Before health insurance, workers compensation, disability or life insurance, there were mutual beneficial societies. They were created at the start of the 20th century across the United States, and here in Pittsburgh, by ethnic groups to help them navigate, and survive in America.
Comprised of individuals from the same country, same city, or just the same village, society members pooled their money—often meager sums—to help each other financially if a wage earner died or became incapacitated and was no longer able to work, leaving the rest of the family without resources.
These beneficial societies had names like the Ancient Order of Hibernians (Irish), the Lega Toscana (Tuscany, Italy), the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, to name just a few. Each ethnic group created its own mutual beneficial society, often with branches in other cities across America to increase their membership and, through that, their resources.
Beyond the financial benefits, beneficial societies served an important social function. Members met at the club to eat, drink, play games, enjoy and participate in entertainment—dance or music or drama—specific to their culture. Many societies published a newspaper in their native language, with community news as well as news from the home country. And all served as informal networking venues for employment. Importantly, these clubs helped immigrants become Americanized at a time when ethnicity was stigmatized.
My paternal and maternal grandparents emigrated to Pittsburgh from Tuscany in 1910. They belonged to an ethnic club called the Lega Toscana. Members of the Lega Toscana came from Tuscany, one of the northern regions of Italy. Many if not most of the Lega members, like my family, were from the city of Lucca within Tuscany. Immigrants from Tuscany typically worked in the food industry—importing it, making it, serving it. Here in Pittsburgh, the membership roster of the Lega Toscana lists, among others, the names of the Tambellini, Poli and Sodini families, all well-known for owning and operating prominent local restaurants.
The Heinz History Center’s Detre Library is a repository for the membership information, minutes and financial records of the Lega Toscana. Reading those documents one summer afternoon in 2015, I discovered the minutes from a September 1949 meeting of the Ladies Auxiliary. It was handwritten by the newly elected secretary, my Aunt Lola, just weeks before she passed unexpectedly at age 23.
When I as five years old, I remember going to the Lega with my grandparents and having a sense that everyone at the club was a relative. They weren’t of course. It just felt that way. There was bocce on the lawn, card games, food, dancing, and lots of laughter.
Members of the Lega lived on the Bluff in the Hill District, and then, after the Liberty Tunnels opened in the ’20s, in Brookline and Beechview. Italians from Calabria or Sicily or Rome lived in their own unique neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and created their own unique social clubs.
The Lega Toscana has been gone for many years. I’ve driven up to Beltzhoover, to Montrose Avenue where it used to be, in search of it. There are townhouses there now. But the memories, and the benefits to a third generation Italo-American, remain.