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New York Folklore Vol. 22, Nos. 1-4, 1996
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Vol. 22, Nos. 1-4, 1996

by Gerald L. Pocius

Since childhood I have visited the homes of my Lithuanian-American relatives—grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The city had been built by Anglos, but made wealthy by the coal veins that flowed under an earlier landscape of iron smelters and dairy farms. These veins were the life blood for thousands of immigrants from the more exotic parts of Europe, people with strange names who spoke strange languages. The wave of foreigners early in this century (and the closing decades of the previous one) brought thousands of East Europeans to northeastern Pennsylvania. From the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Hungary, as well as Lithuania they came, many drawn to work in the mines that needed cheap labourers for dangerous jobs.

Today, Scranton is crumbling, desperately trying to find industries to replace “King” Coal. The city always appeared to me to be the typical American landscape, where initial material patterns had been determined by the first wave of migrants—Yankee speculators whose descendants became mining bosses—with later immigrants merely settled into the existing landscape pattern. In fact, much like nineteenth-century Germans in Texas that Lonn Taylor researched, it seemed that Scranton immigrant groups (my Lithuanian ancestors included) had left behind almost all of their material possessions (except for the amber necklace my great grandmother brought to America with her), and basically appropriated the existing American material world. Rejecting all that was European was a clear sign that these new arrivals wanted to be seen not as hyphenated Americans, but as real Americans. By necessity, language still permeated the home, the school, and the church, but the forces of the workplace soon created bilingual individuals, whose use of English became as much a sign of adoption of their new land, as it was a new practice that somehow would jeopardize identity.

The city of Scranton and the neighborhoods of my relatives seem to be an acculturated landscape, an industrialized American city of the early twentieth century. Little if any visible East European culture appears to have been transplanted, except, perhaps, for the occasional church, and the ethnic social clubs and bars that still dot the city. The typical Scranton house lots were unusually large to me, not in overall size, but in their long narrow layout with gardens and outbuildings. I found these a bit unusual, different from the smaller urban lots of eighteenth-century cities. My full understanding of Scranton’s settlement pattern and material life, however, came only after several research trips to Lithuania from 1992 to 1994. During those visits, which partly involved fieldwork on rural landscapes in different parts of the country, the complexity of the Scranton pattern became clear. This paper details the various aspects of Lithuanian material culture which I learned to see in Scranton.

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