La Ruota: The Wheel

It almost goes without saying that surviving to adulthood presented serious challenges in the days of our Italian ancestors. When I researched my family tree, I could not help but pause when the documents revealed that my paternal great-grandfather was widowed twice. I have known all my life that my maternal grandmother had died in childbirth. Whether mothers died giving birth — very common— or both parents succumbed to the cholera plague that ravaged Italy in the 1840s, children in premodern Italy faced a hard life. Additionally, they began work as soon as possible. It was a strategy for family survival. 

In Sicily, very young children worked in the dangerous sulfur mines. In northern Italy’s textile factories little fingers slaved in shifts of up to 18 hours daily. In the poorest regions, especially Calabria and Basilicata, the 1860s saw desperately poor Italians lease their children to padrones (bosses) who trained them to play instruments to beg on the streets. Excluding offspring from people with money and stature, all children worked. 

Then there is the fate of newborns abandoned right after birth, another type of hardship not often considered. From the

SUBSCRIBE NOW!

online + newspaper

This section of the article is only available for our subscribers. Please click here to subscribe or login if you are already a subscriber.