Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

January 23, 1997

'Pittsburgh Surveyed' re-examines classic of social science literature

During 1907 and 1908, Paul Kellogg, editor of the New York-based journal Charities and the Commons, and several dozen social science researchers converged on Pittsburgh. They came to the city at the request of Alice B. Montgomery, chief probation officer of the Allegheny County Juvenile Court and a local reform activist, to study life and labor in what was then one of the most powerful industrial cities in the world. The findings of Kellogg's group were published between 1909 and 1914 in a six-volume series known collectively as "The Pittsburgh Survey." Individual volumes in the survey include such well known works of social science as "The Steel Workers," "Homestead: Households of a Mill Town," "Work-Accidents and the Law" and "Women and the Trades," as well as the lesser known "Wage-Earning Pittsburgh" and "The Pittsburgh District: Civic Frontage." As the first study of its kind, "The Pittsburgh Survey" found a city that was home to an exploited labor force, a degraded environment and corrupt civic institutions.

Embarrassed by the survey's findings, Pittsburgh's corporations fought back with a public relations offensive designed to prove that southwestern Pennsylvania was not a miserable slum. Armed with material provided by the corporations, the local press ran numerous stories and photographs showing pleasant workers' homes, medical care provided by companies, spotless locker rooms, gardens and workers engaged in leisure activities.

As the reformers and the establishment slugged it out, though, the one thing they overlooked were the immigrant laborers who stood at the heart of the survey. The corporations saw them mainly as cogs in the industrial wheel, while the surveyors viewed them as helpless victims of the system. But in their own eyes, the immigrants were neither.

According to Ewa Morawska, one of the essayists in "Pittsburgh Surveyed," a study of "The Pittsburgh Survey" recently published by the University of Pittsburgh Press ($22.95), letters sent home to Europe and published in ethnic newspapers show that immigrants found life in western Pennsylvania's mills and mines as terribly hard, dreary, exploitative and alienating. They endured it not because they wanted to become Americans, but because they saw it as an opportunity to make money.

The "life goal, of the majority of immigrants at the time of the survey was to make enough money to move into the middle class of the heimat, the peasant society of their European villages," writes Morawska. "To accomplish this goal, they saw hard industrial labor in America as a means – the only one available in their circumstances, given the incommensurably higher earnings in America than anywhere else they could go." Most of the immigrants who came to Pittsburgh at the turn of the century expected to stay only three or four years, five years at the most, save their money and return to purchase farms or houses in their home villages in Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuanian and other eastern European lands. They bore the harsh conditions of Pittsburgh without much complaint because they saw them as only temporary. American citizenship was something that did not particularly interest them.

"A Pittsburgh Slovak, when asked why he did not wish to become naturalized, gave a quite typical explanation," writes Morawska, professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Someday, he replied, he was going back to his home country, so he did not want to 'forswear himself.'" "Pittsburgh Surveyed" is the first ever comprehensive analysis of any classic of social science literature from the pre-World War II period. Edited by Maurine Greenwald, associate professor of history at Pitt, and Margo Anderson, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, it contains 13 essays, each of which examines a different aspect of "The Pittsburgh Survey." In addition to Greenwald, Pitt authors in the collection include Laurence Glasco, associate professor of history, writing about African Americans and the survey; Edward Muller, professor of history and director of the urban studies program, writing on the survey and areas outside of Pittsburgh; Richard Oestreicher, professor of history, writing on Homestead's politics and culture; and John Bauman and Margaret Spratt, both adjunct research associates, writing about environmental reform and civic leaders.

The idea for "Pittsburgh Surveyed" grew out of a 1992 meeting in Pittsburgh of the American Sociological Society during which a session was conducted on "The Pittsburgh Survey, the Survey Movement and the Development of Modern Sociology." That discussion led to a full-fledged conference on the original survey and the presentation of papers, which appear as much revised chapters in the collection.

Editor Greenwald says the conference was a "truly collaborative enterprise" between the history departments of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Social History Center. She says the aim of the book that grew out of it is to make people look at and think about Pittsburgh's past in more critical ways.

Greenwald herself is the author of the chapter "Visualizing Pittsburgh in the 1900s: Art and Photography in the Service of Social Reform." The chapter's collection of almost 50 photographs, drawings and paintings probably will make it one of the most interesting to the casual reader. Its views of Pittsburgh and the people who lived here almost a century ago are mesmerizing in themselves, without even reading the text, which was the reason most of them appeared in the original survey.

"He [survey editor Kellogg] very self consciously decided that ultimately over 500 visuals would be incorporated in the six volumes so that there was a visualization of the problem as well as a literary commentary," Greenwald said. "The two were supposed to be a hand/glove fit with one another." "The Pittsburgh Survey" marked the first time that photographs were used to such an extent in a work of social history. According to Greenwald, Kellogg had a very clear conception of how to use photographs and art work to influence his readers and raise their consciousness about the conditions of work and life in the region. To address both sides of the issue, Greenwald went digging to learn what images of Pittsburgh were commonly available at the time of the survey. What she found was a great interest in industrial development. There were large runs of "booster" type stereographs and souvenir books that showed steel mills, corporate headquarters and the homes of millionaires. Members of the city's upper classes, she learned, loved heroic images of industry. Charles Graham's woodcuts of blast furnaces and the interior of mills immortalized Pittsburgh's manufacturing process as central to the city's economy and landscape. Aaron Harry Gorson was a particular favorite of the corporate elite who took to collecting his works.

"In dreamy atmospheric scenes reminiscent of Whistler's technique," writes Greenwald, "Gorson transformed Pitts-burgh's sooty, smoky industry into an artistic wonder, a 'fairy creation,' according to one newspaper writer. While others recoiled from Pittsburgh's muddy waters, gray smoky skies, and ugly factories, Gorson waxed eloquent about the rivers turning sunsets into 'running gold.'" In Gorson's paintings, workers and their jobs appear only as generic images, another cog in the industrial wheel. There is no indication of their individual identity or the physical strain and dangers of their jobs. Survey photographer Lewis W. Hine and artist Joseph Stella, however, show a completely different world. Stella's sketches capture the stoicism of rescue workers at a mine accident, the pain and humiliation of a bread line, and the blackness and dirt of the mills. Hine's photographs depict laborers who have lost limbs in work accidents, ugly houses outside the mills and the filthy children of workers.

Stella's drawings and Hine's photos appeared in stark contrast to the world of Gorson and Graham. That is one reason the survey's images came as such a shock to the corporations and middle class that were so proud of industrialization.

"The survey was most definitely designed," said Green-wald, "to be a series of books that you could flip through and that you would see image after image and read the captions and, even if you did not read the text, construct a powerful picture of a great industry with a very privileged elite and contrast them with the workers.

"The visuals," she continued, "showed big machinery and tremendous capitalization and tremendous investment on the one hand, and then you see a worker without a limb standing amidst a family that was clearly suffering from his impairment. It would at least raise questions, how can this be? And then you would read the text and the text would in effect say this isn't the workers' fault." After the initial reactions of horror and the public relations response by the corporations, the findings of "The Pittsburgh Survey" were essentially ignored by the city's upper and middle classes. Its findings did not even arise as a subject of debate in the 1909 mayoral election, which saw Republican William Magee defeat progressive Civic Party candidate William Stevenson. Local officials claimed they already were addressing environmental problems mentioned in the survey, while city council commissioned a competing economic survey supported by the Chamber of Commerce and local newspapers maintained that reform would come in due time. Outside of Pittsburgh, though, it was a different story. The Russell Sage Foundation, financier of "The Pittsburgh Survey," was so affected by what the study found that it immediately commissioned similar studies in other cities. The social work community also became more interested in documenting the working and living conditions of immigrants, and urban conditions in general. Although the living conditions of workers in Pittsburgh improved over the intervening decades, unions in the 1930s also were able to use the survey and the images it had collected to successfully push for collective bargaining agreements.

As far as "Pittsburgh Surveyed" is concerned, Greenwald hopes it will encourage social historians around the country to consider reevaluating other social science classics from before World War II. Greenwald also would like to see a new course at Pitt that asks students to do more research on "The Pittsburgh Survey." "We're at a point, moving into the 21st century, where we need to look at some of the most influential and most important works of social science and contextualize them, historize them, place them in the context of their time, understanding both their particular intellectual agenda and their long-term legacy," she said.

–Mike Sajna

Leave a Reply