Quotable Pennsylvania: The People

Charles Isaacs, Fourth of July Parade, Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, 1976, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

There are about 12.8 million people living within Pennsylvania’s borders right now. And in the last 300 years, more people living in the United States called Pennsylvania their home than just about any other place (PA was the 2nd most populous state up until 1950).

You can find Pennsylvanians in all sorts of places around the state, from the big cities and their suburbs, to the small mountain patches and everywhere in-between. Pennsylvania is a place that touches many regions and is home to many diverse communities that defy easy labels. Is PA part of the Northeast? The Midwest? Is it coastal, or Rust Belt? There are no easy answers

But that hasn’t stopped the critics and the observers (and many times the haters) from trying to define “the people of Pennsylvania” over the centuries. Each one of these quotes touches on some truth about “Pennsylvanians” but no one statement could ever define the whole state’s character. One of the best descriptions of Pennsylvania’s people I’ve seen comes from Ed Simon (who is also featured in this post), who writes they are like a “wrinkled Amish quilt,” a patchwork of peoples, cultures, and communities that all come together to make…something.

Before reading these, please note that I’ve also written separate posts full of quotes specifically about Black and Indigenous people from Pennsylvania. I don’t want to imply that they don’t count as Pennsylvanians in the slightest (though I’d suspect that some of these historical quotes were intended to describe white Pennsylvanians and not other groups in the state), only that I thought they warranted extra attention and context in their own posts. In fact, I’d recommend you read this one along with the other two in order to get the whole story.

Recommended Listening: “Buckwheat Batter” as performed by Jehile Kirkhuff (a renowned fiddler from Lawton, PA, he was sometimes called the “Blind Fiddler from Pennsylvania”) and “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)” by MFSB (this song helped define Philly soul music and was the theme to Soul Train for a time).

“I feel a sincere pleasure that so much independence has been manifested by the yeomanry of Pennsylvania. Indeed, I am fully satisfied that, if a spirit of this kind was not manifested from some quarter or another, our liberties would soon be swallowed up.”

-William Maclay (January 23, 1791)
Journal of William Maclay, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791

Frank Blackwell Mayer, Independence (Squire Jack Porter), 1858, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Thus, Sir, the people of Pennsylvania may be said to have purchased an inheritance in its constitution, at a prodigious price; and I cannot believe, unless the strongest evidence be offered, that they are now willing to part with that, which has cost them so much toil and expence.”

-John Dickinson, 1764
“A Speech, Delivered in the House of Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania, May 24th, 1764 page 26

“The People of Pennsylvania are more blended in race than those of any the other American colonies. Biologists and breeders alike have learned the law of nature that the crossing of allied stocks leads to the increase of vital activities. To interbreed, or, as it is called, to keep a strain pure is to prevent further development.”

-Former governor Samuel Pennypacker, 1918
“The Autobiography of a Pennsylvanian,” page 16

Unidentified Mother Holding Infant, Philadelphia, c. 1931. Library Company of Philadelphia.

“The people of this province are generally of the middling sort, and at present pretty much upon a level. They are chiefly farmers, artificers or men in trade; they enjoy and are fond of freedom, and the meanest among them thinks he has a right to civility from the greatest.”

Pennsylvania Journal, 1756
Quoted in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” page 57

“What is the Character of the Pennsylvanians? Pennsylvania is inhabited by a great variety of people…Many of the yeomanry, in some parts of this State, differ from the New Englanders, for the former are impatient of good government, order and regularity, and the latter are orderly, regular and loyal.”

-Nathaniel Dwight, 1807
“A system of the Geography of the World-By way of Question and Answer- Principally Designed for Children and Common Schools” (quoted in an Oct. 1916 Speech by Gov. Pennypacker)

“Pennsylvania customs made it unmanly for a man or boy to aid any woman, even mother or wife, in any hard work with which farms abounded at that time. Dairy work, candle and sausage making were done by women, and any innovation was met with sneers. I stubbornly refused to yield altogether to a time-honored code, which required women to preform out-door drudgery, often while men sat in the house, and soon had the sympathy of our own boys.”

-Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1880
“Half a Century,” page 78

The Geiger Family of York, PA, drawn by Lewis Miller c. 1880. York County History Center.

“The Pennsylvania Dutch have many solid and useful qualities and one of the most engaging languages known to man; as the inventors of scrapple they have conferred upon Philadelphia and the rest of the world a priceless boon”

-Dr. David Rittenhouse Bingham, 1905
The New York Sun

“Schools and churches likewise as the means of promotion and happiness in society, derive a due support from him [the Pennsylvania settler]: benevolence and public spirit, as to these objects, are the natural offspring of affluence and independence. Of this class or set are two-thirds of the farmers of Pennsylvania: These are the men to whom Pennsylvania owes her ancient fame and consequence. If they possess less refinement than their southern neighbors, who cultivate their lands with slaves, they possess more republican virtue.”

Columbian Magazine, 1786
Pages 117-122

Block party on South Christian Street, Lancaster, 1966. LancasterHistory.org

“The Pennsylvanians do not give us an over-warm welcome; they are much more greedy than the Marylanders. Butter has gone up to fifty cents a pound, and skimmed milk to twenty-five cents a canteen. Yet they are running with complaints if a single fence rail is burned. I had a long talk with the man in whose field I am camped; he wanted half as much as his land is worth for the poor crop of clover destroyed. I proved to him, by his own admission, that it would not have cleared him more than $15. He then fell back on the statement that his wide had been up all night baking bread for the men, and had ‘guv’ them all the milk and butter she had. Which ‘guv’ing I found to mean selling at from three to ten times their market value. I then dismissed him with apiece of my mind as to himself and Pennsylvanians in general. They fully maintain their reputation for meanness…”

-Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1863
The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, pages 229- 230

Mark Cohen, Girl Holding Popsicle [Wilkes-Barre, PA], 1972, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Pennsylvania is the place where we render the head fat of a pig into a loaf and pretend it’s lunch, where they ferment their bologna, where they make toast out of meat and call it scrapple. It’s where the entire town of Centralia can fall into a coal fire that won’t burn itself out for centuries and several people still decide to stick around, and where, in Punxsutawney, there is an annual ritual demanding that a rodent be pulled out of the ground in deference to the gods of winter and their desired eclipse (a certain movie was made about this, of which the election count was reminiscent). It is beautiful, infuriating, and far stranger than either the national media or Donald Trump understands.”

-Ed Simon, 2020
The Keystone State is Ringing, Beltmag

“The Fifth of July has come for lesbian and gay Americans, and if I cannot receive fair treatment in Pennsylvania, with great reluctance I will go elsewhere.”

-Scott Sandage, 1999
Why one gay professor would leave Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Many of them [newspaper subscribers] were born and many of them still lived in remote hamlets in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania, in the wild regions that were the last stand of the old modes of living, the final frontier of the modern complex civilization that the World War tried to hard to destroy. They were born in a day when there were still a few Indians wandering about in the mountains…who had ceased to mourn over the land that was once theirs. They were born in a day when a belief in ghosts and in the supernatural in general were more widely held, and when, in consequence, religion seemed much more real.”
-Henry Shoemaker, 1917
Pennsylvania Folk Lore: Its Origin and Preservation, quoted in North Mountain Mementos; Legends and Traditions Gathered in Northern Pennsylvania, page 7.

A group of young gay men spending time together in Rittenhouse Square, c. 1950. John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives


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