Steel: The Diary of a Furnace Worker

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The Diary of a Furnace Worker

The Diary of a
Furnace Worker






Copyright, 1922, by




In the summer of 1919, a few weeks before the Great Steel Strike, I bought some second-hand clothes and went to work on an open-hearth furnace near Pittsburgh to learn the steel business. I was a graduate of Yale, and a few weeks before had resigned a commission as first-lieutenant in the regular army. Clean-up man in the pit was my first job, which I held until I passed to third-helper on the open-hearth. Later I worked in the cast-house, became a member of the stove-gang, and at length achieved the semi-skilled job of hot-blast man on the blast-furnace. I acquired the current Anglo-Hunky language and knew speedily the grind and the camaraderie of American steel-making. In these chapters I have put down what I saw, felt, and thought as a steel-worker in 1919.

Steel is perhaps the basic industry of America. In a sense it is the industry that props our complex industrial civilization, since it supplies the steel frame, the steel rail, the steel tool without which locomotives and skyscrapers would be impossible. And in America it contains the largest known combination of management and capital, the United States Steel Corporation. Some appreciation of these things I had when I went to work in the steel business. It was clear that steel had become something of a barometer not only for American business but for American labor. I was keenly interested to know what would happen, and believed that basic industries like steel and coal were cast for leading rôles either in the breaking-up or the making-over of society.

The book is written from a diary of notes put down in the evenings when I was working on day shifts of ten hours. Alternate weeks, I worked the fourteen-hour night shift, and spent my time off eating or asleep.

The book is a narrative—heat, fatigue, rough-house, pay, as they came in an uncharted wave throughout the twenty-four hours.

But it is in a sense raw material, I believe, that suggests the beginnings of several studies both human and economic. Mr. Walter Lippmann has recently pointed out that men do not act in accordance with the facts and forces of the world as it is, but in accordance with the “picture” of it they have in their heads.[1] Nowhere does the form and pressure of the real world differ more sharply from the picture in men’s heads than among different social and racial groups in industry. Nor is anywhere the accuracy of the picture of more importance. An open-hearth furnace helper, working the twelve-hour day, and a Boston broker, owning fifty shares of Steel Preferred, hold, as a rule, strikingly different pictures of the same forces and conditions. But what is of greater importance is that director, manager, foreman, by reason of training, interest, or tradition, are often quite as unable to guess at the picture in the worker’s head, and hence to understand his actions, as the more distant stockholder.

Perhaps a technique may some day arise which will supply the executives of industry not only with the facts about employees in their varied racial and social groups but supply the facts with due emphasis and in three dimensions so that the controller of power may be able to see them as descriptive of men of like mind with himself. The conclusion most burned into my consciousness was the lack of such knowledge or understanding in the steel industry and the imperative need of securing it, in order to escape continual industrial war, and perhaps disaster.

There are certain inferences, I think, like the above, that can be made from this record. But no thesis has been introduced and no argument developed. I have recorded the impressions of a complex environment, putting into words sight, sound, feeling, and thought. The book may be read as a story of men and machines and a personal adventure among them no less than as a study of conditions and a system.

C. R. W.


[1] Public Opinion: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922.


I  Camp Eustis
    Bouton, Pennsylvania
II  Molten Steel in the “Pit”
    An Initiation
III  The Open-Hearth Furnace
IV  Everyday Life45
V  Working the Twenty-Four-Hour Shift  62
VI  Blast-Furnace Apprenticeship81
VII  Dust, Heat, and Comradeship96
VIII  I Take a Day Off114
IX  “No Can Live”127



A small torrent of khaki swept on to the ferryboat that was taking troops to the special train for Camp Merritt. They stood all over her deck, in uncomfortably small areas; there seemed to be no room for the pack, which perhaps you were expected to swallow. Faces were a little pale from seasickness, but carried a uniformly radiant expression, which proceeded from a lively anticipation of civilian happiness. The conversation was ejaculatory, and included slapping and digging and squeezing your neighbor. Men were saying over and over again: “This is about the last li’l war they’ll ketch me for.”

I succeeded in getting beside the civilian pilot.

“What’s happening in America?” I asked.

“Oh,” he said, “it’s a mess over here. There ain’t any jobs, and labor is raisin’ hell. Everybody that hez a job strikes.” He looked out over the water at a tug hurrying past. “I don’t know what we’re comin’ out at. Russia, mebbe.”

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