In the kitchen on the second-floor apartment at 97 Orchard Street, a 1930s-era radio sits nestled within a cabinet alcove. Tucked behind the family’s kitchen table, this unassuming object is one of many that help educators at the Tenement Museum talk about the everyday activities of the Italian family who lived in the apartment from 1928-1935. This little radio can help us understand the experience of immigration and better imagine the lives of those who lived within the tenement.
When the Baldizzi family lived in this apartment, the radio filled the room with familiar sounds from the old country, helping transport Rosario, the lady of the house, back to her native Palermo, Sicily. Thanks to interviews with Rosario’s daughter, Josephine, we know that her mother used to listen to – and often weep along with – Italian-language soap operas.
Surveys of the Italian community living in Boston’s North End in the early 1940s show that people there had diverse motivations for listening to the radio, which impacted what types of programs they preferred.
Not surprisingly, many Italian-Americans enjoyed listening to programs in their native tongue. Many were still beginning English speakers, and many also appreciated finding familiar storylines, dialects, and humor in these programs.
Respondents from the survey stated that popular programs included Pasquale C.O.D., a program about an Italian grocer, and La Rosa Macaroni Hour, “the noon time drama of Lives of the Saints.” Italian companies selling products such as tomatoes, macaroni, and cheese often advertised to the community through these programs.
While serial dramas, sometimes referred to as “washboard weepers,” were popular with housewives who were at home during the day, female survey respondents largely stated that in the evenings the men of the housed decided what station to turn to, often choosing news broadcasts. Younger listeners, more interested in “becoming American,” preferred to listen to English language programs. Music hours and variety shows were quite popular for this group.
Italian radio slowed by the 1940s as the United States became involved in World War II, but English language radio attempted to capture the experience of Italian immigrants.
|Actor J. Carroll Naish |
playing Luigi Basco.
Courtesy Old Time Radio
Another popular show, Life with Luigi, centered on the experiences of an immigrant making his way in America. The CBS comedy series began every episode with a letter from Luigi to his Mama in Italy, describing his adventures as he tried to adapt to his new country. (Listen to a clip of the show here.)
Exploring the history of particular objects in the tenement apartments allows educators to set the scene for the families who lived here: we can imagine Rosario excitedly turning on the radio to hear the latest segment of her favorite soap opera, while her daughter Josephine waits impatiently to listen to her own choice of programming. How did it make Rosario feel that Josephine might have preferred English programs to Italian dramas from the old country? Would the Baldizzi family have recognized the experience of the Italians in Little Italy or Life with Luigi as their own?
Step into the Baldizzi apartment, and you just might be able to hear the faintest crackle of a shortwave radio, an object which helped connect a family to a culture they left behind in Italy, while also introducing them to a new way of life in America.
- Posted by Shana Weinberg
All photographs (c) Lower East Side Tenement Museum 2010 unless otherwise noted. See more at photos.tenement.org.