Unwelcome Immigrants

They would close to the newcomer the bridge that carried them and their fathers over.


“Within a few blocks of the skyscrapers of the Point, I have seen a company of Syrians weaving almost unceasingly for four days (doing) a desert dance that celebrated the return of one of them to Jerusalem.”


What? Have Syrian refugees arrived in Pittsburgh? Has Mayor Bill Peduto made good on his pledge to welcome them here,  even if fearful Pittsburghers do not.

No, refugees are not dancing at the Point just yet.

The opening quote comes from a comprehensive study of Pittsburgh immigrants and their working conditions, which was done in 1907.

So, what other “foreigners” did the writer see? Let’s look at his complete description. It includes the grandparents or great-grandparents of most Pittsburghers today:

Greek Orthodox Priest

Pittsburgh Greek Orthodox Priest

“You do not know the Pittsburgh district until you have heard the Italians twanging their mandolins around a construction campfire, and seen the mad whirling of a Slovak dance in a mill town lodge hall; until you have watched the mill hands burst out from the gates at closing time; or thrown confetti on Fifth Avenue on a Halloween.

“Within a few blocks of the skyscrapers of the Point, I have seen a company of Syrians weaving almost unceasingly for four days a desert dance that celebrated the return of one of them to Jerusalem. (An Irishman thought it a wake).

“A possum swings by the tail at Christmastide in front of that Negro store on Wylie avenue; long-bearded Old Believers (Russian Orthodox) play bottle pool (a form of billiards) in that Second Avenue barroom; a Yiddish father and five children lie sick on the floor of this tenement; an old Bohemian woman once cleaned molds as a girl in the ironworks of Prague.

“That itinerant cobbler made shoes last winter for the German children of the South Side, who were too poor to pay for them, and stuffed the soles with thick cardboard when he was too poor to buy leather. Here is a Scotch Calvinist, and there a Slavic free thinker; here a peasant, and there a man who works from a blueprint; engineers, drag outs, and furnace-men from the mill district; there a Russian exile with a price on his head.”

Immigrants Not Wanted

But, America has never welcomed  immigrants. They come anyway. They are desperate. and they are needed. They can earn a living.

In 1907, factory owners wanted them in the worst kind of way. They didn’t have enough workers to keep up with demand for steel, glass, tin, bottles, cigars, you name it.

Factory workers already here, they hated immigrants.  They passed it on to their families around the dinner table and their neighbors on the stoops. Why?

According to Alois B. Koukol, secretary of the Slavonic Immigrant Society in 1907, they didn’t like how Slavics acted.

“The bosses know them chiefly as sturdy, patient, and submissive workmen; their fellow workmen hate and despise them largely because of this patience and submissiveness to the bosses and their willingness at the outset to work at any wages and under any conditions,”Koukol explains in the study.

A Lot of Bad Press

Then, there were all the newspaper stories about the rows and fights that “Hunkies” got into. In the typical story, they got drunk and unruly on payday, or during weddings and christenings, Koukol adds.


Immigrant workers leaving a Pittsburgh mill in 1907


Croatian Pittsburgher

The first Europeans to come here were chiefly from the English and Germanic regions of northern Europe. By the end of the 1800s,  the industrial revolution created a great demand for factory workers in such places as Pittsburgh. At the same time, large commercial agriculture started to plow under small family farms in southern and eastern Europe.

So,  the “Hunkies” came here.

The immigration study reports that not even one percent of the local population consisted of Slavs, Lithuanians and Italians in 1880.  Ten years later, they were at 4 percent, and comprised 10 percent of the work force. By 1900, one-third of all Pittsburghers, or roughly 200,000, were born in a nation other than the United States.  Half came from southeastern Europe.

“The representatives of these nations touch elbows in the streets so that the languages heard when the people are marketing in the foreign quarters on Saturday night are as numerous as those of a seaport town.”


Bottling pickled olives with a grooved stick.

How many varieties of nationalities did Pittsburgh offer? At least as many as the 57 products offered by HJ Heinz where this immigrant uses a grooved stick to pack a bottle.



Yet, the number of immigrants must have seemed much greater because many were just passing through.

“There is no way of knowing the annual inflow of immigrants into Pittsburgh, for the city is a distributing point. The records of the ports of entry show that in 1907, 187,618 persons gave Pittsburgh as their destination, but many of these scattered to the neighboring Pennsylvania towns and many undoubtedly went to the mills and mines of Eastern Ohio.”

Natives maintained their anti-immigration sentiments over time, but they changed their reasons. The immigrant, once seen as someone willing to work for less, became someone wanting more, someone willing to kill to get it.

Americans feared revolutionaries arriving from Europe would foment violence or radicalism here. Hmmm. That sounds familiar. And, there was extensive news coverage whenever they did.

In fact, Pittsburghers, surrounded by foreigners, were terrified of radical Russian communists and Italian anarchists in 1919. City police reported rounding up hundreds of Slavs and Italians after bombs exploded on two local porches,  one in Squirrel Hill,  the other in the Sheridan neighborhood.

More terrifying, it was part of a coordinated effort by international anarchists who set off bombs in eight other cities that night.


Italian immigrant Pittsburgher

What did they want? Well, anarchists didn’t want anarchy so much as a self-governed society with voluntary institutions based on non-heirarchial free associations . . . Huh? Don’t worry. No one else understood them, either.

People did understand that they were inclined to use bombs, and they were associated with Communists, who also wanted a global revolution.

Not that they were particularly good at using bombs.

The Squirrel Hill target was a federal judge, W.H. Seward Thomson. Turns out he hadn’t been home for some time. Not that it mattered. The bomber accidentally set the device on a neighbor’s porch. It did a good job of wrecking part of that porch.

The Sheridan target was W.W. Sibray, a federal immigration inspector.  He had been reporting actions of aliens to government officials. He wasn’t home either. Perhaps, he was out watching aliens when one placed a bomb on his porch. Only it wasn’t his porch. It was his neighbor’s.

Then, the same night, in Washington, someone tried to bomb the house of A. Mitchell Palmer, the U.S. attorney general. He had been the face of immigration crackdowns. Palmer was home quietly reading a book in his pajamas. The anarchist got the house right, but he apparently tripped and fell on the sidewalk. The bomb exploded.

It took hours to collect all the pieces of the bomber from the neighborhood. But, police reported fairly quickly that the anarchist had swarthy skin and an Italian/American dictionary in his pocket.


Slavic Household

Slavic Household

Slavic lodging on the South Side is shared by 12 men, including three in one bed. If it still exists today, imagine how much it rents for on what is now the South Side Flats.

Slavic lodging on the South Side is shared by 12 men, three to a bed. If it still stands today, imagine how much South Side Flats rent it generates.


Lithuanian Girl

Lithuanian Girl



— The cartoon at top of post was done by Joseph Keppler, January 11, 1893, Puck Magazine.

— The Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological examination of the city funded by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York in 1907, provided the earliest and most thorough analysis of urban conditions in the United States. The investigation became a landmark of the Progressive Era reform movement. In a series of six books, first published in Collier’s Magazine, nearly seventy investigators studied the working and living conditions of working class Pittsburgh. Their intent was to provide for the general public a glimpse of the harsh lives these individuals lived.

— Photos for the study were taken by famed New York photographer Lewis Hines.

%d bloggers like this: