New York, July 29, 1906 - About the first thing that happens to the Italian baby after his arrival in this vale of woe is his introduction into the fascia, in which he spends the first year or two of hislife. The fascia is a strip of cotton, somewhat on the order of Turkish toweling, three or four yard in length and as many inches in width. It is sometimes white, but more often pink, or blue, or lemon, with raised white figures and cunningly interwoven in the goods will be pet names for the baby, "Bambino Diletto,” “Bambino di Mamma," and so on. Which correspond to "Baby Darling," and such pretty terms of endearment known to mothers the world over.
When the new little Italian-American citizen is to be strapped up, he is laid on his back on a large square of white muslin, which is folded over and falls far below his feet. Then the fascia is put under his shoulders and wound round and round him. When it reaches his feet the muslin is added back over the latter, the fascia passed over it and snugly tied by the strings at either end. When this is accomplished in orthodox fashion the poor mite's arms and legs are strapped immovably down. No American baby would stand it for a minute, bat the Italian bambino endures it with a mute, uncanny patience which is stupefying to an American onlooker.
In Italy every baby, even to the child of the King, is rolled up thus, just as the Indian mother rolls up her papoose; though the bambino is not hung on a tree out of harm's way, like the papoose. In Italy the bambino's arms are usually freed at the end of five or sir months, but his poor little legs remain sequestered for a year or a year end a half.
But in this country the fascia is gradually going the way of all old country customs, even in conservative Mulberry street. The baby's arms are seldom bound now except by newcomers, and his legs are freed in nine months or sooner. Still the bright band survives, a quaint bit of local color down Mulberry way. It is not to be found generally in the stores, but comes by way of private importation, a peddler, merchant, or perhaps some housewife with an eye to business, writing to his friend in Italy to send out a dozen or so at a time.
Italian mothers generally would rather have boys than girls, and sometimes they pray to the Madonna and burn candles at her shrine in supplication for a boy. But this is only because life is hard, and a boy can win more easily. When the girls come they are just as much loved as the boys.
GIRLS AS WELCOME AS BOYS HERE
“The man does not suffer as much as the woman,” says the Italian mother patiently. But it is to be remarked that in this country, where girls have an earning capacity often equal to that of the boys in the lower grades of factory and sweatshop labor, the extreme desire for boys found among the lower class mothers in Italy dies out.
But boy or girl, Italian parent's love their children very much, and not only theirs, but others.
No reasonably decent Italian is guilty of physical brutality to his children, although constrained by grinding poverty or the peasant thrift engendered by generations of such poverty he puts them to work at as early an age as possible. The New York Foundling Asylum, conducted by Sisters of Charity, has for years followed the custom of giving babies for the first year of their lives into the care of Italian mothers who have lost their own infants. This employment is sought most eagerly, for it is worth $10 a month, and $10 pays the rent.
But they are always good and kind to the little foundlings and a mother frequently weeps bitterly when she must give up the foster child.
The first important ceremony in the bambino's life is the christening. In Italy this occurs within twenty-four hours, but in this also the immigrant grows lax, and the christening is frequently postponed for months. Eventually, however, the baby goes to the church in his godfather's arms, while the godmother holds the blessed candle at the altar.
Godparents assume an importance among Italians that is unknown among Americans. They are regarded through life as second parents. The father goes along to the christening, sometimes with enough friends and relatives to fill two or three coaches. But the mother usually stays at home to welcome the guests on their return, for it is always a festive occasion.
Sunday is the christening day and the people, being free from work, crowd the little tenement rooms. Ice cream and brilliantly frosted cakes from the confectioners' windows are in evidence, though, generally speaking, sweets never appear upon an Italian table. The Italian housewife never makes cake or pies. Wine is there if it can possibly be afforded. If not, the humbler beer will serve. But music there is bound to be. Perhaps a fiddle, mandolin or guitar, perhaps only the plebeian accordion, but some instrument will lend that atmosphere of festivity which only music can impart to an Italian gathering. They sing the little canzoni of Rome or Sicily or Naples, in all the wealth of the dialect, or perhaps some poetic masculine soul is moved to the improvisation so common in the vineyards at home, the trick of which is soon forgotten on these prosaic shores.
And whatever else there is, there is interminable talk. No people in the world extract so much pure enjoyment from simply getting together and talking hour upon hour as the Italians.
NO RACE SUICIDE
But the christening is hardly over when the stork brings another little one. Nine, ten, eleven, even twelve and fourteen children are to be found to the family in the Italian quarters of American cities. One-woman in Baxter street has had sixteen children, of whom twelve are alive; some of them married some still running at her heels. A visiting nurse was sent to investigate the circumstances of a young man threatened with consumption, who desired help to go back to Italy. Her office furnished her with blanks for recording the circumstances of the family, on which were nine spaces for placing the names and ages of the various children in the family. The visitor wrote in space after space until the nine were filled. She took another and wrote steadily until that, too, was allied. Eighteen children! When the nurse's report was turned in, it contained the following recommendations: “That the sick boy be sent to Italy and that the mother be recommended to President Roosevelt for a medal.”
Under such circumstances, the baby's migration to the street is speedy. First, he goes in the arms of older brothers or sisters. As soon as he can toddle he goes upon his own feet. As a result, in the Italian, as in all the poorer quarters, many cripples are huddled away in the tenements. Falls and injuries in the crowded life of the streets or on long flights of tenement stairs, disregarded or even known at the time develop later into deformity.
The Italian child of the quarter is always being made out older than he is. Some one "says a lie" to get him into school at an earlier age than the law permits; and again, some one "says a lie" to get him out and put him to work younger than the law allows. Wages simply will not go around among so many mouths and pairs of feet, and sometimes the bambino finds himself a unit in the industrial world before he has fairly had time to forget how his little papoose band felt. It is work given out from the factories and done in the tenements that permits the utilization of such tiny hands. Boys, and more often girls, can begin even at the age of seven, and very often at nine, to fell down the bindings at the knees of boys' trousers, sew buttons at the knees, or “finish” flowers by attaching the stems to the blossoms. When the girls are a little older, many of them go to the artificial flower factories to work, for it is a favorite trade with them, and Italian girls never enter any occupation which keeps them away from home over night. Italian girls are watched over and chaperoned to an extent that does not prevail in the corresponding social grade of any other race. It is for this reason that the Italian immigrant is never a factor in the domestic service problem.
CHILDREN AS WAGE EARNERS
Now and then on Mulberry street one sees a boy or girl sitting beside a basket or washtub full of leaves. These are the little green sellers. Their fathers or mothers, or more often the old grandmothers, go out among the Jersey or Long Island fields and pick dandelions or chickweed or buy asparagus or beet tops from the farmers, and the children sell them on the street. Italians eat greens all the year around, and consume for this purpose all sorts of leaves and weeds unknown as greens to Americans.
Many of the boys are bootblacks. They do not get more than two or three cents a shine, and may make 20 or 30 cents a day. One winter the men in New York who have stands and must pay for licenses organized to shut the boys off the street. They argued that as they paid for a license the city ought to protect it for them, and, moreover, the few cents earned by the boys did not at all compensate for the education they were losing. This attempt was regarded down Mulberry way as a typical example of the oppression of the poor by the organized rich.
Some impecunious persons with quivers overfull try to “put them away.” By this they mean to get their children admitted to some charitable institution to remain until they are old enough to work. They do not love their children less than other people. Indeed, the very attempt may be an evidence of their affection. It distresses the average Italian parent to have his children, especially his girls, running wild in the street. Discipline is much stricter in Italian than in American families. Well conducted little boys and girls in Italy, for example, will go to kiss the hands of their fathers and mothers when they come in from school. But some strange influence in the air of the new country makes all such customs quickly fall into disuse.
The immigrant parent does not understand “American children,” which is what he calls those of his progeny born on this side. “I have three Italian children and three American children,” he will say.
“But are your children good to you?” an old woman was asked one day. She shrugged her shoulders. “Oh yes, good enough for American children,” she replied. With the crowded tenement house quarters, the tempting allurement of the street life and the new language and ideas of personal liberty which the children pick up, the immigrant feels his children getting away from him and longs to have them somewhere where they will be safely cared for and educated until they are old enough to work. He takes no shame to himself for this desire, and does not understand the scorn of the charity agent when she finds it out. He regards it exactly as ambitious American parents do when they strain every nerve to send their children to colleges which are maintained by taxation or the endowments of the rich. In fact, parents who have “put away” their children will often remark quite proudly that their children are “in college.” There are English speaking Italians in New York who make a business of getting the children of less sophisticated compatriots “put away.” charging $5 for each such successful transaction.
GIRLS MARRY YOUNG
But Italians in more comfortable circumstances are as ambitious to keep their children in school through all the grades as any other race, and, in addition, it is very common to find them paying private teachers to have their children instructed in the Italian language.
At about ten years old as every Italian child is confirmed, after a period of religious instruction, which varies according to the intelligence of the child.
Every little Italian girl gets a white dress and veil for her confirmation if it is a possible thing, and the accepted confirmation garb for her brother is a nice new navy blue suit. Sad, indeed, is the bambino who must go to confirmation in old clothes, for the Italians fondly love good clothes, both men and women. They also love to put the best foot forward always, and will save and scrimp in private to make a good appearance before the community on some festal occasion, such as a christening or a wedding. One duty every Italian family considers that it owes to every little daughter, which it does not owe to the sons. As each girl approaches the age of twelve years the parents buy for her some article of gold— bracelet, ring, necklace, earrings or watch— paying for it often in installments, with much painful scrimping. It is her birthright, considered a necessary part of her marriage portion in the old country, and they make sacrifices to obtain it for her.
The Italian girl of the quarter often has her girlhood quite eliminated by marriage at the age of 15, 14, even 13 or 12. During those long pleasant years when American girls are swinging bags of schoolbooks, skating, going to dancing school and developing with a slowness which promises a youth prolonged into middle age, the Italian girl is often occupied in strapping her babies in the fascia, one after the other. An intelligent Italian woman on Mulberry street, now twenty-five years of age, was married when she was thirteen, and has had six children. She summed up her conclusions in the trenchant assertion: “No daughter of mine shall marry as young as I did.”
It is a custom among the Italians to have children follow the little white hearse when it comes for the baby. So at the bambino's last ride he has an escort, boys for a boy and girls for a girl, all dressed in white, to keep him company on the trip from which he does not come back.
New-York Tribune, July 29, 1906