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Wealth, Waste, and Alienation: Growth and Decline in the Connellsville Coke Industry. By Kenneth Warren. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001. Pp. xix+297. $32.
Kenneth Warren has been remarkably productive in recent years. His oeuvre now includes a business biography of Henry Clay Frick (Triumphant Capitalism, 1996), a business history of the U.S. Steel Corporation (Big Steel, 2001), and this more modest but important study of the region that fed the fires of big steel and made Frick his fortune. Wealth, Waste, and Alienation is a well-crafted study of how an industry made a region and how capitalists wrested massive profits from land and workers.
This book makes a number of contributions to the history of technology, business and industrial history, and labor history. It is the first comprehensive, modern study of the U.S. coke industry and is likely to stand as definitive. Warren clearly explains how the physical qualities of coal and coke affected their suitability for particular smelting technologies and the significance of changes in coke-making technology. His consideration of how the technology of logistics was crucial to the coke industry finally explains why it took so long for the Connellsville region to develop, a question Peter Temin raised almost forty years ago. I was struck by the quality of Warren's writing about technologies that are deeply familiar to him after long years of research. I got bogged down in the more drawn-out discussions of management and labor relations, where Warren interrupts his own crisp language too often with lengthy quotations from business correspondence.
As a cautious historian, however, Warren relies upon the gradual heaping up of literary evidence to nail the characters of his key players. Henry Clay Frick, the industrial magnate chiefly responsible for the development of the Connellsville coke region, was not a nice man. His ability to remain calm and calculating when others panicked served him well in the 1870s and 1880s as he acquired one failing or marginal coke works after another. During the region's sometimes violent strikes, Frick did not flinch when company guards shot and killed workers; it was, he wrote, what troublemakers deserved.
Warren's most severe judgment of Frick and his fellow coke manufacturers comes in an exceptional chapter on the physical and social implications [End Page 220] of the coke industry. "In the coal and coke region," he writes, "there were natural resources in abundance and spectacular growth in both economy and society, but everywhere nature was defiled, and over generations tens of thousands of human beings were exploited and alienated" (p. 195). The thick pall of poisonous fumes and smoke that hung over coke settlements stripped plants of their leaves and damaged crops (it must have made people sick, too). Much of the pollution was unnecessary, for by the 1880s European manufacturers were recycling volatiles and gases to aid combustion and lessen the impact of coke ovens on workers' communities. It was typical of Frick and his fellows not to adopt conserving methods.
Warren argues that living conditions in the coke region were worse than those in most coal mining areas, excepting only the extremely isolated coal patches of Appalachia. From about 1880 on, the majority of Connellsville coke workers were immigrant Italians or Hungarians. Managers' prejudice against them went unchecked. Families who suffered the maiming or death of male providers were lucky to receive any company assistance. Coke villages had poor sanitation, lousy drainage, and often no cultural institutions to leaven the drudgery. Truck shops consumed what workers might have saved. Unemployed workers had few alternatives in what Warren describes as the region's "dangerously narrow" economy—Connellsville's mineral wealth did not generate local development as the mining of anthracite did in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1830s. Without diversification, the decline of Connellsville coke after World War I made the region a hollow shell.
Specialists will appreciate Wealth, Waste, and Alienation for its authoritative detail. Haunting black-and-white photographs help readers imagine the...