Acrid smoke billows from the furnaces. Molten iron stains the night sky dull red. Trains grind and screech in the distance hauling jet-black anthracite coal to the furnace and metallic iron “pigs” (ingots) and finished rails away. The industrial cacophony melds with the clatter of horse-drawn trolleys as people fill the streets. Street hawkers peddle their wares. Young women- some just 13- chat as the walk to the silk mill. Storekeepers sweep out the black grime. Men laugh, joke and drink on one corner. On the other a young man touts the benefits of the newest homeopathic medicine. These are but a few of the sights and sounds of the Sixth and First Wards of Allentown, Pennsylvania (See Figure 1).
Iron and coal powered the industrial revolution in the Lehigh Valley in the mid and late 19th century, but the iron industry was in decline by the end of the century. But, this is not a tale of industrial giants and their businesses. This group presentation by the Senior Seminar in Anthropology at Muhlenberg College illustrates snippets of the lives of the children, women and men who lived in the “Iron Neighborhoods” of Allentown, Pennsylvania during the second half of the 19th century; the people who worshipped, loved, fought, drank, battled fires and labored as they forged a new distinct Allentown. Today, redevelopment of the Lehigh Waterfront threatens to sweep much of this history away. Topics of research include prostitution, firefighting, alcohol production, marriage and divorce, working conditions in the iron industry, child labor, homeopathic medicine, immigration, women’s health, housing and working on the railroad. These diverse topics gel into an incomplete and imperfect understanding of what it was like in the Iron Neighborhoods.
Figure 1. Interactive map combining map by George Aschbach (1876) and census data from 1880 (for more details about the data, click here). Note- Mouse over points to see names of children, women and men and their occupation.