History 1: Italian Immigration

In our Squeezebox Stories, we meet Vince Cirelli, who was born in San Francisco in the 1920’s to Italian immigrant parents. Vince lived in San Francisco during what is considered the “Golden Age of the Accordion,” which lasted between 1910 and 1960. Especially between the 1900s and 1920s, the city of San Francisco was bustling with rapidly growing Italian settlements, theaters, accordion factories, and performers.

Italian immigration to California can be roughly divided into two major periods: 1830 to 1880, and 1880 to 1930.

First Wave of Immigration: 1830-1880

Italians were some of the first European settlers and explorers who came to California. The first wave of immigration was prompted by Gold Rush. The majority of the Italians who migrated to California at this time came from northern provinces of Italy. The Italian restaurant Volpi’s in Petaluma, which hosts events in conjunction with the annual Cotati Accordion Festival, is a remnant of the first wave of migration; it was a social center for northern Italian farmers who settled and worked in the fields in the Sonoma area.

Second Wave of Immigration: 1880-1930

The second period marks the largest flow of Italian immigrants to California. By this time, the Italian immigrants’ economic activities shifted from mining to agricultural communities and manufacturing industries in and around San Francisco. Italians who came to California during the second wave were largely from southern Italy (Calabria, Naples, and Sicily), who were lured by steamship and railroad agents who promised them jobs and land. The Italians were the largest European immigrant group in California until the 1930s, when restrictive immigration laws closed the doors to future Italian immigrants.

Although Italians had experienced a relatively small amount of prejudice in the new land the past, it was not until the post World War II period when Italians became considered part of the “white” majority in the U.S. Particularly, during the early part of World War II, Italian-Americans were subjected to internment. While not as extreme or as long as the Japanese-American internment, this came as a shock to the Italian-American population of California.

Accordion’s Golden Age:1910-1960

The accordion’s Golden Age comes between 1910′s and 1960′s, when accordion manufacturers and performers thrived in San Francisco.

Since the Italian town of Castelfidardo dominated the accordion manufacturing industry in the mid to late 1800s, the reputation of Italian accordions has always been very strong in the US. At the peak of production, over 100 firms were operating in Castelfidardo, supplying the majority of accordions purchased in the United States.

The war years shifted this trend, as production slowed down in Italy and the demand in the United States increased. Subsequently, San Francisco became the capital of accordion manufacturing in the country. In the early 20th century, the neighborhood of North Beach, where the majority of the Italians settled, was teeming with accordion factories, and the accordion was a popular instrument featured in vaudeville theater shows, frequented by many Italians in North Beach.

Among the most famous figures in the San Francisco theater scene during the 1920s and 1930s were the brothers Pietro Diero (1888-1954) and Guido Diero (1886-1950). Born in Italy, the brothers moved to San Francisco in 1907, where they both contributed greatly to the popularization of the piano accordion. There is some contention regarding where the piano accordion was first invented (one record holds that the first piano keyboard was introduced by Bouton in Paris in 1852), but the Diero brothers have been credited with being the first to perform the piano accordion in San Francisco, and to record the instrument. Although the button accordion was more prevalent until this time, the Diero brothers’ illustrious career as piano accordion performers, recording artists, composers, and teachers, solidified the piano accordion’s popularity in the U.S.. By the mid 20th century, the piano accordion had become the most popular type of accordion in the United States as a result, surpassing the popularity of the button accordion.

References/Suggested readings:

Cinel, Dino. 1982. From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Flynn, Ronald. 1992. The Golden Age of the Accordion. Texas: Flynn Publication.

Gumina, Deanna Paoli. 1978. The Italians of San Francisco 1850-1930. New York: Center for Migration Studies.

Italian Americans in California (Bancroft Library)


Jacobson, Marion S. 2007. “Searching for Rockordion: The Changing Image of the Accordion in America” in American Music: 216-247.

Mignano, Sheri. 2009. “Moo-sic! Squeezin’ the Black and White” in ACR ReedWooder Newsletter April 2009. Petaluma, CA: ACR Reedwooder.

Seller, Maxine. 1993. “Antonietta Pisanelli Alessandro and the Italian Theater of San Francisco: Entertainment, Education and Americanization” in Sensi-Isolani, Paola and Phylis Cancilla Martinelli eds. Struggle and Success: An Anthrology of the Italian Immigrant Experience in California. New York: Center for Migratino Studies: 160-174.