Italy like almost all other European countries also suffered large population losses due to mass emigration during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until the 1870s, Italian emigration was on a rather moderate level in comparison to other European countries. And up until the 1880s, Italy was not typical when it comes to the emigration destination in comparison to most of its European neighbors: almost a third of all Italian emigrants actually stayed on the European continent, preferring to move to neighboring countries vs. daring the long journey across the ocean.
The large-scale migration of Italians, also often referred to as the “Italian diaspora”, began initially around the time of the unification of Italy in 1861. Modern Italy came into existence with the unification of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies with the Papal States. By 1870, the new nation had a total population of about 24 million inhabitants. By 1900 it increased to over 32 million inhabitants.
In the year 1881, only about 1 million Italians lived abroad. About 380,000 of them lived in other European countries. The preferred destinations were France with about 240,000, Austria-Hungary with 44,600 and Switzerland 41,600 Italians. Approximately 580,000 Italians found a new home in the Americas: 254,000 in Argentina, 82,000 in Brazil, 40,000 in Uruguay and about 170,000 in North America. Another 62,200 lived in the coastal areas of Africa.
However, from then on the number of emigrants increased continuously. While up until the late 1870s only about 10,000 persons left Italy, in 1883 the number of emigrants leaving Italy jumped to a maximum of 169,000. And that still was only the beginning: The US emigration & naturalization services reported in 1999 that between 1891 and 1920, some 4.11 million Italians immigrated into the US.
A study by the Italian government in 1927 estimated that there were some 9,200,000 Italians living abroad – which was one fifth of the Italian nation. This covers all emigrants not only to North America but also South America, Africa, Australia as well as other European countries.