Organized Labor: Organized Chaos in Late Nineteenth Century Pennsylvania

By Brock Juliano

Allentown and many other areas in Pennsylvania were negatively affected by the Panic of 1873, which was a major economic crisis (Hall et al. 1987). As a result, new forms of labor emerged as laborers began to work for larger corporations and owners, which often treated their employees carelessly and callously (Hall et al. 1987). Work became increasingly dangerous, and many laborers would be injured by industrial accidents. As a result, many workers would organize into unions in order to fight for their rights. Strikes occurred frequently in late nineteenth century Pennsylvania. Several unions existed in Allentown, and they occasionally went on strike, but the strikes were generally peaceful, as will be detailed later on in this post. This contrasts with strikes elsewhere in Pennsylvania, like the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, in which the state police murdered nineteen miners as the police suppressed a miners’ strike in Luzerne County. Interestingly, Allentown did not experience any of these violent strikes in the late nineteenth century. Utilizing data from local registries, maps, census records, and newspaper articles, the project seeks to determine why Allentown did not experience any major strikes during this period. This study demonstrates that the relative lack of xenophobia in Allentown, as compared to other areas of Pennsylvania, was a key factor in fostering more congenial labor relations in Allentown during the late nineteenth century. This lack of xenophobia did not arise because Allentown’s residents were simply more tolerant that those living in other areas, but because immigrants to Allentown tended to share more similarities with native residents.

At Lattimer, miners, most of whom were Eastern European immigrants, were striking to protest a round of lay-offs at a local mine, as well as the xenophobic treatment they received from the government and mine owners (Turner 2002). Before the massacre, the Campbell Act was passed by the state legislature in 1897, and the act took effect on the 25 of August on that year (Turner 2002). The Act taxed non-citizen workers several cents a day for each day they worked, specifically targeting the Eastern European immigrants that worked in Pennsylvania’s mines (Turner 2002). Additionally, the local government had begun to place more restrictions on naturalizations, making it more difficult for the immigrants to gain citizenship (Turner 2002).


Data from the 1880 United States Census was utilized to determine the populations of immigrants in Allentown and Hazleton. The 1890 census was unavailable because it was destroyed in a fire. While the 1900 census data would have perhaps been a better fit, it was not used due to the fact that data from the 1880 census was more readily available. Census data was also used to create maps of Allentown with the mapping software QGIS, in order to understand where immigrants lived in Allentown. Newspaper articles and published histories were also used in order to develop an understanding of how unions and strikes were perceived at the time, as well as to get an understanding of the tenor of xenophobia during this period.

Figure 1:A map of the First and Sixth Wards on Allentown in the late eighteenth century. The markers represent the nativity of a person living at that address.


Figure 2a: This diagram depicts the relative amounts of foreign-born residents of Hazleton as recorded in the 1880 census.
Figure 2b: This diagrams depicts the relative amounts of foreign-born residents in Hazleton as recorded in the 1880 census.


Table 1 :A table depicting the twenty most frequent birthplaces of foreign-born residents of Allentown and Hazleton


Immigrants seemed to be well integrated within the Allentown community, as seen in Figure 1. Across the First and Sixth Wards of Allentown, immigrants seemed to live alongside their American neighbors, and there was not any extreme segregation between the groups. Additionally, immigrants to Allentown tended to have similar cultural backgrounds to the American-born residents of the city. For example, as seen in Figures 2a and 2b and Table 1many immigrants to Allentown in the late nineteenth century were from Ireland, Great Britain and Germany. The Irish and British immigrants would have spoken English, aiding their assimilation into the community. While German immigrants may not have spoken English, they would have had similar cultural practices to the Pennsylvania German residents of Allentown, and there was a great deal of German language infrastructure in the area.

Though many immigrants to Hazleton were also from Ireland, Great Britain, and Germany, Hazleton also had notable populations of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, and these immigrants would have been more conspicuous within Hazleton due to their cultural differences. The presence of these Eastern and Southern European immigrants may have inspired much of the xenophobia that caused the Lattimer Massacre to occur.

Based on newspaper articles from Allentown during this period, it is clear that Eastern European immigrants were blamed for many of the strikes that occurred in Pennsylvania during the period. Prejudice towards immigrant laborers on strike seemed to be a common in Allentown during this period. An article published on the front page of The Allentown Democrat on 16 May 1894 decries the presence of immigrant laborers on strike. This article accuses foreign coal miners in Pennsylvania of working to undercut American workers’ wages whilst also arguing that every time that the immigrant laborers go on strike that they “shoot, stab, kill and burn,” while also claiming that strikes organized by immigrant laborers disturb the country more than “All the strikes of Americans for the past twenty years.” This article can be seen below in Figure 4.

Figure 3: A clipping of an article from the Allentown Democrat on 16 May 1894.

Not all of the strikes that were covered in the Allentown newspapers described extremely violent confrontations. For example, a strike on the local Lehigh Valley Railroad covered by The Allentown Daily Leader on 21 November 1893 lacked any mention of immigrant laborers having an armed confrontation with the state police. Rather, the author describes the strike in more neutral terms, not clearly taking any side or another. An article published in the Allentown Democrat on 18 April 1894 also assumes a more detached tone when describing a strike in some of the Allentown silk mills. The author simply expressed their hope that conflict would end soon. In fact, the strikes in Allentown were almost always relatively peaceful. These examples demonstrate that strikes led by Americans tended to be met with less hostility from the community


This project demonstrates that xenophobia was an important cause of violent strikes in Pennsylvania. The relative lack of xenophobia in Allentown, as compared to places such as Hazleton, caused Allentown to experience more congenial labor relations during the late nineteenth century, preventing violent strikes from occurring.


Allentown Democrat. 1879-1897.

Davis, F. A. 1876. New Illustrated Atlas of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania. Compiled & Drawn from Personal Examinations, Surveys & Under the Personal Supervision of F.A. Davis. Reading, PA: Reading Publishing House.

Hall, Karyl Lee Kibler, and Peter Dobkin Hall. 1987. “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.

Turner, George A. 2002. “The Lattimer Massacre: A Perspective from the Ethnic Community.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 69 (1): 11–30.

“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.