Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

This fascinating early 20th-century postcard of a scene from Williamsport, Lycoming County, provides a view of life in Pennsylvania that is seldom represented in formal historic records or in preservation efforts. Cultures that exist outside the mainstream and especially those not linked to specific places pose a special challenge to historians.

The word “Gypsy,” which appears on this postcard and was used to identify this culture for many years, derives from the mistaken notion that these groups originated in Egypt. They are more correctly known as Romani (or Roma or Rom). Confusion over their name and ethnic origin is just part of the web of misconceptions about the history and nature of their culture here in America and abroad. The Romani have been present in our state since the mid-1800s, most arriving from Europe. Exact numbers are hard to document because immigrants were identified by their country of origin, not their ethnicity. The Romani are often overlooked in written records because of their cultural tradition of remaining apart and their nomadic lifestyle. With no links to permanent buildings or even specific locations, they were not documented in deed, tax and census records. Lacking an association with significant buildings, structures or maintained landscapes, such groups or cultures are seldom recognized through the historic property and districts designation processes of historic preservation.

This postcard offers a rare glimpse of the role and presence of the Romani in Pennsylvania. Their unique culture has ties to many countries, but began in the Punjab region of northern India. They began a westward migration about a thousand years ago in the 11th century, moving first through Persia, Armenia and the Byzantine Empire and then dispersing over the centuries throughout Europe and northern Africa. The Romani established early communities throughout central and eastern Europe, especially in Russia, Armenia, Serbia and Romania. Influenced by the linguistic and cultural traditions of their various European or Middle Eastern host regions, the Romani developed into tribes or nations, creating differences that persist today. The Romani root language, based on ancient Punjabi or Hindi, thus has many spoken dialects.

Viewed as outsiders, the Romani were treated with suspicion and mistrust and suffered harsh discrimination in Europe. Laws allowed the enslavement of the Romani in the Balkan region that is now Romania until the mid-19th century, and they were also held as slaves in Russia, England, Spain and Portugal. From the 15th century to the 18th century, some Romani were deported against their will to the Americas and the Caribbean. Facing continuing persecution in Europe, others chose to come to the United States as part of the great wave of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Romani from Great Britain, known as the Romnichels, arrived in the mid-1800s ahead of the Rom, the Romani from Russia and central Europe. In Pennsylvania, Romani from Germany and the Netherlands called the “Black Dutch,” or “Chikkeners,” in Pennsylvania Dutch (from the German word “zigeuner” meaning vagabond), arrived in the 1800s as well.

The Romani often traveled regular routes and returned to the same places to set up camps for weeks or months on vacant property at the outskirts of cities. In 1909 the state passed a law requiring the Romani to pay for licenses in each county prior to setting up camps or selling goods. Newspaper accounts of that era detail the occasionally contentious relationship between established communities and Romani encampments.

Although the traditional Romani culture resisted assimilation and the creation of permanent settlements, some Hungarian-Slovak Romani established neighborhoods in Braddock and Homestead in Allegheny County, Johnstown in Cambria County, and Uniontown in Fayette County, as well as in other American cities. In 1888 a Hungarian-Slovak Romani named Vongood Pohlatko purchased an entire block of houses in the area of Braddock Avenue and 10th Street in Braddock, said to be the largest population of settled Romani in the country at that time. Little evidence of this neighborhood remains, but the double domes of the Saints Peter & Paul Byzantine Catholic Church, constructed nearby in 1923 and modeled after the Holy Cross Cathedral in Uzhorod, Ukraine, serve as a reminder of Braddock’s strong eastern European roots.


Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office.