Neighborhoods Public Services

Immigrant Jewish Philadelphia: School Days

Going through photographs on, I was struck by the number of photos showing Philadelphia public grade schools from years ago, most now torn down although some still remain. These photographs show the construction of new schools during the period of heavy immigration into the country at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries as well as the inside of classrooms, the first day of school, schoolyards, formally posed photographs of classes and informal scenes of children playing in the schoolyards. In The Immigrant Jew in America, edited by Edmund J. James, Ph. D., LL.D., with the collaboration of Charles S. Bernheimer from Philadelphia, and published by New York, B. F. Buck & Company in 1907, I found on page 202 a record of schools located in the Russian Jewish areas of South Philadelphia and the population of Jewish children for each school given as both a number and as a percentage of the total number of students. The area covered is from Locust Street on the north, Moore Street on the south, the Delaware River on the east and 19th Street on the west—the district composing the greater portion of the Russian Jewish community of the city in 1905.

Generally, the greatest percentage of Jewish children is in the schools located immediately surrounding the 5th Street and South Street areas. Other large percentages of Jewish students are in schools north of Washington Avenue, east of 8th Street, south of Locust Street and west of 2nd Street, although there are several exceptions such as the Fletcher School near Front Street that had a Jewish population of 79 per cent. There are only a few schools west of Broad Street, and the largest percentage of Jewish students in these “western” schools was 18 per cent. The schools with the highest percentage of Jews were those in the Jewish quarter surrounding the eastern end of South Street. The listing on page 202 described the total and percentage distribution of Jewish children in 39 kindergarten and grade schools in the area in 1905. Some of the schools with the largest Jewish percentage of children are presented below in chart form. I have also included a few other schools to demonstrate that the farther you went from 5th and South Streets the fewer number of Jewish children were enrolled in these schools. For a more complete listing of the schools, see The Immigrant Jew in America.


School Location Number of Students Number of Jewish Students Percentage of Students who were Jewish
Horace Binney Spruce below 6th 935 700 75
George M. Wharton 3rd below Pine 1345 1210 90
Wm. M. Meredith   5th & Fitzwater 1011 950 95
James Campbell  8th & Fitzwater 1560 782 50
Fagen 12th & Fitzwater 585 285 49
Mt. Vernon Catharine above 3rd 1200 1070 89
Fletcher Christian above Front 958 755 79
Geo. W. Nebinger 6th & Carpenter  1158 671 58
Wharton 5th below Wash’ton 1885 1411 74
John Stockdale 13th below Wash’ton 258 17 6
Washington Carpenter above 9th 1338 30 2

From the above figures, it can be determined that the school populations were determined by the neighborhood patterns of ethnic growth during the immigrant years. If we had the above statistics for earlier and later years, it would be dramatic in demonstrating just how quickly this south Philadelphia neighborhood changed from one ethnic group to the next. The above figures demonstrate how many grade schools there were years ago and how close they were to one another. Determining school boundaries is beyond the scope of this little blog, but I am sure that there are old school records held by the School Board of the City of Philadelphia which would describe, by streets and perhaps house numbers, the boundaries for each school.


The photographs on, especially those of the Mt. Vernon School, give you a good picture of what school life was like in the year 1909, the year that many of the photos were taken of the Mt. Vernon School, the schoolyard and what appears to be the first day of school. Children still went to school barefoot and the girls were dressed in the finest that the immigrant families could afford. Perhaps you will not find a photographs of your own grandparents or great grandparents among the treasures being displayed on the web site, but you can learn something about how they were educated, where they were educated and how they grew up to become American citizens.

When the immigrants came to Philadelphia in the 1880s and 1890s, many families—especially those where an immigrant father died young—required the help of younger children to run a business and make a living. Children left school after 4th grade to help out. Why after 4th grade is not clear, but anecdotal stories note children dropping out of school after the 4th grade. In the 1900s, 1910s and 1920s, economic conditions improved. According to The Immigrant Jew, during this period there was “a steady growth in attendance in the upper grades, the high schools and the professional institutions” among the Russian Jewish immigrants. It was during this time that the colleges, especially Temple College (now University) and the University of Pennsylvania enrolled a remarkably large number of Russian Jewish students. 


Ironically, many of the students who enrolled at Penn during this time got there first real taste of knowledge at the Hebrew Literature Society, 312 Catharine Street, directly across the street from the Mt. Vernon School. Children of the immigrants clamored for more learning and a group of the leaders of the Hebrew Literature Society contacted Penn. Penn agreed to send professors to the Society’s meetings on Sundays afternoons to instruct the youngsters on subjects that were either not taught in the local high schools, like bacteriology, astronomy, etc., or that augmented and advanced studies taught at schools such as Central High School. In the year 1905, Penn furnished over a dozen professors as part of this program to help educate the children of the immigrants.

The article on the Philadelphia schools in The Immigrant Jew contains the following paragraph written in 1905: “Probably no single agency has a more far-reaching educational influence, especially in molding ideas in accordance with standards of our country and our time, than the public school. It gives to the son of the immigrant the same advantages as to the son of the native born, and in many instances the transformation to similarity with the latter is swift and complete.” Although daughters would not have all the same educational opportunities for two more generations, daughters did attend Mt. Vernon School, the other schools in the area and were openly welcomed by the Hebrew Literature Society at their Sunday afternoon sessions. 

James, Edmund J. ed. The Immigrant Jew in America. New York: B. F. Buck & Company, 1907.


The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia

Years ago, cities and towns in Europe had Jewish quarters. Most were finitely defined. When the east European Jewish immigrants began coming to the United States en masse, Jewish quarters sprung up in cities along the eastern seaboard. Some were loosely defined, others more precisely. In the early years of Jewish mass immigration, a fairly sizeable Jewish quarter was established in a well-defined area of old Philadelphia, today known as Society Hill and Queen Village. In The Presbyterian, a weekly journal published in Philadelphia in 1889 for the Presbyterian community, the editor wrote: “In Philadelphia we are likely to have a Jewish section, where emigrants from Eastern Europe will congregate. From Fifth Street to the Delaware River and south of Lombard Street these foreign Jews are crowding in, and being very poor, the Hebrew Charities are drawn upon heavily.”1 The Jewish press saw a more confined and a smaller quarter, extending from Spruce Street in the north to Christian Street in the South and from 3rd Street to 6th Street east to west. Within this narrow rectangle, bearded Yiddish-speaking men and their large families settled. This was at a time when sweatshops were moving south from Kensington to Northern Liberties and then south of Market Street to Bank and Strawberry Streets. At this time, German-Jewish wholesale clothiers, like Snellenberg’s, had their businesses on N. 3rd Street between Market and Arch streets. Many of these buildings stand today.2

When immigrant steamers from Liverpool would arrive, trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad backed down onto the piers of the American Line to whisk away immigrants on their journeys to Chicago and places in the West. However, a sizeable number of Russian-Jewish immigrants stayed in Philadelphia and settled in the Jewish quarter. Many concentrated around the eastern end of South Street for three primary reasons: the rent was cheap, housing was near the sweatshops and the neighborhood was near the Emigrant Depot at the foot of Washington Avenue and the Delaware River. Prior to 1900, hardly any Jews lived south of Washington Avenue. The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia was hemmed in by the Poles and the Irish to the east, by African Americans to the west and Italians to the southwest and, to the south, by the Irish. Crossing well defined boundaries was dangerous for the immigrants. Within this narrowly defined area, a new life sprang up. Curbside and pushcart markets were established; teams of horses flying over cobblestone streets made daily runs to the Dock Street wholesale market. Seen on the pavement of the new S. 4th Street pavement market were pickle barrels and union enforcers, dreamers and paupers, curbside bookies and curbside elections, saloons, pool halls and feed stores—and in the middle of all this excitement were the synagogues, dozens of them.

Central to the new immigrant neighborhood was South Street, called “the great Street for Polish Jews and huckstering of every variety.” Some writers called it the Russian quarter because so many of the newcomers were from the Imperial Russian Empire.3 In 1887, the Public Ledger wrote: “On South Street many “neat” stores have been built and indications point to the further improvement of that old down-town avenue of retail trade.” Dock Street, the wholesale food market of its day, “is not a handsome street; it is old, full of crude commercial bustle in the hours of the day, and after night fall or in the early hours of the night until the nocturnal preparations for the next day begin, it is almost wholly deserted.”4 The first Yiddish theatre was in the center of the quarter, located at the corner of 5th & Gaskill Streets. It was here that the greatest actors of the Yiddish theatre performed, Jacob Adler and Boris Thomashevsky.5 And it was here, in the late 1880s on the little stage lit by candle light, that real horses were used in the tragedies and comedies of that era. In the 1890s, the S. 4th Street vegetable and meat market was started on the sidewalks; it eventually grew into the fabled S. 4th Street pushcart market, still remembered till this day.

Most of the immigrants worked in the nearby sweatshops or in the markets. Markets were located in the shambles along S. 2nd Street, the Washington Market along Bainbridge Street from 3rd to 5th Streets and in the 4th Street pushcart market. Sweatshops in the quarter numbered over one hundred. On the 300 block of Lombard Street alone there were five sweatshops. In 1895, men in these shops were paid $6.00 per week for working 58 hours and women, for the same work and hours, were paid $3.00 a week and sometimes as little as $1.80.

After 1900, Jews moved south across Washington Avenue and within just a few years they lived in great numbers south of Washington Avenue and east of Broad Street. Many Jews in the clothing trade prospered during the 1920s and moved to West Philadelphia and Strawberry Mansion. After Congress cut off immigration from Eastern Europe in 1924, the old Jewish quarter began to die out. Although its demise was slowed, first by the Depression and then by the effects of World War II, outward movement from the quarter accelerated after the war ended. Today, there are four synagogues remaining from the original Jewish quarter. Two buildings built as synagogues—B’nai Abraham, 527 Lombard Street (built in 1910), and B’nai Rueben, 6th & Kater Streets (built in 1905 but used for commercial purposes since 1956)—survive. Today, the twin religious houses of Mother Bethel Church (built in 1889) and Congregation B’nai Abraham stand proudly together at the corner of 6th & Lombard streets—and have stood together since 1910.


1 The Presbyterian, Vol. LIX, No. 9, March 2, 1889 (Presbyterian Historical Society).

2 For a listing of the wholesale clothiers and sweatshops on Bank and Strawberry Streets, see Harry D. Boonin, The Jewish Quarter of Philadelphia (JWT of Philadelphia, Inc., 1999), Appendix B.

3 The Life of Michael Valentine Ball (1868-1945), Transcribed and Researched by Edward L. Ball (Warren, PA, June 2003), p. 167. (Privately printed).

4 Rudoph J. Walther, Happenings in Ye Olde Philadelphia (Walther Printing House, Philadelphia, 1925), p. 176, and Dock Street from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, January 27, 1919, by Penn (William Perrine).

5 David B. Tierkel, History of the Yiddish Theatre in Philadelphia, unpublished Yiddish typescript, 1934, Yiddisher Visnshaftlikher Institue, YIVO, New York.