Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

For nearly three-quarters of a cen­tury, Lucy Derochis, my grandmother, has struggled successfully to preserve and convey her Italian heritage while living in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. Her cultivation of familial closeness was rewarded when family members gath­ered to celebrate her eighty-ninth birthday on March 13, 1980. The dur­ability of the tight and close structure of an Italian-American family was especially apparent at that occasion.

My interest in writing my grand­mother’s story was determined by two factors. First, as a historian trained in the areas of ethnic and labor history, I realize my grandmother’s story can contribute to the record of American history. In this broad context it is one of many stories told by eastern and southern Europeans who immigrated to the United States in search of work after 1880. Secondly, as her grandson, I am conscious of the fact that her story is part of my heritage and has personal value for all of my grand­mother’s family.

The bulk of the material used in this essay comes from a taped inter­view of my grandmother which I con­ducted in November 1979. At various times before and since then, I have asked her and other members of the family about specific events. The essay that follows is based on these oral histories.

 

I

An immigrant from Soveria Mannelli, Italy, Lucy came to Ambridge in November 1913 and has lived there ever since. Ambridge had only been a borough for seven years but was already beginning to take on the character of a multi-ethnic industrial community with a central retail district. The American Bridge Company, a division of the United States Steel Corporation, established a plant there in 1902; the National Metal Molding Company opened its Ambridge plant in late 1905 or early 1906; the Standard Seamless Steel Tube plant was started in 1916; the H. H. Robertson plant was built in 1916; the Ambridge plant of the A. M. Byers Company was established in 1929; the Central Tube Company can trace its beginnings to 1903; and Wyckoff Drawn Steel Company opened in 1919. A number of these industries have changed ownership over the years and several more industrial firms have moved into Ambridge. Others have either moved out or have ceased doing business. Basically, however, the in­dustrial climate of Ambridge was well established by 1930.

With the expansion of its industrial economy, many foreign-born work­men began moving into the area. In each of the census years of 1910 and 1920, more than twice as many resi­dents of Ambridge had foreign ances­try than those whose descendants were classified as native born. In those same years, the population of Ambridge more than doubled from 5,205 to 12,730. By 1930, the borough’s popu­lation reached its peak at 20,227.

It is also possible to determine the ethnic composition of Ambridge by looking at the churches that were es­tablished. Most of the eight protestant churches had already been formed by 1904. Various immigrant parishes rep­resenting Roman, Greek, Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches were formed over the next four decades. These churches served Irish. Slovak. Polish, Italian. Croatian, Russian and Ukranian ethnic groups. Until the various non-English speaking churches were built. immigrants from eastern and southern Europe attended the Irish church, the first Roman Catholic Church established in Ambridge.

The movement of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to and from the United States in the period 1880-1914, is reflected in the history of my grand father’s and great-grand­father’s background. Before the end of the nineteenth century my grand­mother’s father had made two trips to the United States. Her husband came three times, once in 1899 and twice in the twentieth century. Eventually, her father chose the pastoral life of the peasant economy and remained in Italy.

Lucy’s husband. Frank Serianni, on the other hand, preferred living and working in the urban-industrial econ­omy he found in Ambridge and even­tually settled there. He was especially inclined to stay because of the occu­pational skills he had developed which helped him to adjust to the modern labor conditions in the U.S. As Lucy described the situation, her husband felt more comfortable in Ambridge with its cash economy and hourly work structure than in Soveria Man­nelli, with its peasant economy and barter system. “He did not know how to work over there,” she commented; he was a small boy when his father brought him to the United States. And he told her, “At the bridge works, I work ten hours, put on my necktie and good shirt. I am like a rich man.” On the other hand, in Soveria Mannelli, “I have to work morning and night, and I still do not earn any money.”

Serianni, evidently, quickly became accustomed to the work routine in America and had little difficulty learn­ing English. He came to the United States to be with his father in 1899 at the age of fourteen. “First his father sent him a little bit to school,” my grandmother recalled.

Then, after he worked as a water boy; I think in Philadelphia. He worked where his father worked, outside, with a truck, building streets and sidewalks. Then his father went back to the old country and left him with an uncle.

Serianni then secured a job at the Am­erican Bridge Company, and he even­tually became “like a foreman,” acting as an interpreter between groups of foreign-born workmen and the plant management.

Yet. Serianni affirmed his Italian heritage. He and six friends organized the first Italian club in Ambridge, the Sons of Italy, and Serianni became a charter member of lodge #164. Before returning to Italy shortly after the club was established, Serianni paid his dues for the two subsequent years. He and Lucy were married in Soveria Man­nelli in 1907, and he returned alone to Ambridge two months later.

For the next four years Serianni worked at the American Bridge Works in Ambridge. Then in 1911, because of a strike at the plant, he returned to Soveria Mannelli. In May 1912, the couple’s oldest son, Michael, was born. By late spring 1913, Serianni decided to return to Ambridge. He told his wife, “If I find the job I left, I will not come back to Italy.” He was rehired at his former job and then sent for Lucy. She, along with Mike, then eighteen months old, arrived in Ambridge in November 1913. The couple’s second child, Mary, was born twenty-seven days after Lucy’s arrival.

In Ambridge, Lucy found living conditions overcrowded and uncom­fortable. During the first winter, she lived in a two-room apartment over a bakery. Heat was provided by the baking ovens which were used only during the week. “On Saturdays and Sundays, you freeze,” my grandmother commented. Water for drinking, bath­ing and laundering had to be carried from a pump in a courtyard behind the house. All waste water had to be disposed of in an outside privy vault. The privy vault was also the only toilet facility. A small gas plate was used for cooking and gas fixtures provided the lighting.

The next year Serianni moved his family to a three-room apartment on Glenwood Avenue. There was a slight improvement in the facilities with the kitchen becoming the center of activ­ity. A small coal stove there was the source of heat and a gas stove with two burners was used for cooking. A sink with a cold-water faucet was af­fixed along one wall. It was necessary to heat water for bathing and launder­ing on the stove. Gas fixtures were still used for lighting and although there was now an indoor toilet in the cellar it was accessible only from outside.

At various times, from 1914 until 1924, between one to four men took their lodging and meals in this apart­ment. In addition to providing room (two men to a bed) and board, Lucy washed clothes. Each man paid for the services he received. Food was pur­chased on an individual basis and was stored on designated shelves in the kitchen. Each man ate according to his own taste and frequently, Lucy pre­pared a different meal for each boarder.

Food for the family was purchased by Lucy’s husband. She told him what was needed, and he would order the food at a store he passed on his way to work. The food was delivered, and Serianni paid the total cost at the end of the month. In the mornings, Lucy remembers, her husband would say:

Anything you need, you tell me. There was an Italian fruit store. It was Spagnola’s. Everything he need, he told Mr. Spagnola, you bring this to my wife. Every­thing you buy was put in a book. That was the style before. And on payday, you go pay.

On Glenwood Avenue, Lucy lived in a multi-ethnic neighborhood of European immigrants. “No American people lived on Glenwood,” Lucy said. “All the people that come, come from Europe. Any kind of people, Polish, Russian. All kind.”

II

In her daily routine Lucy had little opportunity to familiarize herself with Ambridge or to acquaint herself with the nuances of an urban-industrial so­ciety. She had two more children, An­toinette and Angeline, before her hus­band unexpectedly died in April 1918. At that time,she had lived in Ambridge less than five years and was uncertain about how she was going to provide for herself and her children. Her husband had told her to “watch the kids,” as was the custom in Italy; and he had done all the shopping and paid the bills.

Thus, the problems my grandmother faced after the death of her husband were compounded by the fact that she had concerned herself only with the care of her family, boarders and do­mestic chores. “When he died,” she said, “I did not even know the streets of Ambridge,” and she continued, “I did not even know how to buy bread.” After her husband died, Lucy recalled, “I had nobody. No mother, no father, no brothers, and no sisters.”

My grandmother seriously consid­ered returning to her native home in Italy. “I wanted to go back to the old country. Four children. Oh ya, I wanted to go back.” An Italian immigrant banker in Pittsburgh, with whom Lucy discussed her situation, persuaded her to remain in the United States. World War I was raging, and he argued that a trip across the Atlantic would be un­safe.

By the time the sea lanes were safe for passenger service, Lucy had decided against returning to Italy. A teen-age girl who lived on Glenwood helped Lucy adjust to being a widow. She of­fered comfort and stayed during the nights. She taught my grandmother to shop and to manage money and, in September, registered Michael for school. In November, Lucy qualified under the five-year residency require­ment set by a local charity association for aliens in need of assistance, and she began receiving $2 a week for food.

Over the next few years she showed relentless determination, despite seem­ingly insurmountable obstacles, to keep her children together. She successfully resisted attempts by local charity workers to place her children in an orphanage. Further financial problems occurred when a misunderstanding de­veloped with the local Sons of Italy lodge,and she did not receive the death benefits that were normally given to widows of members. Income from her boarders was not sufficient, and she resorted to her knitting and crocheting skills for additional money. In addi­tion, she washed walls and floors and did laundry. In the spring of 1922, Lucy went to work in the cotton mill of the National Metal Molding Com­pany where her spinning skills were put to use. She operated the machines that spun cotton fibers into string keeping the spindles threaded and under proper tension. When the fibers broke she had to rethread the machine.

There were no day-care facilities for children at that time. When possible. she took her children to the place where she was working. She remembers spreading her sweater on a cellar floor so her baby could sleep while she washed clothes. Three of her children were in school when Lucy began work­ing in the cotton mill, and she was able to arrange for her youngest daughter to attend school with an older sister. At noon, the children went to the home of one of their mother’s friends for lunch.

Working hours at the National made it possible for Lucy to take care of her children in the morning and at night. She could feed them breakfast before they went to school and was able to prepare the evening meal for them. Also, apparently with the consent of her employer, she was able to stay at home during the cold winter months to tend the stove which was used to heat the apartment.

III

By 1924, Lucy had to make a de­cision whether to remarry or go back to Italy. Her health had deteriorated due to conditions in the mill and the other work she was doing. Cotton dust caused an irritation in Lucy’s throat and lungs and she developed a cough. At times she could barely speak above a whisper. Her step-brother, Philip, who had come to Ambridge after the war, urged her to get married or return to Italy. Lucy was hesitant about re­marrying because she feared a man might not accept her children. My grandmother picks up the story:

When the war finish, he (Philip) came over here and found me real poor. I have to wash floors and wash clothes for everybody. I got sick. No washing machines before. I have to do crochet and sell. And it was dusty where I worked. The dust got in my throat and I could not talk.

And my brother got mad. He said, “you get married again or you go back to the old country. Over there you have a house and a little farm.” And l asked my brother, “Phil, how can I get married? I got four kids. Maybe some man like me, but he no like my kids.” An my brother say, “I know one man. He’s asked me about you. He says he likes kids.” It was Grandpa (Charles) Derochis.

Lucy and Charles Derochis were married on May 6, 1924. An immi­grant from Patrica, Italy, Derochis came to the United States in 1901, set­tled in the Ambridge-Aliquippa area in 1918 and obtained his citizenship papers in 1923. (Lucy received her papers in 1942.) After he married my grandmother he worked for the H. H. Robertson Company, the Heinz plant in Ambridge and the borough of Am­bridge.

After she remarried, Lucy no longer worked outside her home. She and her husband were able to purchase a house and an adjacent vacant lot. A friend loaned them money for the down pay­ment, and an Italian agent at a local real estate firm helped them to secure a mortgage from the bank. The family lived in three rooms on the first floor. A two-room apartment on the second floor was rented, and boarders slept in rooms on the third floor. Until the early 1950s, there were four to eight men, employed in the various mills in the Ambridge area, who roomed and boarded at the house.

Some of the farming culture Lucy left in Italy was now rekindled. Gar­dens, with vegetables neatly rowed and cultivated, were planted in the vacant Jot next to the house and in the yard behind the house where two large fig trees also grew. Two large hotbeds for starting plants from seeds were placed in the latter garden. A chicken coop, where Lucy kept her chickens, was stationed along the back of the prop­erty. A grape arbor stretched from the back stoop of the house to the chicken coop. The large gardens are now gone, but my grandmother still plants let­tuce and tomatoes each year in a small plot of ground behind her kitchen.

During their years together, three children, Alex, Rose and John, were born to Charles and Lucy. After thirty­-four years of marriage, at age 76, Derochis died in 1958.

IV

Although Lucy adapted to the de­mands and practices of the urban­-industrial environment found in Am­bridge, she has never forgotten the spirit of her Italian heritage. Close ties with family and friends remain impor­tant features in her life. As was the custom in Italy, Sundays. weddings, baptisms, first communions, confirma­tions, birthdays and other holidays provide occasions for visits, parties and the offering of congratulations. Al­though Lucy has never returned to Italy, she periodically sends letters to relatives and friends in Soveria Mannelli and is anxious to hear news about her village when people return from visits there.

My grandmother still observes cer­tain church holidays by attendance at mass. She goes. to church on Ash Wednesday, to begin Lent, and attends Good Friday services. She goes to church on the Feast of the Assump­tion of the Virgin Mary and to com­memorate the Immaculate Conception. January 1, although primarily cele­brated as New Year’s Day, is also a church holy day.

At the Christmas Eve meal, she maintains as much of her Italian tradi­tion as she can. No red meat is served, although there is plenty of food to eat. Fish and fish products dominate the menu with cookies and nuts available for dessert. Throughout the course of the dinner, a variety of thirteen dif­ferent types of food, representative of Christ and his disciples, is served. Recently, within the past four or five years, the multi-cultural influence of Ambridge has surfaced. An oblaki, a communion wafer, is passed around the table for each person to break off a piece. This is a custom which origi­nated with the Slavic cultures of eastern Europe.

There have been a few customs, however, which my grandmother re­members from her Italian heritage that have been discarded through non­-practice in Ambridge. The official end of the harvest season in Soveria Man­nelli was marked on October 1. After that date, the fields were open to any­one who cared to gather the remaining vegetables or to pick any fruit left on the trees or grapes on the vines. This practice has lost its significance in Am­bridge. Also, the practice of taking vacations on saint days is no longer observed. When asked about the cele­bration of saint days, my grandmother replies, “In my place (Soveria Mannelli) all the saints get respect. Like the day before All Saint’s Day, nobody worked. It was a big holiday. Now, in Am­bridge, the priest say All Saint, but no­body respect. Everybody work.”

Conclusion

Many of the general themes about immigrant life are apparent in my grandmother’s story. The sense of struggle, along with pride in ethnic background and personal accomplish­ment, is pervasive in any discussion of the immigrant experience. Peasant farmers from eastern and southern Europe, accustomed to dawn to dusk work routines and subsistence farming, had to adjust to functioning in an urban-industrial environment where work schedules were determined by hours on the clock and food was pur­chased from a storekeeper. All new immigrants had to learn to speak English. Overcrowded boarding houses and frugal life styles became predominant characteristics of the immigrant ex­perience. Fees paid by boarders sup­plemented the meager income of the boarding boss; and the boarders, con­sisting of bachelors or men whose wives still lived in Europe, found convenient living accommodations. The burden of this system was on the wife of the boarding boss. She cleaned the boarders’ rooms, prepared their meals and washed their clothes. In the mill towns, such as Ambridge, the immi­grants lived in multi-ethnic neighbor­hoods. Cultural traditions were main­tained by the diligent cultivation of strong family ties and the establish­ment of ethnic churches and fraternals. Upward mobility, measured by im­proved incomes and living conditions, is also a feature of the immigrant ex­perience.

Historical models tell us much about the patterns of immigrant life. Through personal and family histories, however, an understanding of the in­tricate nature of these patterns and how individual immigrants responded to them can be developed. Certainly there are many stories concerning the experiences of eastern and southern European immigrants in the United States. My grandmother’s story shows that these experiences not only vary from ethnic group to ethnic group, but also according to individual needs and situations.

 

Frank H. Serene, a native of Ambridge, received his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, specializing in labor and immigration history. His dissertation concerned immigrant steelworkers in the Monongahela Valley and their role in the steel strike of 1919. He recently accepted a position as an archivist with the National Archives in Washington, D.C.