By Aaron Schwartz
In an age that oversaw the development of industry, those at the top of the economic food chain became some of the most powerful people in the nation. They made a lot of money, and this allowed them to have social power, including here in Allentown. The owners of Allentown’s iron companies became wealthy and found themselves with power over their employees lives.
My topic focuses on the housing of iron workers in Allentown, Pennsylvania during the rise and fall of the iron trade. Companies such as the Allentown Iron Company and the Allentown Rolling Mill had direct influence on the housing of their employees, often owning large tracts of houses in areas of the city close to the mills. Entire streets essentially became the property of wealthy company owners, as streets such as Tilghman and Ridge Road became almost entirely populated by iron workers (see Figure 1). Ridge Road and Front Street housed over ninety iron workers, and Tilghman housed over seventy. The concept of a company town, an area of a city owned by company elites, became a reality in Allentown.
The houses themselves were developed in an attempt to house as many employees as possible. Homes were small, cramped, and had to house the family of ironworkers, and sometimes additional boarders (Hillstrom, 2005). Communities had to share an outhouse, and often these houses were not lived in for long periods of time due to the fall of the iron business. They were given away to employees on a reward and punishment system, which shows the power relationship between employer and employee at this time (Hillstrom, 2005).
The First and Sixth Wards became “company towns” within the city. The northern Sixth Ward had areas that almost exclusively housed iron workers. Lower-income houses were bought and developed, and the overall number of houses skyrocketed in the 1860s and 70s to house the large number of people flocking to Allentown for jobs in the iron trade. The Map below (see Figure 2), shows how the northern Sixth Ward eventually became a company town, where employees of iron companies were congregated. Their location near the furnaces, foundries and rolling mills made the houses in this area a good selection for company owners to purchase for employees.
Figure 2. Map of Allentown from 1880 Census. Red dots are iron worker housing. Zoom in on the northeast section to see lands owned by the Allentown Iron Co.
One other topic that connects to the housing of iron workers is the rise of railroads. Rail road companies were the greatest consumer of iron up until the rise of steel, and as railroads expanded so did the need for iron. This made the iron business lucrative, attracting many employees to move to Allentown, and giving company owners the wealth to buy housing for their employees (Patton, 1983). Working conditions also seems to have some links with the housing of iron workers, as in both situations company owners would purposefully save money by supplying employees with sub-par conditions. The houses were cramped and lacked running water while the safety conditions of the work place were often not up to their maximum potential (Iron Age, 1919).
The housing trend reflects broader trends, such as mass migration to cities in order to secure a job and the development of company towns. Cities such as New York also had rich company owners develop districts within cities of land owned by companies used to maintain a power relationship over their employees by offering housing and discounts at company-owned stores (Knowles, 2013). Any city that had an industrial growth during this period likely oversaw similar conditions to the housing in Allentown.
Hillstrom, Kevin, and Laurie C. Hillstrom. The Industrial Revolution in America: Iron and Steel. Vol 2. The Industrial Revolution. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2005.
Knowles, Anne Kelly. Mastering Iron: The Struggle to Modernize an American Industry 1800-1868. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, IL. 2013.
Iron Age Vol. CIII: January- June 1919. Iron Age. New York: Iron Age Publishing Company, 1919.
Patton, Spiro. Comparative Advantage and Urban Industrialization: Reading, Allentown, and Lancaster in the 19th Century. Penn State University Press. 1983.