City Social: The Population of Harrisburg, 1900

One of the exciting outcomes of the class project to key US census records is an enormous database of names, occupations, and demographic attributes for Harrisburg in 1900. As I discussed in a previous post, we keyed 28,397 individuals – about 57% of the total population of the city – into a Microsoft Access table. Since some 43% of the data remains to be entered, it is much too early to run full demographic analysis on the data, especially because some of the most populated and diverse wards of the city are not yet finished. But data crunching is still valuable, even if it is preliminary, to provide a glimpse of demographic patterns of Harrisburg in 1900. So what was the city’s population like in 1900?

First, those patterns that will not likely change much when we finish data entry for the rest of the population.

Most Harrisburgers in 1900 were young. Nearly three quarters of the population (74%) were under 40. The under-eighteen group alone made up a third of the population. About 2% were babies, 4% toddlers, 5% little children (ages 4-5), and 22% school aged children. There were very few old adults: 2% of the population was 70 years+ and only .4% was over 80. The oldest person in Harrisburg in 1900 – and this may change with a complete data set – was 97 year-old Mary Espy, a white woman and widow living at 321 Front Street in the Fourth Ward, whose family came from Virginia and who had two children only one of whom was still living. Fifteen women had 15-17 children, which is indeed a lot, but apparently not exceptional. Many women had experienced loss of children during their lifetime: average number of children was 3.3, but average number of living children was 2.4.

Some 22% of the population were categorized as the “head” of the household. Most of these heads were men, but 16% of households were run by females. There were slightly greater numbers of daughters (21.4%) than sons (20.3%), which is consistent with the slightly greater overall percentage of females (52%) than males (48%) thus far. About 8% of the population consisted of some other relative beyond the nuclear family living in the household: aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, in-laws of various kinds, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and grandchildren and great grandchildren. There were lots of boarders (8% of the population), and plenty of individuals connected to households as domestic help and hired labor (2%): servants, domestics, hired boys and girls, nurses, waiters, butlers, clerks, barmen, maids, dressmakers, physicians, coachmen, and cooks. A tiny handful of the population (n=7) were considered “partners” and “companions.”

Most of the population over the age of 17 were, or had once been, married. Married couples made up 60% of the adult population and widows and widowers 10%. Very few people – less than half a percent of the population – were divorced. Single people made up 29% of the adult population, and women were as likely to be single as men.

Now, the patterns that are likely to shift a little more when we re-run this analysis after we’ve keyed 100% of the population.  

Racially, the majority of the population was white (90%), a significant minority black (9%), and a tiny percentage (<1%) another category used by the census recorder (e.g., Mulatto, Colored, Chinese). Most people were born in Pennsylvania (85%), but many Harrisburgers were also from Virginia (3%), Maryland (3%), and Germany (2%). Only 5% of the population was born outside of the US, and these groups came mainly from Germany (39%), Ireland (16%), Russia (13%), and England (9%). If the documented trends hold up when we’ve keyed 100% of the population, there were more Germans and Irish than New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. Yet, there were small numbers of Harrisburgers who came from all around the US and all around the world. Harrisburg in 1900 was home to individuals from China, Japan, Australia, India, Armenia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Prussia, Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, France, Scotland, Spain, Italy, West Indies, and Canada. About 15% of population had parents born outside the US. The census data has given us the name of at least seven people born “at sea”!

The population of Harrisburg could read, write, and speak English. The 7% of the population that could not speak English were mostly (86%) born in America—are these older immigrant populations that have retained languages of their homeland? Or is this a case of errors made in data entry, where we have mistakenly misread a “YES” as a “NO” to the question ‘can you speak English?’? It is clear that most of the recent immigrant population could speak English. Only 2% of the 579 German-born immigrants could not speak English, and almost all of these were adults over the age of 50.

As for literacy, 95% of the population could read and 94% could write, and that percentage was pretty much the same for women as it was for men. Race and Birthplace were important factors in ability to read: while 96% of the White population could read and 95% write, the percentages were lower (83% read, 79% write) for the Black population. Literacy rates were lowest for certain immigrant populations such as Polish (39% could read, 22% could write), Chinese (44% R, 67% W), Russian (73% R, 76% W), Austrian (77% R, 72% W), Italian (87% R, 85% W), and Irish (89% R, 83% W). As the sample size for some of these groups is pretty small, these relative percentages may shift as we key more of our data. One wonders, too, whether these differences reflect other factors such as Occupation.

The Occupations are the most difficult to quantify at the moment because the data is so irregular. Census recorders noted occupations inconsistently (e.g., “Agent (Insurance)” vs. “Agent – Insurance”; or “At School” vs. “School”) and with many different spellings (e.g., “Huckser,” “Huckster,” “Huchter”, and “Huskster”). We keyed occupations as we saw them, and we need to normalize this great variety of data in the coming months so that we can quantify occupations. This list will change, but the top ten most common occupations so far include: At School, Day Laborer and Laborer, Servant and Domestic, Machinist, Dressmaker, Carpenter, Clerk, School Teacher, Cigar Maker, and Laborer Iron Mill.

The overview above, based on an incomplete data set, provides a glimpse of homogeneity and diversity in the population of Harrisburg in 1900. I’ve provided a basic description in this post, but one can combine any of the factors above to run more complex analyses. Moreover, since we’ve keyed every individual by ward, precinct, and address, it is also possible to pattern social diversity by individual blocks and wards. This would be especially useful in considering the voting patterns of the City Beautiful movement.  I’ll try to add another post this week about the populations of the four wards (1, 3, 4, and 10) that are completely finished.

5 thoughts on “City Social: The Population of Harrisburg, 1900

  1. I enjoy reading every post about this very challenging & valuable project!
    What a rich experience the students have had in searching archival and census data. And what value your class members are adding to the information they have found.

  2. Thanks, Beth! We’re very excited about it. I hope the students appreciate that they were part of starting an exciting new initiative.

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