- Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh
From the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, the factories, mills, and mines of the Pittsburgh region were hazardous and often deadly. Falling debris and rock, overhead spills of molten metals, and explosions in steel mills and coal mines, for example, claimed the lives and devastated the flesh of thousands of working-class men between the 1880s and the 1910s. Echoing reformers who researched the Pittsburgh Survey in the early 1900s, and historians such as S. J. Kleinberg, Edward Slavishak reminds us that Pittsburgh “was an unusually dangerous place in which to work” (151). Bodies of Work is an illuminating history of working bodies, the dangers of industrial labor in the “Steel City,” and observers’ varied responses to the ubiquity of bodily harm. Slavishak’s focus on the working body illuminates not only the physical impact of industrial work on working-class men (and women), but also more broadly the body as a site of cultural argument among competing groups—especially city boosters, reformers, industrial employers, and craft unionists—who were eager to define Pittsburgh’s civic identity, the rights and obligations of laborers and employers, and the legitimacy of industrial capitalism as a whole during this period of profound economic and technological change. While Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age working-class [End Page 368] history is by no means new to historians, Slavishak’s stunning book revisits the subjects of Pennsylvania industry, Progressivism, labor, and urban culture with fresh, new perspectives. The results here are fascinating and worthwhile, a must-read for scholars of Pennsylvania history as well as cultural, labor, and urban history more generally.
Slavishak’s builds his analyses of working bodies and industrial change from the ground-up. Chapter 1 details changing work processes in the industrial workspaces of iron and steel mills, glass factories, and coal mines in the Pittsburgh region during the 1880s and 1890s. Ironically, boosters promoted an image of Pittsburgh as an energetic city driven by the artisanal labor of skilled workers who commanded the forces of physical strength, craft knowledge, and modern technology at a time when production itself became increasingly mechanized. In the workplaces of steel and coal, new technologies (Bessemer converters, open-hearth furnaces, and undercutting machines) drove mechanical wedges between men and actual production. In steel, open-hearth furnaces displaced puddlers, who manually processed raw iron into usable metal. Underground, coal miners became coal movers as mechanical undercutting equipment did the actual work of dislodging coal from mine walls. Throughout Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape, human labor became largely unskilled and remained very physical. As Slavishak rightly observes, the growing numbers of industrial workers were responsible for simply lifting and moving materials from one mechanized work process to the next. Only in window glass manufacturing did artisanal know-how remain a central feature of production. However, after 1900 new flattening ovens allowed employers to mechanize more of the process of creating windows. The new regime of mechanized mass production labor produced mass casualties among the ranks of unskilled (and largely foreign-born) workforce, as new machines did not lead to more safety. Laboring bodies remained in close proximity to heat, fire, and heavy metal.
Slavishak revisits the Homestead strike of 1892 to highlight public anxieties about masses of unskilled immigrant bodies and their militancy in this era of alienated labor. Focusing on journalists’ discussions of “the working body at war,” he argues in Chapter 2 that observers of the strike viewed unskilled immigrant workers as “objects of fear and wonder”—capable of incredible destruction and violence (85, 73). Slavishak provocatively argues that the power of bodies moving in solidarity engendered considerable anxieties among Pittsburgh’s economic and civic elites, who feared the political challenges posed by working-class bodies that did anything other than work—especially if they acted against the wishes of employers. [End Page 369]
The centerpieces of the book are Chapters 3, 4, and 5, which examine civic boosters’ efforts to define and publicize Pittsburgh...