Thirty years ago, the Senator John Heinz History Center embarked on a mission to preserve and interpret the history of Italian migrants that settled in Western Pennsylvania. The initiative began at the encouragement of Italian American community leaders who sought to recognize the legacy of Italian immigrants in the region. They discussed funding a museum, but several involved in the conversation encouraged the group to consider the historical society where a collection could be built and cared for into the future. This is when the Heinz History Center became part of the story.
Western Pennsylvania, as well as West Virginia and Eastern Ohio, is situated in an area of America rich with bituminous coal and, during the Second Industrial Revolution, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as African Americans from the South, migrated into the region and worked in the mines and mills. In 1880, the state of Pennsylvania had 2,800 Italian-born residents; by 1920, the Italian-born population was 222,764, a nearly 80 percent increase in 40 years. As laborers moved in, out, and around the region, communities developed from the coal patches and boarding houses into dynamic districts and neighborhoods with churches, small businesses, club houses, and adorned spaces reminiscent of the homeland left behind.
By the second half of the 20th century, Italian Americans became one of the nation’s largest ethnic groups, and their impact on the region’s political, economic, religious, and cultural landscapes could not be disputed. Historical societies and museums around the country turned their attention to ethnic communities at the end of the 20th century. At this point in American history, the descendants of Southern and Eastern European immigrants, now in the third generation in the United States, looked for representation in the story of our nation. The monumental task of documenting this unique culture which developed from traditions transplanted from Italy and transformed by generations in the United States began.
Since the Italian American Program launched, advocates from the community helped develop priorities, including efforts to identify historic collections and build relationships with individuals and organizations throughout the region. Today, Pennsylvania has roughly 1.4 million people claiming Italian ancestry and, in Western Pennsylvania, nearly 15 percent of the population identifies as Italian American. With this guidance and the generosity of donors, the History Center has amassed one of the largest collections of Italian American material culture in the United States. The institution houses 1,000 textiles, tools, housewares, decorative objects, and other three-dimensional items reflecting the Italian American experience. In the museum’s archives, there are thousands of primary records including manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, immigration documents, records from clubs and fraternal societies, and oral history interviews. Together, these remnants of lives lived tell a comprehensive story, one that represents the multi-faceted experiences that contribute to Italian American identity and the history of Italian Americans in the United States.
In “Highlights From the Italian American Collection: Western Pennsylvania Stories,” you’ll read about artifacts from the Italian American Collection. They were selected because they tell us something about Italian immigrants and their descendants—how they lived, how they worked, how they ate, and how they built their communities. Each piece has an individual or personal story, even if it was widely available or mass-produced. Each also connects to a larger moment in history: the story of a neighborhood, an industry, or something more abstract such as faith or fandom. Some objects endure as the sole vessel of a story, while others belong to a suite of items. When possible, supplemental archives and oral history excerpts are featured alongside objects to give a fuller picture of an experience. That’s what is exciting about telling stories with objects—the material that has survived from that moment in time brings history to life. It is my hope that you will find references to your legacy and share it with the next generation of Americans with Italian heritage in your family or community.
To purchase a copy of the History Center’s new publication “Highlights From the Italian American Collection: Western Pennsylvania Stories,” please visit the museum’s online shop.