Quotable Pennsylvania: Work, Labor, Industry

Grease plant workers, Pittsburgh, 1944. University of Louisville.

In his memoirs, Terrence Powderly wrote this about growing up in Pennsylvania: “Child labor laws were not on the statutes when I was growing up, and if they had been my mother would have repealed them so far as I was concerned. She made me work the first day I was able to do anything, kept me going when there was anything to be done, made no allowances for overtime, and if I didn’t do it right the first time she had a most persuasive and convincing way of causing me not to forget next time.”

Powderly, a Carbondale native, was linked to every other Pennsylvanian man, woman, and child who has ever lived from time immemorial to the present day: he worked.

“Spinning room – Winding bobbins with woolen yarn for weaving, Philadelphia,” c. 1910. Library Company of Philadelphia.

Work isn’t always glamourous, its hard and dangerous and often unseen. But work, labor, and industry are essential parts of understanding any place’s history. That’s definitely the case in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania workers also have played an important part in American history- they’ve been at the heart of fights to organize and reform labor. Powderly, a union leader and president of the Knights of the Labor, was one of many important figures in the labor movement who called Pennsylvania home or traveled there often. Its also been home to powerful corporations and the birthplace of many important industries that shaped history.

If you’d like to go beyond these quotes and learn more about the history of work, labor, and industry in Pennsylvania, check out these resources from the Pennsylvania Labor History Society, Penn State University, and ExplorePAHistory.

Recommended listening: “Allentown” by Billy Joel and “U.S. Steel” by the Tom Russell Band.

“Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Lillie Smith, working as a car washer in a garage, earns fifty-five cents per hour. She formerly did housework but likes this much better,” 1943. Library of Congress.

“In the lumber woods of Pennsylvania an eleven hour day was the rule. Beginning at six o’clock in the morning, the men [worked until they] were called for dinner at half past eleven. Some jobbers gave their men an hours noon; others would call at the lobby door “all right boys” before half the men were thu’ eating. Some jobbers made the men walk both ways on their own time. If men were plentiful it was not uncommon for men to walk a mile from camp and have a tree down when the six o’clock whistle blew. In bark peeling men were called at five o’clock or a quarter hour earlier. Breakfast was fifteen minutes after the men were awakened.”

-Hiram M. Cranmer, c. 1947
Manuscript transcribed in “Harvesting the Hemlock: The Reminiscences of a Pennsylvania Wood-Hick” (edited by Thomas Cox) and published in Pennsylvania History, April 1984 issue, Page 122

Migrant laborer picking peaches, Gettysburg, 1962. Pennsylvania State Archives RG11.

“At the time at which I am writing there is every prospect that the [Homestead] strike will be completely put down, and this the State of Pennsylvania will have rendered a great service to the whole country, employers and employed, capitalists and laborers.”

-George Curtis, 1892
Opinion of the Hon. George Ticknor Curtis, on the legality of the employment of detectives in the Homestead Strike, page 105

Pittsburgh postal worker, c. 1950. Charles “Teenie” Harris Archives.

“The four prize housekeepers I knew were daughters of Pennsylvania farmers. They had learned as country girls how to work, how to provide, and how to economize, and how at the same time to create a real home atmosphere. Girls, on the other hand, who had worked in factories or had been clerks, lacked the practical training necessary to help them solve the problems awaiting the young wife of a wage-earner.:”

-Margaret Byington, 1910
“Homestead: The Households of a Milltown,” 79.

Hill District [Pittsburgh] demolition worker, 1951. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

“According to a quiet survey…in every section of Pennsylvania, sweatshops are not confined to the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia. And many of the case histories…tell a story of lost youth and saddened childhood.”

-Paul Comly French, 1933
“Children on Strike,” The Nation, May 31, 1933

Westmoreland Homestead kitchen, 1936. Library of Congress.

“I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia’s mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children. That their little lives went out to make wealth for others. That neither state or city officials paid any attention to these wrongs. That they did not care that these children were to be the future citizens of the nation…I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, ‘Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit.’ The officials quickly closed the windows, as they had closed their eyes and hearts.”

-Mary Harris Jones (Mother Jones), 1903
“The Autobiography of Mother Jones,” Chapter 10: The March of the Mill Children

Interior of House of Industry [Philadelphia] with women at work, 1888. Library Company of Philadelphia.

“The motion picture industry came to regard Pennsylvania as the blackest of the states in the Union having censorship boards.”

-Ellis Oberholtzer, c. 1939
Quoted in Maurice Tauber, “A Study of Motion Picture Censorship in Pennsylvania,” 36-37

“A view of the Pennsylvania Breaker. The dust was so dense at times as to obscure the view. This dust penetrates the utmost recess of the boy’s lungs. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania,” 1911. Library of Congress.

“Those cranky breaker bosses,
How we longed to punch their heads,
Or send them where Bob Ingersoll belongs;
For though they sat at ease,
We found them hard to please,
And nothing ever righted all the wrongs.”

-A.W. Barratt, 1897 [about the experiences of Pennsylvania breaker boys and their bosses]
Published in Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, republished in Wynning History

“The country people were ploughing and harrowing their fields; and I may here observe, that, in all Pennsylvania, they never employ oxen in these operations, but horses only, of which they have great numbers.”

“All the beef in this country is of a bad quality, because as I have said, no forage is cultivated. In Pennsylvania it is quite the reverse; there a great deal of clover is grown, and the beef is, consequently, good.”

-Prince Alexander Philipp Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied, 1834
“Maximilian Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, during the years 1832–1834,” page 133, 185.

PA Department of Highways workers, 1933. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 12.

“Old Pennsylvania: her sons like her soil- a rough outside, but plenty of solid stuff within: plenty of Coal to warm her friends- plenty of iron to cool her enemies.”

-Nicholas Biddle, 1840

Quoted in W. Ross Yates, “Discovery of the Process for Making Anthracite Iron,” 220.

Picket line at the King Farm strike. Near Morrisville, Pennsylvania, 1938. Library of Congress.

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