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The Little Slaves of the Harp: Italian Child Street Musicians in Nineteenth-Century Paris, London, and New York.

The Little Slaves of the Harp is an original and enterprising study which follows an itinerant trade from its home bases in Italy to its three primary working locations abroad. While at first glance the subject may appear narrow and of limited significance, Zucchi's treatment is anything but, for he situates it within the general context of the great population movement of the nineteenth century, the economic and social transition from an agrarian/rural to industrial/urban age, and the place of childhood in western society.

The Little Slaves examines the causes, nature, course, and results of the emigration of itinerant workers from remote and impoverished regions of northern and southern Italy. Readers learn that Italian child street musicians appeared in European capitals after the Napoleonic wars. Because of the necessity to supplement meagre family incomes, poor parents indentured their children - mainly but not exclusively males - to labour agents or masters (padroni) for from one to three years. With these masters the children migrated to European and then American cities, where they were put to work playing organs, harps, and violins on public thoroughfares for purposes of raising money. Not surprisingly, their working and living conditions were often deplorable.

Zucchi demonstrates that the system of leasing children to masters who took them far from home was rife with potential for abuse, and he provides graphic examples of cruelty to individual children. His identification of some by name adds a sensitive personal touch, bringing to life their pathetic stories and giving a degree of immortality to the otherwise faceless and forgotten. At the same time, however, he argues that child street musicians were not always helpless victims, and that padroni provided an important economic service and were rarely deliberately exploitative. He also challenges the standard North American view that the flow of labour to capital was largely mechanistic, that power lay entirely with the capitalist padroni, and that migrants were largely passive. Rather than a form of slavery, he argues persuasively, the child street musician trade was actually a form of apprenticeship (albeit without the expectation of skill development) involving a distinct element of choice. Zucchi sees the child street musicians as petty entrepreneurs, and as important elements in a deliberate family strategy designed to improve standards of living by exploiting new economic opportunities.

Political and legal authorities, the police, charitable agencies, journalists, and the public tended to exaggerate the extent of the trade (approximately three thousand children in toto were involved in the three cities at its height in the 1860s), and to evince more concern with the perceived threat to the urban social order than with the fate of the children themselves. By the late 1880s the trade had largely disappeared from the cities of Europe and America, as a result of the passage and enforcement of legislation in Italy and the host countries and cities, changes in social and economic climates and conditions, and the seizure by immigrants of alternative employment that was more socially acceptable.

Zucchi's research is impressive in its crosscultural, crossnational range, and competence. Since street musicians were generally illiterate and left few records, he had to rely on middle-class sources, such as newspapers and the records of charitable agencies, governments, government officials, courts, and the police, an extensive array of which he consulted in archives and libraries in four countries and uses judiciously. He also includes useful supplementary materials: maps of Italy, the areas from which most "little slaves" came, and Italian neighbourhoods in the host cities, and appendices presenting sample contracts between masters and parents and the text of the 1873 Italian law prohibiting the employment of children in itinerant trades.

All things considered, The Little Slaves of the Harp is a solid piece of comparative social history. The work is interesting in and of itself. More importantly it provides insights into larger issues involving social and economic transformation, the movement of populations, and the meeting of cultures. It is recommended reading for historians of childhood, migration, labour, cities, and social reform.
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Author:McCrone, Kathleen E.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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