What Difference Thirty Years Can Make: Harrisburg’s Transformation from 1900 to 1930

Recently, our class has been looking at census data dealing with information from 1900 to 1930. Our census data includes information about each person who lived in Harrisburg during those thirty years. From records, we can learn the first name, last name, address, gender, race, age, birth year, literacy, birthplace, occupation, immigration status, etc. for each person residing in Harrisburg. Individually, this data can tell us a story about a person’s life. We are able to see how long someone lived in Harrisburg.  How many family members they had living with them. From their job to their nationality, we could determine what their status would have been as a citizen of Harrisburg. Every little detail that is acquired about a person can piece together the story of their life. The data gives us these little pieces of information, and it our job as historians to analyze the information to form the most accurate story we can.  As a whole, the data could present historical trends or patterns. Historical trends display change over time as a form of analysis.

This is an excel spreadsheet of the census data that has been collected from 1900 Harrisburg.

However, if not formatted properly, historical trends can be nearly impossible to analyze. For example, we collected all of the data for each person on an Excel spreadsheet for each year. While this is helpful for organizing, it was difficult for studying the larger historical trends. Our spreadsheet had around 50,000 rows of people for 1900 and 80,000 rows of people in 1930. With so many rows, it was not possible to fairly study and analyze the data using only Excel. Therefore, we used a database in Microsoft Access. Access allowed us to easily query our information and answer specific historical questions. We could search for more specific information such as the size of the Russian immigrant population in Harrisburg. It produced the information in a second whereas it would have taken us hours to sort through on our own in excel. Access granted us a database where we could easily see change over time.

For example, in 1900 we learn that 18% of the Russian population coming to Harrisburg were children. However, by 1930, there were no children under the age of 18 coming to Harrisburg. There were still children born to Russian immigrants, but they were born in America, not Russia. This begs the question, what happened in those 30 years to prevent Russian children from immigrating to Harrisburg, PA. There are several possibilities for this decrease. One possibility for this could be that immigration laws became tougher after World War 1, especially on Russians. Barton, a historian of Harrisburg, points out that there were many immigrants coming to work in the factories, especially in Steelton.  However, people believed the immigrants were not assimilating well because they were forming their own groups rather than conforming to the way things had always been. Therefore, the United States Immigration Commission wanted to limit those that could come to America. For example, they wanted to exclude those who could not read or write. These beliefs and worries were eventually embodied in the Immigration Act of 1924. In addition, there was also the Red Scare, which caused tension between Americans and Russians.

The changes to the Russian population were not the only historical trend we found. We also found some interesting

This picture shows the data we placed in Access to figure out the percentage of the Italian males and females in 1900.

information related to Italian immigrants. In 1900, of the Italian immigrant population, 80% were males  and only 20% females. This is probably because men came over to work in the industrialized city of Harrisburg. They were young and in search of a lively hood. Men were not coming to Harrisburg to get married but rather to find a job in a factory or on the railroad. However, as Italian men got older, they wanted to start to settle down. Therefore, by 1930, the ratio of men to women improved. Italian males made up 61% of the immigration while females made up 39%. Harrisburg had transformed from a place solely for Italian men to work to a place where Italian men could bring their Italian wives over to live with them.

Transformations did not only occur within the context of people, but the city itself was also transformed within those thirty years. We see this transformation so clearly through the City Beautiful Movement. The city’s buildings and facilities were transformed in something nicer and cleaner. Harrisburg’s trash and garage were replaced by parks and sanitation systems. However, not all transformations come without a cost. The most notable cost was the destruction of the 8th ward in place of new Capitol extension. The destruction caused the citizens, mainly African Americans, in that ward to become displaced. Beers, a journalist, points out that the City Beautiful Movement ignored African Americans. Our data can tell us a little bit about what happened to those displaced from the “Bloody Eighth Ward,” which was the neighborhood destroyed in place of the new Capitol. However, it won’t tell us everything. If those citizens chose to stay in Harrisburg and move to a different ward, then we are able to see where they went. However, not everyone was able to stay, and some citizens were forced to leave Harrisburg. Therefore, we do not have the records of where they went or what happened to them.

Transformations can be positive or negative. While Harrisburg’s impact during those thirty years was mostly positive, that did not account for everyone.  Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe stopped coming to Harrisburg because of restrictions in immigration laws. In addition, many Jews and African Americans were displaced as a result of the destruction of the 8th ward. However, many did find their home in Harrisburg, like the Italian men who brought their wives to America or the reformers of the City Beautiful Movement who strove to make their Harrisburg home visually appealing.

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