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  • Kristin Wenger

“Hot, Loud, and Dangerous” (#52Ancestors Week 36: Work)

What was it like to work at industry behemoth Bethlehem Steel 100 years ago? According to one of the historical markers onsite at the remnant SteelStacks: “hot, loud, and dangerous.” [1]

SteelStacks, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Photo by Patty Lingenfelter, 22 July 2018


“Steelworkers often labored six or even seven days a week in long and exhausting shifts. Accidents were common. Over 500 men died on the job between 1905 and 1941. Hundreds, if not thousands, were badly injured by burning metal, toxic gases, and fast-moving machinery. The men who worked these dangerous jobs were desperately poor and mostly immigrants. Few could afford to choose a safer or easier job.” [2]

Inside the blower house, photo by Patty Lingenfelter, 22 July 2018


"I intend to make Bethlehem the prize steelworks of its class, not only in the United States, but in the entire world." -Charles Schwab Bethlehem Steel Chairman, 1904-1939 [3]

Bethlehem Steel along the Lehigh River, 1908 [4]


In the early 20th century, a massive amount of steel was in demand to build skyscrapers, bridges, and then power the military during the first World War. Charles Schwab, a disciple of Andrew Carnegie and former president of U.S. Steel, incorporated Bethlehem Steel in December 1904. [5] At that point, Bethlehem Steel had 9,461 employees. By 1916, the company employed approximately 60,000 workers. [6]


My great grandfather was one of them.

Harry Norbeck (1880-1968), circa 1910


I never met my great grandfather, Harry Norbeck. My mom tells me that he died while she was hosting a slumber party for her 16th birthday. My Grandma Lucy, bless her heart, waited until the guests had gone home to break the news that her father had passed away. Since Harry and his wife, Lottie, were, by far, my oldest set of great grandparents, I never really knew that much about them. My mom told me that Harry was a brick mason with an Irish mother, and that was true. [7] However, as I started researching his life, I learned that the occupation of bricklaying came only after many years of toil in the steel industry.


Bethlehem Steel, 1912 [8]


Harry supported his young family on his wages from Bethlehem Steel.


Harry Norbeck with wife Lottie (Nagle) and daughter, Mary Janice, about 1910


This 1910 census record indicates Harry worked as a "drop forger" at the "steel works." [9]


Harry’s 1918 draft registration card also confirmed his employment at Bethlehem Steel. [10]


Circa 1920 photo of Harry, with daughters Janice and Lucille (my grandma, born July 1917)


In 1920, Harry continued as a “laborer at the steel mill.”[11]


By 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, Harry had moved his family to Philadelphia, where his normal occupation was a boiler worker for a locomotive manufacturer. The number 32 on the right side of the census page denoted that he was unemployed and additional information was recorded on line 32 of a special unemployment schedule. [12] (“Unfortunately for researchers, the unemployment schedules have been destroyed, although the aggregate data from the schedules can be found in published statistical summaries that are available in many federal depository libraries.” [13] An example of these statistical summaries can be found here.


The Accident

On 22 January 1910, Harry became one of the many men injured while working at Bethlehem Steel. [14]


Harry with his two daughters, Janice and Lucille

Am I just imaging it, or can you notice an area of skin on his left cheek that looks like it has healed from the accident described in the newspaper article? Based on my grandma’s age, I estimate this photo was taken in 1919, a full 9 years or more after the injury.


It wasn’t until I began researching the company that I realized the importance of its timing. Harry's accident occurred on the precipice of one of the most significant events in Bethlehem Steel's history.


The Steel Strike of 1910

Historic marker commemorating the Bethlehem Steel Strike [15]


“The strike began on February 4, 1910 and lasted 108 days. The workers main grievances revolved around low pay and long hours. They wanted Bethlehem Steel Co. owner Charles M. Schwab to agree to give them Sundays off and to raise the laborers’ pay of 12 cents an hour. They also wanted a change in the “bonus system,” which paid skilled workers so little it forced them to work overtime. After almost a month of striking, Schwab still refused to meet the demands and called in the police instead, resulting in a riot after police charged into a crowd of bystanders beating men, women and children. Although the riot galvanized the striking workers for a little while to remain on strike as they attempted to get support from local clergy and national organizations, by early May only a fraction of the almost 9,000 men originally involved remained on strike. The U. S. Bureau of Labor began an investigation on March 17 of the Bethlehem strike and on May 4 released its report, which is also located in this collection. It concluded that “over 97 percent of the work force had a work day of 10 hours, and 51 percent worked 12 hours or more. Twenty nine percent of the men worked seven-day weeks with no extra pay for Sunday work.” [16]


Questions about my great grandfather:

  • Was Harry one of the strikers?

I could not find a record of him participating in the strike. He may have been still recovering from his accident at the start of the strike, or maybe he was careful enough not to make too much trouble. Here is a source that includes daily arrests of the strikers with their names, jail sentences, and fines.

  • Was he one of the men who had to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day, for 12 cents an hour?

The United States Bureau of Labor’s Report on Strike at Bethlehem Steel Works (1910) lists the hourly wage and hours required of employees in every single occupation and department. Since Harry was a laborer in the drop forge department, it appears he did not have to work Sundays. However, the newspaper stated he was injured while working on Saturday afternoon which probably placed him in the category of those working 12-hour days Monday through Friday and 10 hours on Saturday for 12.5 cents an hour.


A sample page from the Bureau of Labor’s report. [17]


The Result

“Throughout the strike, Charles Schwab maintained that he would not deal with the strikers. Schwab was so bold as to walk through the strikers who stood at the entrances to the mill and taunt, ''If you can stand it, I can.''

The strikers were never able to affect the productivity of the mill. Schwab hired workers from out of town to continue making steel. The report commissioned by Congress presented May 4 a scathing denunciation of the company's strikebreaking. Schwab threatened to move Bethlehem Steel out of the area. Local businessmen responded to Schwab's threat by criticizing the strikers through a published statement.

On May 18, 103 days after the strike began, the workers accepted Schwab's offer of optional overtime and Sunday work, with no wage increases, and the strike came to an end.” [18]


However…

"The Bethlehem Steel Strike of 1910 was one of those moments when history turns a page. Although the 104-day labor action was to end in failure, it made American labor realize that it could organize in the new industrial plants. It also showed U.S. labor leaders that the foreign-born unskilled workers were willing and ready to be led." [19]

For further reading on Bethlehem Steel:

Front cover of company newsletter featuring Charles Schwab [20]


These 1918 company newsletters are absolutely amazing for understanding the tone of corporate culture.

Notice the patriotism as well as the numerous "friendly little reminders" about safety.


Annual reports of Bethlehem Steel


1929 Map of Bethlehem


Information on the demise of the company and its current repurposed use

Next time our family takes a day trip, a tour in honor of my great grandfather is on the top of my wishlist!

Blast furnace and ovens at SteelStacks by Patty Lingenfelter, 22 July 2018


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Sources:

[1] “Hot, Loud, and Dangerous,” Historical Marker Project (https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM25AR_hot-loud-dangerous_Bethlehem-PA.html : accessed 28 August 2018).


[2] Ibid.


[3] “The Beginnings of Bethlehem Steel,” Historical Marker Project (https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM25AH_the-beginnings-of-bethlehem-steel_Bethlehem-PA.html: accessed 28 August 2018).


[4] Richard Rummell, drawing of Bethlehem Steel factory (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), 1908; digital image, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2013646256/: accessed 28 August 2018).


[5] “Bethlehem Steel Corporation,” Encyclopedia.com (https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/economics-business-and-labor/businesses-and-occupations/bethlehem-steel-corp : accessed 28 August 2018).


[6] Arundel Cotter, The Story of Bethlehem Steel (New York: The Moody Magazine and Book Company, 1916), 13; digitized at Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/storyofbethlehem00cott : accessed 27 August 2018).


[7] 1940 U.S. census, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Philadelphia City, Enumeration District 51-1995, Ward 46, Block 51, page 2-A, family 25, Harry Norbeck household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 August 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T627, roll 3749.


[8] “Panorama of the Bethlehem Steel Works,” (South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), photograph, 1912; digital image, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/2013646275/ : accessed 28 August 2018).


[9] 1910 U.S. census, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Allentown, Ward 10, Enumeration District 157, page 4-B, dwelling 85, family 85, Harry Norbeck household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 August 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T624, roll 1364.


[10] “World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with digital images, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 August 2018) > Pennsylvania > Lehigh County > 2 > Draft Card N > image 74 of 91, Harry Norbeck.


[11] 1920 U.S. census, Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Eastern Salisbury Township, Enumeration District 228, page 14-B, dwelling 301, family 327, Harry Norbeck household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 August 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T625, roll 1590.


[12] 1930 U.S. census, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, population schedule, Philadelphia City, Enumeration District 523, Ward 46, Block 386, page 13-A, dwelling 193, family 204, Harry Norbeck household; digital image, Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed 28 August 2018); citing NARA microfilm publication T626, roll 2141.


[13] David Hendricks and Amy Patterson, “The 1930 Census in Perspective,” Prologue Magazine, vol. 34, no. 2, summer 2002; digitized at National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2002/summer/1930-census-perspective.html : accessed 27 August 2018).


[14] “Injured at Steel Works,” The Allentown Democrat (Allentown, Pennsylvania), 26 January 1910, page 1, column 4; digital image, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 9 March 2018).


[15] “1910 Bethlehem Steel Strike,” Historical Marker Project (https://www.historicalmarkerproject.com/markers/HM1C5H_1910-bethlehem-steel-strike_Bethlehem-PA.html#prettyPhoto/0/ : accessed 28 August 2018), photograph by Carolyn Martienssen.


[16] Bree Midavaine, "Federal Council of Churches and the Bethlehem Steel Strike of 1910, The Burke Library Blog, Columbia University Libraries (https://blogs.cul.columbia.edu/burke/tag/bethlehem-steel-strike-1910/ : accessed 27 August 2018).


[17] United States Bureau of Labor, Report on Strike at the Bethlehem Steel: South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1910), 69; digital image, Lehigh University (http://digital.lib.lehigh.edu/cdm4/beyond_viewer.php?DMTHUMB=&CISOPTR=4801&ptr=4869 : accessed 27 August 2018).


[18] “Steel Strike of 1910,” Bethlehem Press (Allentown, Pennsylvania), 12 September 2012; accessed online (http://bethlehem.thelehighvalleypress.com/2012/09/12/steel-strike-1910 : 27 August 2018).


[19] Frank Whelan, “Steel Strike Of 1910 Wrote Bitter Chapter In Labor History,” The Morning Call: Lehigh Valley’s Newspaper (Allentown, Pennsylvania), 10 March 1985; online (http://articles.mcall.com/1985-03-10/news/2454692_1_labor-warn-workers : 28 August 2018).


[20] Bethlehem Steel, vol. 1, no. 1, company newsletter, 1 May 2018; digital images, Bethlehem Area Public Library (https://www.bapl.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/BETHLEHEM-STEEL-VOL-1-MAY-1-1918-NO-1.pdf : accessed 27 August 2018).