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Italian Immigrants in Pennsylvania

Through the use primary sources, this unit introduces students to Italian immigration as well as the settlement and the development of Italian American ethnic identity in Pennsylvania. So many Italians headed to Pennsylvania looking for jobs that, from 1890 to 1960, their population by state was the second highest in the country, behind only New York State.

Though 90% of Italian immigrants in the U.S. settled in major cities,71% of the Italians who immigrated to Pennsylvania moved to mid-size and smaller industrial towns scattered throughout the state rather than to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, the two largest cities. Students will learn about the reasons for Italian immigration, the development of ethnic communities, the differences between urban and rural life, the development of a uniquely Italian American ethnic identity, and how Italians fit into the larger context of immigration and ethnic history in the state and nation.


19th century

20th century

Ethnic history


Big Ideas

Pennsylvania History

Perspective on Events

Essential Questions

How can the story of another Pennsylvanian, past or present, influence your life?

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?

What role does analysis have in historical construction?


  • State and local history can offer an individual, discerning judgment in public and personal life, supply examples for living, and thinking about one’s self in the dimensions of time and space.

  • Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.


  • Contrast multiple perspectives of individuals and groups in interpreting other times, cultures and places.

  • Synthesize a rationale for the study of individuals in Pennsylvania history.

Background Material for Teacher

  • Ciotola, Nicholas P. Italians of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania (Images of America). Arcadia, 2005.  Part of the pictorial Arcadia series that has little text but often has interesting historical photographs.  Volume has over 200 photographs collected from Italian American families living in the Pittsburgh region.

  • Golab, Caroline. “The Immigrant and the City: Poles, Italians, and Jews in Philadelphia, 1870-1920.” In The Peoples of Philadelphia: A History of Ethnic Groups and Lower Class Life, 1790-1940. edited by Allen F. Davis and mark H. Haller. Philadelphia: TempleUniversity Press, 1973. This article provides an overview of three immigrant populations who settled in Philadelphia and differences among them. This book is old but is a classic.

  • Juliani, Richard N. Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians Before Mass Migration. University Park, PA: The Penn State University Press, 1998. Richard Juliani is the foremost authority of Italians in Philadelphia. This book is an in-depth study of the early phase of Italian immigration and settlement in the city, covering pre-Revolutionary times to the 1870s which marked the beginning of the mass immigration.

  • Luconi, Stefano. From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001.Luconi uses a political historical approach to discuss how Italians renegotiated their sense of identity from immigrant Italian to ethnic American.

  • Malpezzi, Frances M. and Clements, William M. Italian American Folklore. Little Rock, AK: August House, 1992. Although this book does not focus specifically on Pennsylvania, many examples are from Pennsylvania. Many bibliographic references listed focus on Pennsylvania.

  • Noyes, Dorothy. Uses of Tradition: Arts of Italian Americans in Philadelphia. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Folklore Project and Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial, 1989.  Book published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name. This book focuses on the history and use of the folk art traditions in the Italian American population of Philadelphia. Brought to light are the many contributions of Italian artisans to the architecture and architectural detail in the city itself in addition to personal artistic traditions of Italian immigrants.

  • Saverino, Joan. “‘Domani Ci Zappa`’: Italian Immigration and Ethnicity in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania Folklife. 45 (Autumn 1995):2–22. (pdf) This article looks at the diversity of Italian settlement and community life in Pennsylvania from rural to small town to urban and how immigrant communities developed a unique sense of ethnic identity over time. This entire issue of Pennsylvania Folklife is devoted to Italian Americans.

  • Saverino, Joan. “Italians in Public Memory: Pageantry, Power, and Imagining the Italian American.” The Italian American Review. 8 (Autumn/Winter 2001): 83-111. (pdf) Using the lens of two significant celebrations in the city of  Reading, PA, the article explores the ways that Italians created a public ethnic memory.

  • Saverino, Joan. “The Italians of Northwest Philadelphia.” Germantown Crier. 60 (Fall 2000):44-70. (pdf) This article looks at the immigration, settlement, and the development of community of Italian immigrants in the neighborhoods of Germantown and Chestnut Hill, in northwest Philadelphia.

  • Saverino, Joan. “Memories in Artifact and Stone: Italians Build a Neighborhood.” Germantown Crier. 53 (Fall 2003):48-64. (pdf)  This article focuses on the Italian contribution to the landscape and the built environment in the neighborhood of Chestnut Hill, in northwest Philadelphia.

  • Trigiani, Adriana. The Queen of the Big Time: A Novel. NY: Random House, 2004. This work of fiction is included because it focuses on Italian immigrant life in rural Roseto, Pennsylvania, and may be an accessible way for students to develop an interest in the topic. The central character is modeled after Trigiani’s grandmother who was from Roseto.

  • Viglucci, Patricia Costa. Growing Up Italian in God’s County: Stories from the Wilds of Pennsylvania. Rochester, NY: Stone Pine Books, Patri Publications, 2001. This book is listed here because it is an example of a combined Italian family history and personal memoir of Italians who settled in Pennsylvania. Its accessible personal reminiscences and stories told to the author by her relatives bring those early years of immigration and settlement in a rural Pennsylvania region alive.

End of Unit Assessment

Divide the class into small groups. Using the information gleaned from primary source documents and secondary source readings, each group is to write a short dramatization (10 minutes) that they can perform based on one of the themes listed below that pertain to Italian American history and identity in Pennsylvania. Alternatively, aspects of the themes could be successfully combined into one dramatization

  • Family Life

  • Work Life

  • Community and Festive Life

Encourage the students to be creative while maintaining historical accuracy. The dramatization should illustrate one key theme or make one key point that is relevant to the history of Italian immigration and settlement in Pennsylvania.

If time allows, you could have each student in the group do some supplementary research or read one of the longer background readings provided for the teacher in this lesson that can potentially be incorporated into the final production. The resource list provided with this lesson has many suggested sources for further research.

Note: Instead of a dramatization, students could use alternative forms such as creating a video, a radio show, or they could create a web site based on additional research they complete.


Plans in this Unit

Rural Roads, City Streets: Italians in Pennsylvania

Grade Level

High School

Standards/Eligible Content






PA Core Standard:



This lesson was created as part of a series about immigration that was placed on an older HSP website and was not created in the format we presently use. Therefore, please excuse some discrepancies in formatting and lack of fully digitized sources.

About the Author

This lesson was created by Joan Saverino with the assistance of Jennifer Coval. Updated for SAS by Clara McGrath and Eden Heller, Education Interns, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


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