The 1950s – 1960s
The Changing Landscape
It was the 1950s. The average cost of a new house at the beginning of the decade was $8,450, while the average wage was $3,210. A gallon of gas cost 18 cents and a new car would set you back $1,510. On the other side of the things, technology was very expensive – a Stromburg black and white television cost $250, while a clock radio could fetch $60. In 1950, Diners Club issued the first credit card and the United Stated entered Korea for a “police action” lasting 2 years, 33,000 American lives lost and over 100,000 injured. As they had done so valiantly during WWII, Italian Americans joined the fight, four of whom earned our nation’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor
During the 1950s, many Italian Americans received college educations and began to successfully pursue the American Dream. When the great migration began, over 60 years earlier, Italian immigrants arrived on the shores in large numbers, many of whom were skilled in trades such as masonry, stone cutting, carpentry and railroad construction. This helped to fuel a booming industrial economy of our nation. Italians brought their culinary skills and opened bakeries, producing the best bread and pastries imaginable. In Newark, home of The Italian Tribune, there were exceptional bakeries including Di Noia, Columbus, Vecchione, Racioppi and perhaps the most famous – Giordano’s.
World War II had been a critical benchmark in the acceptance of Italian Americans. Their wholehearted support of America’s cause and their disproportionately high ratio of service, led to a higher level of acceptance within America. The war also transformed many Little Italy’s, as men and women left for military service, or to work in war industries.
Italians continued to immigrate to the United States, and an estimated 600,000 arrived in the decades following the war. Many of the new arrivals had professional training, or were skilled in various trades. The post-war period was a time of great social change for Italian Americans. Many received a college education and this provided greater job opportunities. Italian Americans had finally won acceptance into mainstream American life. On the other hand, the old Italian neighborhoods in the cities began to change, as the younger generation often chose to live in other urban areas and in the suburbs. During its heyday, the First Ward of Newark around Seventh Avenue had a population of 30,000, including 11,000 children, in an area of less than a square mile. The center of life in the neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, founded by Italian immigrants in 1891. Throughout the year, St. Lucy’s and other churches sponsored processions in honor of saints that became community events. The most famous procession was the Feast of St. Gerard, but there were also great feasts for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Our Lady of Snow, the Assumption, and St. Rocco.
Joe DiMaggio loved the restaurants of Seventh Avenue so much that he would take the New York Yankees to Newark to show them “real Italian food.” Frank Sinatra had bread from Giordano’s Bakery regularly sent to him in California. The Italian Tribune, was founded on Seventh Avenue. The area produced stars such as Joe Pesci and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. The neighborhood was notoriously devastated by urban renewal efforts during the 1950s, scattering the Italian American residents. Most of its businesses never recovered. The construction of Interstate 280 also served to cut the neighborhood off from the rest of the city.
But Italian Americans took advantage of every new opportunity and made many significant contributions to American life and culture. Numerous Italian Americans became involved in politics at the local, state and national levels in the post-war decades. John Pastore of Rhode Island, became the first Italian American elected to the Senate in 1950. The 1950s saw the development of the national highway system and in the home state of The Italian Tribune, 1951 marked the opening of the New Jersey Turnpike. That same year saw Italy grant independence to its former colony Libya. By 1952, 3 out of 5 households in the U.S. had at least one car. The average age for a woman to get married was 20 years old and the first color television sets went on sale in the U.S. costing close to $1,200.
In 1953, Dwight Eisenhower came to the office of president. This ushered in an era of general prosperity at home and tensions abroad. The cold war with the USSR escalated, as that country tested its hydrogen bomb. 1954 saw the closure of Ellis Island – the place where many Italians had disembarked upon arrival into the U.S. In the news that year Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, the Tonight Show premiered on TV and Elvis Presley began his musical career. Italian Americans were active in professional sports as players and coaches. The Yankees were the team to beat in baseball, led by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Vic Rashi, which led Yogi to say that the Yankees were so successful because they led the league in Italians.
In 1955, the minimum wage reached $1. Thirty-one year old Rocky Marciano retired from the sport of professional boxing during April of 1956 as the only champion with a perfect record, having won all 49 of his professional career match-ups. Italian American Ken Venturi burst onto the golf scene as a 24-year old amateur, by finishing second in The Masters in 1956 and The Winter Olympic Games were held in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. That year also saw 52 people die when the Andrea Doria and Swedish liner S.S. Stockholm collided off Nantucket Island, Mass. on July 25th.
Scores of Italian Americans became well known singers in the 50’s and 60’s including Mario Lanza, Buddy Greco, Vic Damone, Al Martino, Frankie Laine, Bobby Darin, Julius La Rosa, Frankie Avalon, Buddy Rydell, Dion (and the Belmonts) and Connie Francis. Italian Americans even became hosts of popular musical/variety TV shows including Perry Como (1949 to 1967), piano virtuoso Liberace (1952–56), Jimmy Durante (1954-56), Frank Sinatra (1957–58) and Dean Martin (1965-74). Broadway and operatic stars also included Carol Lawrence, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Sergio Franchi and Ezio Pinza.
In music composition, Henry Mancini and Bill Conti received numerous Academy Awards for their songs and film scores. Numerous Italian Americans became well known in movies, both as actors and directors, and many were Academy Award recipients, most notably, Frank Capra, who had won six Academy Awards as a director, including “It’s a Wonderful Life”.
1957 saw the launch of the Sputnik and the beginning of the “space race”. That year was notable for the signing of The Treaty of Rome by Italy, West Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands establishing the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union. The Treaty of Rome created a common market to be shared between the six countries and was one of the main documents used to create the European Union in the 1990s.
A recession hit the U.S. in 1958. That was bad news for Ford’s new brand – Edsel. After an enormous investment by the car maker, the brand last only a few years and remains one of the classic examples of a failure by big business.
By 1960 the average cost of new house was $12,700. A gallon of gas was 25 cents and the average cost for a new car was $2,600. You could buy a Piaggio Vespa Scooter for $320, or a 23-inch TV for $220.
The Summer Olympics of 1960 were held in Rome. These were the first games to be fully covered on television. 83 countries sent over 5,000 athletes to participate in the 150 sporting events. The Soviet Union, United States, and Italy won the most medals. These games were also notable because Rome used ancient sites to host certain events, providing an interesting backdrop for the games.
But even in the 1950s and 1960s, Italians encountered prejudice and negative stereotypes. Often victimized by organized crime, Italian Americans also found their collective reputation tarnished by this horrific stereotype, even as they climbed the socioeconomic ladder.
1960 saw the election of John F Kennedy as president, the first (and only) catholic president of the United States. In that year 3,000 U.S. soldiers were sent to Vietnam. The cold war continued to worsen in 1961, with the building of the Berlin Wall. The Soviets put the first man in space on April 12. The U.S. sent Alan Shepard into space three weeks later. In the following year, the cold war reached its peak during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The biggest event of 1963 was the assignation of JFK. Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency with difficult times ahead due to the mounting issues of civil rights and an increased involvement by the U.S. in Vietnam. The Beatles came to America in 1964, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. The mop-topped band would strongly influence fashion and culture throughout the decade and their musical influence continues through today. 1964 also saw the opening of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge joining Staten Island and Brooklyn.
By 1965, the U.S. had committed over 200,000 troops to Vietnam and the first anti-war demonstrations began to take place. On November 9th the Great Northeast Blackout occurred. A small error in resetting a relay by a maintenance worker ultimately caused a power outage effecting tens of millions of people. 1966 saw an even broader level protest against the war on college campuses across the nation. The mini skirt became a fashion trend and in Italy, the Arno River flooded the city of Florence, causing the destruction of thousands of historic books, manuscripts and fine art.
The beginning of 1967 saw the first Super Bowl game, won by Italian American, Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. Racial tensions in urban areas erupted and during the summer, cities throughout the U.S. experienced rioting and looting, the worst being in Detroit, where 7,000 members of the National Guard were bought in to restore order. Newark, NJ was gripped in terror over six long days of rioting from July 12 -17. Ironically, during this turbulent time, Italian American identity strengthened. As American core values came under assault and urban centers were torn by riots and civil protest, ethnic traditions surrounding family, neighborhood, and homes gained heightened visibility and strength. New Italian American organizations and publications fostering ethnic identity came into being, and many old rituals experienced a resurgence.
The decade continued with turmoil, but ended with a positive note in 1969, with two manned missions to the surface of the moon. The first steps were by Neil Armstrong, followed by Glen Ridge, NJ-born Buzz Aldrin on July 20th.
During the decades of the 1950s and 60s, Willie Mosconi was a 15-time World Billiard champion; Eddie Arcaro was a 5-time Kentucky Derby winner and Mario Andretti was a 3-time national race car champion. He also won the Indy 500 in 1969 – in his backup car!
Italian Americans founded many successful business enterprises, both small and large, in those post-war decades, including: Barnes & Noble, Tropicana Products, Zamboni, Transamerica, Subway and Mr. Coffee. Other enterprises founded by Italian Americans were Fairleigh Dickinson University, the Eternal Word Television Network, and the Syracuse Nationals basketball team – later to become the Philadelphia 76ers.
Top of page L to R: the New Jersey Turnpike opened in 1951; Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart, seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, Newark, NJ. Stone carvers and masons were brought from Italy to build the Cathedral; Giordano’s Bakery; Ace Alagna, publisher, in front of Tribune building; (2nd row) black out in NYC, 1965; Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi getting carried off field; Rocky Marciano, fighter; Yankees Phil Rizzuto, Joe Di Maggio and Yogi; (3rd row) Vocalists: Dion and the Belmonts, Bobby Darrin,Valentino Liberace, Perry Como, Dean Martin