Industry and the Population of Harrisburg

Industry is a facet of modern city life that keeps the economy afloat. Yet, cities are often characterized by their unique emphasis on certain industries. Today, we often associate Pittsburgh with the steel industry or Baltimore with seafood. What can be said about Harrisburg, especially in 1900, a time of industrialization? Dr. Pettegrew and the students in his Digital History classes at Messiah College compiled a federal census database of the residences of Harrisburg in 1900. By querying this data through Microsoft Access we can get a sense of what industry was like in Harrisburg and the people who worked in it.

The logo of Microsoft Access
The logo of Microsoft Access

Broadly speaking, day labor, domestic work, and jobs related to factory production of goods like shoes and iron were among the top occupations. Yet, industries that did not provide services or produce goods of necessity, such as candy and art, existed also. This overview places the industry of Harrisburg in 1900 in its historical context. This period of industrialization caused an emphasis of factory work, but production of necessities was efficient enough that other industries could form. Aside from these broad observations, the data suggests that aspects of race and ethnicity added to the complexity of industry.

A table derived from Microsoft Access showing the largest industries in Harrisburg in 1900
A table derived from Microsoft Access showing the largest industries in Harrisburg in 1900

For example, according to Paul Beers’ book City Contented, City Discontented, the railroad was “one of the most segregated industries”. He was right, 2,470 white citizens and 33 black citizens worked for the railroad. Thus only 1.3% of people who worked for the industry were black, suggesting that segregation was very prevalent (Note: this data is not entirely accurate since some fields in the database have not been standardized). This discrimination was also prevalent for other industries like baking and sales. Less than 1% of those who worked in the baking or the sales industry were black. Although these statistics might be attributed to the fact that many more whites lived in the city than blacks, it seems that the number of industries that had this disparity between the populations were too numerous for this to be true.

Still, there were other factors involved in the distribution of labor in industries. The black population primarily worked as day laborers and domestic workers. However, day labor and domestic work were also the second and third most prevalent occupations of whites. This suggests that the demand certain industries had for workers exceeded their favoritism to certain races. In other words, the demand for day laborers and domestic workers was so great that the distinctions of race were lessened and these areas of occupation became a great source of employment for whites and blacks.

A table derived from Microsoft Access what occupations Russians in Harrisburg in 1900 worked in.
A table derived from Microsoft Access showing what occupations Russians in Harrisburg in 1900 worked in.

In addition to segregation and demand, another factor that may have affected the distribution of labor was that people sought a sense of security by being with those of similar background. This may be why many Russians worked in the grocery industry or why the ten Chinese people in the city all worked in the laundry industry. A fourth possible factor was networking, that people of a similar race or ethnicity formed networks through their occupations in order to provide stability for their job and to maintain a cultural identity. For example, it may have been that Russians and Chinese favored the grocery and laundry industries because by working in those industries they could stick together and help each other function in a city in which they were a small minority.

To conclude, it can be argued that there were four factors that influenced the distribution of labor in Harrisburg: segregation or discrimination, demand, security, and networking. It is important to note that these factors cannot be proven and that they are inferences based on the present data and historical context. Yet, these inferences derived from fairly concrete statistics. Thus, it is also important that these four factors are not taken as truth nor simply ignored, but rather contemplated and carefully considered. In doing so, we can gain a more firm grip on what industry looked like in Harrisburg in 1900.


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