On The Road: Street Sellers And Children

The pioneers of real emigration were those who did street jobs and were therefore able to pass on news and reliable information for long-term emigration. In Tuscany, peasants moved to Corsica for farm work, and then to France, attracted by better wages, even though the most common qualified job was that of the image maker. Inhabitants of Liguria sailed across the Mediterranean and reached the countries of North Africa for seasonal jobs. Street musicians from all over Italy left for many European countries, and then for the Americas, while sellers of prints and haberdashery, together with woodmen and diggers, left the eastern regions of the peninsula. The Savoyard chimney sweepers were especially present in France.

The so-called “itinerant jobs” - musicians, acrobats or animal tamers, and sellers of various goods – were but a step removed from the unashamed street begging which had been endemic for centuries in times of great poverty.

With the improvement of transport and the beginning of large- scale emigration, the routes of the wanderers extended, first all across Europe, and then as far as America. The police did not look favourably upon them, as they were constantly accompanied by children whose role was to help keep the begging undetected. Their miserable fate aroused pity and indignation among the upper classes who, whether in favour of or against emigration, saw begging as evidence in support of their views. The phenomenon developed increasingly, while laws for regulation of juvenile work remained ineffective. Sometimes it was fathers who brought their own children with them, sometimes it was trusted acquaintances. The ultimate hope was that, along the highways and byways of the world, children would learn a job which would give them a livelihood.

For poor families, entrusting one of their children to a master was nevertheless seen as a sort of relief – one mouth less to feed, a small sum received as a reward, and the hope that the child could ultimately learn the trade of the image maker, hopefully becoming a master craftsman.

A “campaign” abroad meant spending two to three years on the road. The master ran a small company, with each person doing a specific job – pressing the statuettes from pre-prepared moulds, trimming them to a uniform finish and painting them.

Once they had reached their chosen destination, a workshop was opened, and the statuettes produced were sold in the streets by young boys. These statuettes represented Madonnas and Saints, the Pope (appreciated not only by the Italians but also by the Irish Catholics), various heroes – Garibaldi was successfully sold everywhere – and famous personalities of the country in which the image-maker worked (in the United States, Abraham Lincoln was very popular).

A special job: the image maker

The first specialised occupation to spread throughout the world, especially among emigrants from the Lucca area, was that of the image maker. An occupational survey carried out between 1870 and 1874, included image making among the jobs and trades of Italians abroad.

For instance, in Paris there were more than a dozen. At least six of these worked “at a superior level, becoming creators of models”. Overall, there were around two hundred image makers, while the number of boys selling the statuettes in the streets was unknown.

“This beggary disguised with the symbols of the arts” was the most widespread, tangible image of the conspicuous presence of Italians on the street all over the world. The cruelty of the “owners” towards the young children they set to work on streets far from home was undeniable. Apprentices in many fields, both in Italy and abroad, were often unwittingly involved in speculation and shady deals, though this was less common among image sellers.