Jewish Settlement in 19th Century Allentown

By Emma Shavrick

Allentown, PA in the nineteenth century was home to a diverse group of residents, among which were a growing number of Jewish immigrants. While a great deal is already known about Allentown as a whole, the history of the emergence of the Allentown Jewish community is largely unknown. For my research project I set out to answer the questions; where were Jewish immigrants settling? What were they doing in Allentown? How was their newly established community perceived by the greater Allentown community? This post sets out to substantiate the claim that in comparison to the larger Allentown population, a much larger percentage of Jews held white collar jobs and owned businesses, and that Jewish businesses and business owners were clustered around a small area of Allentown.

The 1800’s saw a new wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. Over 250,000 Jews arrived in America between 1820 and 1880 (Diner, 2006, p. 79). These Jews were arriving in America as a result of economic, social, and legal restrictions on where they could live, the work they were allowed to do, and who they could marry in Europe, and because of the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom in the United States (Sarna, 2004, p. 64-65). By the 1840’s more and more Jews began arriving in the Lehigh Valley, PA thanks to the large German speaking population. In 1839 the first synagogue in the Lehigh Valley, Temple Covenant of Peace was established. Jews from Allentown traveled to the temple on 6th Street in Easton to worship until their own synagogue was founded in 1883 (Ashton, 2007, p. 16-17). The number of Jews living outside of big cities grew a great deal in the 1800’s and the majority of these Jews made their living as peddlers, which was an almost exclusively Jewish profession (Sarna, 2004, p. 68). Peddlers were salesmen who bought goods in big cities and then traveled to small towns across the country to sell their goods. Many Jews started out as peddlers, and as they became more prosperous settled down in small towns to open general stores. (Diner, 2006, p. 87-88). The occupational patterns of small town Jews not only influenced where they settled down and established communities, but what those communities looked like once they were established. Diner (2006) explains; “The concentration of Jews in small retail businesses…. Also influenced Jewish residential patterns. Generally, Jews lived above or behind their business establishments. They fused work and home, business and family” (p. 102). For Jews, their livelihoods as businessmen, merchants, and salesmen were intrinsically connected to their way of life and to the Jewish community structure as a whole.

In my attempts to better understand what life was like for the Jewish population in Allentown in the 19th century, many different sources of data were analyzed, including; The Allentown Democrat, The Allentown Leader, the 1880 Pennsylvania Census, the 1888 Lehigh Valley Directory, and the cemetery records for Keneseth Israel Cemetery, Sons of Israel Cemetery, Agudas Achim Cemetery, and Brith Sholom Cemetery. Through analysis of the newspapers I found the names of 48 Jewish Allentown residents and the names and addresses of 4 synagogues in Allentown. I then searched through cemetery records for any Jews born before 1880 (as they would also be present on the census). I then cross referenced my list of 133 names with the the 1880 Census and the 1888 Directory, and I was eventually able to compile a list of 324 Jews, 145 of which I also discovered their occupation, and 187 of which I discovered their home address. I also found the address of 18 distinct occupation sites and 14 Jewish run businesses, all of which I then mapped onto the 1876 F.A. Davis Allentown maps using geocoding and georeferencing software (see below).

Figure 1. F.A. Davis Map of Jewish Settlement and Occupation Patterns

No immediate pattern was found concerning where Jews in Allentown lived and the parent’s country of origin also showed no pattern. However, no Jews in Allentown live beyond seven blocks of one of the four synagogues, ensuring that any Jew living in Allentown would have lived in walking distance of a synagogue.

There is however a noticeable trend of where Jewish run businesses are located. Of the 14 Jewish run businesses that were mapped, all but one were located on Hamilton street, which was a major commercial street at the time. In order to further analyze occupation trends among Allentown Jews in the 19th century I then created a chart of the different occupations as listed in the 1880 Census and the 1888 Directory (see below). When compared to the occupations held by the greater Allentown population, 47.5% of the Jews whose occupations I was able to uncover held non-manual labor occupations, while only 10.2% of Allentown citizens whose jobs were listed in the 1880 Census held non-manual labor jobs. As seen in the table below, I found that 64 out of 145 Jews held jobs in the retail industry. It seems that the trend of Jews beginning their career in America as peddlers before establishing their own business and then sending for relatives to work for them through chain migration was in full effect in the Jewish population in Allentown.

Figure 2. Occupations held by Jews in Allentown

The rapid Jewish population growth from 1880 to 1914 along with the industrialization and growth of Allentown in the 1880’s means that there is a rich history of Jewish settlement in 19th century Allentown. While I initially knew that there was some form of Jewish community in Allentown in the 19th century, I had no idea what form it took; how large the community was, where they lived, or what occupations they held. By using primary source data I was able to uncover roughly how large the Jewish community was, who the influential members were, where they lived, and where they worked, and by analyzing my data through the lens of a specific social and historical background, I was better able to understand what life was like for the Jewish community in Allentown and I was able to come to the conclusion that while there were no settlement trends among the small Jewish community, the majority of the community held white collar jobs, and many owned and worked in businesses on Hamilton Street. I would claim based on the evidence I collected that it was due to their high level of economic success that the Jewish community was able to integrate into the greater Allentown community.

Works Cited

The Allentown Democrat. 1883-1913.

Ashton, Dianne. Jewish Life in Pennsylvania. DIANE Publishing Inc., 2007.

Boyd, William Henry. 1888. Boyd’s Business Directory and Gazetteer of Reading, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Lancaster, Pottsville, Allentown, Norristown, Lebanon, Pottstown : And Over Eighty of the Principal Towns in the Counties of Berks, Chester, Columbia, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Lehigh, Lycoming, Montgomery, Montour, Northumberland, Schuylkill, on the Line of the Philadelphia & Reading Rail Road and Its Branches, 1888. Reading, Pa.: W.H. Boyd.

Davis, F.A. “Portion of the City of Allentown.” Map. Reading: Reading Publishing House, 1876.

Diner, Hasia R. The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000. Univ of California Press, 2006.

Diner, Hasia R. Roads Taken: The Great Jewish Migration to the New World and the Peddlers who Forged the Way. Yale University Press, 2015.

Funerary Records: Keneseth Israel Cemetery, Sons of Israel Cemetery, Agudas Achim Cemetery, Brith Sholom Cemetery.

Hall, Karyl Lee Kibler, and Peter Dobkin Hall.“A History of Allentown 1874-1900.” In Allentown 1762-1987: A 225 Year History. Edited by Mahlon Howard, Hellerich. Allentown, PA: Lehigh County Historical Society, 1987.

“Our History.”

“Lehigh Valley Jewish Cemetery Project.” Museum of Pennsylvania Jewish History. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Sarna, Jonathan D. American Judaism : A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Trachtenberg, Joshua. “An American Jewish Community: Easton, Pennsylvania, on Its Two Hundredth Anniversary.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 42, no. 2 (1952): 193-206.

“United States Census, 1880.” Database with images. FamilySearch. : 14 June 2016. Citing NARA microfilm publication T9. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.