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

“Religion, … the best bond of human society, provided man did not err in the meaning of that excellent word.” – William Penn


Culture, broadly de­fined, is the way of life of a group of people; it includes all their behavioral patterns, beliefs and ar­tistic expressions. Culture is not static; it varies over time and place. Culture does not arise in a vacuum; it takes form through an interaction with other forces in society.

An understanding of culture in Penn­sylvania since 1681 can be achieved through an examination of the process of social and economic change that transformed this Commonwealth from colonial times to the twentieth century. The upheavals that accompanied the de­velopment of Pennsylvania as a modern industrial and urban society brought ad­justments and modifications in cultural expressions. The change from a primarily agricultural and staple to a manu­facturing and commercial economy; the replacement of strictly, religiously-de­fined communities and institutions with ones more secularly defined; the change from a population that was relatively homogeneous in ethnicity and religion to a population that was religiously and -􀀇 ethnically diverse; the transition from an aristocratic and deferential politics to a more participatory form of government; and the rise of large scale factory pro­duction replacing smaller scale crafts all had a cultural impact.

Indeed, it was the high degree of toler­ance permitted by William Penn’s “Holy Experiment” that allowed many of the cultural and social innovations to occur in the Commonwealth. As a result, it was in colonial Pennsylvania that the earliest search in America for commun­ity in collectivist societies began, based on the ethnic and religious diversity ap­parent in the Commonwealth. Pennsyl­vania colonists could and did hold di­verse and unusual Christian opinions, live in communities of believers and ex­press themselves artistically without fear of repression from civil authorities, priests and soldiers. Culturally speaking, early Pennsylvania was the prototype of North American development. Domi­nant values of the Quaker founders in­cluded the defense of laissez-faire indi­vidualism and a strong and successful resistance to a central government (which resulted in the “Charter of Privi­leges to the Province and Counties of Pennsylvania,” 1701). Penn’s promise and the development of the land made Pennsylvania a paradise and refuge from oppression for migrants and encouraged the development of values which stressed material gain.

The inundation by settlers occurred almost immediately after Penn’s landing in 1682 and continued throughout the eighteenth century. Between 1729 and 1755, for example, the population grew from 40,000 to 150,000, as a large num­ber of German and Scotch-Irish immi­grants flooded the Province. Presbyter­ians and Baptists, German Reformed and Lutherans, Schwenkfelders, Old Dunkers, Dutch Reformed and Menno­nites stamped indelibly their imprint on the Commonwealth and competed with each other for the available land. The predilection of the new immigrants to settle on large, consolidated farm lots rather than in organized villages put an end to planned settlement as envisioned by Penn. Newcomers clustered here and there and artisan shops, mills and churches popped up irregularly in or near these concentrations of settlers. This seemingly haphazard manner in which immigrants dispersed throughout the Province created the impression of social disorder and cultural chaos.

Discernible in the apparent chaos, however, was a clear pattern of settle­ment. Quite definitely, first-generation settlers traveled in religious and na­tionality groups and congregated together in clusters. In their new settlements they helped each other raise cabins, clear the land and harvest grain. Later, with more permanent settlement, they filled their leisure hours hunting and fishing to­gether and attending to one another’s personal needs. In sharing their celebra­tions and needs in a new land, they formed deep communal attachments.

Despite the dispersed nature of settle­ment, family and congregational groups wove together associations and connec­tions that created a unity. The formal disciplining structure of denominations, though, was comparatively weak except for the Quakers and Mennonites; more important were the informal methods that groups, both religious and ethnic, used to reinforce their value systems. Peer group pressure and the fear of ostracism were especially effective in bringing about conformity and reliance upon local congregations. Within the first generation, then, the settlers had created dispersed clusterings, yet they had also established settlements which were religiously and ethnically cohesive – islands of belief and nationality.

Once the shape of the emerging soci­ety is understood, it becomes clear why even the continuing influx of German settlers was not highly disruptive. When German nationals arrived, they moved in groups to unoccupied land and settled in clusters, as the English and Welsh Quakers, the Scotch-Irish, and fellow Germans had done before. Even in areas of overlapping settlements, such as in Lancaster County, there was a natural and strong tendency for individuals to form their most intimate relationships with fellow nationals.

In the sections of Pennsylvania where Germans predominated, community formation was simplified because mem­bers were free to work out among them­selves the kinds of community values and structures best suited to their needs. Most groups chose a scattered settlement pattern based on values common to others-industry, frugaLity and mobil­ity. A few communities, such as Ephrata Cloister, however, chose to experiment with collectivist forms and in so doing renounced materialism, individual profit and the sanctity of marriage.

More tightly controlled in its coloniza­tion of Pennsylvania, because of the congregational structure of its meeting, was the Society of Friends. The monthly Quaker meeting was the center of com­munity life and functioned partly as a sociaLizing agency (it saw that chil­dren were apprenticed and supervised, watched over the aged and indigent, and supervised marriages); partly as a court of arbitration (it worked to settle dis­putes peacefully and supervised the set­tling of wills and estates); and as a disciplinary body (it punished such crimes as drunkenness, blasphemy and adultery). A special hallmark of Quaker society was the interest people had in one another’s comings and goings, a perfect expression of a more community con­trolled behavior.

Whether collectivist societies such as Ephrata Cloister, tightly-controlled congregations as the Quakers, or widely­-dispersed farmsteads, the ultimate ex­pression of the island communities’ dis­tinctiveness and cohesion was visible in their material culture and art; especially among the Pennsylvania Germans were the art forms so distinctively and ma­turely advanced. Fraktur, dating from the sixteenth century, was the most beautiful and highly developed of these forms. It was used to illuminate (draw lessons from) religious manuscripts and later to decorate rites of passage such as birth and baptismal certificates, wedding certificates, death certificates, and home blessings and mottos. Both the Penn­sylvania German sects (Mennonite, Schwenkfelder and Anabaptist) and the pietistic religious communities of Ephrata and the Moravian settlements produced a fair share of fraktur, especially religiously-inspired manuscripts. The largest body of fraktur, however, was produced by the “majority” churches, the Lutheran and Reformed.

English-speaking settlers like the Quakers also excelled in craftsmanship. The wardrobes and exquisite furniture found in many homes in rural Pennsyl­vania were the products of Quaker craftsmen. Some of the best pewter and dinnerware were also manufactured in Chester County Quaker communities.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of tranquility which allowed time for the development of such exquisite art forms did not last through the antebel­lum period (1830-1860). There were real problems in the fast growing cities dur­ing this time frame which called out for solution. Pennsylvania urban society, in the period 1830-1860, was a society rent by social and economic upheavals with which older institutions and traditions, derived from the island communities, were not equipped to deal. For one thing, the rush to towns and cities brought an influx of inexperienced rural newcomers who required jobs, homes and a sense of belonging. Their pellmell settlement destroyed the effectiveness of the older informal civic and voluntary organizations and disrupted the cohe­sion of neighborhoods based on old socioeconomic, ethnic and religious associations. There was yet no effective political apparatus to deal with this in­flux, and civic philanthropy was yet un­known.

At the same time, capital in Pennsyl­vania was expanding at a phenomenal rate, especially in the production of iron, coal, textiles and railroads. The ex­pansion, paradoxically. resulted in low wages for laborers, and created a visible class system in the cities. A whole new breed of men with great wealth and power was emerging, as well as a mass of wage earners, mostly rural migrants, at the lowest level. In the middle were members of a new middle class made of professionals, businessmen and white­-collar workers who had feelings of fluid­ity and drift, and had difficulty rational­izing the new order.

There were various responses to this situation, depending upon a person’s employment and point of reference. Unacquainted with urban ways and the exigencies of an industrial order, many workers and some of the middle class clung tenaciously to the outlook, work practices and moods of a traditional society. Unlike the emerging industrial elite and the evangelical middle and working classes, the traditionalists worked mainly as artisans in neighbor­hood shops and consequently ap­proached work much more casually than the newer middle classes. The shops themselves, clustered in traditional neighborhoods, were organized along pre-industrial lines, and their masters al­lowed a great deal of flexibility in work practices and shop traditions. To these people of the antebellum period, survi­val not productivity, periodic hard work punctuated by “Tailor’s Holidays” in­stead of regular work patterns, and the use of spirits were important.

Most middle-class people in Pennsyl­vania as elsewhere, however, were nur­tured in the strong culture of evangelical Protestantism. The demon of reform associated with the period can be seen as a result of this evangelical culture­ against slavery were thousands of aboli­tionists, against drinking and drunken­ness were cadres of prohibitionists, and against the evils of the urban environ­ment were thousands of philanthropists. This new revivalism had real appeal to Pennsylvania’s middle class, for most of those who comprised it could trace their roots back to the island communities where they learned the values frequently associated with Protestant ethics. The ideas and images of a model society were that of a Christian culture which empha­sized adherence to certain attitudes in which guardians of virtue stamped out the evils of the day by reforming men, by morally regenerating the fallen. In­deed, religious and even secular periodi­cals of the day – many published in Phil­adelphia – promoted these values and appealed especially to the educated, “enlightened” middle class.

Eventually, this older reform impulse was interwoven with all the cultural assumptions of the new industrial order and provided a basis for action and belief, a new world view. The synthesis contained elements of the old – based on hard work, frugality, a tightly knit fam­ily life and a culture structured around the church – and elements of the emerg­ing industrial order – punctuality, the demands of capital accumulation and profit, and commercialism. This new way of life was rationalized ingeniously in church and domestic literature. Be­cause of the separation of men and women in economic spheres, their social roles were also divided into two separate worlds. Men dealt increasingly with the counting house, shop and office and were held responsible for a moral stewardship over their employees and their own impulses of avarice which may have been unleashed by ambition. The woman’s sphere revolved around her home, the care of her children and hus­band, and “good works” based on Chris­tian principles and church activities.

In this newly emerging industrial age, a case can be made that these reform im­pulses were often encouraged by entre­preneurs in the manufacturing pursuits in an attempt to keep wage workers’ dis­content under control, to assuage the middle-class dissatisfaction with the new factory-competitive order, and to deflect serious criticism of the industrial system . There is evidence of this, as well, in the attitudes of many evangelical clergy who, instead of demanding of the manu­facturers that they reform their factor­ies, demanded the workers instead to recast their own thinking along lines that would make factory reform unneces­sary. Ministers throughout Pennsylvania and the United States prepared tracts for presentation to working-class people, providing them with a set of Christian principles designed to enlist their cooperation with the capitalist system generally and with the factory system specifically. Evangelical ministers were frequently responsible for creating an at­mosphere of acceptance in working-class districts. Constantly evangelizing, they created a cultural atmosphere of fervor and commitment. Instead of congregat­ing in the pubs of the cities many work­ing-class men and women spent their lei­sure hours in prayer meetings, Bible tract societies and discussion groups.

Buttressing the individual evangelical effort was the general fervor of evan­gelical culture which many scholars have called “Christian terrorism.” This was an atmosphere in which evangelical min­isters and their parishioners “terrorized” dissenters, silenced atheists and sup­pressed public criticism of the new evan­gelical order. A good example of the manner in which control was effected is the case of Anne Royall, a traveling newspaperwoman in the 1830s and 1840s who wrote social critiques of evangel­icals. In 1837, she labelled as “ridicu­lous” Philadelphia Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely’s proposal for a Christian political party. The response from many evangelicals was brutal and effective. Newspapers in Philadelphia accused her of being a prostitute. She was horsewhipped in Pittsburgh and run out of town. She endured physical abuse and law suits. Though she continued to attack the evangelicals and praise the efforts of liberals, there were fewer and fewer journalists who were willing to risk pov­erty, beatings, insults and court harassment in criticizing the emerging culture.

Another very effective aspect of the culture which encouraged conformity was the evangelical death cult. In innu­merable sermons, tracts, novels, speeches and editorials the absolute misery of the unbeliever was portrayed at his death. A major target of ridicule was the “Prince of Infidels,” Tom Paine, again and again described in his deathbed agonies, too late recanting his deist principles.

But the central focus of this culture which held its adherents to the wheel and gave the middle class its aggressive force was the evangelical fervor against “demon rum.” The Temperance Cru­sade was the center piece of Christian evangelism throughout the nineteenth century and was a complete expression of the sobriety and industriousness of a strong middle class. It also legitimized the new culture and consolidated the various middle-class elements in an organizational effort. The crusade’s true strength was its ecumenical nature which transcended the various Protestant sects and the culture of the island communi­ties and knit them together in a common bond of moral and cultural indignation against the evils of the urban environ­ment.

The ultimate triumph of the antebel­lum evangelical culture was embodied, in organizational form, by the Republi­can Party of the 1850s. Before this, evangelicals had fought with a motley band of allies and experimented with a variety of political parties (the anti­Masonic and Know Nothing parties). Finally, by 1856, a viable Republican Party was able to enlist broad popular support for a national policy congenial both to evangelical and the manufactur­ing interests. The new coalition, how­ever, was anchored in the social issue of paramount national concern to all North­ern evangelicals – the extension of slav­ery. Capitalists joined the coalition as well because it guaranteed the consolidation of workers and manufacturers in a political and economic alliance against the extension of slavery onto land desired for free labor.

The opportunity to become part of a society which supported free labor and capital accumulation lured waves of immigrants to the United States between 1880 and the 1920s. By 1920 nearly 1,400,000 of Pennsylvania’s citizens were foreign-born, and nearly all lived in the anthracite and bituminous coal regions, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Poles predominated in Allegheny, Lu­zerne, Lackawanna and Schuylkill coun­ties and in the cities of Wilkes-Barre and Chester; Italians congregated in Wash­ington and Fayette counties and the cities of Scranton and Philadelphia; Slovaks settled mainly in Westmoreland and Cambria counties and Johnstown; and Hungarians settled in Bethlehem and McKeesport.

The heavy immigration resulted in the formation of new ethnic enclaves, in company towns and urban neighbor­hoods. In these districts, immigrants created separate and distinct cultures based on their own survival instincts. These new arrivals, because of the per­ceived and real hostility of the dominant culture, formed immigrant organiza­tions for survival-organizations such as burial, employment, fraternal and business societies. A product of this organi­zational effort was the growth of ethnic consciousness, an awareness further reinforced by the use of foreign lan­guages and the ethnic press, inter-city visitations and the arrival of priests from the old country.

It is not surprising why these immi­grants turned inward. Since they saw little opportunity to improve their economic status (they were hired as unskilled labor), immigrants had strong misgiv­ings about the larger “acquisitive” society and its buoyant optimism. Many immigrants felt they and their culture were under attack from this “new” culture, with its emphasis on material success, consumption, individual free­dom, technology and pleasure. The fear, of course, was of losing precious re­sources – friends and kin – to the larger hostile environment. Consequently, they reinforced such traditional values as family, church life and neighborhood loyalty. Another part of the ethnic counterattack was the establishment of networks based on kinship and churches. In Pennsylvania, Irish, Italians, Poles and Slovaks established networks of schools in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton which provided religious train­ing, information on traditional celebra­tions and vocational assistance.

The great irony is that as definite ethnic subcultures were emerging in the 1920s, the dominant, modern supercul­ture was also becoming more explicit. A new type of national economy based on mass production and mass consumption (the first symbolized in the conveyor belt, the latter in Madison Avenue ap­peals to “consumers”) further defined social values. This new culture depended ultimately on the creation of mass markets, where no island community­ – ethnic or otherwise – was exempt from the temptations.

This thrust toward a new standardized culture was symbolized best, perhaps, by the advent of the automobile, movies and radio. The automobile, especially, unhinged the population from its local roots and integrated the older island com­munities into the mainstream. Smaller more isolated towns lost their young to the cities. A fascination with escapism developed, embodied in the new spate of gangster pictures, radio comedies and romantic films. Indeed, beginning in the late 1920s the average Pennsylvania family went to at least a movie a week. Radio broadcasting – begun in Pitts­burgh at KDKA in 1920 – brought stan­dardized middle-class values to the home, breaking down local orientations by appealing to a mass market. The new fads reported on radio – flagpole sitting, marathon dancing, etc. – signaled the coming of age of a new middle class which had higher incomes and the desire and leisure to use them.

The Depression also hit at the separ­ateness of ethnic communities with great force. Even before the thirties, immigra­tion had slowed to a trickle. Thus, the separate ethnic enclaves were beginning to lose the sources of cultural infusion provided by the constant influx. During the outset of the Depression when the steel mills and coal mines closed, kinship networks and fraternal associations were unable to secure jobs and provide ade­quately for unemployment. Initially dis­illusioned, ethnics in the mill and mining towns reached across ethnic lines to help each other. In many interviews con­ducted by the Works Project Adminis­tration in Pennsylvania, families recalled a new spirit of community, warm friend­ship, openness and trust that prevailed.

In the anthracite districts of Pennsyl­vania, teams of unemployed miners from various ethnic backgrounds dug small mines on company property, moved the coal, trucked it to the cities and sold it below the commercial rate. By 1934, an estimated five million tons of “bootleg” coal were produced by 20,000 men using 4,000 vehicles. In the county seats of the anthracite region, local juries would not convict these “bootleggers” and constables would not arrest them. Another example of cooperation occurred in the Lehigh Valley where, according to a survey, about one­-half of the ethnic families indicated there were two or more families sharing homes in so-called “cooperative house­holds.” They shared rent and household work.

In New Castle, the “Tin Plate” capital, various ethnic groups shared food with the less fortunate, helped the elderly, pooled their skills, and raised and canned vegetables. In particular, the churches of the town encouraged coop­eration among all ethnic groups, the ladies of one church doing fine sewing and embroidering to raise money for the poor, the men of another church offer­ing their skills to any who needed work to be done. Still, in New Castle as in most Pennsylvania mill and coal patch towns, it proved impossible to break the strength of all ethnic customs, especially feast days which survived from Poland and Italy. During Christmas (Boze Noroclzenic), the head of the house still broke the Holy Bread, the Oplatek, and the feasts of the saints still announced the changes of seasons to many com­munities.

But the real economic and cultural changes were brought about by the ad­vent of trade unionism. Pennsylvania was especially vulnerable to organization since whole districts were overspecialized in heavy manufacturing and coal, wages were low and unemployment high. In western Pennsylvania, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), of the CIO, began organizing the steel com­panies in 1937-38 and encouraged ethnic groups to join. The new union meant a great deal to ethnic groups and helped them immensely with raises, reducing hours, overtime, paid vacations, and, most importantly, equalizing conditions between native Americans and ethnic workers, who were no longer bypassed for promotions in the plants.

The meaning of the success of trade unionism, however, can be seen in the area of social relationships within the ethnic communities themselves. In many mill and coal mining towns, the SWOC was comprised of second generation Croats, Serbs, Italians, Poles and Irish­men, a significant development since deep ethnic differences and resentments frequently divided Pennsylvania’s working classes. These experiences led to a new synthesis in ethnic communities, a synthesis which in part led to the crea­tion of the new Democratic Party coali­tion. Ethnic workers from steel towns switched from the Republican machine to the Democratic Party and were en­couraged to hold office. Nearly all Democratic votes in the steel towns came from mixed ethnic, working-class wards, while the strength of the Republicans came from the more residential streets, a pattern which reflected a class-based party orientation.

The federal government supported this working-class thrust through its various projects which broke the creative hold of the old order on cultural expressions. It helped “democratize” culture through the Works Projects Ad­ministration’s Federal Theatre Project, Federal Writers’ Project, Federal Music Project and Federal Art Project. Nearly all large cities, industrial villages and small towns had their lives enriched by traveling players, actors, artists and writers. In Pittsburgh, for example, the WPA Symphony of “Sixty-five Men and a Girl” entertained the public at con­certs and in the city parks. In the visual arts Arnold Rothstein, Jack Vachon and John Collier took hundreds of historical photographs of the workers of Pitts­burgh for the Farm Security Administra­tion, and Samuel Rosenberg painted exquisite portraits of working-class neighborhoods.

Cultural definitions are oftentimes static, rarely recognizing tensions and changes in society; but in the ante­bellum and Depression epochs there were definite cultural conflicts and dra­matic changes. Though in these periods the dominant culture tried by various degrees and with some success to impose upon all society its consciousness, life­styles and institutions, there was no uni­fied culture. Urban-industrial society in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Pennsylvania was much too unsettled and distended for that. Only in colonial Pennsylvania, when autonomous ethno­cultural islands existed, was there nearly unanimous agreement on the values of cultural toleration and, at the same time, economic expansion and success.

It is interesting that in the early colonial and Depression periods, immigrants forged new communities and a cultural awareness based on Old World values and the conditions they found in a new society. In these communities there was little cultural penetration from a domi­nant society for decades after settle­ment. These people were convinced that they must create cultures and economic stability where none had existed before or else watch their communities and families disintegrate. Thus the cultural history of Pennsylvania is in part the his­tory of popular collective action.

But, in the final analysis, the cultural history of Pennsylvania is primarily the history of a dominant culture. It first emerged in the antebellum period in the garb of evangelical Protestantism; later during the Depression it reemerged clad in romantic imagery, carried by new forms of the media and initially directed at incorporating ethnic-Americans into the mainstream. In the Depression period, too, the shape of the future emerged; for the first time the dominant culture set the standards and tone of all society and began to draw all elements of the population together in a common quest of the good life. It should not be surprising today that the same forms and values of the dominant culture still dic­tate the direction of most of our cultural choices. Nevertheless, vestiges of the “counter cultures,” tracing their roots back to colonial communities and ethnic enclaves, bring a richness and diversity to life in the Commonwealth.


For Further Reading

Bodnar, John E. Immigration and Industrialization: Ethnicity in an American Mill Town, 1870-1940. Pittsburgh: Uni­versity of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Laurie, Bruce. Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.

Lemon, James T. The Best Poor Man’s Country: A Geo­graphical Study of Early Southeastern Pennsylvania. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Modell, John. “The Peopling of a Working-class Ward, Read­ing, Pennsylvania 1850,” Journal of Social History 5:71-95.

Nash, Gary B. Quakers and Politics: Pennsylvania, 1681-1726. Princeton: The Princeton University Press, 1968.

Tully, Alan. William Penn’s Legacy: Politics and Social Struc­ture in Provincial Pennsylvania, 1725-1755. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.


Carl D. Oblinger, coordinator of the oral history program at the PHMC, received his M.A. from the Johns Hop­kins University in American history. He served as co-editor for a 1977 special edi­tion of Pennsylvania Heritage (Vol. IV, No. 1), dedicated to black history and culture. His most recent publication is Interviewing the People of Pennsyl­vania: A Conceptual Guide to Oral His­tory.