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Polish Migration to Pittsburgh

Polish Migration to Pittsburgh

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


The decline of the feudal system and emancipation of the peasantry in early nineteenth-century Poland enhanced the social and economic position of the Poles. But rather than distributing land equally, wealthier peasants ended up with most of the land. As a result of seventy years of trying to survive on land that was increasingly monopolized, the rural Poles had little choice but to move.

Unlike the blacks who came to Pittsburgh with defined aspirations, the Polish were tentative and wary of their move to the "steel city," according to "Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900-1960." "The goal of most immigrant Poles was simply to 'get a job, any job'," the book asserts.

Poles began entering Pittsburgh in the early 1870s, first settling in the Strip District and Lawrenceville. Poles who migrated from German-occupied territories settled in Herron Hill (Polish Hill) and the Southside. In the early 1900s Austrian Poles who emigrated here linked with German Poles on the Southside, while Russian Poles gravitated toward Lawrenceville. The U.S. census reported that in 1910 the Polish population in Pittsburgh was 20,606.

Once a Pole secured a job, chances were he'd hold that job for a long time, for Poles had a pattern of longevity in the workplace. Work and steady income superseded education. "In the hierarchy of Polish values, work and family came before education nourishment of the individual," according to Lives of Their Own. A 1973 survey by the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese found that over 60-percent of the adults in a Southside Polish church didn't have a high school degree; in fact, a third of them never entered high school.