Original Document
Original Document
Herbert N. Casson,"The Future of Steel," 1907.


In this story, which is mainly a tale of how steel has been turned into millions, there is no room to tell of the myriads of workmen who have lived and died under the furnace smoke. The flesh-and-blood cost of the millions is another story. But even the directors - the financiers who have perhaps never seen how the rank and file earn their wages - are discussing ways and means to make their steel plants less frantic and dangerous for the workmen. A machine can be operated fast - the faster the better. But a man is not a machine, and should not be compelled to have a machine as his pace-maker. Machinery has raised the standard of a day's work to such an extent that no human being can compete. There must be two standards in the future - one for the machine and one for the man.

"It is terrible how the workmen are being goaded," said John Fritz. "We have no right to shorten a man's life by spurring him on to break the record of yesterday. The piecework system and all bonus systems are injurious stimulants to production. The employer should pay each man a fair price for a fair day's work and be content."

In a few years these goaded workmen are nervous wrecks, thrown on the street like a squeezed lemon, after having set a standard of work which their unfortunate successors must maintain.
No one with natural human sympathies can pass through a steel mill without feeling that there is something merciless in the way workmen are prodded on to produce more, and more, and more. There is an infernal aspect to the frantic haste - the harsh cries - the desperate energy - the fire and smoke and roar of machinery. The remorseless mechanism of the mill - nine-tenths steel and one-tenth human - stops for nothing by night or by day. "You must either draw or be dragged to death." There is a mill in Chicago that makes seven steel rails a minute. Every second means a dollar and a half.

"The English idea with regard to blast furnaces," said Superintendent Charles S. Price, of the Cambria Steel Works, "is to run moderately and save the lining. What do we care about the lining? We think that a lining is good for so much iron and the sooner it makes it the better."

This is the American plan - the plan that makes the profits. And there is no necessity to organise a society for the prevention of cruelty to furnaces. But why apply this pitiless plan to the workmen? Why say that a man is "good for so much work and the sooner he does it the better"? With the future of the American steel trade in view, will it pay in the long run to tear out the lives of men - to burn them up like coke and toss them on the cinder-pile at forty?

Much sympathy has been expended, and rightly, upon those who are compelled to work in sweat-shops. But a sweat-shop is a haven of safety and rest compared to a steel plant. There is little public opinion with regard to the perils of a steel mill, for the reason that few outside of the trade know anything personally of the conditions that exist. Ladies visit sweat-shops, but they never enter a steel mill. In fact, as I found on every occasion, no visitor is allowed to enter a steel works who does not first sign a paper releasing the company "from all liability for accident or injury."

"None of the people outside know what our work is like," said a veteran steel-worker. " You or some one else may dodge through here with a guide for half an hour, but you see little of the real conditions. Why," he continued, with fine scorn, "what do you think? Queen Victoria once went to visit a steel works in Sheffield. She wanted to see for herself how iron and steel were made. So one of the steel corporations took some of their machinery and set it up in a beautiful green field. The workmen were all dressed up in white uniforms. I suppose they wore collars, cuffs, and patent-leather shoes. There was no smoke. Everything was as bright and clean as a game of cricket. The Queen sat there in an armchair and watched them play with a few white-hot bars of steel, and very likely went away with the idea that she had seen a steel mill. Nobody knows what the work is like except we men who do it, and, you see, we don't write stories for magazines or make speeches. This is the first time in my life that I ever talked for publication."

Before the machinery period began, the work required more muscle, but less nervous energy. It demanded more strength, but less vitality. There was more tugging and straining, but less danger. "When a man was killed fifty years ago, the mill was shut down until he was buried - a day or a day and a half," said Miles Humphreys, ex-President of the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Association.
There is a pressed-steel car-works in Pittsburgh to which the workmen of the city have given the nickname of " the slaughter-house." Rod-mills, too, are even more dangerous than an ordinary rolling-mill. The red-hot rods dart and twist about like long red snakes, sometimes spearing a workman or taking a kink and whirling around his body. On behalf of the corporations it should be said that many of the Italians, Slavs, and Finns show a strange indifference to death. "Throw him on scrap-heap. Dead man no good," they will frequently say, when one of their companions is killed. If two Huns or Slavs are working together in a mine, and one is accidentally killed, the other has been known to continue stolidly with his work, while the body of his comrade lay beside him.

"Oh, yes, there are several Finlanders killed here nearly every week," said the editor of a newspaper in the Lake Superior mining-region. "We have two morgues in this town, and I've seen both of them full at once. But what can be done? A Finlander doesn't care as much about being killed as I do about having my tooth pulled."

Besides what was told to me about these dangers, on several occasions I learned something about them at first hand. In one Alabama ore-mine I terrified the guide by walking on top of a wholly unguarded pile of dynamite, which lay in one corner of the dark mine. At another I was given permission to enter the mine, but was warned that I had better walk down, and not ride in the ore-cars. "The cable may break," said the superintendent. The negro miners were going constantly up and down on these cars. The cable was considered safe enough for them, but not for others. At a third mine I saw a train of ore-cars derailed.

At a Wilkes-Barre coal-mine I saw an old workman struck and fatally injured by a shifting engine, which carried no fender. At the Bethlehem Steel Works I saw a heavy splash of white-hot steel fly within a few inches of a workman's face. Had it struck him he would at least have been scarred for life. Yet he acted as if it were a trifling matter, pulled his hat farther down over his eyes, swore, and jumped back to his place beside the great vat of molten metal. Such incidents were all in the day's work.

And so, as I have gone from one steel city to another, I have felt more often like a war correspondent than like the writer of a story of peace and prosperity. The steel business is not all dividends any more than war is all flags and music. There is a stern side - a side which ought to be made brighter by the steel kings of the future - to this story of a thousand millionaires, when we think of the hand-to-hand warfare that is being waged under the smoke of the furnace and the mill - the clank and the clatter of furious machines - the sullen smoulder of the coke-ovens - the desperate pickaxe conflict in the coal-mines - and the sudden groan of the wounded or the dying.

Credit: Herbert N. Casson, The Romance of Steel (1907), pp. 361-65.
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