Working Conditions in the Iron Industry

By Natalie Ihnat

Imagine, it is Monday morning, the most dreaded day of the week. You finish breakfast and head out the door only to begin your 69 hour work week, laboring away in hot and dangerous working conditions (Department of the Interior Census Office 1883: 30). This was just another normal workweek for the average ironworker in Allentown during the mid to late 1800’s.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Wages and working hours in Pennsylvania counties

Today with our central air conditioning, safety protocols, and medical technology, it is hard to imagine working in those conditions. In fact, most of us probably have a hard time just wrapping our heads around the fact that during December of 1871 ironworkers in the Sixth Ward at the Allentown Iron Works, the Allentown Rolling Mill, and the Allentown Foundry and Machine Works, earned between $1.90 and $5.00 a day! (Hellerich 1987: 233). I know, at first that seemed unbelievable to me, but during those times that amount allowed most ironworkers to live a decent lifestyle. However, that does not mean that all ironworkers were always making enough to live that lifestyle. Working in the iron industry was risky business because wage fluctuations were common due to many reasons. From what I gathered, the fluctuations seem to be mainly related to the demand of iron at the time but also related to economic depressions, which I will discuss later. Figure 1, from an 1880 census of manufacturing, demonstrates how the wages in the Lehigh Valley and other Pennsylvania counties differs a bit from the ones I previously listed.

Today, I believe the majority of us take for granted the fact that most of us don’t walk into work with the fear of losing a finger or a permanent disability, like many ironworkers did. As one might predict, accidents were quite common in the iron mills. While the most frequent accidents were often non-fatal and/or disabling, sometimes they were fatal. It seems as though most deadly accidents were the result of faulty equipment (in which industries would cut back on repairs to save money) or the worker was simply not paying enough attention. Allentown is no stranger to these kind of fatal incidents. On January 6, 1881 at the Allentown Rolling Mill, a faulty boiler exploded, killing 14 men and boys (Whelan 1984: 2). Although this event was an extreme case I believe it is important to highlight the fact that these fatal accidents did occur sometimes. For the remaining cases, most accidents in the mills were non-fatal, although just hearing about some of them makes me shiver. The graph (Figure 2) highlights and provides a good visual representation of just how dangerous it was working in blast furnaces and rolling mills. The picture is from a 1910 census focusing on accidents and accident prevention in the United States iron and steel industry. It lists statistics from a study on the “nature of injury, by departments, in 130 plants for two years ending June 30, 1910” (United States Bureau of Labor 1913: 284).

Figure 2.
Figure 2. Graph of accidents and accident rates in blast furnaces and rolling mills. Note- click on the image to expand it.

I think we can all agree that the thought of working at an industry experiencing not only wage fluctuations but also dangerous working conditions sounds like a nightmare. As one would expect in response to this, labor unions began to organize during the mid to late 1800’s, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. The early labor unions and strikes in Allentown during the 1860’s can best be described as unorganized and unsuccessful (Hellerich 1987: 233). But by the 1870’s and 1880’s, labor unions all across the country began to organize better and at a fairly rapid rate, possibly due to the Panic of 1873. During this depression of 1873, ironworkers faced a tough situation in that they were working for low wages in unsafe conditions. However, at the same time they could not risk leaving because no other jobs were available. In fact, the Allentown Rolling Mill, “when it was cash-short thought nothing of paying its workers in scrip, redeemable at certain stores, rather than in cash” (Hall 1987: 304). It is shocking to think that things could get even worse, but they did. I was surprised to find out that some companies didn’t even pay their workers at all! Even though most labor unions and strikes were not successful, joining large and powerful labor unions was the best hope Allentown ironworkers had at receiving higher wages and safer working conditions.
I have explored three major aspects of working conditions in iron mills covering wages, accident rates, and labor unions. However, it is important to look at other aspects of the iron industry that relate to my topic, such as housing for the ironworkers. Housing was usually nearby the iron mill so that the workers would not have to commute far and because it was faster if someone was needed quickly. The Allentown Rolling Mill built and provided cheap housing for their ironworkers on the west side of 3rd Street between Gordon and Chew (Whelan 1984: 1). Below, is a map (Figure 3) marking where some ironworkers lived in the Sixth Ward from data taken from an 1880 census.

Figure 3.Map marking the location of ironworkers who lived around Gordon and Chew Street in 1880.Click on a point to see the individuals occupation.

While my topic focuses on working conditions in the iron mills, exploring other aspects of Allentown in the mid to late 1800’s like railroads, housing, and child labor, is very important for gaining a more rounded understanding of the history of Allentown and its iron industry.