The summer of 1914 was a flash-point for the Italian immigrant families living in Providence, R.I. Squeezed on one side by an economic depression, they also began encountering unexpected increases in prices at the markets. The two forces set the stage for the macaroni riots of 1914.
Providence’s steadily growing Italian population provided tremendous opportunities for merchants with ties to the immigrants’ mother country. While English-speaking Irish immigrants had managed to insert themselves into the city’s Yankee-dominated political structure, Italian and French Canadian immigrants were less influential in the city’s institutions.
More than 54,000 Italian immigrants arrived in Providence between 1898 and 1932. And that meant a boon to the city’s Federal Hill merchants. The Italian-Americans were distrustful of American retailers. And American retailers did not understand Italian tastes – and many did not want to.
Italian merchants, meanwhile, thrived on the loyal customers they found among their neighbors. Questions about pasta had already been roiling Federal Hill, however. In 1908, F.P. Ventrone had been accused of selling inferior American-made pasta labelled as Italian.
Macaroni Savoia Brand Gragano pasta was produced in Long Island, but labelled to look as if it came from Italy. It was not made with semolina derived from durum wheat, but was dyed yellow to make it appear that it was. The scandal would play out for years.
In 1914, the Italian community experienced a second shock to its kitchens. Pasta prices increased – a lot. The price of this dietary staple skyrocketed by as much as 60 percent. Stores blamed the problem on shortages and price increases brought on by the new war (World War I) that was breaking out in Europe.
The war was an ominous and frequent topic of conversation in the homes of Providence’s Italian families, and some suspected that stores were playing on that fear to raise prices.
Providence’s mayor commissioned a study that concluded there was no price gouging going on. The Labor Advocate newspaper – which aligned with the Socialist Industrial Workers of the World labor movement – declared the study a “whitewash.” The newspaper, in a not-so-subtle threat, predicted that the establishment of Frank P. Ventrone would soon “come to an abrupt end so far as Federal Hill is concerned.”
On August 29, protesters began putting action to the words. The Italian-Americans had been protesting in prior years over their treatment by the Providence establishment. Encouraged by the I.W.W. (which figured in the famous 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in Massachusetts), Italians had marched through the streets of Little Italy supporting labor politicians and Italian pride.
Skirmishes with police were not unheard of at these events, but they were minor compared to the food riots of 1914. On August 29, a rally at the corner of Atwells and Dean Streets turned raucous. The crowd began marching down Atwells Street toward Frank Ventrone’s store.
Ventrone had come to America from Italy in the 1880s and had prospered as the Italian population of the city surged. Dubbed the “Macaroni King,” he imported pasta, produced it and wholesaled it to other groceries. He was the most obvious target for the mob.
Ventrone’s storefront windows were smashed. Looters stole pasta and much was scattered in the street. As the riot grew, neighboring stores were similarly damaged, Pearlman’s Dry Goods, People’s Pharmacy and Cardegna’s barbershop all suffered broken windows.
Police skirmished with the rioters through the next day. Both sides dodged bottles, bricks and bullets.
Frank Ventrone had been vacationing at his summer home in Warwick when the violence broke out. Returning to the city, he tried to explain his side of the story. It was retail sellers of pasta who were raising prices dramatically, not his company, he charged. Ventrone met with the leaders of the riots and agreed to lower his prices. A box of pasta that had cost $1.60 was dropped to $1.40. And, he promised to make all his pasta available at wholesale prices to any customers who came to his store -- not just retailers.
Rioting bubbled over again on September 7 in response to a Labor Day rally that decried low wages and general inflation, but police were better prepared and moved quickly to defuse it.
Fourteen civilians were injured in the rioting and 10 police and fireman. More than $20,000 in damage occurred. Eventually the economic recovery that grew out of the need for American goods in war-torn Europe would quell labor disturbances in New England. F.P. Ventrone’s would prosper through 1951.
Thanks to: Every Shout a Cannonball, The I.W.W. and Urban Disorders in Providence, Joseph W. Sullivan.