Geographically the area referred to as Dutch country centers around Allentown, Hershey, Lancaster, Reading and York and the surrounding counties. It includes the counties of Chester, Lancaster, York, Adams, Franklin, Dauphin, Lebanon, Berks, Montgomery, Bucks, Northampton, Lehigh, Schuylkill, Snyder, Union, Juniata, Mifflin, Huntingdon, Northumberland, and Centre. Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants would spread from this area outwards outside the Pennsylvania borders between the mountains along river valleys into neighboring Maryland (Washington and Frederick counties), West Virginia, Virginia (Shenandoah Valley) and North Carolina and this larger region has been historically referred to as Greater Pennsylvania. The historic Pennsylvania Dutch diaspora in Ontario has been referred to as Little Pennsylvania.
The country lies in the Piedmont region of the Appalachian mountains. The landscape is marked by rolling, wooded hills, deep stream valleys, and fertile soils. The Susquehanna River bisects the region and provides its drainage.
The term "Dutch" is an archaic term for Germans, and refers to the German-speaking origins of some of the earliest European immigrants to the area in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The German-speaking settlers came from a variety of countries and religious backgrounds, but most became assimilated to Anglo-American language and culture beginning in the later 19th century with English language evangelism efforts, the outlawing of German language schooling and culminating soon after the turn of the twentieth century with World War One, consolidated schools and the advent of mandatory public education until the age of 16 with added pressures from increased mobility, the influence of English language media communications and urbanization.
The Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites, who have resisted these efforts most successfully, have retained aspects from their 18th-century way of life, including the Deitsch dialect; however, these groups have changed significantly in the last two hundred years. Nevertheless, for the Old Order groups, change has come slower, and gradually they have become more and more distinctively different as the surrounding rural and urban population of Pennsylvania changed.
Originally, the economy of the region was almost entirely rural and agricultural, based on the immigrants dream of bettering their lot through the ownership of their own farms. The small tradesmen indispensable to a rural economy, such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, millers, and storekeepers constituted the bulk of the non-farm economy. In the 19th century, a small educated class, comprising the Lutheran and Reformed ministers, began to emerge. The Pennsylvania seminaries educated them in high German, so they could preach to their flocks in a scholarly way.
The advent of the industrial revolution brought technologies based on coal, iron, canals, and railroads, but the Dutch, unversed in English, and lacking connections to the English speaking establishment, were unable to engage in entrepreneurship on a large scale. Consequently, the large scale enterprises which came to characterize the industrialized eastern half of the region, such as the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (marketer of the coal branded "Old Company's Lehigh"), the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and the Bethlehem Iron Company (later known as Bethlehem Steel) were founded by English speaking residents from the Philadelphia and New York areas. These English speakers (referred to by the Dutch as simply "the English") dominated the managerial and engineering positions of these companies, while the Dutch supplied the blue collar and supervisory workforce.
As technology advanced during the late 19th century, higher technology companies such as Mack Truck and New Jersey Zinc moved to the region as well. As the local industries expanded, immigrants from Eastern Europe (primarily Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary) were recruited for the low skilled positions, while the more established Dutch retained the skilled blue collar and supervisory positions. The Dutch influence on the shop floor was so great that some Slavic immigrants became bilingual in their native language and in Pennsylvania Dutch, while not yet mastering English.
In the twentieth century universal public education, held in English, and relatively easy access to higher education erased these distinctions. The information age and globalization greatly reduced the dependence of the Pennsylvania Dutch country on industrial jobs. The Eastern part of the region (Northampton, Lehigh, and Berks Counties) is dominated by information intensive whitecollar employment.
The western counties of the region experienced industrialization as well,with Hershey Foods being the most notable example, but it was less intensive, and agriculture retained a larger share of the economy. In the middle of the 20th century, both Amish and non-Amish entrepreneurs began to promote the area as a tourist destination. Though there are still plenty of Amish attempting to follow their traditional way of life, tourism and population growth have significantly changed the appearance and cultural flavor of the area. This area is within 50 miles of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Harrisburg, and has not escaped the effects of being on the western edge of the East Coast conurbation from Washington to New York City.
In the 1990s Lancaster was one of the fastest growing and most prosperous counties of Pennsylvania. Hispanic populations have replaced other earlier ethnic groups in the cities of Lancaster, Reading and Allentown, and now these cities and the counties around them have far more Spanish speakers than "Deitsch" speakers.