Looking at Seneca Falls, New York, “the real Bedford Falls” in It’s a Wonderful Life

Social Explorer, a cool tool for looking at demographic data, takes a quick look at the New York community that was the inspiration for Bedford Falls in the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life:

Producer and director Frank Capra set the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life in the fictional small town of Bedford Falls, NY.  The actual town of Seneca Falls, NY, claims to be Capra’s inspiration.   The town hosts the annual It’s a Wonderful Life Festival and visitors can explore the history at the museum dedicated to the legend…

Back in 1940, Seneca County had 25,732 residents, of whom 99.5 percent were white and 0.5 percent were black.  Nearly a third of the county’s foreign born population (32.0 percent) hailed from Italy, more than both statewide (one fifth) and nationwide (one seventh).  Many foreign born residents also came from Germany (10.2 percent) and England and Wales (9.1 percent).

Today, Seneca County has grown 37.1 percent to 35,285 residents, while the state grew 43.2 percent and the nation grew 133.0 percent.  Seneca County remains predominately white (92.9 percent) with a small but growing black population (4.3 percent).  According to 2006-10 ACS data, today 4.6 percent of the foreign born population comes from Italy.  Larger shares of newcomers come from other countries including Canada (17.4 percent), India (11.2 percent), Laos (6.1 percent), Ukraine (5.1 percent), and Poland (3.6 percent).

The top occupations in 1940 were:

  • Proprietors/Managers/Official (20.9 percent)
  • Craftmen/Foremen/Kindred Workers (16.4 percent)
  • Operatives/Kindred Workers (15.0 percent)
  • Laborers (13.9 percent)

Of the adult residents, 18.2 percent had completed high school (or more) and 3.0 percent had graduated from college, which were both smaller percentages than in the state (22.9 percent and 5.5 percent) and nation (24.1 percent and 4.6 percent).

Sounds like small town life that may not be much different today. The movie seems to provide more information about the “feel” of the community rather than the demographics. George Bailey is trying to build suburban-type homes and is thwarted by the evil banker in the community. By the end of the film, Bailey and other average citizens in the community are shown to be decent people who rally together in times of need. Does this story necessarily line up with the ancestry of the community or the top occupations? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps demography is not narrative destiny in this case. Perhaps the best way to attack this issue would be to compare the demographics of Seneca County in 1940 to other typical small towns and counties and see how “representative” the movie demographics might have been.

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