The Italian American Dream

TIME Magazine cover, April 2, 1928 TIME Magazine cover, April 2, 1928

Gli italo americani hanno iniziato a lasciare un segno indelebile nella storia americana sin dal loro  arrivo negli Stati Uniti alla fine del 1880. Il massiccio flusso migratori nei decenni immediatamente successivi portò oltre quattro milioni di Italiani a lasciare la madrepatria in cerca di un futuro migliore in America. Mentre la maggioranza di essi furono vittime di pregiudizi e discriminazione, altri  riuscirono a trasformare quei momenti difficili in attese opportunità, affermandosi come uomini e donne d’affari di successo ed in  tal modo contribuendo alla rapida crescita del mondo degli affari nel XX secolo. Nel corso dell’anno, La Gazzetta Italiana presenterà una carrellata di immigrati italiani coraggiosi, intelligenti ed audaci che hanno lasciato il segno nell’ambito dell’economia statunitense. 

Italian Americans have made their mark on American history since arriving from Italy during the late 1880’s. By 1920, more than four million Italians called the U.S. their home. While the majority suffered prejudice and hardships, many were able to turn those difficult times into prosperity. Notable Italian immigrants and children of immigrants became successful business men and women contributing to the rapid growth of American business in the 20th century. This year, La Gazzetta Italiana will highlight just a handful of the brave, intelligent and daring Italian immigrants who blazed their own trail in American business. 

Amadeo Pietro Giannini was born in San Jose, CA in 1870 to Italian immigrants. His father, Luigi, immigrated to the U.S. from Favale di Malvaro near Genoa, Liguria in Sardinia to prospect in response to the California Gold Rush of 1849. In 1869, Luigi returned to Italy to marry Virginia, bringing her back to the U.S. and settling in San Jose. The couple grew fruits and vegetables on their Alviso farm until 1876 when Virginia, a mother of 2 and pregnant with a third child, was forced to take over their produce business after Luigi was fatally shot by an employee over a pay dispute. Seven-year-old Amadeo witnessed the tragedy.

 In 1880, Virginia married Lorenzo Scatena, who came to the U.S. at the age of 12 from Lucca. It was Lorenzo who dubbed Amadeao Pietro “A.P.,” a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Lorenzo, Virginia and their family worked the farm until a devastating drought forced Lorenzo to move back to San Jose to try his hand at the burgeoning commission business. In 1882, Lorenzo and Virginia sold the farm and moved the family to the city. Lorenzo eventually started his own produce company, L. Scatena & Co. While A.P. was a good student and a quick learner, the classroom was not where his interests lay. He preferred to be working with his stepfather in his business. 

A.P. learned about daily accounting and sales as he regularly solicited businesses by mail from farmers wanting to sell crops on consignment. A.P. dropped out of school in 1885 at the age of 15 – not to evade educational responsibilities, but to hone his potential in the business world. At the persistence of his mother, he enrolled in a three-month course in accounting at the local Heald Business School, a regionally accredited business college. He took the final exam after only 6 weeks and passed it. 

A.P.’s self-confidence and charisma gained him the respect and trust of farmers and wholesalers. L. Scatena & Co. began to accept produce on consignment or contracts for future purchases, an entirely original concept at the time. A.P. was always one-step ahead of his competitors with his intuitive deal making. By the time he was 19-years-old, his stepfather offered him a one-third partnership in the firm. At 21, he became full partner. However, even with all of the firm’s success, he dreamed of owning his own business. 

On September 12, 1892, A.P. married Clorinda Cuneo, the youngest of Joseph Cuneo’s 14 children. Joseph Cuneo was a very wealthy Italian American. An immigrant from the Genoa area, Joseph made his fortune in real estate. A.P. wooed Clorinda away from her fiancé and the two consecrated a union that lasted 50 years. 

By 1899, A.P. had turned Scatena into the largest commission house in San Francisco. He spent some time in politics successfully overpowering the then corrupt San Francisco and helping to rid it of the 20-year boss rule of Blind Chris Buckley. In late 1900, A.P. decided to take an early retirement, at the age of 31. It was time to reinvent himself. 

He became director of the Columbus Savings & Loan, in which his father-in-law owned an interest. Here he observed an opportunity to service the growing immigrant population that were without a bank. After disputing with directors who didn’t share his same vision, he quit the board and decided to start his own bank.

On October 17, 1904, A.P. Giannini founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco. The bank was housed in a converted saloon. It was a new institution for the hardworking immigrants other banks would not serve. He used his talent of judging people by their character and offered savings and loans to customers other banks ignored. Deposits on that first day totaled almost $9,000. Within a year, deposits soared to over $700,000 (more than $17 million in today’s dollars). 

When the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires struck, A.P. moved his vault’s money to his home disguised in a garbage wagon. Other banks were unable to open their large vaults but A.P. satisfied withdrawals and loans from his make-shift bank – a plank across two barrels in front of his home – making loans on handshakes. Years later he would recount that every loan was repaid. 

Branch banking was introduced by A.P. in 1909. He bought banks throughout California and eventually Bank of Italy had hundreds of branches throughout the state. Bank of America Los Angeles was established in 1923. A.P. became an investor as he recognized a potential opportunity. In 1928, Bank of Italy merged with Bank of America and continued under A.P.’s chairmanship until his retirement in 1945.

A.P. helped nurture the motion picture and wine industries in California. He loaned Walt Disney the funds to produce Snow White, the first full-length, animated picture produced in the U.S. During the Great Depression, he bought the bonds that financed the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. He provided capital to help form Hewlett-Packard. A.P. also founded Transamerica Corporation.

A.P. Giannini died in 1949 at the age of 79 and his legacy lives on. An intelligent, honest, loving businessman who was ahead of the times, A.P. is someone whom Italians are proud to claim their own.