Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Through Immigrants' Eyes

Making a Living

Photo of men and boys posing with tools outside a factory

Men and boys pose with their tools outside a wire factory.

The World of Work

Putting food on the table is at the root of most immigrants' reasons for leaving home and settling in a new place. And work is what puts food on the table and a roof over family.

The great attraction -- the "pull" factor -- of Johnstown and other Pennsylvania cities, was an unprecedented technological and economic explosion beginning with the arrival of the railroad in Johnstown in 1852. The mutal dependence of The railroad, coal, and steel industries fueled each other in a frenzy of economic growth. Industrialization consumed workers as fast as it consumed energy. The immigrants who arrived in Johnstown to fill the demand for cheap labor were part of the largest migration -- from Europe to America -- the world has seen.

In the "Old Country" often as not, these immigrants were peasant farmers who literally grew the food their family needed to live. Little of their old lives prepared former peasants for the work they would do in America. The mills and mines ran around the clock, never stopping for nightfall or holidays. Noise, heat, dark, and danger, were hallmarks of industrialized work. The new "greenhorns" would be taken advantage of at first. Eventually, though, they learned to organize to negotiate with the Boss, as the labor movement gained steam.

The industrial expansion of the late 1800s and early 1900s is full of paradoxes, like Dickens' "the best of times and the worst of times." These paradoxes eventually resolved themselves, but not without hard work and more than a little conflict. This thread explores that story as it played out in the Johnstown region.

We suggest reading through the Teachers' Guide first, then use the links under Student Resources for this Thread as quick access to the learning materials for this theme.  Referenced PA Standards are available.

Teachers's Guide for "Making a Living"

Disciplines: Mathematics, technology, social studies (economics, geography, history)

Two student readings lay important groundwork for activities at the museum and afterward: "How Johnstown Made its Living" explores the industrial transformation from the viewpoint of Johnstown's overal economy; "The Workers' World: Working 9 to 9" explores the industrial transformation from the point of view of immigrants.

Then students will use two very different kinds of primary sources to learn more about workers about 1900: Transcripts of interviews with children of immigrants for a subjective view, "Family Folklfe Interviews" they conduct with their own family members, and the 1900 census of three neighborhoods for a statistical view.

Students will act as inspectors (literally) investigating working conditions found in the museum's exhibits. Then docents will lead an activity using a labor song "Which Side Are You on?" and news photo from the 1937 steel strike to explore the points-of-view of various sides during a strike.

Students will continue in their roles as "Inspectors" of working conditions in the photo galleries, interviews, and readings. They will use what they find to create a coalmining folk hero and a work safety poster understandable by immigrants speaking any language.

Resources for "Making a Living

For convenience, all of these resources are listed on the appropriate Teachers' Guide page and on a separate Student Resources page arranged in order under the headings "Before your Visit," "During your Visit," and "After your Visit." The Student Resources page does not contain links to teachers' keys, so you can freely allow students direct access to it.

Readings and Secondary Sources

Web sites

Primary Sources

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