10 Brutal Facts About How Horrible Life Was In The Pittsburgh Steel Mills

By 1900, the US was the largest producer of steel in the world, and Pittsburgh, PA, was the heart of the industry. So many workers rushed to the city for work, its population grew sevenfold in just 50 years. What was everyday life in Pittsburgh during steel production like? How did this essential boon to the American economy affect the lives of the workers to ensure maximum productivity and profit? What were the brutal realities people in Pittsburgh faced during steel's heyday? 

This list examines the day-to-day activities of 20th century life in Pittsburgh, which, despite the drastic difference in labor and production practices, has a number of things in common with life in the 21st century. Most workers didn't own their own homes, much as most "homeowners" only possess the portion of the value of their home not owned by the bank. The city was also highly segregated, as are many modern cities.


  • The above photo was snapped at 12:10 pm in downtown Pittsburgh, at the corners of Liberty and Fifth Avenues. In the 1940s, when this scene was captured, Pittsburgh was producing steel for the war effort. Over the course of America's involvement in the war, the city produced 95 million tons of steel. 

    Despite the massive volume of steel produced during the war, pollution was hardly new in Pittsburgh. Campaigns to clean up the city's air quality began in the 1890s, and pollution was so bad for so many years streetlights came on at noon and the three rivers running through the city were the color and texture of sludge

  • Workers Riots Took A Back Seat To Capitalist Hegemony, As Evidenced By The Homestead Strike
    Photo: Thure de Thulstrup / Public Domain

    In 1892, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, one of the country's largest unions, with more than 20,000 members, clashed with robber baron Andrew Carnegie and his Carnegie Steel Corporation in Homestead, just outside Pittsburgh. The union organized a massive strike, intent on creating a new collectively bargained agreement guaranteeing better working conditions and pay. Instead, Carnegie locked the workers out of the factory, erected fences, brought in snipers, refused to agree to the workers's terms, and hired scabs to work in their place.

    Violence erupted on July 6, when Pinkertons hired by Carnegie to protect the scabs clashed with workers. The violence escalated such that a state militia was brought in the next day. During the melee, which involved workers firing canons at ships on the nearby river, seven workers were killed, 20 shot, and more than 300 injured. No new agreement was reached, the strike crumbled, and the workers returned to the same conditions they went on strike to protect. 

  • Steel Mill Work Was Brutal And Profits Trumped The Value Of Human Life
    Photo: Photographer Unknown / Library of Congress / No Known Copyright Restrictions

    Working conditions in the steel mills of Pittsburgh were brutal, and the world the workers inhabited was remorseless. According to a profile of Andrew Carnegie in The Economist, "Fatal accidents in the steel mills... accounted for 20% of all male deaths in Pittsburgh in the 1880s. Newspaper lists of men killed and wounded each year were as long as a casualty list for a small battle in the American civil war."

    By 40, most men's working life was over. If they hadn't died from the hazards of their occupation, they succumbed to the savage conditions of the mill (extreme temperatures, equipment with no safety measures): their bodies and/or minds were wrecked beyond repair. These workers put in 12-hour days seven days a week, and some of them started in the mill as children. Injured workers were let go and forced to cover their own medical bills, and anyone injured or deceased was quickly replaced by one of the countless immigrants arriving in Pittsburgh every day. 

    Regarding the deaths, "Carnegie could not have cared less. When a steel furnace exploded, he worried about loss of production, not loss of life." The families of the deceased were not compensated, predictably. 

  • In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was signed into law, preventing the employment of children younger than 16. Previous to this, no laws existed governing child labor in any industry, including steel. Children often worked in mills, and class determined the age at which this began. The poorer the family, the earlier the child went to work. 

    Whatever the industry, children often worked jobs that were difficult for adults given the size constraints, or those that were dangerous or menial, and thus a waste of time and ability for experienced laborers. Children in Pittsburgh who were orphaned or born to negligent or abusive parents were taken placed in orphanage and sent out as indentured workers. These children entered the work force at 14 or 15 at the oldest.