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November 7, 1996

New University Press biography focuses on business dealings of reviled 19th-century industrialist

Of all the famous 19th- century industrialists, aka "robber barons," none remains more reviled in the public eye than Henry Clay Frick. Over three-quarters of a century after his death, guides at Clayton, the Frick home in Point Breeze, continue to hear nasty remarks about the former resident. Tour group members actually have refused to enter the house after learning who once lived in it.

So widely hated was Frick during his own lifetime that when he died in 1919, he was buried behind a fence in Homewood Cemetery near Clayton and his grave sealed in stone and concrete to guard against desecration. In the years since his death, even biographers have found it difficult to show Frick much sympathy. Samuel A. Schreiner titled his recent biography of the coal and coke king, "Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed." But Kenneth Warren says he had no such feelings toward Frick when he was writing "Triumphant Capitalism: Henry Clay Frick and the Industrial Transformation of America," a new business biography of Frick published by the University Press ($35 hardcover). Warren says he viewed Frick simply as an "object of study" and neither warmed to him nor came to think of him as a monster when he was working on the book.

"The book was written, hopefully, without any doctrinaire position," says Warren. "I did not think of it on the one hand as either an apologia for capitalism or on the other hand as some sort of radical Marxist criticism of it. I was just looking at Frick and what happened as a fascinating mixture of good and bad." One of the main reasons Frick's name still stirs feelings of hatred is the role he played in the Homestead Strike of 1892. While Andrew Carnegie, who was more deeply involved in the strike than many people think, kept one eye on his public image throughout that affair, Frick's focus was on getting the steel mill back in profitable operation as soon as possible. The hiring of the Pinkerton guards, which led to bloodshed, was in Frick's mind nothing more than a logical business decision.

"He was a remarkably straightforward person," says Warren. "He didn't sort of parade virtues that he didn't have and didn't pretend to be something he wasn't at all. He wasn't a showman. He wasn't like Carnegie in that respect.

"In a sense," Warren continues, "what you saw was what you got with him. I think he was the straightforward, logical, hard thinking businessman. There wasn't much sentiment, I am sure of that. But, on the other hand, he had an idea of what he thought was fair play and played the game according to what he thought were the rules of the game. In short, one didn't think of him as a warm personality by any manner or means. But he was an honorable man by the likes of the time." Frick's time, according to Warren, was the point in history when the United States became the world's pre-eminent industrial power and when the traditions of American business were established. It was a very important period in America's economic development and Frick was one of the men standing in the center.

How the game was played in the late 19th century was to maximize profits with little or no regard for anything that stood in the way, be it other businesses, government, the environment or workers. Labor was simply another factor of production, wages a cost consideration similar to charges for raw materials, energy or transportation. To reduce the price paid for labor in the form of wages was obviously good business practice.

"As a general principle (that of securing efficient use of scarce resources), there is nothing exceptionable about this," Warren writes, "but in dealing with men, rather than things – with communities, families and individuals, not physical plants, mines or utilities – this principle led to ruthlessness on the part of management and to dogged resistance on the part of the men." Warren found Frick had the misfortune of being the "management exemplar" of this already fully developed attitude toward labor. But he was only one of the most prominent representatives of a large class of businessmen who viewed labor in the same light. On the other hand, Warren points out, Frick was happy to carry the search for efficiency and greater profits to its logical conclusion, which resulted in the Homestead Strike and the labor cutbacks that followed it.

How ruthless and unfeeling Frick and some of his associates could be even with their own is evident by what happened when "Captain" William R. Jones, superintendent of Carnegie Steel's Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, was fatally injured in a blast furnace explosion on Sept. 26, 1889.

Jones died without regaining consciousness a few days after the accident. Within two days of his death a representative of Carnegie Steel visited the Jones home and secured from his invalid widow the exclusive rights to his patented improvements to steel making practices and equipment for $35,000. Although that was a large sum for the times, the patents saved Carnegie Steel far greater amounts of money over the next few years.

Frick's own detachment from the tragedy and concentration on business is revealed by the manner in which he signed the memorial condolence to the family, and then quickly moved on to the business of making money. Although Jones had taught Frick the steel business, all Frick could manage to write in the memorial condolence was "With kind regards – H. C. Frick." By Oct. 10, less than two weeks after Jones's death, he was back at work as if nothing happened, with Charles Schwab as the new superintendent of the Edgar Thomson works.

Contemporaries of Frick consistently describe him as private, reserved, distant, cold, uncaring, ruthless, domineering and icy in personal relationships and with people in general. But the good side of the man is evident by the fact that when he died, he left an estate valued at $145 million, of which $117 million was given away in the form of gifts for the public good. His art collection, valued at $50 million, was left to New York City along with a $15 million endowment for its maintenance and extension. In addition, his New York home was remodeled to house the collection after his widow's death in 1931.

In Pittsburgh, he gave 151 acres for the establishment of Frick Park, as well as an endowment of $2 million for its maintenance, and $500,000 each to 14 philanthropic institutions in the state, including hospitals in Uniontown, Connellsville, Mt. Pleasant, Greensburg, Braddock and Homestead, all areas where he had ruthlessly exploited the work force. He also gave a gift to Mercy Hospital, where he was treated for two gunshot wounds he received in an assassination attempt during the Homestead Strike.

"I meant it to be ambivalent rather than coming down completely against the establishment as it were," Warren says of the image of Frick and his times that emerges from his book. "It's a more complicated picture either way than extremists on one side or the other put it." An emeritus fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, England, Warren says he has been interested in the American steel industry for "donkey's years." In addition to "Triumphant Capitalism," he is the author of "The American Steel Industry, 1850 – 1970." Warren decided to undertake a biography of Frick because the coke king was one of the pre-eminent people in the industry for decades, but no one had written about him for a long time. Besides Schreiner's "Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed," which appeared while Warren was writing his book, the only other biography of Frick is the sycophantic 1928 work "Henry Clay Frick: The Man " by George Harvey.

Along with presenting a more objective portrait of Frick than previous biographies, Warren's book is different in that it focuses much more on Frick's business dealings and the operation of the steel industry during his time than it does on his personal life. It also uses previously unavailable material from the Frick archives. Warren is the first historian to be given unrestricted access to Frick's personal and business papers. The papers were kept private until the death of Frick's daughter, Helen Clay Frick, in the mid 1980s. Prior to that time, Helen had denied the requests of scholars to study the records. "I had tried before [Helen's death] and never had any response at all, not even a reply," Warren says.

Access to the Frick archives, as well as the records of the H. C. Frick Coal & Coke Co., the Carnegie Steel Co. and the U. S. Steel Corp., allowed Warren to create the most complete picture to date of Frick's business relationship with such contemporaries as Carnegie, Schwab, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon and Henry Phipps. The book also gives one of the most detailed inside looks at the creation of U. S. Steel and the falling out of Frick and Carnegie.

Even though he lives in England, Warren says he did not encounter any unusual problems in researching "Triumphant Capitalism." Much of the material on the steel business he already had on hand from previous research in the field. The other material he gathered on several trips to western Pennsylvania and to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The title, "Triumphant Capitalism," is derived from Carnegie's 1886 work "Triumphant Democracy," an idealized, self-serving look at business of the time. Warren calls the conclusions Carnegie reaches in that book "questionable," given the circumstances in which most people were living. "I think it was quite clearly in material terms eminently successful," he says. "In terms of some of the consequences, obviously labor relationships and all that sort of thing, it was a bit more ambivalent." Although "Triumphant Capitalism" is very much an academic work aimed at individuals interested in business and industrial history, casual readers still should find fascinating the material on the creation of western Pennsylvania's small coal towns, giant steel mills and the lives of the people, both workers and industry leaders, involved in them. They also might be surprised by some nearly forgotten historical events like the coal strike of 1891, which presaged what was to happen at Homestead the following year.

Not surprisingly, the coal strike, which lasted from February to May, started over wages. Carnegie, as at Homestead, urged a wait-and-see approach that he believed would find the men willing to go back to work as their savings dried up. He believed such an approach resulted in fewer hard feelings when the workers returned to the mines. Frick, though, as at Homestead, was only interested in restarting operations.

On the night of April 2, 1891, about 450 miners marched on the Morewood Mine near Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, and were met by armed deputies who fired on the crowd, killing seven strikers and wounding several others. When Frick learned of the events, he passed on the telegram to another mine owner with a note that reveals in powerful fashion the ruthless, icy businessman he was: "I have no further particulars. This will likely have a good effect on the riotous element up there." Readers also should find interesting Warren's assessment of Frick's life and accomplishments. The author finds it particularly troubling that most of the physical entities associated with Frick, such as beehive coke ovens and the Homestead works, are gone. He feels western Pennsylvanians are making a mistake in not preserving a sampling of the sites and that they are allowing their heritage to slip away.

On a less tangible level, Warren says Frick's most lasting mark is "probably this very unfortunate one, the belief that there is this implacable divide between capital and labor." While Warren has tried to stress that such a view is not entirely fair to Frick, he acknowledges "that's the legacy of his reputation."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 29 Issue 6

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