We like to think of our city as one of America’s most livable places. It’s clean, it’s safe, and it offers stunning views of itself. The pictures we’re posting today show Pittsburgh and the region when they were something else entirely. They depict a place that, for many, embodied everything that was wrong with modern industrial society.
The pictures were made by Lewis Hine, who came here in 1907 as part of the Pittsburgh Survey, a massive sociological study of life in a prototypical industrial city. We found these four large Hine prints in a file labeled “Photography.” Years ago the prints were folded so they would fit into an envelope. They bear the scars of this treatment.
Still, the prints speak eloquently of a time when life in industrial towns and cities was difficult and dangerous. Steel workers labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with one day off every two weeks. At work, they could be killed or maimed in countless ways. In the Homestead mill, there were no old workers.
Wives of these men raised families in squalid dwellings described in the survey as “unsightly and unsanitary.” The overcrowded wards nearest the mills stunk of industry and outdoor privies. Nearly 40 percent of deaths in Homestead resulted from diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, cholera and “convulsions.”
McClure’s Magazine in 1894 described Homestead this way: “Everywhere the yellow mud of the street lay kneaded into a sticky mass, through which groups of pale, lean men slouched in faded garments, grimy with the soot and grease of the mills.”
Hine created photographs that at once documented dehumanizing conditions and preserved his subject’s dignity. Of the four prints we found in our files, two were produced as part of the Pittsburgh Survey. One shows Russian steel workers in Homestead; another depicts women employed in a Pittsburgh cigar factory. An artfully executed photograph of a powerhouse mechanic was made in 1920. The exact site of this picture is unknown, though Hine was working in Pennsylvania at the time, and it’s a scene that could have been found in any large Pittsburgh industrial facility.
Perhaps most moving is the photograph of boys employed at a South Pittston coal mine in 1911. Of the approximately 50 boys in the frame, only three can be described as smiling.