Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide: Before your visit

Making a Living

Before your visit

Materials for this lesson
Readings Activities Primary sources






     ** Referenced PA Standards **

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.

Student Readings

How Johnstown Made its Living

The Workers' World: Working 9 to 9

These student readings lay important groundwork for activities at the museum and afterward.

The student reading "How Johnstown Made its Living" explores the industrial transformation from the viewpoint of Johnstown's overal economy, from its beginnings as a remote trading post, through its days as a canal hub (Part 1), to its steelmaking heyday (Part 2).

"The Workers' World: Working 9 to 9" explores the industrial transformation from the point of view of immigrants entering it for the first time. Wages, hours, and working conditions were all bones of bitter contention between companies and workers for decades. After outlining the conditions workers tolerated in 1900, the article tells the story of how things changed. It begins with the workers organizing themselves into unions, tells how "muckraking" journalists and "do-gooder" social workers raised public awareness of the economic injustices, and concludes with lawmakers being pressured to make changes.

Interviews of First Generation Johnstowners - Memories of Work

Reading about the personal experiences of individual immigrants will help students remember that there were human beings behind every name they saw on the census.

These transcriptions from Johnstown citizens who were interviewed. The Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center interviewed children and grandchildren of immigrants for the museum's "Generations Theatre". You will only view excerpts from these interviews on your trip to the museum, but we are able to include more of what they said here. The following transcript excerpts include memories about how their families made a living in this region:

Mr. Beerman's interview, in particular, helps round out the stereotype that everyone worked in the iron and coal industries. His family of merchants would have been similar to those on Downtown Johnstown's census.

Optional reading for older students

Out of this Furnace by Thomas Bell (published by the University of Pittsburgh Press) is a great fictional telling of this process. Semi-autobiographical, it follows three generations of a steelworking family in the Monongahela Valley. Reading level is suitable for eighth grade and older

Activity: Making Sense of the Census

NOTE: The teachers' key for this activity is in the form of an Excel spreadsheet . The completed summary table (worksheet 2) is filled out on the spreadsheet's second worksheet. The summary results also appear in graphs on the same sheet. The bar graphs at the bottom of the sheet are what the students will be graphing as part of worksheet 3. PDF versions are also available: Worksheet 1, Worksheets 2-3.

Explain the census

Statistically valid samples

Even though the lists seem long, they are only a small sample -- only 200 people in each neighborhood instead of the thousands of people listed on the full census! Using all of those names would give the most accurate neighborhood profile, of course.

Fortunately, mathematicians have discovered that using only part of a large amount of data is almost as accurate as using all of it, IF it is a "random sample." A "random sample" means there can be no pattern to how people are chosen to study. For example, to accurately study all the people in a town, you couldn't chose all people of a certain age, all men or all women, all people who lived on the same street, etc. A random sample would include a mix of all types of people in the group being studied.

 Our samples of Cambria City, Johnstown, and Westmont are NOT random samples. First of all, we chose the blocks we would study. Second, we decided to limit the number in each neighborhood to roughly 200 people (rather than a percentage of the population) to make this exercise more manageable in the classroom.

What does this mean for us? Our study gives an accurate picture of the way SOME people in each neighborhood made a living in 1900. Our sample is not random enough or large enough to safely say "40% of Westmont workers in 1900 were day laborers." It is safe to say, "40% of Westmont workers in our sample were day laborers."

When historians want to learn how the residents of an area made a living, they look at many sources, but there is one source they always turn to:  the U.S. Census. The Census is a source like no other because it is so complete.

Every ten years since 1790, the government counts -- takes a census -- of every person living in the United States. The original purpose of the Census was to decide how many representatives each state will have in Congress. But over the years, the government has decided that while census-takers went door-to-door counting noses, they might as well gather other useful information about America's families. So, every census has more information than the one ten years before. All those records have been saved (except for the 1890 census, which was destroyed in a fire), becoming a great source of information for historians

The census doesn't give a lot of detail about the world of work, but it does give a huge amount of data! It takes some digging to sift through all of these facts and some number-crunching to make sense of them. This exercise will let students experience the step-by-step process of collecting raw census data, organizing it, summarizing it, and analyzing it. By doing so, they will also determine how residents of three Johnstown neighborhoods made a living in 1900 and compare the economic basis of the communities. Finally, they will compare Johnstown's workforce in 1900 with today and speculate about the reasons for these changes.

Introduce the three neighborhoods and locate them on a modern map.

If the students are familiar with these neighborhoods, ask them to briefly describe them today -- location, economic activity, architecture and land use. Examples:

Predict what we'll find

Before letting students look at the census samples

Introduce the economic sectors ("Business Types," as we call them in the student materials). They are listed at the bottom of the tally sheet, in the first column of the Result Summary Sheet (worksheet 2) and the headings of the Job Glossary for 190O.

Compare the 1900 neighborhoods to each other

What do you expect to find when you investigate how people made a living in the three neighborhoods?

What differences do you expect to find?

What similarities will you find?

Which Business Type do you think will have the most workers in Cambria City? In Downtown Johnstown? In Westmont? Which don't you expect to find in each of the three neighborhoods? Why?

Compare 1900 Johnstown to today

What jobs would you expect to see 100 years ago, but not now?

What are some of the reasons Johnstowners no longer work in these jobs?

Which jobs are "extinct" or almost "extinct" everywhere? Which jobs exist elsewhere, but not in Johnstown anymore?

Discuss results

After groups finish tallying and summarizing findings for their neighborhood (but before comparing results with other neighborhoods).


Let's see if our predictions were accurate.

Make a "Top-Five" list of business types with the largest number (highest percent) of workers in your neighborhood (in order from highest to lowest).

  • Which business type is at the top of the list?
  • How many different jobs did you find for each neighborhood? What were some of those jobs?
  • Which neighborhood has the most diversity of jobs? Which has the most similar jobs? Why?
  • What were some of the occupations you found that no longer exist in Johnstown? Why?

Making numbers make sense

Often translating results into another form can make them easier to understand. These facts are communicated in the form of numbers. Try translating the numbers into words or graphs:

Use words

Make up a sentence that summarizes the work situation in your neighborhood. Here's an example: Almost half of the workers in 1900 Westmont were "laborers" or "day laborers," who had no steady employment. Most of the rest of Westmont workers were in manufacturing or service jobs.

Use images: Optional Pie Charts

Pie charts are a great way to visualize parts of a whole.

Separate pie charts for Cambria City, Downtown, and Westmont allow us to see at a glance each neighborhood's "work profile." The percent figures, representing jobs in each business type -- become pieces (fractions) of the pie.

The first graphs on the sheet (pages 2-4 of the PDF) of the Teachers' Key are pie charts showing the composition of the workforce of each of the three neighborhoods. How you use the pie charts is up to your judgment based on the level of your students and your goals for this activity:

  • Assign students to draw their own pie charts from their summary results. The number of business types is likely to make this a bit of a challenge for younger students.
  • Demonstrate making the pie charts -- either by hand or with Excel -- in front of the class.
  • Show the pie charts to the class on an overhead projector.
  • Let students use a spreadsheet program to plot pie charts.

Compare results: Summarize and graph

To compare the three neighborhoods, you can compare their three pie charts. If you want to focus on comparing how each business type fares in each neighborhood, bar graphs make direct comparisons easier. On worksheet 3, students will create two bar graphs to help them compare the three neighborhoods. The key for the finished bar graphs is at the bottom of Sheet 1 of the spreadsheet and on pages 5-6 of the PDF.


What do you expect to see when we compare the three neighborhoods?

Have groups share their results with each other. Fill out the Results Summary (worksheet 2) for the remaining two neighborhoods, then graph the percentages on worksheet 3. A key of the finished graphs is on sheet 2 of the spreadsheet.


Let's see what we found out.  

Graph 1

    What percent of people are working in each neighborhood? Which neighborhood has the largest number of workers? Smallest? Why?
  • Which neighborhood has the most workers? Which has the least? Who would be the nonworkers?

Graph 2

  • What business types are most common in each neighborhood? Why?
  • Which neighborhood had the most manufacturing jobs? The most mining jobs? The most retail and sales jobs?
  • What did you expect to find when you compared the three neighborhoods? What did you actually find? In what ways were you surprised? In what ways did you find what you expected?
  • Where did workers in each business type tend to live? Why?
  • Look for patterns. Which businesses have many jobs (tallest bars) in one neighborhood? Which are similar for all three neighborhoods? Why?
  • How would the graph look today? In 1850? In 1820?

Activity: Family Folklife Interviews - Work Part 1

The Family Folklife Interview goes a step further toward being able to imagine names and numbers as human beings. Talking to their own families about their work experiences really makes the point!

This activity works best as an individual homework assignment, so students can interview an older family member (encourage phone interviews, if necessary). If this seems too challenging (with foster families, for example), it can also work as a cooperative learning activity with teams of three or four students interview a grandparent of one student.

While it is great to be able to reach as far back as possible with these interviews, it is not always practical or possible to talk to the oldest family member. That's OK. Students may be just as amazed that their parents and grandparents remember before computers were a necessary tool at work!  The important goal of this part of the interview is to learn how people make a living, what they literally do at work, how work has changed over the years and how it continues to change.

Part 2 of the Family Folklife work interviews is slotted for after your museum visit, because the questions focus on wages, work conditions, safety, and other possible sources of conflict on the job. If you decide to assign this activity to students, you might use both sets of questions, rather than having students do a second interview.


Interview an older adult in your family to find out more about family traditions and how they have changed over the generations:

Museum Characters

Assign students the characters they will assume on the field trip (Museum characters).

  • Research the character's homeland at the time he or she immigrated (about 1900);
  • Think about the jobs they might be leaving;
  • Predict what jobs they will look for when they get to the USA. How well will they adjust to those jobs?


Continued "During your Museum Visit"


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