Honoring a New Facet of Our History at BKH
A document found in the BKH attic featuring the Giacona family business's letterhead. Dated February 8, 1917.
At the Beauregard-Keyes House we have long celebrated our French Creole heritage, which dates back to Joseph LeCarpentier for whom the house was built in 1826. We continue to honor (and thank our lucky stars for!), the fine restoration work that author Frances Parkinson Keyes and architect Samuel Wilson, Jr. lovingly put into the home in the 1940s and 50s when it was so desperately needed. General P.G.T. Beauregard’s brief tenure in the house as a renter after the Civil War ended up saving it from demolition in the 1920s, as some of New Orleans’s wealthy women bought it to honor his memory. This legacy, too, therefore plays a role in remembering the history that serves as the bones of our museum.
As BKH moves into its 47th year of museum operations, there are many aspects of the home’s history that, though documented, have not been as heralded as the stories of Mrs. Keyes and General Beauregard. We believe that it is time that these histories be more deeply explored and embraced.
No matter one’s stance on immigration in today’s society, there is no debate that the issue has been at the forefront of the national news as of late. New Orleans’s culture, like so many major American cities, can be easily understood through a study of the history of immigrants who came to the city and when they did so. Famously, first came the French, imparting catholicism and the culture of cafes and laissez faire and, you guessed it, carnival. Then came the Spanish with their architecture, and the Africans with their food, and the music that changed, well, everything. Eventually the Americans came, too, with their government and the Irish with their pride and their numbers: the po’ boy sandwich was invented to feed the massive numbers of Irishmen who built so much of the port that keeps our city vital.
Note: For the sake of brevity, I have included but a few examples from each ethnic group here. Make no mistake, a full discussion of each of these cultures' enormous contributions to New Orleans life would be far longer than these pages.
Later came the Italians, or in the case of New Orleans, the Sicilians. They brought food and wine and [more] religion and industry! As is often the case, Sicilian immigration was not originally embraced in the Crescent City during its boom-time in the early 1900s. Now, we look back and see that Sicilians have enriched the city immeasurably, from their tangible influences on food (hello, macaroni and muffaletta and Pascal’s Manale), music (Dixieland isn’t Dixieland without early Italians like Nick LaRocca), and religion (the entire city observes and second-lines for the Sicilians' St. Joseph's Day), to the less tangible but just as present sense of the Italian as an integral piece of the modern New Orleanian identity.
The lower Quarter, which is home to the Beauregard-Keyes House at 1113 Chartres Street, was known as Piccolo Palermo by 1900 as its Sicilian population had become extremely dense. While many immigrants struggled, others found quick success within the U.S.’s capitalist system. Originally located just behind 1113 Chartres, the Brocato’s pastry and gelato empire took off quickly, as did the fruit importation business of the Vaccaro’s. In 1904, 1113 Chartres was sold to Corrado Giacona. Corrado and his father Pietro were wine merchants who moved their large family into the house and whose business, C. Giacona & Co. Wholesale Liquor Dealers, thrived out of the home’s basement for 15 years, until Prohibition came and dramatically altered the playing field.
Business letters circa 1915 to Corrado Giacona from buyers in Philadelphia and California. The California buyer is requesting 25 barrels of Cerasola [Cerasuolo] wine, which the Giaconas may have produced themselves in the basement of 1113 Chartres. The letter on the right is written in Italian.
In 2001, a staff member of BKH discovered a stack of damaged but mostly legible papers in the attic, hidden beneath one of the dormers. These papers, it turned out, had been there for close to a century, likely since the Giacona family dispersed to Esplanade Avenue in the 1920s. The papers include records and letters, in both English and Italian/Sicilian, detailing the business transactions of the Giaconas. The family shipped wine and spirits to states as far away as Maryland and California. There was a ledger, a winesellers’ handbook from 1915, and a later guide to the rules of prohibition. Though the Giaconas and their belongings are long gone from 1113 Chartres, these papers bring their time at the house into vivid reality.
In the early 1900s, Sicilians immigrants in New Orleans were experiencing the challenges of adapting to a new home in the United States. These immigrants often faced stigma, language barrier, lack of opportunity, and in some cases, yes, extortion and vigilantism. The Giacona family experienced all of these ups and downs within the walls of their home at 1113 Chartres while having the benefit of running a successful business and thus being greeted largely with respect by the larger New Orleans community.
Our staff at the Beauregard-Keyes House have spent months poring over Times-Picayune articles, making connections with ancestry.com, talking with Giacona descendants, and digging up any and all information about the Sicilian connection to our museum and neighborhood. In the next few months, please check back as we look forward to continuing to share these findings with you.
The pamphlet on the left details "Prohibition Wine"--grape juice that can be sold under the new law. The handwritten letter on the right is written in Italian, dated 1919.