James J. Davis, excerpts from The Iron Puddler: My Life in the Rolling Mills and What Came of It , 1922.
Scene in a Rolling Mill
The rolling mill where father worked was Life's Big Circus tent to me, and like a kid escaped from school, eager to get past the tent flap and mingle with the clowns and elephants, I chucked my job sorting nails when I found an opening for a youngster in the rolling mill. Every puddler has a helper. Old men have both a helper and a boy. I got a place with an old man, and so at the age of twelve I was part of the Big Show whose performance is continuous, whose fire-eaters have real flame to contend with, and whose snake-charmers risk their lives in handling great hissing, twisting red-hot serpents of angry iron.
In this mill there is a constant din by day and night. Patches of white heat glare from the opened furnace doors like the teeth of some great dark, dingy devil grinning across the smoky vapors of the Pit. Half naked, soot-smeared fellows fight the furnace hearths with hooks, rabbles and paddles. Their scowling faces are lit with fire, like sailors manning their guns in a night fight when a blazing fire ship is bearing down upon them. The sweat runs down their backs and arms and glistens in the changing lights. Brilliant blues and rays of green and bronze come from the coruscating metal, molten yet crystallizing into white-hot frost within the furnace puddle. Flaming balls of woolly iron are pulled from the oven doors, flung on a two-wheeled serving tray, and rushed sputtering and flamboyant to the hungry mouth of a machine, which rolls them upon its tongue and squeezes them in its jaw like a cow mulling over her cud. The molten slag runs down red-hot from the jaws of this squeezer and makes a luminous rivulet on the floor like the water from the rubber rollers when a washer-woman wrings out the saturated clothes. Squeezed dry of its luminous lava, the white-hot sponge is drawn with tongs to the waiting rollers - whirling anvils that beat it into the shape they will. Everywhere are hurrying men, whirring flywheels, moving levers of steam engines and the drum-like roar of the rolling machines, while here and there the fruits of this toil are seen as three or four fiery serpents shoot forth from different trains of rollers, and are carried away, wrought iron fit for bridging the creek, shoeing the mule and hooping the barrel that brings the farmers' apples into town.
"Life in these mills is a terrible life," the reformers say. "Men are ground down to scrap and are thrown out as wreckage." This may be so, but my life was spent in the mills and I failed to discover it. I went in a stripling and grew into manhood with muscled arms big as a bookkeeper's legs. The gases, they say, will destroy a man's lungs, but I worked all day in the mills and had wind enough left to toot a clarinet in the band. I lusted for labor, I worked and I liked it. And so did my forefathers for generations before me. It is no job for weaklings, but neither was tree-felling, Indian fighting, road-making and the subduing of a wild continent to the hand of man as was done by the whole tribe of Americans for the sheer joy of conquering the wild.
There is something in man that drives him forward to do the world's work and build bigger for the coming generations, just as there is something in nature that causes new growth to come out of old dirt and new worlds to be continually spawned from the ashes of old played-out suns and stars. When nature ceases to mold new worlds from the past decay, the universe will wither; and when man loses the urge to build and goes to tearing down, the end of his story is at hand.
A tired Thomas whose wife supported him by running a rooming house once asked me: "How many do you 'spose there are in the United States that don't have to work?"
"None," I replied, "except invalids and cripples. Every healthy man in this country has to work just the same as he has to breathe. If you don't want to work it is because you're sick. I'm a well man, and I've got to be working all the time or I'd go crazy. I have no more desire to be idle like you than I have a desire to wear women's clothes. It is contrary to normal nature, and that's why I say that any man that gets that way is a sick man."
The fellow was a "free thinker," as he called himself. He was too lazy to shave and his beard was always about two weeks ahead of him. He was working out a plan for communism in the United States. He believed that enough work had now been done to supply the race forever. It was just a question of so evenly dividing the goods that all men instead of a few could loaf the rest of their years.
He had such a tired feeling that he didn't have the ambition of an oyster. He didn't have enough energy to realize he was all in. He took it for granted that the whole race was as tired as he was.
He thought he needed one of the Utopias they talk so much about. What he needed was a dose of castor-oil. I never knew a communist in my life that was a well man.
BOILING DOWN THE PIGS
An iron puddler is a "pig boiler." The pig boiling must be done at a certain temperature (the pig is iron) just as a farmer butchering hogs must scald the carcasses at a certain temperature. If the farmer's water is too hot it will set the hair, that is, fix the bristles so they will never come out; if the water is not hot enough it will fail to loosen the bristles. So the farmer has to be an expert, and when the water in his barrel is just hot enough, he souses the porker in it, holding it in the hot bath the right length of time, then pulling it out and scraping off the hair. Farmers learned this art by experience long before the days of book farming.
And so the metal "pig boiler" ages ago learned by experience how to make the proper "heat" to boil the impurities out of pig-iron, or forge iron, and change it into that finer product, wrought iron. Pig-iron contains silicon, sulphur and phosphorus, and these impurities make it brittle so that a cast iron teakettle will break at a blow, like a china cup. Armor of this kind would have been no good for our iron-clad ancestors. When a knight in iron clothes tried to whip a leather-clad peasant, the peasant could have cracked him with a stone and his clothes would have fallen off like plaster from the ceiling. So those early iron workers learned to puddle forge iron and make it into wrought iron which is tough and leathery and can not be broken by a blow. This process was handed down from father to son, and in the course of time came to my father and so to me. None of us ever went to school and learned the chemistry of it from books. We learned the trick by doing it, standing with our faces in the scorching heat while our hands puddled the metal in its glaring bath.
And that is the way the farmer's son has learned hog scalding from the time when our ancient fathers got tired of eating bristles and decided to take their pork clean shaven. To-day there are books telling just how many degrees of heat make the water right for scalding hogs, and the metallurgists have written down the chemical formula for puddling iron. But the man who learns it from a book can not do it. The mental knowledge is not enough; it requires great muscular skill like that of the heavyweight wrestler, besides great physical endurance to withstand the terrific heat. The worker's body is in perfect physical shape and the work does not injure him but only exhilarates him. No iron worker can be a communist, for communists all have inferior bodies. The iron worker knows that his body is superior, and no sour philosophy could stay in him, because he would sweat it out of his pores as he sweats out all other poisons.
The old man that I worked with when I first entered the rolling mill was gray with his sixty years of toil. Yet his eye was clear and his back was straight and when he went to the table he ate like a sixteen-year-old and his sleep was dreamless. A man so old must conserve his strength, and he made use of his husky helper whenever he could to save his own muscles and lengthen his endurance. My business was to do the little chores and save time for the helper. I teased up the furnace, I leveled the fire, I dished the cinders in to thicken the heat, and I watched the cobbles. During the melting of the pig-iron the furnace had to be kept as hot as coal could make it.
Before the use of coal was discovered, the ancient iron makers used charcoal. So iron could only be made where there were forests to give fuel. Even as late as 1840 the iron smelters in Pennsylvania were using wood in their furnaces. Our forefathers did not know that coal would burn. And yet here lay the coal, the ore and the limestone side by side, which meant that Pittsburgh was to be the iron capital of the world. But Americans will not long sleep in the presence of such an opportunity. Other races will. The Chinese have slumbered for five thousand years above a treasure trove of oil, coal and iron. They never discovered its uses. Instead of oil they lit themselves to bed with mutton tallow. Instead of burning coal they put on two pairs of pants when winter came. In place of steel plows drawn by oil-burning tractors they scratched the ground with a wooden stick, and when the crop failed they starved to death by millions. With our steel ships we send bread to China to save them. If they had the wit to use their resources they could save themselves. In man's fight against the hostile forces of nature, his safety lies in applying his wit to the resources that nature gave him. The Americans can do that. There are others that can not.
I was riding on a train in Indiana when a gypsy-looking youth came in and sat beside me. His hair was black, his skin was yellow and he was dressed in flashy American clothes. He had a cock-sure air about him that attracted my attention. I have seldom seen a young man more pleased with himself. He was entirely too cocky for me. He began talking. He said he was a Syrian and was worth a thousand dollars. Soon he would be worth a million, he said. He was already putting on his million-dollar airs.
"While selling bananas and ginger pop," he told me, "I made some money and learned the American ways. I have a brother in South Bend [Indiana] who has made some money shining shoes. I am going to get my brother and we will go back to the old home in Asia Minor. The hills where we were born are full of coal. The people call it black stone. They do not know that it will burn. We will go back there with our American knowledge and set the world on fire."
There is a people who have been kicking coal around for five thousand years and have not yet learned that it will burn. Those hills produced gypsies who travel around cheating, dickering and selling gewgaws that are worth nothing. They come among a people who have used their heads. From these people they learned to heat a banana stand with a little coal stove. Having mastered that coal-stove principle, they are going back to their native hills with black magic up their sleeves.
"What a superior man am I," thought that young tribesman swollen with vanity, although he had done nothing. This taught me that some of these thick-headed tribes can be all swelled up with pride when they have little to be proud of.
THE IRON BISCUITS
In the Sharon [Pennsylvania] town band I played the clarinet from the time I was thirteen until I left that town several years later to chase the fireflies of vanishing jobs that marked the last administration of Cleveland. A bandsman at thirteen, I became a master puddler at sixteen. At that time there were but five boys of that age who had become full-fledged puddlers. Of these young iron workers, I suppose there were few that "doubled in brass." But why should not an iron worker be a musician? The anvil, symbol of his trade, is a musical instrument and is heard in the anvil chorus from Trovatore. In our rolling mill we did not have an anvil on which the "bloom" was beaten by a trip-hammer as is done in the Old Country. The "squeezer" which combines the functions of hammer and anvil did the work instead.
When I became my father's helper he began teaching me to handle the machinery of the trade. The puddling furnace has a working door on a level with a man's stomach. Working door is a trade name. Out in the world all doors are working; if they don't work they aren't doors (except cellar doors, which are nailed down under the Volstead Act). But the working door of a puddling furnace is the door through which the puddler does his work. It is a porthole opening upon a sea of flame. The heat of these flames would wither a man's body, and so they are enclosed in a shell of steel. Through this working door I put in the charge of "pigs" that were to be boiled. These short pieces of "mill iron" had been smelted from iron ore; they had taken the first step on their journey from wild iron to civilized iron. There isn't much use for pig-iron in this world. You've got to be better iron than that. Pig-iron has no fiber; it breaks instead of bending. Build a bridge of it and a gale will break it and it will fall into the river. Some races are pig-iron; Hottentots and Bushmen are pig-iron. They break at a blow. They have been smelted out of wild animalism, but they went no further; they are of no use in this modern world because they are brittle. Only the wrought-iron races can do the work. All this I felt but could not say in the days when I piled the pig-iron in the puddling furnace and turned with boyish eagerness to have my father show me how.
Six hundred pounds was the weight of pig-iron we used to put into a single hearth. Much wider than the hearth was the fire grate, for we needed a heat that was intense. The flame was made by burning bituminous coal. Vigorously I stoked that fire for thirty minutes with dampers open and the draft roaring while that pig-iron melted down like ice-cream under an electric fan. You have seen a housewife sweating over her oven to get it hot enough to bake a batch of biscuits. Her face gets pink and a drop of sweat dampens her curls. Quite a horrid job she finds it. But I had iron biscuits to bake; my forge fire must be hot as a volcano. There were five bakings every day and this meant the shoveling in of nearly two tons of coal. In summer I was stripped to the waist and panting while the sweat poured down across my heaving muscles. My palms and fingers, scorched by the heat, became hardened like goat hoofs, while my skin took on a coat of tan that it will wear forever.
What time I was not stoking the fire, I was stirring the charge with a long iron rabble that weighed some twenty-five pounds. Strap an Oregon boot of that weight to your arm and then do calisthenics ten hours in a room so hot it melts your eyebrows and you will know what it is like to be a puddler. But we puddlers did not complain. There is men's work to be done in this world, and we were the men to do it. We had come into a country built of wood; we should change it to a country built of steel and stone. There was grandeur for us to achieve, like the Roman who said, "I found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble."
The spirit of building was in our blood; we took pride in the mill, and the mill owners were our captains. They honored us for our strength and skill, they paid us and we were loyal to them. We showed what bee men call "the spirit of the hive." On holidays our ball team played against the team of a neighboring mill, and the owners and bosses were on the sidelines coaching the men and yelling like boys when a batter lifted a homer over the fence. That was before the rattle heads and fanatics had poisoned the well of good fellowship and made men fear and hate one another. Sometimes the Welsh would play against the Irish or the English. At one time most all the puddlers in America were English, Irish or Welsh.
In these ball games, I am glad to say, I was always good enough to make the team. After telling of being a bandsman at thirteen and a puddler at sixteen, I would like to say that at seventeen I was batting more home runs than Babe Ruth in his prime, but everything I say must be backed up by the records, and when my baseball record is examined it will be found that my best playing on the diamond was done in the band.
WRESTING A PRIZE FROM NATURE'S HAND
After melting down the pig-iron as quickly as possible, which took me thirty minutes, there was a pause in which I had time to wipe the back of my hand on the dryest part of my clothing (if any spot was still dry) and with my sweat cap wipe the sweat and soot out of my eyes. For the next seven minutes I "thickened the heat up" by adding iron oxide to the bath. This was in the form of roll scale. The furnace continued in full blast till that was melted. The liquid metal in the hearth is called slag. The iron oxide is put in it to make it more basic for the chemical reaction that is to take place. Adding the roll scale had cooled the charge, and it was thick like hoecake batter. I now thoroughly mixed it with a rabble which is like a long iron hoe.
"Snake bake a hoecake,
And lef' a frog to mind it;
Frog went away, an'
De lizard come and find it."
Any lizard attracted by my hoecake would have to be a salamander - that fire-proof creature that is supposed to live in flames. For the cooling down of that molten batter didn't go so far but that it still would make too hot a mouthful for any creature alive.
The puddler's hand-rag is one of his most important tools. It is about the size of a thick wash-rag, and the puddler carries it in the hand that clasps the rabble rod where it is too hot for bare flesh to endure.
The melted iron contains carbon, sulphur and phosphorus, and to get rid of them, especially the sulphur and phosphorus, is the object of all this heat and toil. For it is the sulphur and phosphorus that make the iron brittle. And brittle iron might as well not be iron at all; it might better be clay. For a good brick wall is stronger than a wall of brittle iron. Yet nature will not give us pure iron. She always gives it to us mixed with the stuff that weakens it - this dross and brimstone. Nature hands out no bonanzas, no lead-pipe cinches to mankind. Man must claw for everything he gets, and when he gets it. It is mixed with dirt. And if he wants it clean, he'll have to clean it with the labor of his hands. "Why can't we have a different system than this?" I heard a theorist complain. "I'll bite," I said. "Why can't we?" And I went on boiling out the impurities in my puddle.
Man's nature is like iron, never born in a pure state but always mixed with elements that weaken it. Envy, greed and malice are mixed with every man's nature when he comes into the world. They are the brimstone that makes him brittle. He is pig-iron until he boils them out of his system. Savages and criminals are men who have not tried to boil this dross out of their nature. Lincoln was one who boiled it out in the fires of adversity. He puddled his own soul till the metal was pure, and that's how he got the Iron Will that was strong enough to save a nation.
My purpose in slackening my heat as soon as the pig-iron was melted was to oxidize the phosphorus and sulphur ahead of the carbon. Just as alcohol vaporizes at a lower heat than water, so sulphur and phosphorus oxidize at a lower heat than carbon. When this reaction begins I see light flames breaking through the lake of molten slag in my furnace. Probably from such a sight as this the old-time artists got their pictures of Hell. The flames are caused by the burning of carbon monoxide from the oxidation of carbon. The slag is basic and takes the sulphur and phosphorus into combination, thus ending its, combination with the iron. The purpose now is to oxidize the carbon, too, without reducing the phosphorus and sulphur and causing them to return to the iron. We want the pure iron to begin crystallizing out of the bath like butter from the churning buttermilk.
More and more of the carbon gas comes out of the puddle, and as it bubbles out the charge is agitated by its escape and the "boil" is in progress. It is not real boiling like the boiling of a teakettle. When a teakettle boils the water turns to bubbles of vapor and goes up in the air to turn to water again when it gets cold. But in the boiling iron puddle a chemical change is taking place. The iron is not going up in vapor. The carbon and the oxygen are. This formation of gas in the molten puddle causes the whole charge to boil up like an ice-cream soda. The slag overflows. Redder than strawberry syrup and as hot as the fiery lake in Hades it flows over the rim of the hearth and out through the slag-hole. My helper has pushed up a buggy there to receive it. More than an eighth and sometimes a quarter of the weight of the pig-iron flows off in slag and is carted away.
Meanwhile I have got the job of my life on my hands. I must stir my boiling mess with all the strength in my body. For now is my chance to defeat nature and wring from the loosening grip of her hand the pure iron she never intended to give us.
MAN IS IRON TOO
FOR twenty-five minutes while the boil goes on I stir it constantly with my long iron rabble. A cook stirring gravy to keep it from scorching in the skillet is done in two minutes and backs off blinking, sweating and choking, having finished the hardest job of getting dinner. But my hardest job lasts not two minutes but the better part of half an hour. My spoon weighs twenty-five pounds, my porridge is pasty iron, and the heat of my kitchen is so great that if my body was not hardened to it, the ordeal would drop me in my tracks.
Little spikes of pure iron like frost spars glow white-hot and stick out of the churning slag. These must be stirred under at once; the long stream of flame from the grate plays over the puddle, and the pure iron if lapped by these gases would be oxidized - burned up.
Pasty masses of iron form at the bottom of the puddle. There they would stick and become chilled if they were not constantly stirred. The whole charge must be mixed and mixed as it steadily thickens so that it will be uniform throughout. I am like some frantic baker in the inferno kneading a batch of iron bread for the devil's breakfast.
"It's an outrage that men should have to work like this," a reformer told me.
"They don't have to," I replied. "Nobody forced me to do this. I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice."
The French were not compelled to stand in the flame that scorched Verdun. They could have backed away and let the Germans through. The Germans would not have killed them. They would only have saddled them and got on their backs and ridden them till the end of time.
And so men are not compelled to face the scorching furnaces; we do not have to forge the iron that resists the invading cyclone and the leveling earthquake. We could quit cold and let wild nature kick us about at will. We could have cities of wood to be wiped out by conflagrations; we could build houses of mud and sticks for the gales to unroof like a Hottentot village. We could bridge our small rivers with logs and be flood-bound when the rains descended. We could live by wheelbarrow transit like the Chinaman and leave to some braver race the task of belting the world with railroads and bridging the seas with iron boats.
Nobody compels us to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight off nature's calamities as the French fought off their oppressor at Verdun. I repeat, we could let nature oppress us as she oppresses the meek Chinese - let her whip us with cold, drought, flood, isolation and famine.
We chose to resist as the French resisted - because we are men. Nature can chase the measly savage fleeing naked through the bush. But nature can't run us ragged when all we have to do is put up a hard fight and conquer her. The iron workers are civilization's shock troops grappling with tyrannous nature on her own ground and conquering new territory in which man can live in safety and peace. Steel houses with glass windows are born of his efforts. There is a glory in this fight; man feels a sense of grandeur. We are robbing no one. From the harsh bosom of the hills we wring the iron milk that makes us strong. Nature is no kind mother; she resists with flood and earthquake, drought and cyclone. Nature is fierce and formidable, but fierce is man's soul to subdue her. The stubborn earth is iron, but man is iron too.
ON BEING A GOOD GUESSER
The charge which I have been kneading in my furnace has now "come to nature," the stringy sponge of pure iron is separating from the slag. The "balling" of this sponge into three loaves is a task that occupies from ten to fifteen minutes. The particles of iron glowing in this spongy mass are partly welded together; they are sticky and stringy and as the cooling continues they are rolled up into wads like popcorn balls. The charge, which lost part of its original weight by the draining off of slag, now weighs five hundred fifty to six hundred pounds. I am balling it into three parts of equal weight. If the charge is six hundred pounds, each of my balls must weigh exactly two hundred pounds.
I have always been proud of the "batting eye" that enables an iron puddler to shape the balls to the exact weight required. This is a mental act, - an act of judgment. The artist and the sculptor must have this same sense of proportion. A man of low intelligence could never learn to do it. We are paid by weight, and in my time, in the Sharon mill, the balls were required to be two hundred pounds. Every pound above that went to the company and was loss to the men.
I have heard that "guessing pigs" was an old-time sport among farmers. To test their skill, each farmer would guess the weight of a grazing pig. Then they would catch the porker, throw him on the scales, and find out which farmer had guessed nearest the mark. Sunday clothes used to be badly soiled in this sport.
But the iron worker does not guess his pigs. He knows exactly how much pig-iron he put into the boil. His guessing skill comes into play when with a long paddle and hook he separates six hundred pounds of sizzling fire-works into three fire balls each of which will weigh two hundred pounds.
The balls are rolled up into three resting places, one in the fire-bridge corner, one in the flue-bridge corner, and one in the jam, all ready for the puddler to draw them.
My batch of biscuits is now done and I must take them out at once and rush them to the hungry mouth of the squeezing machine. A bride making biscuits can jerk them out of the oven all in one pan. But my oven is larger and hotter. I have to use long-handled tongs, and each of my biscuits weighs twice as much as I weigh. Suppose you were a cook with a fork six feet long, and had three roasting sheep on the grid at once to be forked off as quickly as possible. Could you do it? Even with a helper wouldn't you probably scorch the mutton or else burn yourself to death with the hot grease? That is where strength and skill must both come into play.
One at a time the balls are drawn out on to a buggy and wheeled swiftly to the squeezer. This machine squeezes out the slag which flows down like the glowing lava running out of a volcano. The motion of the squeezer is like the circular motion you use in rolling a bread pill between the palms and squeezing the water out of it. I must get the three balls, or blooms, out of the furnace and into the squeezer while the slag is still liquid so that it can be squeezed out of the iron.
From cold pig-iron to finished blooms is a process that takes from an hour and ten minutes, to an hour and forty minutes, depending on the speed and skill of the puddler, and the kind of iron. I was a fast one, myself. But you expected that, from the fact that I am telling the story. The man that tells the story always comes out a winner.
Credit: James J. Davis, The Iron Puddler: My Life in the Rolling Mills and What Came of It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1922): 90-113.