``Getting their share'': Irish and Italian immigrants in Hartford, Connecticut, 1850--1940

Date of Completion

January 1992


History, United States|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




Two major episodes of European immigration, the Irish in the 1850s and a second influx of people from southern and eastern Europe around 1900, of whom the Italians were the largest single group, transformed the social, economic, and political life of Hartford, Connecticut, a medium-sized commercial and industrial city. Although the Irish and the Italians differed in many ways, both were from Catholic countries with depressed agricultural economies, and both started out in America in the bottom economic stratum.^ Most first-generation men worked at unskilled labor for their entire lives. Only a few rose to the middle or upper classes, primarily by means of small businesses serving their compatriots or construction companies. Women were vital to the support of immigrant families, earning money through domestic service, washing, sewing garments, and taking in boarders. Unlike the immobile immigrants, the second generation made limited economic progress, taking skilled and semiskilled positions in the city's industrial work force. The children of both Irish and Italian immigrants played major roles in organized labor in the 1880s and 1930s.^ Both immigrant groups suffered from prejudice, though the intense hatred endured by the Irish had largely dissipated by the time the Italians arrived. The immigrants lived in distinctly ethnic enclaves, while the second generation dispersed throughout the city. Middle-class members of both the immigrant and second generation--store owners, contractors, lawyers--were important in promoting ethnic associations and in building a bridge to Yankee society, which was dominated by people like them.^ The Irish and Italians diverged in adapting to American politics. The Irish were able to elect many officeholders through their consistent participation in the Democratic party. Relatively few Italian immigrants showed an interest in politics. Second-generation Italians, however, became a voting bloc with influence appropriate to their numbers. While political power had benefits for particular individuals, and brought some group recognition, it had little effect on people's overall lives, which were affected more directly by the economic realities of the times.^ After World War II, the aging of the immigrant generation, intermarriage, suburbanization, industrial stagnation, and urban renewal marked the end of Hartford's immigrant era. ^