Friday, November 2, 2012

The Battle of Homestead--As seen on TV!

 "All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice ... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."--Karl Marx


Hey, history buffs, swagger around like robber barons for three days. Enter the History Channel's giveaway for a chance to live it up in historic Las Vegas, the town built by more recent Men Who Built America, the Mafia.

On October 23rd, I belatedly tuned in to the History Channel's series on "The Men Who Built America: Bloody Battles," the episode about Andrew Carnegie, but only got to see the last 20 minutes.  On November 12th, I watched the whole two-hour passel of nonsense thrown together by some Hollywood screenwriter apparently on crack.

This episode is far, far worse than I had originally thought.  There are so many inaccuracies and outrages against Clio, the Muse of History, that I'll start with a just a few of them here:
1) The narrator, Campbell Scott, consistently mispronounces Carnegie's name as CAR-neg-ie, rather than Car-NEG-ie.  It's all the more glaring because he's the only one who does.
2) The actors who play Carnegie and Frick bear little resemblance to them. "Carnegie" is too tall and dark; "Frick" is too ugly--although I think this casting is intentional to make him look evil. H.C. himself would roll over in his grave if he could see how this terrible ham actor played him.
3) The interviews are mostly with modern-day robber barons, Donald Trump, for example.  For pity's sake!
4) Frick and Carnegie plan their skulduggery while walking around among workers in the mill.  One shot shows Frick personally delivering his ultimatum to a few workers.  Another shows him walking along in the mill, pushing workers aside with his shoulders.  So absurd!

The pre-battle background, according to the HC:

The narrator tells us that a small group of men were upset at being made to work longer hours, and eventually "reached the breaking point."  One guy is shown haranguing a couple of dozen workers about standing up to Frick.  Then we're told that when one worker was killed in the mill (image of guy covered in black makeup lying down, groaning), the men were spurred to strike.  The impression is that only one man had ever been killed, even though it happened frequently.

Now to the battle:

The battle starts when workers barricade themselves inside the mill.  We're told by a historian that the workers felt they owned the mill and were protecting their property.  Au contraire, Mr. Alleged Historian.  The workers were angry about low wages and long hours.  They had no desire to take over management of the company.  This is the mistake the anarchists, like Berkman, made.  They thought it would be easy to get the workers to unite and take over the company, when in fact the workers only wanted food on the table and housing for their families.

The images on the screen show men in black suits, wearing hats similar to officers' hats in the Civil War, approaching on foot the men standing behind the barricade.  Threats are exchanged (amazingly, in the words recorded in eyewitness accounts) and the MIB start shooting rifles at workers in clean, pressed shirts and pants.  Inside the derelict mill, the men in black are quite close to the other men, who, cowering behind pieces of metal, fight back with clubs and rocks. The MIB mow them down like flies. 

The first time I saw this, I was very confused.  Could this possibly be a dramatization of the Homestead Strike of 1892? To my amazement, it was.

Next they show a young MIB (aka Pinkerton), horrified at the slaughter, refusing to shoot at the strikers. An officer holds a gun to his head, and he aims and fires, dropping one of the strikers.  The "battle" continues.  The strikers throw rocks, but are no match for the rifle-toting MIB. One worker tries to help a wounded comrade, but is shot dead by the MIB.

And that's it.

WTF!?

The narrator goes on to say that the strikers eventually won the battle, but were crushed when the Pennsylvania Militia arrived.  He notes that nine strikers were killed, but says nothing about Pinkerton casualties.

This famous engraving from "Harper's Weekly" shows the defeated Pinkertons preparing to run the gauntlet. By then, they had been disarmed (not as shown). But the picture well illustrates the size and scope of the battle scene.

Here are some of the many, many inaccuracies:

*The Pinkertons were in barges on the river; the strikers were shooting at them from the high bank.  The Pinkertons were a good distance away from the strikers, many of whom had rifles.  In fact, it was the Pinkertons who were short of rifles.
*Even though the Pinkertons had the upper hand during the first hour of the battle, the strikers took control, shooting the barges full of holes and blowing off the cover of one.
*The Pinkertons officers were wearing their signature blue military uniforms.  Headgear as shown in contemporary illustration ranged from caps to bowlers.  On the sweltering barges,the Pinkertons fought in shirtsleeves. Many of the strikers, rousted from their beds in the middle of night, were disheveled, clad in nightshirts or anything they could grab at the time.
*Many of the actors playing the workers are overweight and out of shape.  They wouldn't have lasted a half hour in the mill.

But wait, that's not all.  As I sat there with my mouth open watching this travesty, the camera turns to a dramatization of Berkman's assassination attempt on Frick.  The scene is a dark room that looks like the study in a house.  Berkman walks down an empty hallway, comes into the room, asks, "Mr.Frick?" (Berkman isn't sure this is Frick. Really?) in an American accent, and shoots him once.  Frick, who is alone, immediately springs on Berkman, who stabs him in the gut.  Frick throttles Berkman, then beats him to a bloody pulp. The fight ends in the hallway, with Frick standing triumphantly over Berkman, who lies, battered and submissive, on the floor.  Several people run down the hallway to see what has happened. 

 This scene is just as ridiculous as the battle scene:
*Frick was working in his downtown office, not in a mansion.  His office was inside a larger office area where several people worked.
*Berkman, after waiting in the outer office for most of the day, burst in and shot at Frick (who was talking to an assistant) four times, hitting him once.  The assistant and another worker joined Frick in his struggle with Berkman, who pulled out a knife and stabbed Frick in the leg. The other men and Frick managed to subdue Berkman, but Frick definitely was the one who was the worse for the encounter.
*Berkman was from Russia and spoke English with a thick Russian accent.
This contemporary drawing shows Berkman bursting into the office as Frick is talking to his assistant

The History Channel obviously sympathizes with the strikers--too much so, as they take every opportunity to demonize Frick.

Is the History Channel's budget too small to afford a cast of thousands, literally, to reenact the battle?  I suspect that some digital wizards could easily and cheaply replicate the scene via computer.  A few still shots would certainly be preferable to the fantasies they showed. 

In 2006 PBS also dramatized the battle in their series, "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America." Frankly, this version is even more ridiculous than the "Bloody Battles" version.  The scene shows a dozen men paddling a big canoe.  They beach it, as a dozen more men run at them over the flat shore of what looks like a lake.  OK, I exaggerate--about the canoe.  Nevertheless, I'm willing to cut PBS some slack for this low-budget silliness because this series sticks to the facts and doesn't try to snooker us with overblown rubbish. 

In the case of "Bloody Battles", I'd say that Marx's quote about historical events being experienced as tragedy and reproduced as farce applies. This episode calls into question all the other episodes they've produced.  How can we trust them to stick to the facts?  
"History is more or less bunk."
Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916

I'm not the only one who is worked up about the lack of facts in this series.  Tom Conroy of "Medialife" magazine titled his review 'The Men Who Made America. . .sort of:  History series plays fast and loose in these dumb-down sketches.'

History is, after all, the record of the past, not the past itself.  If the History Channel can't do better than this in checking the recorded facts, the channel should be renamed.  
I suggest borrowing from Henry Ford's famous declaration and call it The More Or Less Bunk  Channel--or simply The Bunk Channel. At  least we'd be forewarned.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

In the North Woods


        I am writing this at our cabin near the North Shore of Lake Superior, not far from the Canadian border.  Even though our cabin is fewer than four miles outside of the villiage of Grand Marais, Minnesota (pop. 1200) at the bottom of the glacial escarpment, it seems out in the woods.  Yes, neighboring houses are only a short walk away.  But when you're sitting on the porch, you can't see them, only woods and meadow.  This is a place that's about as far as you can get from 1890's industrial Pittsburgh.
The front porch of the cabin in December.

      This morning I took my border collie Viggo for a walk to "his" field, where he can blow off steam and destroy some sticks.  As we walked down the narrow driveway by the woods, I heard little crunching noises.  At first I thought it might be an animal hidden in the trees.  However, upon closer inspection, I realized that it was the sound of frosted leaves falling from shrub trees.  It's the kind of sound you'd never hear in the city, especially in Homestead when the mill was running.
Viggo puzzles over the noises in the trees.


      Up here, the smallest sounds seem amplified.  Last night when Viggo went out at 11 p.m., I heard something crunching around in the woods.  My concern was that it could be the bear that sometimes comes through on nocturnal ramblings.  Then I heard three weird, high-pitched cries come from up the hill.  The neighbors in that direction have chickens, dogs, and horses, but it sounded like none of these.  I suspect it might have been a great horned owl, an impression supported by my finding the head and wings of a ruffed grouse in Viggo's field.  Whatever it was, it made a spooky sound.  Viggo heard it too and hastily completed his bedtime oblations.

      The spookiest sound I've heard here has been the song of a wolf pack in the distance.  This has happened several times during the night this spring and summer, although not during this visit.  The seemingly mournful howling sends both thrills and shivers down my spine.  So primeval!  I've seen two of these creatures on trips to the North Shore.  In both cases, I saw them in the distance as I was driving.  At first, they looked like big German shepherds, but as I got closer, I realized that they were not dogs, but wolves.  The first one was large and black, a magnificent animal. (I can understand why people fear wolves, but not why some want to wipe them from the face of the Earth by any possible means. But that's another story.)
What big eyes you have!  The better to see you with. What big teeth you have! The better to, er, grin at you.. . .

Since the arrival of the Europeans, the ways of making a living here in the North Country have usually involved lots of work for minimal return.  First came the trappers in the 1700s.  After collecting animal skins (mostly beaver pelts to be made into hats) all summer, the trappers would rendezvous at Grand Portage, near what's now the Canadian border.  They would be paid for the skins, which would then be shipped via voyageur canoe to points east, then by ship to Europe.
My German cousin Hanne and I dressed as voyageurs at the Grand Portage lodge.
     In the mid-1800s the economy shifted to fishing.  Many Scandinavian immigrants took up the livelihood they had in the old country, establishing tiny villages like Hovland.  They'd stay in these harbor towns during the summer, going out daily into Lake Superior to catch herring, lake trout, and whitefish.  When the lake froze over, they moved into larger towns, where their children could be schooled.
Hovland today, with fishing cabins (one derelict) on the big lake.

      Then,  in the 1880s came the loggers, who clear-cut the virgin forests of northern Minnesota to build the towns and cities further south.  About the same time, iron ore mining on the Mesabi Range began.  The harbor towns on Lake Superior were the outlets for these commodities to be transported to the big Great Lakes ports.
       The land on which our cabin is built was a dairy farm in the early 1900s.  Huge piles of glacial boulders testify to the backbreaking work involved in clearing the fields for grazing land.  They, too, clear-cut the land, but since then, parches of woodland have sprung up between the houses and cabins.
By the late 1800s, Minnesota’s lumber industry was cutting 2.3 billion board feet of white pine per year. In 1911 the state began regulating the industry--after most of the virgin forests were gone.

      Trapping, logging, mining, fishing, subsitence farming: all very dangerous jobs, like steelmaking.  The difference is that the former all have something to do with using, or in some cases, abusing the land and water.  Working in a mill takes the steelworker completely out of the natural world.  The noises, the heat, the odors inside the gigantic mill buildings are nothing like those of the North Woods.
The completely fabricated environment of the open hearth furnace.

     As a child, I did not understand why my grandfather George Busch, the retired master machinist, spent so much time tending the flowers in the backyard and the vegetables in a vacant corner lot.  I do now.  Gardening is an activity that demands direct interaction with the soil and plant life.  Planting, tending, and harvesting get the gardener in touch with the change of seasons and cycles of nature, a pleasure that industrial work does not allow.
Grandpa Busch with prized azalea.
     On the North Shore today the economy is largely based on tourism.  Many people, long in city pent, feel the need to come to a place free of an all-encompassing human-made environment.  Yesterday, the North Shore was swarming with folks coming to look at the fall foliage.  Vehicles with license plate from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowas, and Ontario lined the streets and filled the roads around town.
        Ironically, in large part it was my parents' and grandparents' income, direct and indirect, from the Homestead Works, that allowed my family to build this getaway in the North Woods.  My mother would recognize many furnishings from her house in Munhall, but she and her mother were very urban persons.  I think they'd prefer to stay in town.  My father and his mother would enjoy seeing or hearing the many animals that live here: chipmunks, squirrels, grouse, songbirds, raptors, ravens, deer, foxes, bears, wolves.

       But the ones who would really love it here are my grandfathers.  Neither of them were outdoorsmen, but both spent their retirement years working the land.  On the day I was born, my grandfather Katilius bought a 100-acre farm in Butler Country, escaping smoky Homestead to return to his family's occupation in the old country, farming.
       I can see Grandpa Busch in the rocker by the table where I'm writing, looking out on the hillside of evergreens, smiling contentedly  Standing between us is Grandpa Katilius fiddling a Lithuanian dance tune, thinking of his homeland that looks so much like northern Minnesota.
Northern Minnesota or Lithuania?

I tap my foot in time to the music, grateful for the legacy they've bequeathed. . .and happy for the chance to enjoy the North Woods that they never got to experience.
Aurora borealis with scrub spruce, Cook County, Minnesota

"I've stood in some mighty-mouthed hollow That's plumb-full of hush to the brim; I've watched the big, husky sun wallow In crimson and gold, and grow dim, Till the moon set the pearly peaks gleaming, And the stars tumbled out, neck and crop, And I've thought that I surely was dreaming, With the peace o' the world piled on top."  Robert Service, "The Spell of the Yukon"


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Victorian Living in the 21st Century

"I just wish it wasn't so. . .Victorian. There's something cold and. . .ungiving about Victorian houses.  Everything's bigger than it needs to be.  Too many passages."

     This is the complaint of Amber, a character in Phil Rickman's novel, The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, about her newly-acquired home on the Welsh Border.  My father complained about "dust, darkness, and depression" in the Victorian homes he remembered from his childhood. These are valid comments about many Victorian houses on both sides of the Atlantic. However, it is also a stereotype built on impressions of 19th-century house museums and the grand houses of the well-to-do that have survived the ravages of redevelopment. 
     Most Victorian houses were of modest size, like the workers' cottages described in Darkness Visible. My great-grandparents Busch and their eleven children lived in such a house, three-down, three-up.  They had to be packed like sardines in the bedrooms, and meals likely were served in shifts.  If I hadn't seen this photo of the two-story house myself, I would not believe that thirteen people could live there in conditions not approaching those described in Gorky's The Lower Depths.
My great-grandmother with family in front of her Pittsburgh house, c. 1910. By the time we revisited the house in 1970s, the house on the left had disappeared.  Too big to maintain and heat?


      I was struck by the comment by the character Amber, because it's a negative one.  Anyone who lives in a 19th century house (as I do) can testify to the high heating bills and constant repairs they require.  I laughed myself silly watching The Money Pit--exaggerated, yes, but not that much. Last month the working parts of the antique toilet in the upstairs bathroom had finally broken down for good.  To repair the toilet's innards would cost almost as much as a new one, so I chose the latter.  The plumber had a picnic (metaphorically) fitting the new toilet onto the old plumbing, a job that took twice as long as the estimated time.  To entertain him, I regaled him with plumbing stories from the Good Olde Days of the 1970s, when we first moved in.  (For example, the day the soil stack in the kitchen's west wall burst and froze solid from basement to bathroom, and the wall had to be opened to allow the melting of the frozen Niagara of sewage contained therein.) I don't know if he was comforted by these stories.  I do know he seemed anxious to get the hell out of this house.
      So why do we Victorian house owners put up with these drafty old barns?  Well, for one, the best ones are not just big houses, but Romantic interpretations of earlier architectural styles. Probably the style that most people think of as Victorian is the Queen Anne, so named for its evocation of the architectural style of the early 18th century in England.
Bluecoat Chambers, Liverpool, England (1717) built in the original Queen Anne style.

In the United States, the so-called Queen Anne style appeared in the 1870s.  Some of the earlier row houses show characteristics of the British versions, but by the time the style made it to the Midwest and West in freestanding houses, the balance and symmetricality had completely vanished. Instead, the American Queen Anne was asymmetrical (domes, towers, porches, balconies), with texture and ornament: turnings, fretwork, shingles, dentils.
1890's Queen Anne row houses in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., urban versions of the style.
The Melvin and Ida Forbes Residence, Duluth, MN. Built in 1886, this fanciful Queen Anne was cut up into apartments before it was wrecked in 1966. It is what represents "Victorian house" to many Americans.
     My house is a vernacular Queen Anne, albeit a quirky, restrained version of the style.  I was initially attracted to it because of its evocation of Victorian.  Lord knows it wasn't because of its appearance: two layers of siding, all ornament removed, all woodwork painted.  In short, a drafty, dusty mess with 30 years of deferred maintenance.  I liked what Amber called "passages", that is, the twisting staircase, narrow upper hallway and stairway to the third floor.  I don't think Amber would think it "big", even though it has four levels. Its 13 rooms are all rather small.  Placing furniture is a challenge because of the numerous doorways and windows. 
The dining room, one of two rooms today with painted woodwork.  The cabinet at right used to open into the kitchen, so that dishes could be washed, put away, and set out without having to be carried around.
The acquisition of the piano precipitated a crisis in furniture placement.  The solution is less than ideal, with the piano against the south wall, cramped against the sofa.  The other choice would be to place one or the other in the middle of the floor--also not so good.
           I must confess that I, like Amber, would not be comfortable living in a very large Victorian house.  During a visit to England, I stayed at a B&B that was a house built the same year as mine: 1885.  The house, near the Uffington White Horse, was three times the size of mine, made of brick and completely solid.  I was amazed that the doors all still hung on plumb, closing with a small, satisfying "thunk."  But the former dining room where I spent the night was unsettling:  a huge (20 X 24) room with paneling halfway up the walls, and massive built-in cabinets and buffet.  A single bed with a night stand was set against the wall opposite the main door.  The room had no other furnishings, and to turn out the light, I had to walk the width of the room.  Not cozy--in fact, downright spooky (even though no ghosts appeared).
     With all the expenses, inconveniences, irritations, and work involved in Victorian house ownership, it may seem crazy that anyone wants to live in these old, somewhat alien structures.  For me, the mystery and strangeness is a large part of the attraction.  These houses were embellished  with all manner of fancy ornament, the more, the better.  They did not stay in style very long, less than two decades.  In 1893 the Chicago World's Fair introduced a new style of architecture, inspired by Colonial and Neoclassical building styles.  By 1900 the first owners of the multicolored, weird Queen Annes had abandoned them for white (or brick) classically proportioned houses.  
       Sometimes when I come home at night and see my house with its steep roof, with two chimneys and seven gables in dark silhouette, I wonder if passersby think it intimidating.  Would they hesitate to go inside the house without turning on all the lights?  If I didn't know the house, I might feel that way, and that's why I love the sagging, scarred old wooden structure.  It embodies the romance, mystery, and strangeness of the late 19th century--yet at the same time it's a functional modern residence.  What could be better in a home for a student of history and aficionado of  the Nineteenth Century?
This photo, taken at dawn after a heavy April snowfall,suggests something of the weird inscrutability of Victorian houses.  It is the exact opposite of the contemporary house made of glass and steel, where everything is open to the street.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

That Sinking Feeling: Victorian Kitchens

When my family moved into an 1885 urban Queen Anne house in 1976, probably the most depressing rooms were the kitchen and its adjoining summer kitchen.  The original cabinets and wainscoting were intact, but painted.  A rusting Homart sink had replaced the original sink; a 1950s electric range and refrigerator were modern additions.  The 10-foot ceiling had been lowered, covered with waterstained sheet-rock.

Shortly after we moved in, we were sitting in the kitchen with a couple of friends, bemoaning the deplorable state of the room.  After about 20 minutes of discussion, we all agreed that it was time to take action.  Fetching hammers, sledgehammer, and crowbar from the cellar, we went at the false ceiling, bringing most of it down that evening.

In the decades that passed since that night, the kitchen has been updated with a gas range, refrigerator, fruitwood sink cabinet, and tile floor.  However, the original heart pine cabinets and wainscoting have stayed--stripped of paint, coated with shellac.  The original ceiling was repaired and repainted.  This is not the usual scenario for rehabbing an old kitchen.  I know that from experience.  The first thing most new owners--especially ones with lots of money-- do when they acquire a Victorian house is to gut the kitchen and replace it with a contemporary one.
My 1885 kitchen as it appears today.  The appliances, table, and sink cabinets are modern, but the room layout is similar to what it was in 1885.  Note the cabinet (left) built into the chimney that accommodated the cook stove.
I have no objection to this practice, although it's not what I have chosen. What does get my blood boiling are decorators who advertise that they'll design a "Victorian kitchen" for you.  Case in point--a blog I found about such a redesign:
According the blogger, Helen Creen, this is a true "Victorian" kitchen. Yikes, Helen! You apparently have never actually looked an unaltered 19th-century kitchen.  For one, they never, ever, would have hung crystal chandeliers there.  For two and three, there would have been a free-standing table, with simple chairs.  The kitchen was a work area, where housewives or servants labored away, a room often infested with bugs and other vermin.  In Britain, it was the place where lower-order servants slept. 

In doing research for Darkness Visible, I found that, as in my house, the standard urban 1890's kitchen was fitted out with a sink, cook stove, large table, chairs, and shelves and racks for pots, pans, mixing bowls, cooking implements and utensils. To make cleaning easier, the wooden floor was covered with a linoleum "rug".  Food was stored in a separate adjacent area, the pantry.  The ice box would be in the kitchen, or perhaps, in larger homes, built into the back wall so it could be filled from the outside.
A typical freestanding ice box, the only kind of refrigeration available in Victorian kitchens.  When I was a kid, people frequently called refrigerators "ice boxes," a reminder of the days when the iceman cometh.
 
The cook stove in the 1890's Woodruff House kitchen in New Jersey.  It took lots of experience and skill to cook and bake on one of these stoves.  No timer and thermostat, no piped-in fuel, no instant flame adjustment. The dishwasher was a woman, not a machine.
Working- and lower-middle-class women would have spent much of their day in the kitchen, cooking, baking, ironing, washing up, doing laundry. Affluent middle-class homes would have cooks and maids doing this work.

In the summer, cooking was often moved to a nearby or adjacent structure called a "summer kitchen."  This was a practice going back to colonial times, when during warm weather, the hot stuff was removed from the living quarters.  My house has a summer kitchen, common for 1880's houses in Minneapolis.  When we acquired the house, it was in its original state. Built onto the back of the house, it was uninsulated, with a limestone foundation and dirt crawl space. An outlet for the smaller summer cook stove exhaust pipe was cut into the chimney that served the kitchen proper. A two-landing staircase on the north wall led to a loft with a doorway to the second-floor hallway--the way the servants got from their quarters on the third floor to the kitchen, cellar, and barn.  In the northwest corner was a closet that had originally been a servants' privy. (You don't want the hired help using the indoor bathroom, do you?)  Doors were placed on the south and west walls, and the area had only three small windows.According to the woman whose parents owned the house from 1912 until 1942, the room had held bins and cabinets for food storage. Truth to be told, it was a dark, nasty place covered with a century of dust and grime that was impossible to remove completely.

The summer kitchen at the Mennonite museum in Manitoba.  The counter, glass wall, and coffee urn obviously are newer, but the photo gives a good idea what a summer kitchen looked like.

So, in 1996, the summer kitchen was transformed into what I call "the Outback", a room built under the original roof, with the same wall configuration.  The privy was replaced with a modern bathroom (with the old privy door), and the stairway was removed. (No need for servants to get down that way now.)

Workers' houses in 1890's Homestead, as far as I can tell, did not usually have summer kitchens.  They would have been more common in fancier houses on larger lots.

As the owner of a Victorian house, I understand why it's necessary to make alterations to old kitchens.  But please, don't say that your contemporary kitchen is "Victorian"--unless you want to use the word to emphasize the excessive, overwrought, and tasteless aspects of 19th-century decor found so frequently in these  pseudo-historic remuddlings.

Believe me, you would not want to eat and cook in a real, authentic Victorian kitchen.
A state-of-the-art 1890's kitchen sink in a Vermont museum house.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fashion Victims, 1890's Style

    With this terrible heat wave afflicting most of the nation, my thoughts have turned to what it was like for people to survive hot summer days in the 1890s.  There were no electric fans, no air-conditioning, no refrigeration.  On top of that, both men and women wore clothing that completely covered the body.  If someone were to walk down the streets of an American town in the 1890s wearing a modern tank top and shorts, s/he would promptly be arrested for indecent exposure.  Even women's bathing suits were actually dresses, often made of wool, with sleeves to the elbow and hemlines below the knee.  When wet, these suits weighed nearly 10 pounds.  The pull of gravity on the heavy garment could produce embarrassing exposure for Victorian swimmers.
This studio photo from the 1890s shows a couple in beachwear.  Note that the woman is wearing stockings.
        In researching period clothing for Darkness Visible, I turned to Ed Gleeman, costume designer extraordinaire for Bloomington Civic Theater.  He loaned me some books showing what men and women of various occupations and social levels wore in the 1890s.  I used the pictures in these books, plus images of  Victorian dresses from the Internet to describe the clothing of Sarah and Carrie and other characters.
      Ironically, the clothing of poor and working-class women was probably more comfortable in the heat than that of middle- and upper-class women.  The latter were required, for appearance's sake, to don various foundation garments, then finish them off with frocks fitted out with stays, buttons and hooks.  The fancier the occasion, the more elaborate--and probably more uncomfortable--the dress.
     Underneath their frocks, fashionable women of the time wore a number of foundation garments.  They did not use modern bras and underpants, but rather chemises and bloomers topped with corsets or cinch belts. Over these went petticoats, garter belts, and stockings.
An illustration of a corset from an 1890 catalog.
Needless to say, just getting dressed was an ordeal for these women, requiring the assistance of servants or family members.  As anyone who has read the description of Scarlett O'Hara's sartorial trials in Gone with the Wind knows, Victorians admired hourglass figures with diminutive "wasp waists".
     Cinching up the fashion victim to produce such an effect was often quite a chore, involving much pulling and straining on the corset strings. Once the lady had the corset on, she had to be careful not to eat or exert herself too much for fear of fainting. This crazy practice of midriff-squeezing frequently caused not only discomfort, but serious internal injury.
     Much has been made of the difficulties in undressing Victorian women for sexual liaisons.  Bodice-ripping, however, would have been for naught, as the man would have discovered much more fabric and hardware underneath.    
     In the 1880s bustles were all the rage, with short trains.  Around 1890 the bustle started to shrink, eventually disappearing by the turn of the century. The bustle was replaced by burgeoning sleeve sizes. By 1895 the huge leg-o-mutton sleeve had become standard on bodices, even for daily wear.  These puffy, gigantic upper sleeves stayed in vogue into the 20th century.
Images of 1890 evening attire: A black silk and pink velvet jet-beaded bodice and skirt sold on Ebay in May for $150. The back of the dress isn't shown, but it is likely that there is no bustle. 
     If you were a woman in the highest circles of society, you could wear ball gowns that exposed much of your arms.  But then, you would have to cover up much of them with dress gloves.  The middle-class characters in Darkness Visible would have worn more discreet dresses to dinner parties, ones with long sleeves.
Photo of an evening dress by Herbert Luey, c. 1890. Note the high neck and long sleeves--and the sumptuous fabric and elegant detailing.  This designer dress would have been owned by a wealthy society lady.
     A quick glance at the photos of actual dresses from this period is ample proof that women then did not dress for comfort.  During warm weather, the misery involved in wearing all these layers of clothing--very tight clothing--undoubtedly increased.  No wonder ladies carried around hand-fans in the summertime.
     It wasn't until the Roaring 'Twenties that women were liberated from constrictive garments.  We can thank the Flapper, with her short bob, raised hemline, and natural waistline, for setting the fashion trends of the 20th century.  It should come as no surprise that the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that gave women the vote, was ratified in 1920.* 
     Women today have a choice over whether they become fashion victims or not.  One hundred years ago, they did not.
1920's Flappers living dangerously on the roof of a New York skyscraper.
*The State of Mississippi did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984, sixty-four years after the law was enacted nationally.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

After the Battle Ended

     One hundred twenty years ago, around 3 o'clock on the morning of July 6th, striking workers at the Homestead Works of Carnegie Steel, on the watch downriver from the mill, spied two large barges being hauled upstream by a single tug boat.  They spread the word by telegraph, steam whistle, and horse messenger.  By the time the barges reached the landing site at the Works two hours later, thousands of townspeople stood on the steep banks of the Monongahela River, determined to stop whomever--scabs or guards--from entering the mill.
     The workers did stop the Pinkerton guards on board from disembarking--the only time in American labor history that the workers held off militia during a confrontation.  But it took a ten-hour running gun battle to do so, ending with the deaths of nine strikers and seven Pinkerton guards (The exact number is disputed, but the total surely exceeded these numbers on both sides).
The battle as illustrated in the  National Police Gazette, July 23, 1892
     Most accounts of the 1892 Homestead Strike cover the events of 1892-93, but do not go into what happened to the town in the long run--except to say that the company successfully stopped union organizing in the steel industry for nearly 40 years. (A notable exception is William Serrin's 1993 work, Homestead: The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town, which traces the history of the town up to the closing of the Works).  When Hamlin Garland visited Homestead in 1893, he found the town "squalid and unlovely," a casualty of the failure of the strike and the so-called Panic which had plunged the US into a severe depression.
     Nevertheless, some former strikers who were blacklisted from steelmaking  managed to find work and remain in town.  The descendents of two of these strikers are the Debolt family, which still operates a bus company out of Homestead, and my cousin Grace Jack Krepps.  In fact, Grace and her brother Ronnie are some of the few people who can say they had grandfathers on both sides of the Strike--Jack (striker) and Busch (replacement worker).
       Grace told me that after her Grandfather Jack lost his job in the Works, he found another at the Homestead water works.  He didn't want to have anything to do with steel making, but he did not stop his son David, Grace's father, from taking work in the mill.  Dave Jack became a roller, a skilled worker who shaped hot steel into finished products.
A rolling mill crew from the Homestead Works, 1906 (photo from Gaughan collection, U of Pittsburgh)
    During my first visit to New York City in 1955, my parents took me on a visit to the Empire State Building.  "Your Uncle Dave rolled the beams used to the build this," Dad said, pointing upward.  At that time, the Empire State Building was the tallest building in the world, an engineering marvel that is still admired today.  I accepted Dad's word on faith, but found corroboration of this claim via a TV documentary about the construction of the building (1930-31).  The beams were on rush order from the Homestead Works, rolled in the structural mill and placed on fast freight trains headed for New York.  The delivery was so speedy that often the beams were still warm from rolling when they arrived at the building site.
The famous photo of a high-steel crew resting on one of the beams used to construct the Empire State Building. This is not Photoshopped.  The workers are hundreds of feet up, with no safety net or ropes. The death toll during the construction phase was one fatality per floor, with a total of over 100.
     Despite these success stories, however, the large majority of 1892 strikers were not re-hired and forced to look for work elsewhere, in another industry.  For example, John McLuckie, the former Homestead burgess and strike leader, wandered out West, eventually finding work as a foreman for the Sonoma Railroad in Mexico.  Who knows what happened to hundreds of other outcasts from the mill who left town, never to return?
       The descendents of those who replaced the strikers--myself included--understandably did not dwell on this aspect.  Everyone, unionist or scab, got the message of the strike's outcome:  Don't mess with H.C Frick and Carnegie Steel, for you will lose.  In those days, as now, property rights were held sacred in the United States.  Those who own the property can rely on the government at all levels-- local, state, and federal-- to send in troops to "restore order" in labor disputes, as they have countless times before and after the 1892 strike.
Federal troops fighting striking workers during the violent Railroad Strike of 1877.  Over a hundred people died, but the outcome was the same as with all 19th century strikes:  a victory for the company.
      The English critic and reformer John Ruskin, writing 42 years before the strike, observed: “In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: they must be fit for it; they must not do too much of it; and they must have a sense of success in it.” (Pre-Raphaelitism, 1850)  By this yardstick, very few, if any, workers in the Homestead Works before or after the strike could have been happy.
     When those thousands of strikers and townspeople rushed down to the river to stop the Pinkertons in the early morning hours of July 6, 1892, they thought they were waging a just war against the company.  Whether or not their cause was seen as just depended on the point of view of the observer.
     Yet the fact remains that in entering into battle with the company-hired Pinkertons, the workers of Homestead did an amazing, unique feat: the defeat of a trained, armed militia by a motley assemblage of workers.  For that, the name Homestead will always have a special place in American history.
The fortified Homestead Works aka "Fort Frick."  In the weeks before the battle the company erected a fence around the entire mill site.  During the battle, the workers broke through the fence, but mended it the next day, naively assuming that they would soon be returning to work.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor. Not!

The Statue of Liberty, who lifts her lamp beside the Golden Door, aka the New York City Harbor, is famous world-wide as symbol of Freedom and of the United States itself. The statue, a gift to the US from the people of France, has stood on Liberty Island, just a short distance from Ellis Island, since its dedication in October of 1886.  Lady Liberty was introduced with great fanfare, including a parade and speeches by dignitaries, including President Cleveland. Some estimates put the size of the crowd assembled around the harbor at nearly one million.

A bronze plaque bearing the lines of Emma Lazarus's 1883 sonnet, "The New Colossus," was mounted inside the lower level of the statue in 1903.
However, not everybody was participating in the jubilation surrounding the dedication of this icon of Libertas, the Roman Goddess of freedom.  An op-ed piece in the Cleveland-Gazette, an African-American newspaper, blasted away at the government's failure to support the civil liberties of black citizens:

"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It can not or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious colored man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed.
Eastern European immigrants arriving in New York Harbor.
On the other hand, for very different reasons than the Gazette gave, the US government had already begun regulating who could enter the US.  In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major legislation to prohibit free entry to a particular group. (The act was renewed in 1892 and 1902).  The motivation for this act was spawned by the large influx of Chinese immigrants during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855)   After the Civil War the building of the Transcontinental Railroads brought another flood of Chinese immigration to provide more cheap labor.  By the 1880s the Chinese in California were being blamed for a number of problems, most notably for unemployment among whites.

This Act was the first in the series of moves designed to control the admission and freedoms given new immigrants. For example, in 1887 Henry F.Bowers founded the American Protective Association, an anti-Catholic group. Its aim was to "protect" white Midwesterners from the latest immigrant groups from Southern and Eastern Europe.  The fear and prejudice directed at these groups was well illustrated in 1891 by the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants (who had just been acquitted of a murder charge) by several upstanding citizens in New Orleans.

On January 1, 1892, the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in New York harbor to accommodate the masses of immigrants pouring into the U.S. from Europe. (The peak year 1907 saw more than one million arrivals pass through its doors.) During the period 1880-1930 immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Italy outnumbered the immigrants from Anglophone countries more than 3 to 1. Some of these new immigrants (including my grandfather, Anton Katilius, from Lithuania)  found their way to Homestead.  
A boatload of a number of the "huddled masses" headed for Ellis Island.
 At the time of the Strike, Slovak workers constituted a large portion of the unskilled workforce in the Works.  Although they initially supported the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Association in the strike, by its conclusion in November, many of the Eastern European workers returned to their low-wage jobs. while the AA members and higher-paid workers were shut out by the company.

As in every industry from railroad building to steelmaking to mining, although initially these immigrants were welcomed--and often offered incentives--by the companies they worked for, inevitably the two forces would come to blows.  As the newer immigrants assimilated, they became ambitious for better pay and working conditions, and so began organizing.  The companies would crush them or shut them out, starting a new turn in the endless cycle in  American industry's quest for cheap labor.
A newly-arrived immigrant family gazes at Lady Liberty from Ellis Island.
The period of great European immigration saw continued strife between older immigrant groups and new arrivals.  If any in the former group couldn't find work, they would blame the recent immigrants for taking their jobs.  Each immigrant group has tried to slam shut the Golden Door behind them as they passed through--as of course is continuing today in the numerous efforts to control and.choke off immigration from Latin American countries.  Latino workers are the most recent in a long line of immigrant groups exploited in low-wage jobs, then vilified when they try to break into better-paying ones.

As the strikers at the Homestead Works found out in 1892, economic hard times significantly reduce the power of the workers: The number of workers exceeds the number of available jobs. Companies argue that they need concessions by the workers to keep afloat.  The wealthiest have control not only over the nation's workers, but over legislatures, courts, banks, and police. The rich get richer while all the rest get poorer.

As I showed in a previous blog post, the economic situation today in the US eerily parallels the  conditions following the Panic of 1893, with similar causes and results. Let me therefore conclude with one of the many charts available on the Net showing the gross inequality in distribution of wealth in the US today:
 Who's responsible for this shocking disparity between the Rich and the Rest of Us?  Believe me, it ain't the Mexicans.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dangerous Jobs

As many of you know, two weeks ago my border collie, Viggo, ran into me at full speed, breaking my shin bone (tibia) just below the knee. The ER doctor said that he had only seen such fractures as a result of motorcycle accidents.  The crackup will put me on crutches and out of commission until late August.

Many times since the accident, my thoughts have turned to the blessings of modern medicine and Medicare coverage. The medical bills will undoubtedly run into four figures (covered mostly by insurance), and I will be able to recuperate in relative comfort, thanks to the diagnostic tools, medication, and equipment available.  For example, when a traditional cast caused lots of pain in the injured knee, they were able to replace it with a lightweight knee brace.
My view of my crutches and $1,000 brace.
However, nearly as many times as I have given thanks for this medical assistance, I have thought about what recuperation would be like without these resources. More specifically, I've pondered what it was like a century ago for workers to deal with on-the-job injuries: no modern medicine, no insurance, no job security.

If someone were injured in the Homestead Works in the 1890s, he would be sent home to recuperate. He would not be working, so he would not be paid during this hiatus. If the injury proved to be disabling, the company might hire him back in a position such as watchman.  If he were unable to do this sort of work, he would be out of luck, a breadwinner-turned-burden for his family.  Often his co-workers would pool their resources to help out the injured worker and his dependents, but there would be no help from the company.  If he couldn't make steel, he was of no use to them.

Of course, steel companies weren't alone in this attitude.  Other dangerous industries, such as mining and manufacturing, spurned disabled workers. It should come as no surprise, then, that it was workers in these dangerous jobs who were the most likely to get into disputes with their employers over working conditions, length of workday, and wages.  In a previous blog post, I noted that the most violent clashes between company and labor were in these industries: for example, the Pullman Strike, and the strikes by coal and metal miners.  By far the most clashes came in the most dangerous industry: mining.  Even today, mining is listed as one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the US--and probably even more dangerous abroad (as apparent in recent mining disasters in China and Peru).
On Oct. 14, 1913,the Senghenydd Colliery Disaster in South Wales killed 439 miners. The likely cause was a methane explosion that ignited coal dust. It was the deadliest mine accident in the UK, the worst in a series of  mine disasters in Wales that occurred during a period of shoddy mine safety, 1850-1930.
 When I was growing up in the Steel Valley in the 'Fifties, a sign at the Amity Street gate of the Homestead Works read: "This plant has operated ___days without a disabling injury."  The key word is of course "disabling", because some worker or workers sustained injuries probably every hour of every working day.  Every time we'd drive by, I'd look at the sign, happy if the number of days went into the hundreds.  If there had been a recent injury, I'd wonder what had caused it.
The iconic 1950's photo of steelworkers going off shift through the Amity Street entrance.

Obviously, the most dangerous aspect of steel making is the extremely high temperatures required in  production (2,800degrees F).  Another dangerous aspect is the violent result of molten metal meeting water. Hundreds of workers were killed or maimed in accidents resulting from the explosions that ensued.  Add to these hazards the possibility of being crushed, run over,or torn up by mill machinery. Capt. Bill Jones, an engineer who dramatically increased production for Carnegie Steel and champion of better working conditions for steelworkers, died in this way in 1889.  He was investigating a problem with an open hearth in the Edgar Thompson Works when molten steel and slag broke out of the furnace, blowing him into the casting pit, killing him and another worker. He was given a hero's funeral--an honor he deserved--but I'm sure the family of the Hungarian immigrant who died with him received neither funeral nor compensation from the company.
Tapping an open hearth furnace.  In Darkness Visible Emlyn and Virgil take on the job of shoveling manganese into the ladle with the molten tapstream only feet away--a necessary task in 1892.
Today OSHA and other governmental regulative agencies try to protect workers in these dangerous occupations.  These regulations went into place with the rise of unions in the 1930s.  Undoubtedly many lives and limbs have been saved by these regulations.  That's why it appalls me when companies and politicians try to dismantle these safeguards, as did Michelle Bachmann last year when she attacked regulations in the very dangerous meatpacking industry (where workers are mostly immigrants).  Many workers in these high-risk jobs don't have medical insurance. If you take away safety regulations, you are putting them in double jeopardy--a return to the bad old days of pre-union labor in America.

If you are detached enough from this issue to think that Bachmann is on the right track, check out the online OSHA accident photos.  If you're like me, you'll be sick after looking at the first few.  And these happened with regulations in place, with most companies gladly complying with them.  Unions began disappearing from the American workplace ever since Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers' union in the 1980s. What will happen when unions and the protections they bring to workers are gone for good?


A worker on a modern electric-arc furnace.  Even today, with protective clothing and safety equipment, steelworkers daily confront (as Virgil in Darkness Visible puts it) "puddles of hell."
"After the first death, there is no other."  Dylan Thomas






Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering the Fallen

     My earliest recollections of Memorial Day (a.k.a. Decoration Day) were of putting out our four small flags on sticks in the front yard.  The flags would come out again on the Fourth of July, but I can't recall any other day they were displayed.
A soldier places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day.
       Later, in high school,  I associated the day with the community parade that started at the bottom of the hill and wound up at the top on the Catholic side of Homestead Cemetery.  My recollection of those parades evokes rather unpleasant memories: marching uphill in the heavy wool Munhall High School band uniform, tooting my clarinet, and sweating like a racehorse. At the monument, we gathered for what seemed like the same ceremony each year: a Boy Scout reciting the Gettysburg Address, someone reading John McCrae's 1915 poem ("In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row. . .), a bugler playing "Taps."
     It was appropriate to read Lincoln's famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield on these occasions.  The horrific number of war dead, both Union and Confederate--nearly 700,000, by some estimates--led to the creation of a day to remember them.  Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The day was first observed on 30 May of that year, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers from both North and South at Arlington National Cemetery.

     One hundred years later, Memorial Day had morphed from a commemoration of war dead into a more general day of remembering those gone.  As in the 1950s and '60s, today people still visit cemeteries to lay wreaths or plant flowers on the graves of loved ones.  However, in addition to commemorating the dead, Americans use the holiday to mark the beginning of summer--ball games, cookouts, camping, boating, visits to the beach. And for those remaining in the city, there are also those great holiday sales, which bring shoppers flocking to the malls. Times change, and we change with them.
     On Memorial Day my thoughts go out to friends and family members who are no longer with us, especially those who served in the armed forces during WWII:  Uncles Dr. George C. Schein II, Fred Baugher, Joe McGeever (U.S. Army), and Bernie Katilius (U.S. Navy).  And those who witnessed and endured terrible events during their service, my cousin Gilbert Breakwell (U.S.Army, POW in Germany) and my children's grandfather, Dr. C.H.Christensen (Carlson's Raiders, U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater).
Carlson's Raiders on Bougainvillea, one of the battles in which C.H.Christensen served.

     Because of their age during the wars and other circumstances, my father and grandfathers did not serve in the military. However, my paternal great-grandfather, John Paul Busch, served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. (He was a fireman on the USS Gunboat Hale at the Battle of  Mobile Bay).  I have often thought it ironic that the skill that saved him from being infantry cannon fodder in the Civil War--the building and tending of fires in industrial boilers)--is what brought him to his death in the Homestead Works nearly 28 years later.
     I also can't help but think of the thousands of others who died in the domestic war that has been going on for centuries, ever since landowners ("nobility") decided that the rest of us should hand over our money and the fruits of our labor to them. After the Industrial Revolution, the combatants became the Company versus the Workers. The Battle of Homestead is the second most bloody clash in a series of many hundreds of violent clashes in the U.S. between the private and public armed forces protecting the interests of company owners and workers demanding fair wages, shorter hours, and/or better working conditions.  Although the official death toll in Homestead was 16, many more died during and after the battle, either by suicide (Pinkertons) or by sabotage (scabs).
     The bloodiest battle came 28 years later in West Virginia at the Battle of Blair Mountain (retold in the 1987 film, "Matewan").  By the end of this battle between striking coal miners and private agents, the sheriff's department, the state police, and the U.S. Army, nearly 15,000 workers and 30,000 police/soldiers were involved. The death toll is estimated between 60 and 120 on both sides, with the workers suffering many more casualties. As in Homestead, the workers ultimately lost.  The result was the setback of miners' rights until the early 1930s when the Federal Government recognized labor unions.
     These were the most bloody confrontations, but there were many others.  To name three: the Lattimer Massacre in Hazelton, PA (1897), when 19 unarmed miners were shot in the back by a sheriff's posse; the Ludlow Massacre (1914)  in Colorado, where the fight between miners and mine guards plus the state militia resulted in 20 or more deaths; the Columbia Mine Massacre, also in Colorado (1927), when mine guards and state police fired a machine gun at striking miners and their wives, killing six and wounding dozens .
Machine gun-equipped armored car, known to the striking miners as the Death Special. The machine gun was turned on the striking Columbia coal miners (mostly immigrants) and used to riddle their tents with bullets. Afterwards, the press whipped public opinion into a frenzy against immigrant workers.
     On this Memorial Day I will remember not only those of my family and of my personal acquaintance who served the country or a cause they believed in, but the many thousands of others, unnamed and often unsung, who served--and sometimes died--trying to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their community.
Poster for "Matewan": "It takes more than guns to kill a man."
 "You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy." 
--Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) in "Matewan"