Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950

Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950

Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950

Workshop to Office: Two Generations of Italian Women in New York City, 1900-1950


In turn-of-the-century New York, Italian immigrant daughters spent their youth in factories while their mothers did irregular wage labor as well as domestic work at home. By the I940s, Italian-American girls were in school, socializing and preparing for white-collar jobs that would not begin until they were eighteen. Drawing on a range of sources from censuses to high school yearbooks, Miriam Cohen examines shifting patterns in the family roles, work lives, and schooling of two generations of Italian-American women. Paying particular attention to the importance of these women's pragmatic daily choices, she documents how major social and political changes helped create new opportunities and constraints for the second generation.

While financial need was a powerful factor in determining the behavior of the first generation women, Cohen shows, they and their daughters succeeded in adapting family survival strategies to new work patterns. Once the second generation was married, their careers mirrored those of the first in many ways: they raised children, cared for the home, and took on paid employment when necessary. Unlike their mothers, however, these Italian-American wives could also participate in the growing consumerism surrounding home and childcare. Throughout, Cohen compares the changing Italian-American experience with that of Jewish women, discovering significant similarities in these experiences by 1950.

As well as presenting a nuanced portrait of one group of ethnic working-class women, Workshop to Office demonstrates the impact of political developments on individual lives. It will spark lively debates among students and scholars of social history, immigration history, labor history, women's history, and the history of education in the United States.


No one can be said to understand the economic conditions of this population who fails to understand the important role played by the women.

--Robert Foerster, Italian Emigration of Our Times

In 1914 eleven-year-old Rose Peccara of Jones Street in Manhattan told a social worker about her daily chores.

I am a little girl, eleven years old. I live on Jones Street in a tenement. I have many sisters and brothers and we all help to do the work in our house.

Every morning before school, I sweep out three rooms and help get breakfast. Then I wash the dishes.

After school, I do my homework for an hour, then I make flowers. All of us, my sisters, my cousins, my aunts, my mother work on flowers. We put the yellow centers into forget-me-nots. It takes me over an hour to finish one gross and I make three cents for that. If we all work all our spare time after school, we can make as much as two dollars between us.

In the mornings, on the way to school, I leave finished flowers at the shop, and stop for more work on the way home.

In the summer, we do not make flowers. But I mind Danny, my baby brother, all the time. My mother says she would rather work in a shop than have to mind bad kids. But she does not go to work, she stays at home and I do lots of housework for her. Sometimes I do the washing.

In the summer I don't have much time to play because always I must mind Danny. All during vacation, I carry lunch to my father. He works at a barber shop on 23 Street and every day in summer I walk there and back for him.

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