Historical Markers
Henry Noll (1871-1925) Historical Marker
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Henry Noll (1871-1925)

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
E 3rd St. E of Fillmore St., Bethlehem

Dedication Date:
October 21, 1995

Behind the Marker

Black and white, head and shoulders photograph of Frederick W. Taylor, circa 1905.
Frederick W. Taylor, circa 1905
A common laborer at the Bethlehem Steel mill in the 1890s, Henry Noll became, in the words of historian Robert Kanigel, "the most famous laborer in the world."

Noll owed his fame to Frederick Taylor, a man equal parts genius and crackpot. Taylor created "Schmidt" as a case study in how his "scientific management" methods could result in higher wages, happier workers, and larger production. He told the tale of Schmidt countless times, most famously in marker The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), which appeared in a dozen languages around the world and is still in print today. Regrettably, Taylor's stories often played fast and loose with the facts; the "Schmidt" story is frankly insulting.

Born into a proper Philadelphia Quaker family with ample wealth, Taylor could have been "born retired." Instead he decided on a mechanical career and developed a hard-boiled attitude to labor while working at nearby markerMidvale Steel and William Cramp's Philadelphia shipyard. In 1898 markerBethlehem Steel hired him to install a bonus piece-rate system, in which the piece rate would go up when a worker's production when up, and vice versa. For the next three years, until he was fired in 1901 for stirring up "continual strife," Taylor made extensive studies of the company's machine shop practices, invented high-speed tool steel, and claimed to establish several new branches of science. As he later told a Congressional investigation, with an entirely straight face, "shoveling is a great science compared with pig-iron handling."

Men sitting on stack of Pig Iron, ca. 1885.
Men sitting on stack of pig iron, Jones & Laughlin South Side Works, Pittsburgh,...
Henry Noll entered Taylor's world of time management - and work speed up - when the ambitious management expert was on a quest to discover the "laws" that governed how much heavy work a man could do. At the time, most foremen drove their laborers as hard as they could. By contrast, laborers often worked as slow as they might, hoping to prolong a job or just have an easier time of it.

When Bethlehem ordered its yard cleared of 80,000 tons of stockpiled pig iron, Taylor saw the chance to scientifically study the matter: how many tons could a "first class" laborer load into a waiting railroad car? Each "pig" was a ninety-two pound slab of iron, four inches square and thirty-two inches in length. At the time the yard boss considered a good day's work to be loading twelve or thirteen tons, or about 300 of the heavy pigs. For this day, a laborer was paid $1.15.

Noll was an unusual laborer in several respects. He was so energetic that he trotted to work in the morning. Later, even after heaving iron all day, he trotted home in the evening. He could read and write, and served on the local volunteer fire department. Saving his money, he had bought a small plot of land and, in his spare moments, was building his own house. Noll was also unusual in that he was one of just a few laborers in a gang of seventy-five able to survive Taylor's grueling day-long regimen for handing pig iron. While other laborers struggled to load twenty or thirty tons a day, Noll somehow managed forty-five tons. For a day's work carrying almost four times the customary standard, he was paid the handsome sum of $1.70.

Image of crowded housing in Bethlehem.
Steel worker housing in South Bethlehem, PA, circa 1935.
The rub was that Taylor's scientific methods left much to be desired. Taylor had "scientifically" set the forty-five ton benchmark by timing a crack squad that worked flat out one cool morning for fourteen minutes to load a single railroad car. From this extraordinary performance, Taylor computed their daylong pace to be seventy-five tons per person. Arbitrarily, he then reduced the daylong figure by a magical and unexplained 40 percent, for "rests and necessary delays." This calculated figure of forty-five tons per day, then, became the scientific standard for "first class" pig-iron handlers. Of which there were not many, besides Henry Noll. Most others, as an assistant wrote, "break down after two or three days." As is plain, there was no science behind Taylor's "scientific" standard.

In writing up the story of "Schmidt" - the name he gave to Noll -Taylor played on the worst stereotypes of his class and his age. Instead of the hard-working, energetic Henry Noll, the "Schmidt" in Taylor's account is "so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any other type." (Principles: 59) Taylor contrived a dialogue, complete with phony German accent -and rounded-up pay rate (Principles: 45):

"If you are a high-priced man, you will load that pig iron on that car tomorrow for $1.85. Now do wake up and answer my question. Tell me whether you are a high-priced man or not."

"Vell - did I got $1.85 for loading dot pig iron on dot car tomorrow?"

"Yes, of course you do, and you get $1.85 for loading a pile like that every day right through the year. That is what a high-priced man does. . . ."

"Vell, dot's all right. I could load dot pig iron on the car tomorrow for $1.85, and I get it every day, don't I?"

"Certainly you do - certainly you do."

"Vell, den, I vas a high-priced man."

"Now hold on, hold on. You know just as well as I do that a high-priced man has to do exactly as he's told from morning till night."

(It may not be coincidental that as a young man Taylor performed "a broken-English speaking German doctor" in amateur theatricals.)

The fictitious "Schmidt" became famous, but what of the real Henry Noll? According to Bethlehem town directories he lived in the workers' district south of the steelworks, first at Church Alley and then at 814 Laufer, and later in the house he built on Martin's Lane across the river. (Town lore has it that his house survived until 1960.)

In the early 1910s, when Taylor became a national figure, his many critics were sure that Noll had died from overwork. But Taylor, convinced "he was a tough little customer," thought otherwise. An associate looked him up, found Noll working as a teamster, and located a pliant doctor who pronounced him healthy. For this service, Taylor mailed a check in the amount of $50. Viewed one way, this was cheap insurance against critics. Viewed another way, it was a mountain of money: the equivalent of 1,323 tons of pig iron.
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