“Young Italy in Boston,” by Stella (from Robert Merry’s Museum, January 1870; pp. 30-32)
In the city of Boston there are many Italians; and they lend an element of picturesqueness to our practical city life. They herd together in Ferry Street and its neighborhood, which, although the home of these black-eyed, olive-cheeked children of the south, is nowise different from a hundred others of the poorer streets and alleys. In its shabby houses you see nothing suggestive of Florence or Naples, unless some Italian woman comes to the door with her baby, and shakes her head sadly to tell you that she does not comprehend a word you say.
The coming of a stranger to the neighborhood attracts a dozen heads to half as many windows. If you are an artist, you are bewildered with the army of “models” before you. For a moment you forget that you are in Boston, and fancy that this mild south wind, which comes from Roxbury and Dorchester, floats towards you from the Campagna. If you don’t speak Italian, you must rely upon the children for intelligent comprehension of what you have to say. Many of them will gather about you; but among them you will not find Douny, or Charlie, or Lina,—familiar faces of favorite models in the studios, originals of many a picture of candy-boy or match-seller, of vender of oranges, apples, and chestnuts. Where are they? Away up town, driving brisk trades all day, and supporting many of these families. Think of that, Johnnie, and Phil, and Willie! Don’t you honor them for it? I do.
But why do they do it? Thus it comes about. The family come here from Italy. Neither father nor mother can speak other language than the Italian, and they cannot easily learn another; but the children, with that quickness and love of imitation peculiar to youth, easily acquire our language, and act as interpreters to their parents, who thus come to rely upon them in their intercourse with strangers. So it easily happens, that, when they are settled in Boston, the children are the most active members of the family. The father may grind an organ, but the child must go with him to take the pennies and beg for an occasional slice of bread or drink of water. This is often the summer’s occupation; but in winter the organ must go back to its owner, a man who owns a large number of organs, and rents them at prices corresponding to their value.
So, when winter sets in, the “street children” come back from
the country towns and villages, their organs are returned to the owners, and the boys and girls may now be seen at the street corners, selling apples, candy, chestnuts—whatever the market affords. You do not notice them as you pass. You see their tables and baskets, and perhaps you buy some of their fruit and sweet-meats; but you do not look into the little faces which are growing old before their time in their efforts to keep the wolf, Hunger, from the door at home. Some of these children are of gentle disposition, having the tenderest affection for their little brothers and sisters, and honoring their fathers and mothers as some American children do not.
They lead a rough life of it, exposed, at the street corners, to insolence of every kind; but it does not spoil their tempers. They expect rough usage from thoughtless or hard-hearted men and boys; and they never forget a kindness, be it only a friendly smile or an inquiry as to their success in trade. Most of these little street traders get their fruit from an agent who buys largely, dealing out to these children, and requiring a strict account of everything sold, and a per cent. of the profits. If a bad boy steals an apple from them, the poor little Italian girl must pay for it or get a whipping, as if she had stolen it herself. For this reason the children seldom eat the articles they sell. Probably they care less for them than do the children who get them only in exchange for precious pennies; but who knows the trials of the hungry child who has had an insufficient breakfast and no dinner, and who sits all day behind a table of dainties to taste not, touch not, save to hand them to others!
Many of them have a lively recollection of Italy, and at times long to go back “where it is not so cold, and they have plenty to eat.” We say that these children are tough and rugged; and so they are, compared to those more tenderly reared; but many of them die in the hardening. Who can forget Celestina, the gentle little girl who sat so patiently, hour after hour, during our first attempts at sketching from life? There were ten or more young ladies in the class, and all loved the pensive little face which smiled at our mention of the weariness which she tried in vain to conceal. One day she did not appear at the appointed hour. Something was wrong, for Celestina always kept her word. There was a group of candy children huddled in the entry near the studio; and, in answer to our questions, the reply was, “Celestina has the fever.” For three months the little patient lingered between life and death,
and finally went to the world beyond—the journey smoothed by tender hearts and loving hands. When it was known how the little girl was suffering in her poor, crowded home, the family living and sleeping in the same room where she tossed and moaned, some kind ladies, who had loved to draw her sweet face, carried her jellies and oranges, clean sheets and night dresses—things which were luxuries in Ferry Street, but a necessity in your home, dear reader—things for which you never lack, for which you even forget to be grateful. When they saw how Celestina suffered in that hot and noisy kitchen, they had her carried to the City Hospital, where she had a clean, airy, quiet room, and the best of care. But she was too delicate a flower to live again in the close, dark room in Ferry Street. God took her by the hand, and led her to his beautiful home—more beautiful than the sunny Italy for which she had longed when the Atlantic winds swept over Boston and penetrated her thin shawl, and pinched her little fingers.