According to Donna Gabaccia, in her book Italy’s Many Diasporas, Italian migration happened in waves and there were different motivations for emigrating that depended on social status, political climate, and economics. One of the waves Gabaccia describes as the “Workers of the World” included mostly young men, often single, who left Italy for work.[i] These Italians immigrated to America to find jobs, make money, and return to Italy. When looking at Italian immigrants living in Alexandria from the 1920 U.S. Census, I was most interested in these “workers of the world,” and yet, their position as such made them difficult to find them. Twelve Italian immigrants, eight of whom were single men, boarded together on 23 B North Columbus Street.[ii] Given that they were not establishing a home nor a family, these men were likely not planning on staying in the United States. When I tried to research the individual men, I could not find record of them beyond the census (although there could have been alternative spellings of their names). For example, Vincent Till, a 35 year old fireman working at the Acid Plant, or his brother, Frank Till, working the same job, are unable to be tracked in any birth, death, or marriage certificates nor any travel or immigration documents on Ancestry.com.[iii] Vincent Till and Frank Till are not an anomaly, the same thing happened when I searched for Anthony Capalai, a 21 year old carpenter, and Joseph Cappolett, a 24 year old truck driver.[iv]
As you can see in Figure 1, the location of this apartment on 23 North Columbus Street is just a couple blocks from the water. Many of these lodgers were likely working in the port on the Potomac River. This gives more evidence to the idea that people like the Tills, Capalai, and the Cappolett were here exclusively for work, even if that meant squeezing into an apartment that was close to work just to save money and prevent any extra costs.
Figure 1 (Courtesy of Google Maps)
The Tills’ occupation as firemen at the acid plant does not seem like an ideal job. I found dozens of articles in the Washington Post describing fires at the acid plant throughout the early 1900’s. Figure 2 is a clip from the Washington Post on August 18, 1900 that announces a fire at the acid plant that started in the engine room.[v] Although this is before the Tills worked there, it seems that they knew it was a dangerous occupation when they entered it. Figure 3 shows another clip from the Washington Post on July 6, 1925 that describes a similar fire at the acid plant, now renamed, that was caused by lightning.[vi] This means there were fires before the Tills, and after them, and likely while they were there hence their position as fireman. The Tills, like most Italian working immigrants from 1870 to 1914, landed an occupation that required minimal skill. It was a seemingly dangerous occupation.
“Alexandria News in Brief,” The Washington Post, Aug 19, 1900. Accessed October 10th, 2016, ProQuest.
“140,000 Blaze Demolishes Big Alexandria Plant.” The Washington Post, July 6, 1925. Accessed October 10th, 2016. ProQuest.
Although there is not enough information available to truly understand the lives of these men, the limitations of the data available speaks volumes. If they had chosen to stay in America, establish families, continue to work, there would likely be record of such, although changes in spellings make it difficult to track them. This fact, combined with poor and dangerous working and living conditions, explains why these “workers of the world” likely migrated to other countries for better work and or returned home to Italy.
[i] Donna Gabaccia, Italy’s Many Diasporas (Routledge: New York, 2000).
[ii] 1920. U. S. Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria,Virginia, digital image, accessed October 9, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com/.
[iii] 1920. U. S. Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria,Virginia, Frank Till, line 69, digital image, accessed October 9, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com/.
[iv] 1920. U. S. Census (Population Schedule), Alexandria,Virginia, digital image, accessed October 9, 2016, http://www.ancestry.com/.
[v] “Alexandria News in Brief.” The Washington Post, Aug 19, 1900. Accessed October 10th, 2016, ProQuest. http://ezproxy.umw.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/144205032?accountid=12299.
[vi] “140,000 Blaze Demolishes Big Alexandria Plant.” The Washington Post, July 6, 1925. Accessed October 10th, 2016. ProQuest.