The Italian Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition
Buffalo's "Little Italy"
Horace O. (Orazio) Lanza. Class of 1901, Dept. of Law, University of Buffalo, Class "Orator". Photographer: UnidentifiedSource: Iris (yearbook) vol. 4 "Pan-American edition," 1901. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives.
Of the major ethnic groups populating Buffalo at the turn of the century, the Italians were by far the newest immigrants to the city, with the first large groups having arrived in the mid-1880's. A colony known as "Little Italy" developed on the city's West Side, in the extreme southwest corner of Main Street, extending from Niagara Street's northern tip westward to the waterfront. Most residents of this crowded and often crime-ridden area "Canal Zone" hailed from Sicilian coastal towns. Smaller settlements of Italian immigrants developed on the east side and farther north, although these areas were settled by natives of Basilicata, Calabria and Campania. For the most part, these Italian enclaves were segregated from Buffalo society, even from the other ethnic communities inhabiting the city. Indeed, of the ethnic groups populating Buffalo during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italians were the most residentially segregated. While this fostered a sense of identity among Italians, it also " facilitated their exclusion from Buffalo's wider social life.1
Italians were not well represented in the police force or in the political life of Buffalo. Supporting a family required considerable ingenuity, and usually several wage-earners, so most young people were unable to attend school beyond age 13. A few Italian immigrants had become doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs in Buffalo; the whole community celebrated when became the first Italian graduate of University at Buffalo Law School in 1901.
Most of Buffalos' Italians (69%)2 were employed as laborers, in most cases seasonal outdoor laborers. Virginia Yans-McLaughlan attributes this to the agrarian background of most of the Italians who emmigrated to Buffalo from the southern portions of Italy.
"Most Italian men chose outdoor work, to which their cultural background permitted a ready adjustment. ... A small upper class, 1 percent of of working-age first-generation males, headed the occupational hierarchy. Macaroni manufacturers, who exploited Buffalo's importance as a grain port, and produce merchants, who profited from the city's location near northwestern New York's fruit belt, were in this elite group. ... Real estate dealers in this elite group sold homes in the Italian quarter to Italians; doctors, lawyers, a few bankers and businessmen served the expanding needs of the immigrant community and established their reputations within it's confines. ... Little Italy's most successful men owed their achievements to expertise obtained abroad of to the tastes and needs of the ethnic community. [During this period] very few distinguished themselves in the world outside the ghetto." 3
Louis (or Luigi) Onetto was a prominent Buffalo businessman, an importer and manufacturer of pasta. This advertisement appeared in the July 13, 1901 edition of Il Corriere Italiano.
Whereas 87% of working-age males in Buffalo's Italian community worked in the "lower echelons of the occupational hierarchy,"[s]killed workers—tailors, shoemakers, building trades—headed this group.4 In fact, these were all trades locally associated with Italians. It is not surprising then to find that Italian immigrants in Buffalo worked as stonecutters, skilled craftsmen, and laborers in the construction of the Pan-American Exposition.
Buffalo's Italians and the Pan-American Exposition
In addition to their contributions in building the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo's Italians were represented by the many who staffed the Midway concession, "Venice in America." The gondoliers and mandolinists, some hired directly from Italy, some from the Italian community in Buffalo, were a memorable part of the Exposition. "Venice in America" highlighted many of the cultural treasures of Italy. Some of the mandolinists or guitarists employed at the Venice in America concession were: Antonio Gugino, Giuseppe Leone, Ciro Laduca, Luigi Lomanto, Liborio Maggio, Giuseppe Ortolani, Salvatore Ortolani, Giuseppe Vacanti.
The following excerpt from Richard Barry's The Granduers of the Exposition, certainly romanticized "Venice in America".
"Venice in American is the chief landing dock of the boats that make the most delightful trip within the Exposition grounds: the canal route that circumnavigates the rainbow city by day and the city of light by night. The Venetian gondoliers chant their gay songs there, and many a carol of midnight joy rings across the silent water. Not even the clearest, softest note from the silvery throat of the most celebrated contralto can equal the lustrous diapason of delicious melody that floats as free and languorous from the lips of those Venetian boatmen and laughing soubrettes as the song of the red-breasted thrush at daybreak. It dies away in the night air like the memory of a dream while in the distance, with soft lamps from the neighboring bazaars shedding their soft radiance on the canal, and with boatloads of people gliding through the luminous water to tinkling guitars and clattering castanets buxom girls in blue dance and blithesome tarantella."5
Strolling Musicians in "Venice in America". Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Cosmopolitan, vol.31, no. 5 (September 1901), p.479. Courtesy of Kerry S. Grant.
Scenes of Venice in America
Gondolas on canal in Venice in America. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Richard Barry. The Granduers of the Exposition. Buffalo, N.Y. : Robert Allen Reid, 1901. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives.
Musicians in "Venice in America". Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Pan-Am Scrapbook. n.p.: 1901? Courtesy of Kerry S. Grant..
Nina Morgana was another Buffalo resident recruited to perform in "Venice in America." Morgana was known as Baby (or Child) Patti during her early years in Buffalo, after the famous singer Adelina Patti. Contemporary articles claimed that she was from Italy, but most souces state that she was born in Buffalo. Morgana sang locally in Buffalo churches and schools from the age of four, but her performances at the Pan-American Exposition presented her talents to a much larger audience. She would go on to study in Italy and perform with such greats as Enrico Caruso. See more about Nina Morgana in the Music and Musicians at the Pan-American Exposition.
At the turn of the century, Italian music, especially opera, popular songs and instrumental music, was very popular in Buffalo and throughout the United States. Italian-American bands including the Scinta band (Buffalo) and the Fanciulli band (New York), played at the Exposition and were in high demand for concerts, dances and social events. There were no microphones or electric amplifiers, and recorded music on wax cylinders was only available to the wealthy. Below are pictures of Buffalo's Scinta Band, directed by Serafino Scinta and the University of Buffalo's 1901 Mandolin Club.
"University of Buffalo Mandolin and Guitar Club," 1901. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Iris (yearbook) vol. 4 "Pan-American edition," 1901. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo Archives
Il Corriere Italiano
Ferdinando Magnani. Photographer: Unidentified. Source: Ferdinando Magnani. La Cítta di Buffalo, N.Y. : e paesi circonvicini e le colonie Italiane. Buffalo, N.Y. : Tipografie editrice Italiana, 1908.
Although Italians were a relatively new immigrant group in 1901 Buffalo, Italian churches, mutual-aid organizations, cultural groups, and a newspaper, IL Corriere Italiano, were thriving in the crowded Canal Zone. IL Corriere Italiano was probably Buffalo's most important Italian language newspaper. "It was the first successful organization run by Italians designed to serve the entire community."6
Ferdinando Magnani, editor of IL Corriere Italiano, also published a book, La Cittá di Buffalo, N.Y., explaining and praising Buffalo to potential immigrants from Italy. Magnani supplemented his earnings by teaching and translating as seen in the advertisement below.
IL Corriere Italiano kept Buffalo's Italians informed of local happenings as well as news from Italy. There were numerous articles on the Pan-American Exposition, including a "Pan"-related poem. The paper reproduced below announces the September 14, 1901 death of president William McKinley, who was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Exposition.
Il Presidente McKinley e' Morto. Front page of Il Corriere Italiano announcing the death of President McKinley. Source: Photocopy from microfilm. Il Corriere Italiano, September 14, 1901. p.1.
Finally, this poem, written by Upilio Nuti and was published in IL Corriere Italiano, June 22, 1901. The translation below is courtesy of Serafino Pocari. It is not clear whether or not Mr. Nuti was a resident of Buffalo or one of the many people who came to the city to work at or visit the Exposition.
"Pan". Author: Upilio Nuti. Source: Photocopy from microfilm. Il Corriere Italiano, June 22, 1901. p.1, col. 4-5.
Back then, almost a year ago,
When I rushed here by train
One thing hit me right away
As I wandered around the town
And this inexplicable novelty
That wandered about my mind
For months, both night and day
It seemed to be everywhere.
I gazed at the Exposition's symbols
Reproduced in skillets and wondered
What mysterious connection united them?
I liked the burden better than its carrier!
Oh Pan-American! I am grateful to know that in English
"Pan" means "frying pan" [padella].
Buffalo, June 19, 1901
- Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. Family nd Community : Italian Immigrants in Buffalo, 1880-1930. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1977, p.116.
- Ibid., p. 45.
- Ibid., p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 46.
- Richard Barry. The Granduers of the Exposition. Buffalo, NY : Robert Allen Reid, 1901.
- Yans-McLaughlin, p. 123.
For additional information on the history of Italian Immigrants in Buffalo see:
- Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. Like the Fingers of the Hand: the Family and Community Life of First-Generation Italian Americans in Buffalo, New York, 1880-1930. Unpublished dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1970.
- Ferdinando Magnani. La Cítta di Buffalo, N.Y. : e paesi circonvicini e le colonie Italiane. Buffalo, N.Y. : Tipografie editrice Italiana, 1908.