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Outside Looking In: Byington on Homestead’s Women

In 1892, Homestead, Pennsylvania, was the site of one of the most dramatic strikes in U.S. history. The Carnegie Steel Company’s ultimate victory resulted in the destruction of a once-powerful union of skilled iron and steel workers. By 1907, almost 7,000 workers toiled at the Homestead plant for the U.S. Steel Corporation. In 1907–1908, the Russell Sage Foundation undertook an intensive study that attempted to understand the dramatic changes that had reshaped Homestead and other industrial communities. The resulting six-volume report, written by progressive social reformers, included Margaret Byington’s Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town, first published in 1910. This excerpt from Byington’s study depicted work and home life for the immigrant women of Homestead. Byington’s account, while sympathetic to the immigrants who comprised the bulk of the steel town’s labor force, was written from the perspective of an outsider. She emphasized women’s limited participation in the paid labor force in steel mill towns like Homestead, yet she provided repeated testimony regarding the multiple economic and social roles of women in Homestead as managers of family finances and family relationships.

One morning I entered a two-room tenement. The kitchen, perhaps 15 by 12 feet, was steaming with vapor from a big washtub set on a chair in the middle of the room. The mother was trying to wash and at the same time to keep the older of her two babies from tumbling into the tub full of scalding water that was standing on the floor. On one side of the room was a huge puffy bed, with one feather tick to sleep on and another for covering; near the window stood a sewing machine; in the corner, an organ,—all these, besides the inevitable cook stove upon which in the place of honor was simmering the evening’s soup. Upstairs in the second room were one boarder and the man of the house asleep. Two more boarders were at work, but at night would be home to sleep in the bed from which the others would get up. Picture if you will what a week or a season means to a mother in such a home, the overwork, the brief respite from toil—to be increased afterward—when the babies come?

Yet it is even more disastrous to the children both in health and character. In the courts studied, out of 102 families who took lodgers, 72 had children; of these, 25 families had two, 10 had three, and seven had four. There were 138 youngsters in all. A comparison of births and deaths of children under two . . . shows that among the Slavs one child under two years of age dies to every three children born; among the English-speaking Europeans, one dies to every seven born; among the native whites and colored, one to every five. In the crowded Second Ward, taking all races, one child under two dies to every three born,—compared with one to every four in the First Ward, one to every five in the Fifth, one to every eight in the Third, and one to every seven in the Fourth.

Against many of these deaths was the physician’s entry “malnutrition due to poor food and overcrowding”; that is, the mother too poor, too busy, and too ignorant to prepare food properly, rooms over-tenanted, and courts too confined to give the fresh air essential for the physical development of children. A priest told me he believed that the taking of lodgers caused the appalling death rate among the babies in his parish. Neither preaching nor pointing out to women personally the folly of the economy had sufficed to check the habit.

Not only is the mother too busy to give much time to her babies, but she also suffers from overwork during pregnancy and from lack of proper care afterward. Housework must be done, boarders must be fed, and most women work until the day of confinement. In accordance with their home customs, almost all of them employ midwives and call a doctor only in an emergency. I was told by a local physician that nearly half of the births in Homestead, the large proportion of them among the Slavic people, were attended by midwives. These women, who charge $5.00 or $10, include in their services the care of both woman and child for several days, and thus perform the services of trained nurse as well as doctor. While of the 21 midwives registered in Homestead, five or six have diplomas from schools of midwifery abroad, most of them are ignorant and are careless about cleanliness. In a paper before the Allegheny County Medical Society, Dr. Purman, a local physician, reported numerous instances where both mother and child had suffered serious injury from the ignorance of these women.

The necessity for mothers to be up and at work within three or four days adds to the harm. In at least 10 of the 29 Slavic families visited, special reference was made by the Slavic investigator to the ill health of the mother due to overwork and to lack of proper care during confinement. The strength to bear much doubtless comes to these women from years of work in the fields, but the change to the hot kitchens where their work is now done undoubtedly entails a strain which not only injures them but lessens the vitality of the children. This weakened condition at birth combines with the inadequate food and insufficient air and the neglect which comes through over-burdening the mother to produce the appalling infant death rate in these courts.

Yet sometimes as you watch the stunted, sickly looking children, you wonder if the real tragedy does not lie rather in the miserable future in store for the babies who live, many of them with undervitalized systems which may make them victims either of disease or of the dissipation that often fastens upon weak wills and weak bodies.

Keeping lodgers ruins the training as well as the health of the children. The overworked mother has neither time nor patience for wise discipline. As the men who work on night turns must sleep during the day, crying babies must not be allowed to disturb this uneasy rest. All this adds to the mother’s weary irritation and makes it harder to maintain any sort of uniform control. This failure of intelligent discipline was noticeable in most of the families I visited, where cuffs and sharp words were the usual form of correction. One of the Protestant missions which tried through mothers' meetings to give the women some suggestions as to child training, found them too busy to come. Fortunately, however, the children who attend the public schools receive some training. This the parents value. A teacher in the Second Ward school said that while she had a great deal of trouble in teaching the Slavic children obedience, she at least found the parents willing to uphold her in whatever action she took.

Even more serious is the injury to the moral tone of the Slavic community caused by the crowding together of single men and families. In only four instances in the courts studied were lodgers found in families where there were girls over fourteen, but even younger children learn evil quickly from the free-spoken men. With the husband at work on the night shift the situation is aggravated, and reports are current of gross immorality on the part of some women who keep lodgers; two or three actual instances came to my knowledge from unquestioned sources. Since half the families in the courts studied used the kitchen as a sleeping room, there was close mingling of lodgers and family among them. This becomes intolerable when families living in but two rooms take lodgers. This was true, as we have seen, in 71 instances. Even when extreme crowding does not exist, family and lodgers often all sleep in the kitchen, the only warm room, in winter.

Certainly there is little to quicken mental and spiritual development in these crowded tenements where there is neither privacy nor even that degree of silence necessary for reading. We agree in the abstract that the individual needs room for growth, yet complain of the stunted mental stature of these people who have the meagre development of seedlings grown in a mass.

Moreover, families who live in narrow quarters have no room for festive gatherings. In the evening a group often gathers around the stove gossiping of home days, playing cards, drinking, and playing simple musical instruments. On the Saturday after pay day the household usually clubs together to buy a case of beer which it drinks at home. These ordinarily jovial gatherings are sometimes interrupted by fights and the police have to be called in. One officer who had been on the force for nine years said that these men were generally good-natured and easygoing, and in all his experience he had never arrested a sober “Hunkie”; it was when they were drunk that the trouble began. The punishment usually inflicted for disorderly conduct in Homestead, a small fine, has little deterrent effect among the Slavs. It is indeed currently said that some are proud of having a large fine imposed, as they feel that it indicates increased importance. Usually, however, they gather without disturbance simply to chat and drink, to pass the hours after the day’s work.

The women have few opportunities for relaxation. Sometimes they gossip around the pump or at the butcher’s, but washing, ironing, cleaning, sewing and cooking for the boarders leave little time for visiting. The young people perhaps suffer most from the lack of home festivities. A two-room house has no place for games or “parties,” or even for courting; there is not even space enough, to say nothing of privacy. So young folks are driven to the streets for their gayety. Almost the only time when the house is really the scene of festivity is when those primal events, birth, and marriage, and death, bring together both the old-time friends and the new neighbors.

On most of these occasions, whether weddings, christenings or funerals, joy and grief and religious ceremony are alike forgotten in a riotous good time. The weddings are the gayest affairs in the life of the community. After the morning service at the church, all return home if the house is big enough, and if not, they go to a hall, and there the dancing begins. Each man pays what he can, usually a dollar, for the privilege of dancing with the bride, and the money—their form of a wedding present—helps furnish the home for the young couple. At one wedding during the winter $75 was thus received, but the girl by evening felt that she had earned the money. In the afternoon the drinking begins and by midnight the revel is at its height. The neighborhood considers a family under obligation to provide these festivities. I was told of one pathetic instance where a woman, as she was very ill, did not invite any one to her baby’s christening. Her offended neighbors refused to visit her, but when she died they were ready enough to come to the funeral and share in the drinking.

Some old-world customs, too, are maintained which seem strangely at variance with new-world conditions. All summer over the doors and windows are seen dried, smoke begrimed branches from which the faded leaves hang disconsolately. These decorations are part of a joyous religious festival in the spring time similar to those that added merriment to the village life at home. At Eastertide they keep up an old custom, said to date from pagan days. On Monday the men go about with willow branches and switch the women until they make them a present, while on the following day the women retaliate by throwing water on the men.

In other superficial habits of life they show themselves eager to adopt American customs. This tendency is clearly—sometimes humorously—exemplified in the quickness with which they adopt our style of clothing. The men on Sunday can often be differentiated from the American workmen only by the unmistakable Slavic type of face. Even in their own homes the women quickly adopt the machine-made cotton wrapper and on Sunday the streets blossom with cheap ready-made adornments. I was fairly startled by one apparition in a gay pink hat, crude blue skirt, and green silk waist that no grass in Homestead could hope to vie with, all products of a department store, which evidently gave the wearer a proud sense of being dressed like other Americans. As I stood Easter Sunday watching the kneeling women, the mass of vivid colors showed how easily they copy the less desirable habits of their native born sisters. If opportunity offered they would doubtless be as ready to pick up our customs in other more essential matters.

Lack of intercourse, however, hinders. The Slavs must keep up their own festivities the more because they cannot join in the amusements of the rest of the community. To the better class of entertainments they are not welcomed, and to others the difference in speech is still a barrier. Obviously the theatre, and even in a measure the nickelodeons, are uninteresting to those who cannot understand the language. Thus cut off from what little normal amusement Homestead offers, they cling to the few festivities their limited opportunities make possible.

In summer there are of course more chances for recreation; trolley rides and picnics in the park make a welcome variety from the heat of the courts. The following statements, taken from the notes of the Slavic woman who assisted in making the investigation, tell the story simply:

They do not go to amusements of any kind on account of being so poor and feel so badly after they have finished their day’s work.

Husband and wife go to the lodge dances, which they enjoy very much. Wife goes to the five cent theatres, to the parks in the summer and for trolley rides. Is fond of all kinds of amusements and goes when they can afford it.

The family have no amusements at all outside of their own home, simply because they cannot afford it. They would like to be able to go to some places of amusement, if they could spend their Sundays at home in a pleasant way. The mother and children go to church every Saturday evening to say the rosary, which is one of their chief pleasures.

Starting in with such a household as that described at the opening of this chapter, how far do any of these Slavic families succeed in working out ideals they have set for themselves?

If we turn from the crowded courts with their two-room tenements to the homes of some who have attained their ambitions, we find conditions that show an inherent capacity for advancement in the race. As an illustration, note the change in type in two houses, the homes of families from the same place in the old country, the one newcomers, the other among the “oldest inhabitants” of the Slavic community. The first family live in a one-room tenement, where even though the furniture includes only absolute necessities, it is hard to keep all the crowded belongings in order. On wash-day morning the disorder is increased. Nevertheless, the home is kept as neat as the circumstances permit, and the bright pictures on the wall are proof of a desire to make it attractive. As the man earns only $9.90 a week, they must keep their rent low if bills are to be paid and anything laid by for the future. In the other picture, the “front room” with its leather-covered furniture is in a five-room house which the family owns. The sacred pictures with their vivid coloring relieve the severity of the room while they also reveal the religious note in Slavic life, for if happiness is to stay with the family, the priest must come yearly to “bless the home.” This family after many years in America has, by hard work and thrift, succeeded in obtaining a real home.

Turning from this visible evidence of the way in which an individual Slavic family has prospered, we find in the mill census that the number of skilled, and therefore highly paid members of the race, are few. Of the 3,603 Slavs in the mill in 1907, 459 were ranked as semi-skilled, 80 as skilled. The Slovaks from Austro-Hungary are the most numerous of the race in Homestead, and were the first of this stock to come here. Among them we find proportionately a slightly larger number of semi-skilled workers. [They formed 51.7 per cent of all the Slavs in the mill in 1907, 60.1 per cent of the semi-skilled Slavs, and 56.2 per cent of the skilled Slavs.]

We have seen that of the budget Slavs still earning laborers' wages, a third had been here over ten years; it is apparent, however, that individuals are slowly making their way into skilled work—a movement which, as the older English-speaking men drop out, is probably bound to increase. In the 29 immigrant families keeping budgets all of the men who earned $12 or more a week had been here over five years. It is interesting to note that some had come here when they were very young, eleven, fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen years old; for example, a tonnage worker had been here ten years; a man at one of the furnaces earning $3.50 a day, seventeen years, and a machinist who earned about the same amount, eighteen years. Even with the higher wages, their families continue to make sacrifices to secure the desired property more rapidly. A helper at one of the open-hearth furnaces, who had been here for seven years, was earning $2.50 to $3.00 a day. The husband and wife still took in two boarders, so that with their two children there were six people in a two-room house, which was but scantily furnished. They had a bank account of at least $400. Another Slav, the head of a family of three, had been here ten years and was working on tonnage, in good times earning about $6.00 a day. They, too, lived in a two-room house, but it was neat and from their standpoint probably seemed large enough as they had no lodger. They had purchased the farm in the old country and besides had a $500 bank account. Again, take a family of six. The father, still only about thirty years old, had been here for over fifteen years. Out of his wages—about $3.50 a day at fairly skilled work in the mill—he was buying a small house with a garden. He was naturalized and the family stood as a fair type of our new citizens. They took no lodgers, but the limitations imposed by such thrift as they practiced are illustrated by the notes on this household made by my interpreter. Herself a Slav, their circumstances were a matter of no special interest, and she therefore wrote her notes with no attempt to add “local color” such as a person of another race would have put into them. To her the statement was simply one of facts:

Conditions of Work:

The man works on day and night shifts alternately.


They don’t own their own home, on which there is a mortgage. The man gives all his earnings to his wife and when he needs any spending money, he asks for it.


They live in two rooms comfortably furnished, one a living room and the other a bed room. They have a sewing machine on which the mother does the sewing for her family. Does her washing by hand.


They wear plain clothing. The woman does all her own mending with care. The father buys ready-made clothing. They have a change of clothing for Sundays, of a fairly good quality.


They buy their food at grocery stores; don’t get all at one store. They live principally on vegetable diet, not using much fruit. The man works hard and they are obliged to have good substantial food. The family eat their evening meal together.

Woman’s Work:

The woman does her own work at home, but does not earn anything outside, her time all being taken up with caring for her family.


The man belongs to St. Stephen’s Lodge, and his wife belongs to St. Catherine’s, both church lodges. They attend one meeting every month unless something to prevent. When not able to go, they send in their dues. The man gets $5.00 a week sick benefits, also a death benefit of $1,000 to his family after his decease. His dues are $2.00 monthly and the wife’s dues are $1.00 a month. In case of death of the woman the family gets $700. The wife’s reasons for belonging to above lodges is that their family may have benefits paid by the lodges in case of a death, either father or mother.


This man is in good health. The woman is not in good health, having gone to work too soon after her confinement was attended by a midwife. She did not have proper care during her confinement. The children are sickly. One of them had typhoid fever.


There are four children, the oldest seven years and now attending public school. The only reading matter they have is his Lodge paper, which he gets once a week.


The man had one accident, but no help from the Carnegie fund.


The man drinks at home and sometimes at saloons. Pays for himself. He does not get intoxicated. The woman drinks a little when she has it at home.


The man goes only when his lodge gives a dance, it being expected of every member to buy tickets. Neither he nor his wife ever attend theatres, on account of being kept at home with their family. The woman cannot remember having been to any of the parks or amusements of any kind.

It is by such thrift that some of the Slavs attain their ambition to own a home. An official in the foreign department of one bank said he knew of 25 Slavs who had purchased homes in 1907. Sometimes these families continue to live in the Second Ward. One family, for example, had bought an eight-room house on one of these busy streets. The four rear rooms they rented, but with evident regard for appearances lived themselves in the four that faced the front. With the aid of the rent from the rear tenement they had succeeded in freeing the house from the mortgage. The families more often, however, move further from the mill. One I knew bought a house on the hill with two porches and a big yard where they kept chickens. While they had only succeeded in paying $500 on the $1,700 the place cost, now that a son was at work they hoped to be able to clear the debt. In the meantime they truly rejoiced in being on the hill above the smoke and away from the bustling courts.

The English-speaking families on such streets rarely extend a cordial welcome. A woman who lives next door to a Slavic family told me that some of the neighbors objected because they were rather noisy and drank a good deal, though she herself found them pleasant enough.

All the Slavs who prosper, however, do not try to buy property here. Some prefer a bank account. It is authoritatively stated that about 1,600 Slavs have savings bank accounts in Homestead ranging from $100 to $1,000, and even in a few instances to $1,500. Occasionally this zeal for saving gets a setback. A few years ago a Slav ran an “exchange bank” in Homestead and when he had secured a goodly sum departed. One family was so discouraged at losing the $400 it had on deposit with him, of hard earned savings, that the woman ceased to take boarders and the man to work hard.

Yet not all the extra money goes into bank accounts and houses. If we compare the budgets of the 10 Slavic families spending more than $15 a week with the average of the 42 budget families (of all races) in the same expenditure groups, we shall find that the former increase their expenditures along much the same lines as do the other peoples, though it is to be noted here, as in the general averages, that the Slav spends a slightly larger per cent for food and a slightly smaller per cent for rent.

If, on the other hand, we compare the Slavic families spending over $15 with those spending less than $12 we find that the expenditures which have increased less rapidly than the income are the essentials, food, rent, fuel, and clothing; that insurance increases a little more rapidly, but that the great part of the increased pay goes for more distinctly cultural expenditures.

This comparison, though fragmentary, suggests that on the whole these Slavs made a wise use of their increased earnings—that there is an actual increase of expenditure for every item, but that by far the largest gain is in that sphere which stands for the less material side of life, church, education, recreation and savings.

For most Slavic households, however, the increased income which would make such increased expenditure possible must be looked for not from the man’s wages, but, at least in the first years, from other sources. We have seen how the first recourse of the young couple is to keep lodgers and the cost to health and childhood that involves. Time goes on, brings children, and household expenses rise, and even with increased earnings, tends to keep the couple at this double work.

Source: Margaret F. Byington, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910), 145–157.