From the Spinner Archives

The selection below, “The Living Conditions of the Portuguese in New Bedford” was included in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts: Volume IV. The essay was part of a larger chapter entitled “The Portuguese in New England,” which was originally planned as a standalone book by the Federal Writers’ Project prior to World War II. To read more from “The Portuguese in New England” and view many more historic photographs and essays check out the Spinner IV eBook now available for download from the iBook Store.

The excerpt below provides a sketch of the writers’ interpretation of Portuguese life in New England. The stories, which are in no way scientific, illustrate attitudes of the time toward the presence of the many ethnic groups.


The Portuguese in New England
The Living Conditions of the Portuguese in New Bedford
by Elsie S. Moeller

Jack Delano made this photograph in January, 1941, along Potomska Street (now South Terminal) in New Bedford. The area was once affectionately referred to as the Portuguese Navy Yard. From there, local mariners piled a part-time trade harvesting seafood from the bay, or launched their “yachts” for summer sport. Spinner Collection.

It is believed that the migration of the old American families of New Bedford from Water Street to County Street may have begun sometime about 1818. The early whaling seamen’s tavern’s, remnants of which are still seen here and there, and their associations and reputations probably led to the changes in the residential sections.

Along South Street, so-called because it was the southernmost of the east and west streets, and Water, Wing and Howland Streets decade after decade the new arrival has fared. At first he was looking for temporary stopping places, or boarding houses, until the sure job was offered or until the whaleships went away on another voyage, and what more natural than to settle near the same boarding places. Also, at that time the old houses vacated by the families who could afford to keep them to rent, were the only places of abode for rent and, as to allowing foreigners en masse in any but the shore section of town, it would not have been allowed by any of the tight-laced old residents. If one or two found their way out to farm land, though marshy and undesirable in the section on Allen Street, towards the Dartmouth town line, it was only as “squatters” in the most miserable and straitened of circumstances. Tolerated here, also, only until the irate owner moved them on, or else because he himself was too indifferent in regards to the poor land (and there was plenty of it then) to bother whether they were there or not.

“Bringing home some salvage dire wood in a slum area.” FSA photograph and caption by Jack Delano, New Bedford, January 1941.

The first of the newcomers came from Fayal, probably before 1830, brought across as part of the whaling vessels’ crews. Here they first set up their household goods and opened their little shops. The first shop, it is stated, having been set up here by a Portuguese at the corner of Howland Street, was that of Joseph Pedro, who, it is believed, before that had a store in the center.

That the shore sections, or lowland sections, to which the Portuguese were relegated to settle in were extremely undesirable at times, the following extract bears witness, and there were many of these floods before this one, in fact they were of quite common occurrence. Especially in March and the month of the equinoctial storms, September:

“Water Street yesterday suffered from the worst flood it has experienced for a long term of years. The water entered stores and dwellings, doing a large amount of damage, and scores of cellars were flooded, many of them to a depth of more than four feet. The heavy rainfall and melting snow transformed the streets running east and west into the rivers and early in the afternoon the water began to accumulate on Water Street, between Howland and Grinnell. The sewer became clogged with snow and dirt and the outlets were insufficient to allow the torrents that were being poured in to escape. Then the water began to flow out of the catch-basins and manholes until at five o’clock the entire square bounded by Howland, Grinnell, Front and First Streets was submerged to three feet. As the water rose the families who lived in the first stories of the houses in that section were driven from their homes. It invaded stores, and cellars were filled to the floors above. Hundreds of men, women and children found when they came home at night that they were unable to reach their homes and gathered at the street corners surveying the scene with rueful countenances. Several enterprising boatmen were on hand with improvised ferries to their homes for the modest fee of five cents. On the corners of the streets leading to the flooded districts were displayed signs, ‘boats to let.’ At the corner of Howland and Water Streets the water was nearly 11 ½ feet deep.

“All who were not provided with rubber boots were taken across at this point on the boats by policemen and bystanders. Manuel Oliver, a shoemaker, was out. He will lose about $25.00. Manuel D. Rogers, grocery and provisions, was also invaded to the extent of about $200 damage. In the basement of a house that was flooded was a girl who was confined to her bed. She found herself floating around in not less than four feet of water. She was reached by men in a boat and taken to the upper story of the building. Groceries and supplies of scores of families, which were in the flooded cellars, were destroyed.”

In moving their goods and chattels the good old method of the human being as a pack horse was resorted to, the women as well as and generally before the men and the children bringing up the rear, dragging a home-made cart with smaller things. Also the neighbors all lent a hand, to be reciprocated when they were in like circumstances, and maybe if some of a certain family’s household goods were unusually large, someone found a horse and rickety wagon to transfer the necessities to the new home.

Worker in Lisbon Sausage Company. New Bedford. US OWI photograph, Spring 1942.

They did and do move often and have made considerable economic progress, as measured by the ownership of property, in every generation that has come to this country. But often sadly, it is a known fact, at the cost of the health and happiness of the entire family, the necessary money for moving and buying the property has been saved. But, particularly in the farm lands, it is well they have, for few enough men today are willing to struggle with New England climatic variableness and its farm land at its best.

The tenement, the regular two and three decker, as such was unknown in New Bedford until the 1890’s and the houses that the Portuguese occupied in the beginning were the old large family dwellings vacated for a better and more stylish district. Many families living in such houses, the climate of New England being such as not to make the Portuguese feel at home, closed up more than half of what few rooms they had and stayed together in as few rooms as could be kept warm at low cost. When they built houses they were either extremely small or merely shacks. Especially in cases where they “squatted,” the walls were of the flimsiest construction: roofs of pieces of tin and, in the undrained districts, they had to be built up on high underpinnings. If not, the whole family were subjected to the damp floors and, of necessity, a sort of trench was dug around the house for drainage. For further protection in the winter, the sides were banked with straw, mixed with dirt.

John Collier photographed what he called “workers at a linguica (Portuguese sausage) factory.” The Lisbon Sausage Company of Rockdale Avenue, near Cove Road, was managed by Jose A. Amaral. US OWI photograph, Spring 1942.

There are no statistics available for these years to show the actual number of people in a home, but as the Portuguese habit was a child a year for the poor mother, it can be understood that the number was more rather than less and, of course, there was always the boarder, sometimes a man, sometimes a girl. This boarder was often a relative from the islands, whose family, as a whole, mad not yet come to the states.

The Latin immigrant’s conception of the sacredness and exclusiveness of the homes is not what it is in the Anglo-Saxon mind. They are not fastidious as to crowding. The man and wife occupy one bed and all the children, and maybe a boarder, a bed in the other corners of the same room. This may be abominable to our point of view, but it does not necessarily imply immorality on the part of the immigrant, to whom it is all a regular part of existence.

Between 1860 and 1870 the rent for four small rooms in a small house in the South Water Street district, with an outhouse in the back yard, which was the convenience even the best families boasted of in those days, was $2.50 a week. This was exorbitant when the weekly wages of the working man of that date are taken into consideration, as he received $6.00 at the very most and generally $5.00 was the tops.

The foreigner who comes to these shores is not slow to adopt American ways of dress and living, but one of the last things he changes is his cuisine. The Portuguese still eat their best-loved dishes: linguica, chourico, chourico mouro and morselas, which has been anglicized to “morcella.” When the Portuguese mariners first landed from the whaleships they had to eat New England fare per force. What they got was dumplings, Indian meal and much chowder. Only when their families, and the few pioneer girls who came as brides, arrived were they able to have their own familiar dishes.

The families used to kill a pig once a year and, if prosperous, they killed two. This flesh, besides giving straight pork and ham, furnished the stuffing for their linguica. If they were not well-to-do, they lived mostly on beans, plain New England beans, but cooked in the Portuguese way with other vegetables, such as cabbage, onions, and other greens, which is a very tasty when it has plenty of salt. They did well even to have beans, when their rent was $2.50 out of $6.00 a week. Before the linguica was made by commercial concerns the families used to build smoke houses in their own yards to cure the lengths, as the smoking was one of the most important factors in making it tasty. The following is a genuine recipe for making those dishes:

“After killing the pig the meat is divided into two groups. The fat meat is salted and the lean is cut into pieces about one cubic inch thick. This meat is put into clay or wooden tanks and spiced with garlic and salt. Some use wine, others use vinegar. Paprika is used as a means of coloring.”

Jose A. Amaral, shown feeding the linguica from the stuffer into its casing. His wife, Maria, is tying the ends of the casings. US OWI photograph, Spring 1942.

In the Azores and Madeira pepper is also used. After a day or two, this meat is filled into casings of the pig. The washing of the pig’s intestines, the casings, is the job every girl, peasant or American immigrant, dislikes. The resulting product is linguica or chourico, according to the thickness and length and this, in turn, depends on the size of the casing. Linguica is made in longer pieces and chourico is made in short, thick pieces. If blood is added to the chourico, it is called chourico Mouro. Chourico Mouro was introduced by the Moors when they invaded Portugal. Another filling, called farinheira, is also common. It is made of corn flour, paprika and pieces of pork fat. It is smoked and becomes a light brown. Morselas are the big favorite, although they are not as common. They are made of fresh pig’s blood, onion, parsley and plenty of pepper and, if desired, rice. They are cooked and become almost black and have a strong tempting smell. They do not keep more than a few days.

In the Azores they keep them in clay tanks filled with lard. This style of keeping was absolutely necessary because the peasants have to be self sufficient. This is so because it is impossible to transport things to some parts of the country, except on donkeys or mules. The linguica and chourico and other foods are smoked in the fireplaces or smoke houses and kept over the fireplace. After being kept some time it becomes as hard as leather. In America the casings are now imported from China.

The Portuguese had gardens in the 1860’s and in all probability had them in the 1850’s and 1840’s. Whenever they have a chance to plant a seed of any kind near their abodes they do so, for it is an instinct for this industrious home and earth loving soul to plant and grow things, perhaps because he loves them. He must also have his wine, which is harmless and so grows his grapes on his farm or on a trellis in the backyard in the city, which also forms a shady spot on a hot summer day.

Early Portuguese immigrants to parts of New England are said to have been peculiarly healthy with a low death rate, maybe because most of them were mariners in the prime and vigor of their early manhood. Certainly they included but a small proportion of those in the perilous periods of life, the very young and the very aged, being mostly in the healthy ages when the mortality is low. Until 1850 the population of Massachusetts was almost entirely American, but then, as the families of immigrants began to multiply, their numerous children formed a larger proportion of the people. Their children were of the perishable age group and most of them belonged to the poorer classes, whose improvident habits and straitened circumstances are most unfavorable to the development of sound constitutions and the maintenance of health in their children.

These causes were probably the fount of the consumption, which made such serious inroads upon their numbers in later years, but which was not helped, nor paid much attention to, until the beginning of the next century. However, as the treatment for tuberculosis in those early days, in even the best of families, was “tightly closed windows and large cups of hot water to drink,” the lack of records concerning the disease among the foreign elements in the town is no surprise.

Nor could smallpox be laid at the immigrant’s door in the early years. “From 1840 until 1892, so far as appears from the records, and substantiated by several well-known citizens, New Bedford was comparatively free from visitation of the disease.”

As to the celebrations, “the distractions of that day were few. There was no means of getting about. The pleasant places that are now reached by motor so easily were remote and inaccessible, except for the wealthy.” Disporting on a Sabbath was frowned upon. The psychological effects of healthy recreation were as unknown as croquet. No clubs had yet been formed and the Portuguese had to depend on himself and the sparse elements for his recreation. The Portuguese must be gay even if he is not cheerful, “for judging by their amusements in the islands, they are not a cheerful people, but their celebrations are gay. The dances and crowded balls, which are constantly occurring, the religious processions in the streets and the exciting church services, which the policy of the Church of Rome has accommodated to their tastes, indicate a necessity for stimulus, which a cheerful people seldom need, but which is necessary to produce gaiety. Certainly the native Americans of that date did not go in for gaiety very heavily and this may be part of the reason why at least one quarter of the Portuguese elected to spend their old age in the old country.

There were no records kept in New Bedford previous to 1891 to show whether the Portuguese voted religiously when he had the chance or not, but an elderly gentleman, who was acquainted with some of the older residents, states that, to his mind, the first generation of Portuguese immigrants made wonderful residents. They were industrious, thrifty, righteous, peaceful and courteous neighbors, but they were I no hurry to either become citizens or vote. A great many of them returned to their native land, either yearly or when they considered they had saved enough money to live there comfortably for the rest of their lives.

“Portuguese girls manufacturing gas masks.” US OWI photograph and caption by John Collier, New Bedford, Spring 1942.

He could not say much of the second generation, when it came along about the 1880’s and 1890’s, but that it was then they began to figure in court for all sorts of misdemeanors, which the first generation had been innocent of. Yet the truer to their original make-up the aliens remain, the harder it is always for them to become assimilated if they make their abode here. For they remain a stranger in a strange land, sometimes all their lives, that is, to the casual American. Because their appearance is against them they are spotted at first sight as not belonging to the flock.


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