictory in the short-term, it proved fruitful in the long-term as Americans began to trust in them to lead the government of New York City for years to come.

 Italians did not struggle with this prejudice as much as their Irish counterparts, with violence being of less concern for long-run success. Italians overcame this prejudice much easier than their Irish counterparts due to their nature as a whole. Most Italians had the security of their communities to avoid conflicts with and the desire to fulfill their goals for immigrating to fuel them in the right direction. Italian immigrants as a whole were not as violent as their Irish counterparts, shown through the number of Italians that appeared in almshouses across the city. On Blackwell Island, for instance, sixteen total Italians were apprehended in 1904 in comparison to the 1,564 Irish that were admitted. Even further, the Mendicancy Police in New York apprehended 519 Irish and only 92 Italians between July 1st of 1904 to September 30th of 1905.[36] Italians involved with the Mafia were taken into custody, leaving the majority that remained to forward and establish a better economic standing without as much hassle that the Irish required in order to reach a similar peace.


For the Italians, the goal was never to remain in America as the Irish aimed to do. 50% of Italians repatriated as their long-term plans was to return to their families to support them, hence more Italians never overcame this prejudice.[37] Even if an Italian immigrant stayed in America, they were not likely to overcome the prejudice, keeping them at a disadvantage against the Irish. Beyond the community, there was no purpose in stepping out and interacting with Americans, considering they had a sturdy home, a paying job, and understanding from those that talked in their language. There was no reason that they should have to “bow the head to the yoke” of Americans and unite with them in language.[38] The longer that they remained in these communities, the deeper they would entangle themselves in them, decreasing the chances of their interaction with America as a whole.[39] It reached a critical point in which aspects such as Central Park and the Ocean remained unfamiliar as hundreds lived and died without ever leaving these communities.[40] Economically, the prejudice on language did not affect their ability to gain employment and a sturdy home. However, the social factor of their mobility was hindered as a result of their entanglement with these communities, leading to extended tensions between both groups until either time passed on or other groups created further issues.

However, the extent of this does not account for the future Italian generations within America. Although this would distance them from their descendants, Italian parents were encouraged to send their children to public schooling to learn English.[41] In this way, they could reach beyond their communities and lose their dependence on the padronis and families members, as well as become more sociable with Americans to gain better employment and housing. Not only were children encouraged, but parents themselves were encouraged to learn English, despite knowing the damage it placed on their heritage. In educating themselves on the English language, they could avoid miscommunications with Americans during social or economic situations, even if it was never necessary beyond their communities. Italians were successful in overcoming this prejudice through their later generations, although the impact of it in the principal stages of their assimilation was still seen beyond the mentioned time period in the continued sight of “Little Italies” across New York City that draw Italian immigrants away from the American lifestyle.


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[1] "Urbanization," in Vol. 2: Almanac, ed. Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 2, U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library (Detroit: UXL, 2004), http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3436800036/UHIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=UHIC&xid=b798ad9d.

[2] History.com, ed., "U.S. Immigration Before 1965," HISTORY, last modified October 29, 2009, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/u-s-immigration-before-1965.

[3] Linda Alchin, "English Immigration to America," US Immigration, last modified September 18, 2014, accessed September 20, 2018, http://www.emmigration.info/english-immigration-to-america.htm.

[4] Howard B. Grose, Aliens or Americans? (Young People's Missionary Movement, 1906), Chapter I, Section I, accessed July 4, 2018, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19198/19198-h/19198-h.htm.

[5] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter I, Section III.

[6] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter II, Section IV.

[7] "The Arrival of the Irish and Germans," in The Immigrant Experience, American Journey (Woodbridge: Primary Source Media, 1999), accessed May 5, 2018, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2154000246/UHIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=UHIC&xid=30ec8bbf.

[8]  Mary Baba, "Irish Immigrant Families in Mid-Late 19th Century America," Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute, accessed September 28, 2018, http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/1990/5/90.05.07.x.html.

[9] "Irish-Catholic Immigration to America," Library of Congress, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/irish2.html.

[10] "Irish," in American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation, ed. David Levinson and Melvin Ember (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1997), accessed May 13, 2018, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2337000078/UHIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=UHIC&xid=72765caf.

[11] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter I, Section IV.

[12]  "Irish-Catholic Immigration," Library of Congress.

[13] "Italian and Greek Immigration," in Vol. 2: Almanac, ed. Lawrence W. Baker, et al., vol. 2, U.S. Immigration and Migration Reference Library (Detroit: UXL, 2004), http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX3436800034/UHIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=UHIC&xid=f93b6d42.

[14] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter I, Section IV.

[15] "Rosa Cavalleri: From Northern Italy to Chicago, 1884–1926," in Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources, ed. K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner (Detroit: Gale, 2006), http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2688400046/OVIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=OVIC&xid=1307bee9.

[16] Josh Zeitz, "When America Hated Catholics," Politico Magazine, September 23, 2015, accessed June 18, 2018, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/09/when-america-hated-catholics-213177.

[17] Edward Lowry, "Americans in the Raw," in The World's Work - A History of Our Time (New York, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1902), IV:2653, accessed January 17, 2019, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015074653083;view=1up;seq=667.

[18] Baba, "Irish Immigrant," Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.

[19] Baba, "Irish Immigrant," Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute.

[20] Alexandra Molnar, "History of Italian Immigration," From Europe to America: Immigration Through Family Tales, last modified December 15, 2010, accessed September 29, 2018, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~molna22a/classweb/politics/Italianhistory.html.

[21] John S. MacDonald and Leatrice D. MacDonald, "Chain Migration Ethnic Neighborhood Formation and Social Networks," JSTOR 42, no. 1 (January 1964): 86, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3348581?read-now=1&googleloggedin=true&seq=16#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[22] Lowry, "Americans in the Raw," IV:2653.

[23] Alexandra Molnar, "History of Italian Immigration," From Europe to America: Immigration Through Family Tales, last modified December 15, 2010, accessed September 29, 2018, https://www.mtholyoke.edu/~molna22a/classweb/politics/Italianhistory.html.

[24] Samuel L. Baily, "The Adjustment of Italian Immigrants in Buenos Aires and New York, 1870-1914," The American Historical Review 88, no. 2 (1983): 285, accessed October 4, 2018, https://doi.org/10.2307/1865403.

[25] Chris Dier, "Vendetta: A Mass Lynching of Italian in New Orleans," Yat Lagniappe (blog), entry posted January 24, 2014, accessed July 22, 2018, https://yatlagniappe.com/2014/01/24/vendetta-a-mass-lynching-of-italians-in-new-orleans/.

[26] "Italian Americans," in Violence in America, ed. Ronald Gottesman and Richard Maxwell Brown (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999), http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2350011202/UHIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=UHIC&xid=91c3be59.

[27] "No Irish Need Apply," in Immigration and Multiculturalism: Essential Primary Sources, ed. K. Lee Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner (Detroit: Gale, 2006), 56-57 http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2688400035/OVIC?u=fcpsuhs&sid=OVIC&xid=ae1f3b75.

[28] Ted Chamberlain, "'Gangs of New York': Fact vs. Fiction," National Geographic News, last modified March 24, 2003, accessed September 21, 2018, https://www.hursthistory.org/uploads/1/0/7/0/107013873/gangs_of_new_york_fact_or_fiction.pdf.

[29] Estelle M. Stewart and J.C. Bowen, comps., History of Wages in the United States from Colonial Times to 1928 (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1934; Detroit, MI: Gale Research Company, 1966), 219-222, accessed January 17, 2019, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.32106007458745;view=1up;seq=8;size=175.

[30] Stewart and Bowen, History of Wages, 422-426.

[31] Stewart and Bowen, History of Wages, 253-261.

[32] Stewart and Bowen, History of Wages, 148.

[33] MacDonald and MacDonald, "Chain Migration," 86.

[34] Chamberlain, "'Gangs of New York,'" National Geographic News.

[35] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter IV, Section I.

[36] Grose, Aliens or Americans?, Chapter IV, Section II.

[37] Molnar, "History of Italian," From Europe to America: Immigration Through Family Tales.

[38] Lillian W. Betts, The Leaven in a Great City (Dodd, Mead & Company, NY, 1903), 43, accessed July 14, 2018, https://www.forgottenbooks.com/en/readbook/TheLeaveninaGreatCity_10034198#0.

[39] Betts, The Leaven, 41.

[40] Betts, The Leaven, 10.

[41] Betts, The Leaven, 43.


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