“Sauerkraut Row” [Philadelphia], Joseph Pennell, 1881. Smithsonian American Art Museum.
These quotes aren’t about Pennsylvania as a whole state, but they describe some of its cities, counties, and small communities so interestingly I just couldn’t leave them out.
Pennsylvania’s geographical diversity and age helped make it home to many, many different communities. From cosmopolitan Philadelphia to small towns dotting the mountains of Western Pennsylvania each city, region, and hamlet has developed its own personality that has caught the attention of many passers-by.
Pay attention to who the speakers are for each of these; what their backgrounds are and their reasons for writing. I think you’ll notice some interesting differences in some folks and their observations in Pennsylvania.
Recommended listening: “Pennsylvania” by Cabinet, “MotownPhilly” by Boyz II Men, and “Where the Old Allegheny and Monongahela Flow” by Pete Seeger.
“…a community which burns bridges and tears up railroad tracks in defiance of an injunction of the United States Supreme Court, and thus exposes infants to be frozen, as some have been by means of this break, would not hesitate to steal chickens to sell to a restaurant if a chance were afforded to them; and it is always safe to give such people as wide a berth as possible. So think nearly all whom necessity compels to traverse this inhospitable northern neck of Pennsylvania.”
-Horace Greely, 1854
New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, January 6 1854
“There is something in the tone of manners at Philadelphia that I liked; it appeared to me that there was less affectation and ton there than elsewhere. There is a quietness, a composure in a Philadelphian drawing-room, that is quite characteristic of a city founded by William Penn. The dress of the ladies, even those who are not Quakers, partakes of this; they are most elegantly neat, and there is a delicacy and good taste in the dress of the young ladies that might serve as a model to the whole Union. There can hardly be a stronger contrast in the style of dress between any two cities than may be remarked between Baltimore and Philadelphia; both are costly, but the former is distinguished by gaudy splendor, the latter by elegant simplicity.”
-Frances Trollope, 1830
“The Domestic Manners of the Americans,” page 98-99
“It is a handsome city, but distractingly regular. After walking about it for an hour or two, I felt that I would have given the world for a crooked street. The collar of my coat appeared to stiffen, and the brim of my hat to expand, beneath its quakerly influence. My hair shrunk into a sleek short crop, my hands folded themselves upon my breast of their own calm accord, and thoughts of taking lodgings in Mark Lane over against the Market Place, and of making a large fortune by speculations in corn, came over me involuntarily.”
-Charles Dickens, 1850
“American Notes” page 67
“We have been sweltering here, for a great Number of days together, under the scalding Wrath of the Dog Star. So severe a Spell of Heat has scarcely been known these twenty Years. The Air of the City has been like the fierce Breath of an hot oven. Every Body has been running to the Pumps all day long. There has been no finding a Place of Comfort — the shade, and the very Entrys of Houses where they have the best Draughts of Air, have been scarcely tolerable. This season always affects me, deeply. It exhausts my Spirits, and takes away all my Strength of Mind and Body. I have never lived here in Dog days, without becoming so enfeebled, and irritated, as to be unable to sleep soundly and regularly and to be still more reduced by Night Sweats. If I can avoid these Inconveniences, this year, I shall be happy. But I have experienced something of it, already, altho not in any great Degree. When the Weather is so extream, the Fatigue of even holding a Pen to write a Letter, is distressing.”
“There is not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.”
-Frederick Douglass, 1862
“Pittsburgh is the Merthyr Trdvil of Pennsylvania, or perhaps I should better describe it as an amalgamation of Swansea, Merthyr Tydvil, and South Shields. It is without exception the blackest place which I ever saw. The three English towns which I have named are very dirty, but all their combined soot and grease and dinginess do not equal that of Pittsburgh.”
-Montgomery Gibbs, 1884
The Englishman’s Guidebook to the United States and Canada, page 149
“With the moon soft and mellow floating in the heavens, we sauntered about the mount, and looked down on the lake of fire and flame. It looked like a miniature hell with the lid off. It was a vision. A wonderful vision. It tended to frighten. The view is not as deliciously beautiful as one would suppose. If one can be calm and resolute he can look upon the picture and still live. Otherwise, your city is a beauty.”
-Mark Twain, 1884
Pittsburgh Daily Post, December 31, 1884
“The entire space lying between the hills was filled with blackest smoke, from out of which the hidden chimneys sent forth tongues of flame, while from the depths of the abyss came up the noise of hundreds of steam-hammers. There would be moments when no flames were visible; but soon the wind would force the smoky curtains aside, and whe whole black expanse would be dimly lighted with dull wreaths of fire. It is an unprofitable business, view hunting; but if any one would enjoy a spectacle as striking as Niagara, he may do so by simply walking up a long hill to Cliff Street in Pittsburgh, and looking over into- hell with the lid taken off.”
-James Parton, 1868
“It is a known fact that York County has as well dressed young women as any section of the country. They do not deny themselves the pleasures of life. Automobiles are very popular with the people of York County, the cigar makers not excluded. Many of the girls own their own automobiles. They are good patrons at theatres and other places of amusement. Yet, they do not overlook the future. They usually have good bank accounts. All in all, we can say that they are a good, jolly, independent, efficient, thrifty and successful class of working people, good and law abiding citizens.” (11)
“If you should happen to visit York County you will marvel like so many others at the rare, ideal beauty, cleanliness, order and law observance of its cities, towns and rural communities, at the thrift, economy, progressiveness, the good, moral, and deeply religious sense, the peaceful and happy lives of its citizens. Love of work and home, prosperity and civic pride rule supreme. Not little, indeed, do these conditions contribute to the high credit standing of the manufacturers from the standpoint of moral security and risks.” (50)
-York County Cigar Manufacturers Association, 1927
Official Souvenir Year Book, 1927, pages 11 and 50
“We congratulate the Convention on the selection of the place for holding their deliberations. In no part of the State could a community be found better qualified to appreciate the objects of such a meeting, or the means for their accomplishment. Chester has undoubtedly taken the lead of all her sister Counties in Educational movements, as may be witnessed in her numerous flourishing schools for both sexes, which are attracting, as to a common focus, pupils from all parts of the country. And it affords us unmingled pleasure to observe the numerous female schools that have been established in this quarter, and the patronage that has been extended towards them. These are sure indications of an improved public sentiment in relation to the development of the female mind.
But there are other indications of advancement in this particular, still more encouraging, because they exhibit fruits of the most ennobling powers of the human understanding. We allude to those benevolent associations particularly for promoting Temperance, in which the females of Chester county have borne such a conspicuous and effective part. The reflection is, indeed, animating, that at a period when almost all kindred associations in the State, among the other sex, had languished, and intemperance seemed likely once more to overwhelm the land with more desolating evils than had ever yet been known, there was yet to be found in Chester county an association of females, who were nobly bearing the standard of Total Abstinence, and by their well timed labors giving evidence that there was yet vitality in the cause! Thus we have seen not only in this, but in other fields of moral reform, that the progress has uniformly been commensurate with the intellectual and moral culture of the female mind.”
-William H. Johnson and Mary Johnson, 1852
The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention, held at West Chester, PA June 2d and 3d 1852 page 12 and 13
“A fungus of a town that has suddenly sprung up here in a clearing of the woods. Nine years ago there was not even a clearing…The town today claims a population of some thousands, one man says five, another seven, and a third ten. As the last offers to support his figures by large bets of money, I distrust him, and incline towards the more modest estimates. Perhaps he counts the stumps with the inhabitants. Those make a large population by themselves. There are stumps in front yards, stumps on street corners, stump-lots all around.”
“If the numerous difficulties encountered and hardships sustained, by the people inhabiting the western counties of Pennsylvania, were to be minutely related, and their behavior under them fairly stated, their conduct generally would be entitled to a much greater proportion of approbation than blame, and their sufferings would have a powerful claim on the sympathy of their fellow citizens.”
-William Findley, 1796 (talking about the Whiskey Rebellion)
“History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the year 1795” page 17
The Wyoming Valley
“The whole country from Eastown [Easton] to Wyoming is very poor and barren and I think as never will be settled; it abounds chiefly in deer and rattle snake.”
–Sgt. Mosts Fellows, c. 1779
“We knew that the new suburb called Levittown, ‘the most perfectly planned community in America,’ was supposed to be lily-white and, as far as we could tell, the builder planned to keep it that way. But we also knew that, in theory- if not in fact- any American was free to purchase a home anywhere.”
-Daisy Myers, c. 2005
Quoted in “A Place for All: Three Stories of Integration in Pennsylvania” by Curtis Miner, Pennsylvania Heritage Fall 2022 issue, page 9.