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Telling Tales: Byington’s Study of Homestead

Homestead, Pennsylvania, was in many ways the prototypical early twentieth-century mill town. Located seven miles up the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh, the first steel mill was built in Homestead in 1881. In 1892, Homestead 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. Written by progressive social reformers, the six-volume Pittsburgh Survey emphasized the devastating impact of industrial life on those who labored in the nation’s factories. The following excerpt is from Margaret Byington’s Pittsburgh Survey volume, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town, first published in 1910. In the spirit of the Progressive-era effort to scientifically document conditions, the book also included photographs (by the famous documentary photographer Lewis Hine) and detailed family budgets.

From the cinder path beside one of the railroads that crosses the level part of Homestead, you enter an alley, bordered on one side by stables and on the other by a row of shabby two-story frame houses. The doors of the houses are closed, but dishpans and old clothes decorating their exterior mark them as inhabited. Turning from the alley through a narrow passageway you find yourself in a small court, on three sides of which are smoke-grimed houses, and on the fourth, low stables. The open space teems with life and movement. Children, dogs and hens make it lively underfoot; overhead long lines of flapping clothes must be dodged. A group of women stand gossiping in one corner, awaiting their turn at the pump,—which is one of the two sources of water supply for the 20 families who live here. Another woman dumps the contents of her washtubs upon the paved ground, and the greasy, soapy water runs into an open drain a few feet from the pump. In the center a circular wooden building with ten compartments opening into one vault, flushed only by this waste water, constitutes the toilet accommodations for over one hundred people. Twenty-seven children find in this crowded brick-paved space their only playground; for the 63 rooms in the houses about the court shelter a group of 20 families, Polish, Slavic and Hungarian, Jewish and Negro. The men are unskilled workers in the mills.

This court is one of many such in Homestead; one of hundreds of similar courts in the mill towns of the Ohio valley. The conditions produced by the incoming of these alien workers form one of the unsolved problems of the steel district.

Two elements in the old country feed the population of these crowded sections: the ambitious young men, with no ties, unless to aged parents; and the men with wives, sometimes with children, who come over here to make a better home for them. They are all stimulated by the successes of their friends, who perhaps have returned with savings that seem fortunes. Often these people mortgage their all for the passage money and if they fail here no place is left to which they can go back. From quiet villages they come to this smoky town; from labor in the open fields to heavy work in the yards and thundering sheds of the mill.

As employment is steady and the workman’s needs are simple, the wages seem large. The newcomer if a single man finds groups of his fellow workers living in close quarters—three or four in a room—who are enjoying life and saving money at the same time. So he too begins to save, and presently, if he has a family at home, sends for them to join him. If he is single, he sends for his sweetheart or marries some girl of his race, whom he meets in the mill-town courts of an evening or at church or at one of the lodge dances. If she has been at service here, she too will likely have a small account in the bank. Then, as the family grows and expenses increase, they resort to the old expedient and begin themselves to take boarders. Children come and grow up. The man’s wage does not increase; as he is a “Hunkie” the chances are that he will remain a laborer. Most of these men come intending some day to go back with a thousand dollars—men of property. But even if they return once to the old country, they often turn again to America; growing attached to the new world, they become permanent residents.

An occasional family, when the man gets into tonnage work or when the children reach earning age and add their wages to the common fund, achieves a long desired happiness; they move to a separate house in the suburbs, perhaps even to one of their own. But to many the crowded court with its isolation from the rest of community continues to be America.

While there were no definite figures available as to the number of these foreigners in Homestead in 1907, two Slavs intimately acquainted with the foreign colony estimated that there were between 6,000 and 7,000. When the mills were running full in October, 1907, 3,603 Slavic men were at work there, forming 53.2 per cent of the total number of employees. As 1,092 of these were single men, the estimate as to the total Slavic population is probably fairly accurate. The rapid increase in numbers is shown by the fact that while there were no Slavic churches in the town in 1896, there are now Polish, Slovak, and Lithuanian Roman Catholic churches, a Slovak Greek Catholic church, a Hungarian Reformed church, and one or two Slavic Protestant missions. These churches hold property the value of which is estimated at $400,000.

Numerous national distinctions divide this body of immigrants as a whole, but of these the English-speaking community is in large measure ignorant; to the rest of the town they are all just “Hunkies.” Of the Slavs employed in the mill in 1907, 51.7 per cent were Slovaks, 15 per cent Magyar, 10.2 per cent Romanian, 9.6 per cent Russian, 6 per cent Polish, 3.6 per cent Lithuanian, 3.9 per cent miscellaneous. (For convenience in this book, as already noted, Magyars, Letts, etc., are spoken of as Slavs. Though not of the blood, they come from the same general district in mid-Europe and are part of the same wave of immigration.) Between some of these groups, such as Slovaks and Hungarians, Poles and Russians, feuds dating back many centuries still provoke quarrels in this new-world town. The crowded courts bring them into close and sometimes irritating contact, and as yet there have been few amalgamating forces to counteract the old hatreds. Rather the segmentation of churches and lodges, due to differences in language, tend to keep alive these old antagonisms.

In spite, however, of these national conflicts the Slavs are of similar temperament. Like the Irish who preceded them here, they are in most instances in their own country the ruled rather than the dominant race, and the majority come from agricultural countries, where money is scarce, where living conditions are of the poorest, where hard work in the open air has developed rugged strength. With them they bring the standards of village life, reflecting its crude sanitation (counterbalanced in the old environment by the unlimited supply of fresh air), its bare existence and its low levels of comfort.

The mode of living which we find among the Slavs is in a measure due to a conflict between the nature of community life and industry in America, and the customs and conditions that prevail under a different civilization. In some measure, at least, wages, housing conditions, opportunities for relaxation, conform to the “standards of living” of the influential group in a town, in Homestead, the standards of the native whites. The forces of imitation and self-respect make it easier for a native to achieve these standards, but the newcomers must live under conditions which are not determined by their kind. Moreover, the ambition of most in coming to this country is financial, or largely so; and the determination to get ahead, even at risk of immediate health and happiness, accentuates the problems which their presence creates. They come, then, with this background of meagre surroundings, but with a vision of future riches. They come as prospectors come, ready for any hardships that may help them reach their goal, and with the passive endurance that has been characteristic of their race. Those early dreams of money to be picked up in the streets of the new world are bygones no doubt, but these Slavic adventurers bring with them, nevertheless, the expectation of returning some day men of wealth—wealth made up of savings from American pay.

Their labor is the heaviest and roughest in the mill, handling steel billets and bars, loading trains, working in cinder pits; labor that demands mostly strength but demands that in large measure. They work usually under the direction of an English-speaking foreman whose orders they often fail to understand. Accidents are frequent, promotions rare. In 202 families in the courts studied, 88 percent of the men belonged to the unskilled group, a proportion roughly true for the mill as a whole. (The somewhat higher average of skill among the Slavic budget families is due to the fact that representative units from each of the economic groups were selected; also that the investigator belonged to one of the oldest Slavic families and her acquaintance included many of the most prosperous.) Only 2.2 per cent of the Slavs in the mill are skilled. Some of the men about the furnaces thus work up by slow degrees to be skilled or at least semi-skilled, but in the main, the Slavs have as yet small prospect of advancement. (The sons occasionally enter occupations outside the steel mills which they think more desirable. Two were reported to be drivers for livery-stables and one a roofer. But these young men did not earn much more than their fathers.) Of the 21 budget families whose men were earning laborer’s wages, five had been here from five to nine years, two from ten to fourteen years, and four had been here fifteen years or over. If the rank and file are to satisfy their ambitions they must do it on less than $2.00 a day, or leave Homestead.

Moreover, the Slavs find their work quickly affected by an industrial depression. During the winter of 1907 they were the first to be laid off. Many returned to Austria-Hungary; many could not go. In a group of 295 Bulgarians only 115 had work, while among 212 Russians, 131 were unemployed. The stories of these months of idleness and privation were pathetic. Remittances to wives and old people in Europe dropped off, bank deposits lessened, and goods were purchased on credit till future wages were heavily mortgaged. As Americans were sometimes given laboring work formerly done by Slavs, the latter bore more than their share of a burden that seriously affected the whole community. The company’s policy of caring for its skilled workmen by giving them labor that would normally have been done by the unskilled, was in certain ways estimable; but it made the winter a desperate one for such of the unskilled foreigners as could not return to their own country.

The steel industry, then, requires these strong men to do its heaviest labor, pays them its lowest wage, with little prospect of advancement and with the chance that they will be first to suffer if work grows slack. What for its part does the town offer? The section where the Slavs live is in itself gloomy. The level ground in the Second Ward cut off from the river by the mill and from the country by the steep hill behind, forms a pocket where the smoke settles heavily. There are oases in these wards, sections of street with yards and trees, but for the most part here on the original site of the town, garden plots as well as alleys have been utilized on which to build small frame houses till the blocks are all but covered. While these houses are sometimes built in haphazard fashion, they usually surround such a court as that described at the outset of this chapter. For our cinder path led us directly to the heart of the crowding and the sanitary evils of the steel town.

To determine the extent of such congestion, with the help of the Slavic member of my staff I made a study of 21 courts in the Second Ward . . . where yards, toilets and water supply are used in common. In these courts lived 239 families (of these, 168 were Slovaks, 22 Hungarians, 16 Russians, 10 Poles and 23 Slavs of other origins), 102 of whom took lodgers. Fifty-one families, including sometimes four or five people, lived in one-room tenements. One-half the families used their kitchens as sleeping rooms. Only three houses had running water inside, and in at least three instances over 110 people were dependent on one yard hydrant for water.

Each court is shut in between the houses facing the street and a similar row facing the alley at the rear which cuts the block in half. A narrow passage serves as an outlet. Some of the houses are four or six-story buildings, but more than half in the courts studied were but two stories high with four rooms each. (Only four had more than six rooms.) This type usually shelters two families each; one family living in the room opening upon the street and the upstairs room above it; the other, in the two rooms looking into the court.

In summer, to give some through ventilation to the stifling rooms, doors leading to the stairway between the front and rear rooms are left open. As the families are often kin this opportunity for friendly intercourse is not unwelcome. Indeed, the cheerful gossip about the hydrant that enlivens wash day, like the card playing in the court on a summer evening, suggests the neighborliness of village days. Nothing in the surroundings, however, bears out the suggestion. Accumulations of rubbish and broken brick pavements render the courts as a whole untidy and unwholesome. Some of the houses have small porches that might give a sense of homelikeness, but for the most part they are bare and dingy. As the houses are built close to the street with only this busy court behind, the tenant can scarcely have that bit of garden so dear to the heart of former country dwellers. Only here and there a little bed of lettuce with its note of delicate green or the vivid red of a geranium blossom brightens the monotony. Dreary as is the exterior, however, the evils to the dwellers in the court lie deeper; in the inadequate water supply, in meagre toilet facilities, and in overcrowding.

The deficiency in the water supply is serious. In the 21 courts only three families, as stated, had running water in their homes. In no court were fewer than five families using one yard hydrant or pump, while in exceptional instances it was the sole supply of as many as twenty. As waste-water pipes were also lacking in the houses, the heavy tubs of water had to be carried out as well as in, and this in a smoky town where a double amount of washing and cleaning is necessary. When the weather permitted, the heavy washes were done in the yard. The pavement of a populous court covered with tubs, wringers, clothes baskets, and pools of soapy water, is a poor playground for children.

The toilet accommodations, while possibly more adequate than the water supply, are a menace to health in consequence of the lack of running water. There was not one indoor closet in any of these courts. The streets of Homestead all have sewers, and by a borough ordinance even the outside vaults must be connected with them. These are, however, ordinarily flushed only by the waste water which flows directly into them from the yards. When conditions become unbearable, the tenants wash the vaults out with a hose attached to the hydrant. As long as the closets remain in the yards, it is difficult to introduce a system of flushing because of the danger that the pipes will freeze in winter. The vaults are usually in the center of the court only a few yards from the kitchen doors, and create from the point of view either of sanitation or decency, an intolerable condition. While occasionally three or four families must use one compartment, usually only two families do so. But even this means frequently that the closets are not locked and that no one has a special sense of responsibility for their condition; in consequence they are often filthy.

The Slavic courts of Homestead typify the conditions which result when an industrial district is invaded by hundreds of unskilled immigrant laborers, largely single men, largely country people, who want a place to sleep for the least possible cash. Most of the petty local landlords who provide these quarters care nothing for the condition of their places and regard the wages of these transients as fair spoils.

Source: Margaret F. Byington, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910), 131–137.