Historical Markers
Allentown [Great Depression] Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Allentown [Great Depression]

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
U.S. 309 north at Allentown

Dedication Date:
September 3, 1947

Behind the Marker

The Great Depression radiated throughout the Commonwealth and the nation. Its impact, however, was greater in certain regions than in others. Allentown suffered less, and recovered sooner, than other comparable-sized cities in Pennsylvania. The city benefited from a diversified economy, the self-help efforts of its citizens, business groups, and elected officials, and the New Deal relief programs that provided jobs and income for many of those in the greatest need of assistance.
Exterior color postcard
flip zoom
The Adelaide Silk Mill, Allentown, PA, circa 1915.

Allentown straddles the Lehigh River in eastern Pennsylvania and occupies a strategic position between two major urban markets: Philadelphia, sixty miles to the south, and New York City, 100 miles to the east. By 1929, with a population of nearly 93,000, it was the largest city of the Lehigh Valley. Unlike nearby Bethlehem, which had evolved into a company town dominated by a single large corporation, Bethlehem Steel, Allentown had become the "Queen City of the Lehigh Valley," based on a diversified economy.

By 1930, 283 manufacturing plants in Allentown employed more than 18,000 workers, almost half of the city's work force. Roughly one quarter of the city's workers labored in its more than twenty silk mills. Other major employers included International Motors (the maker of markerMack trucks), General Cigar, the Lehigh Portland Cement Company, the Trojan Powder Company, Lehigh Structural Steel, the meat processor Arbogast and Bastian, and the Lehigh Valley Transit Company.

Between October 1929 and April 1933 factory employment in Allentown declined nearly 50 percent, factory wages dropped 74 percent, and unemployment soared from just over 2 percent to close to 40 percent of the work force. In nearby Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel laid off 40 percent of its workers. The Lehigh County work relief roles swelled from 5,111 to 14,022, but still reached only a small percentage of the people in need.

Private citizens were the "first responders" to Allentown's economic crisis. Good Samaritans did what they could to take care of their relatives, friends, and neighbors in want. They took people in need into their homes or found them work in Allentown's many family-run businesses. Many participated in "Man-a-Block" programs, hiring jobless neighbors to perform odd jobs, and making vacant lots available to the needy for vegetable gardens.

Bankers, retailers, realtors, and other business persons also helped. After several local bank failures and scandals in 1931 the Allentown Clearing House Association published a series of ten articles in the Allentown Morning Call to offset the public's growing distrust of financial institutions. The Association also sponsored talks before civic groups that outlined the evils of hoarding, and increased the money supply by issuing scrip in various denominations to stimulate the local economy.
Photograph of a boy and a girl holding strike against sweat shop signs.
flip zoom
Children striking against sweatshops in Northampton, PA, prepare to meet with...

Churches, beneficial and fraternal societies, and private charities also stepped into the breach, doing their best to provide relief for those most in need. In 1930, the Chamber of Commerce created a new Industrial Department that initiated "Forward Allentown," a three-year campaign to recruit new industries, which attracted twenty-two new companies and 1,600 new jobs to the city. In 1937 the Chamber launched a second campaign under the slogan "Keep Allentown Ahead." The Chamber also encouraged Allentonians to patronize local merchants by arranging special sales, window shopping nights when streets were closed to vehicular traffic, and free streetcar rides to the retail district.

Despite these efforts, Allentown remained in dire straits. In May 1933, children garment workers staged a "baby strike" that drew national attention to marker sweatshop labor in Pennsylvania. The next year, 40 percent of the children of families on relief still were underfed.

In the early 1930s, Allentown witnessed angry demonstrations, hunger marches, and mass picketing. The jobless formed their own organizations, which ranged from the small and short-lived marker Allentown Unemployed Council, under Communist Party leadership, to the Labor Welfare League, which set up branches in neighboring towns and remained active into the 1950s.

The unemployed organizations set up barter systems for the exchange of goods and services, raised funds and supplies for families in need, and staged a march on Harrisburg, where in 1936 they occupied the Senate Gallery and impelled the legislature to reform the state welfare system. Its unemployed organizations were so effective that Allentown became the headquarters of the 50,000 member Pennsylvania Unemployed Leagues.
Seven women wearing "Sweat Shop Striker" banners pose for this photo.
Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, the governor's wife, participating in the "Child Strikers"...

Blocked by the Republicans in Harrisburg, federal relief was slow to arrive in the Commonwealth. In Allentown, the arrival of Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs in 1935, and the other federal relief projects that followed, provided income for destitute families. They also gave the city miles of newly paved streets and sewers, a new airport, two reservoirs, and 866 acres of public park lands, up from only 30 acres in 1929.

The expansion of existing industries and an influx of new ones also helped the city begin the process of recovery. After the construction and truck manufacturing industries scaled back their work forces, the food and leather industries, which were less impacted by the Depression, absorbed some of the unemployed. After almost half of the city's silk mills closed, the needle-trades and makers of ready-to-wear clothing employed many laid-off silk workers. At the end of the 1930s the city had nearly as many plants and 3,410 more jobs than at the beginning of the decade.

City leaders also contributed to Allentown's recovery. Unlike Bethlehem, which was controlled by outsiders working for the giant Bethlehem Steel Corporation, most of the civic and business leaders were native Allentonians deeply committed to the welfare of the city. Realtors, through their trade association, the Allentown Real Estate Board, and its offshoot, the Lehigh County Taxpayers League, also did their part, reducing the tax burden of property owners by introducing programs that allowed them to pay taxes in installments.

The Board also worked with the Chamber of Commerce to organize "Better Housing" and "Home Modernization" campaigns that encouraged homeowners and landlords to repair and improve their properties, thus stimulating local sales of building materials, furniture, and appliances. And the Taxpayers League lobbied New Deal agencies for the construction of low income housing in the city. Their efforts led to the creation of the Allentown Housing Authority and the development of the 322-unit Hanover Acres project in the late 1930s and the Riverview Terrace project in the early 1940s.
Back to Top