The Salvaggio Household: Early 20th Century Archaeology of the Melpomene Neighborhood
Stop 7 of 11 on the Melpomene Street Blues Tour
In 2013, archaeological firms conducted test excavations in City Square 383 in the Melpomene neighborhood, the city block once bounded by Erato, Freret, Thalia, and South Robertson (or Locust) Streets. Testing focused on lots along the former corner of South Robertson and Erato Streets, where archaeologists identified a number of brick building foundations and midden (domestic waste) deposits. In 1895, the construction of a double house at 1300-1302 South Robertson Street replaced an earlier frame dwelling. This structure would eventually function as a combination business and residence, variously identified as a corner grocery, saloon, barber shop, soft drink establishment (as it was called after Prohibition), retail liquor business, and barroom over some five decades. A man named Saverio (Americanized to Sam or Jim) Salvaggio served as the longest tenured proprietor of this shop, and at least some of the archaeological material recovered from the address is likely related to his family’s tenure at the location from around 1905 until 1925.
Both Sam and his wife Josephine (born Giuseppa) arrived in the United States from Bisacquino, Sicily in the latter part of the 1880s, just before the infamous 1891 lynching of eleven Italian men by a mob angered over the murder of a New Orleans police chief. This violent episode, which became an international scandal, must have affected the Salvaggio’s sense of security in their new country. In 1883, Sam and Josephine married and in 1902 Sam naturalized his status as a United States citizen. A man named Hillary M. Nugent served as the witness in Sam’s naturalization. This is presumably the same Hillary Nugent listed as the owner of the 1300-1302 South Robertson Street property in 1900, an Irish-born clerk living there with his wife and four children. Nugent sold the property to Sam Salvaggio in 1908, but apparently Sam already participated in the business there in 1903, when a short blurb in the Daily Picayune mentions the results of a pool tournament at “Salvaggio’s,” identified as being on that corner.
According to the 1910 Census, Sam Salvaggio lived at the address with Josephine, their three children, and Josephine’s mother. All of these people still resided there in 1920, although daughter Virginia, now an adult herself, had married Leo Conners. Virginia continued to live at 1300-1302 South Robertson Street, along with Leo and a four-month-old infant, while the Salvaggios had added another daughter themselves.
Sam Salvaggio ran afoul of the city’s increasing attempts to segregate social spaces in 1908, when the City cited him for violating the ‘Gay-Shattuck’ law, which mandated that saloons and bars be racially segregated. Italian immigrants found themselves in a difficult situation in regard to segregation, as racist ideologues and anti-immigrant activists sought to cast doubt on the ‘whiteness’ of people from southern and eastern Europe and stigmatize them as criminals.
As for many operators of saloons and barrooms, the federal prohibition of alcohol also created legal and financial problems for the Salvaggios. Many bar owners tried to circumvent the new legislation. The City fined “Savario Salvaggio” $50 for violations of the “Federal Dry Law,” and a 1924 account of an arrest describes Frank Salvaggio, Sam’s son, as a “two-timer” for liquor-related crimes. In 1929, the police arrested Frank Salvaggio and Vincent Puleo, husband of Salvaggio’s daughter Mary, in connection with the discovery of a 75 gallon still.
Perhaps these legal troubles (and the difficulty of operating a ‘soda’ vending establishment profitably) caused Sam to give up the business on South Robertson. Sam is last associated with the property in 1925. Sam Salvaggio died in 1929, survived by Josephine Salvaggio who died in 1957, while their family thrived in the city’s growing civically active Italian American community.
The images below illustrate a number of archaeological findings from this site that tell us more about the Salvaggio family’s time living in the Melpomene neighborhood.