Ethnic History: Of the Children, by the Children, for the Children

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Interest in the study of history is drifting in conflicting directions. The teaching of Pennsylvania history in schools is steadily declining and enrollment in history classes at all levels including college has slipped. The growing idolization of exact sciences such as physics and chemistry and quantif­ication has discredited the sometimes subjective perceptions of historical studies. On the other hand, a near explosion of interest has occurred in local and community history, family studies, and ethnic origins. This new involvement has been stimulated by the approaching Bicentennial celebration and a pervasive desire to eschew “national concerns” and seek personal ties and roots.

The problem, as I see it, is to resolve the dwindling aca­demic interest in history with the “grass roots” enthusiasm for aspects of our past. One potential area for effecting such a resolution is the study of childhood. For nine years the Ethnic Studies Program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has developed historical collections and publications on Pennsylvania’s vast cultural diversity. The variety of childhood experiences among different eth­nic and class groups has continually emerged in the historical data. This aspect of history is seldom discussed in traditional textbooks or portrayed in the vast assortment of “media kits” available to teachers. The treatment of children by Pennsylvania’s cultural groups is a subject badly waiting investigation.

For nearly two centuries, history in the schools cele­brated great men and sensational events. In many instances the presentation of “heroes” such as the rise of poor boys from a log cabin to influential positions gave children an un­real view of the world. Students inferred that similar climbs up the social ladder were extensively available in American society.

The study of children among Pennsylvania’s ethnic groups before 1940, however, suggests a different theme, one with which many more children can directly identify. Ethnic history began with immigration. And the children of immigrants, with few exceptions, seldom rose from log cabins or slum dwellings to high offices or positions. The most common experience for the children of immigrants, was limited schooling, hard work and a career quite similar to their parents’. The progeny of German farmers in the nineteenth century frequently stayed on the farm. Many, however, es­pecially after 1870, migrated to coal mines where industrial wages proved attractive. The steel mills in Bethlehem still have departments which are heavily “Dutch,” the result of a century of migration from nearby rural areas.

The children of Pennsylvania’s ethnic groups not only worked in industrial pursuits but began at an early age. Welsh sons in Scranton worked in coal mines before they were fourteen. Indeed, the “breaker boy” was a common sight before 1920. Serbian and Polish youth worked in the glass factories of Pittsburgh’s south side usually after finishing the eighth grade. Invariably they joined their fathers in factories and mills when they could obtain working permits. Millions of parents in Pennsylvania falsified the age of their children so they could start work several years before the legal age of sixteen.

Young girls were not idle either. Silk and other textile mills dotted the state and employed thousands of immigrant girls. Many more toiled in cigar factories. It was quite common to find Irish teenage girls working as servants through­out the state in the late nineteenth century. Interestingly enough, once married, females seldom worked outside the home prior to the 1930’s.

The work experience of young people is only one area of exploration. The “generation gap” is certainly not new. All immigrant groups in Pennsylvania endeavored to teach their children ethnic ways and worried over countless “new generations” who seemed to lack respect for parental values. Parents urged their offspring to maintain the ethnic values. Consider the plea of one Serbian immigrant:

Because of the hardships of
our pioneers we are able to
fully enjoy the fruits of
their labor. May you keep
the faith of your fathers
as they kept it before you.

Surprisingly children did “keep the faith.” Scotch-Irish citizens in the 1890’s created new historical societies to honor their ancestors who came to Pennsylvania a century earlier. Celebrations such as Italian day and Polish day which exist throughout the state were initiated by immigrant children in the 1930’s to honor their immigrant parents.

Other possibilities besides child labor and parent-child relationships can be investigated. More importantly, such work can be performed by children themselves. Oral history programs where students interview community residents about their childhood are effective means of learning both ethnic and family history. Vital statistics such as census data or marriage license records can be examined to find out when children began working, left school, married or died.

Rewards from allowing children to discover the history of childhood are manifold. Children gain a more realistic view of the world. Childhood clearly emerges as a period which historically has been difficult and trying. An appreciation emerges for the various ways different cultural groups have reared their young and how this diversity of rearing prac­tices produced a world of diverse adults. Problems which ap­pear unique to contemporary children such as parental authority will emerge as issues with historical counterparts. The resolution of such problems historically will offer solutions to today’s dilemmas. Assumptions about opportunity in our society will be tempered by the overwhelming evidence that hard work and frustration have continually faced children. Such a study of childhood during three centuries of Penn­sylvania history should convince young people that their current situation is a distinct improvement over the past.


Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles dealing with ethnic history. Your ideas and manuscripts in this field will be wel­comed.


Dr. John E. Bodnar is an associate historian and directs the Ethnic Studies Pro­gram for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.