Home > HISTORY & BACKGROUND

HISTORY & BACKGROUND

An industrial powerhouse, Philadelphia in the early 1900s proudly proclaimed itself “The World’s Greatest Workshop.” And, indeed, a larger percentage of its workforce was engaged in industrial work than in any other large American city.

Pamphlet depicting Philadelphia, showing improved water front : population in 1908, 1,550,000, 225th anniversary of the founding of Philadelphia, 1683-1908. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

To attract businesses, its Chamber of Commerce also boasted that Philadelphia’s comparatively low percentage of immigrants compared to New York, Chicago, and other industrial metropolises made it “the most American of cities.” Between 1910 and 1914, however, Philadelphia received 250,000 passengers through its Washington Avenue Immigration Station; an average of 50,000 a year.

Between 1890 and 1915 the city’s population doubled. In 1920, 22 percent of its close to 2 million residents were foreign born. Of these, close to 96,000 were Russians, and more than 65,000 Irish, 63,000 Italian, 53,000 German and Austrian, and 53,000 other eastern Europeans. The city's people included 100,000 African American newcomers from the southern states. By 1930 more than 380,000 first- and second-generation Jews (200,000) and Italians (180,000) lived in Philadelphia. By then, the city was home to the nation’s second largest Little Italy and North Philadelphia to the second largest African-American population of any northern city.

McGovern Family Portrait
McGovern family portrait, c. 1904. The Balch Institute, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

After the 1924 Immigration Reform Act closed America’s doors to people from other lands, the number and percentage of immigrants steadily declined. Over the next the seventy years the two largest groups of newcomers to the city were African Americans, who by 1990 numbered close to 624,000—more than 39 percent of the city’s population-- and Puerto Ricans. After the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 again opened America’s doors, Philadelphia missed the rising tide of national immigration that began a steady surge in the 1970s.

Since 2000, however, its foreign born-population has climbed by more than 100,000 people. By 2017, foreign-born residents accounted for 13 percent of the city’s population and 20 percent of the city’s workers. Today, one out of four Philadelphians are first or second-generation immigrants, most of them from Asian, Latin American, and African nations, with the largest number from China and the fastest growing populations from Africa. Driven by immigration, Philadelphia in 2008 gained population for the first time in more than 30 years. Like their predecessors, today’s newcomers are filling low-wage jobs, participating in a new wave of entrepreneurship, and contributing to the city’s renewed economic growth and cultural dynamism.