POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Our Italian American Textile History

by David Trumbull -- September 30, 2011

In 1913, in his Annual Report, the president of the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers (the predecessor of my employer, the National Textile Association) spoke of foreign labor in the textile mills of New England. The address, which we have in our office archives, was newsworthy enough to be reprinted in full in the Boston Evening Transcript. In his remarks Edwin Farnham Greene of the Pacific Mill in Lawrence quotes from another speech of two years earlier—a hundred years ago this year—by a Mr. Parker, regarding the multiplicity of nations represented among the 7,000 workers at that one textile mill. He spoke of the “Austrian Polanders”, Syrians, Portuguese, French-Canadians, English, Irish, Scots, and Russians, and concludes: “In the worsted spinning room, young Italian boys have recently been tried as spinners and make a good impression."

My wife’s grandfather, Angelo DiZazzo was one of those “young Italian boys” or more properly, a young man, for he arrived in Boston on the 11th of August 1912, four days after his eighteenth birthday. It wasn’t long before he was working in Mr. Farnham’s Pacific Mill.

He was not alone. Pulling a page from the 1930 U.S. Census of the Italian neighborhood of Lawrence, we see that out of 50 persons listed, four (all of one family) were Lithuanian, the rest were from Italy or were the children of Italian immigrants. Of 22 who had jobs (remember the census lists everyone, not just adults in the workforce), 14 worked in the textile mills of Lawrence. According to the book Lawrence, Massachusetts (Acadia Publishing, 1995), "We Weave he World's Worsted" became a familiar phrase in schools around that Merrimack Valley mill city.

To our south, in Cranston, Rhode Island, the story is repeated. One page from the 1930 U.S. Census shows one person from Portugal and 49 Italians. Of the 25 persons employed, 12 were working in the textile mills.

The mills were where immigrants who did not speak English got their first jobs in the industrial cities of the Northeast. It was often hard work, for long hours, for low pay. On the other hand, it was work. And from that first start many Italian immigrant families went on to thrive in this new country.

The story of American textiles is told at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell. I urge you to visit. If anyone is interested in organizing a group tour oriented toward the role of the mills in the lives of Italian-Americans please contact me.