Monday, August 9, 2010

The Unnamed American Laborer

While completing preparatory reading for a graduate school field seminar based in my hometown, I came across several collections of images from the University of Pittsburgh’s University Library System digital library. Of particular interest was The William J. Gaughan Collection, 1892-1988( The Gaughan Collection includes hundreds of captioned historical images of the Homestead Steel Works from 1886 through 1970. Do check it out.

Like many Pittsburgh natives and former residents of the city, I knew of the steel mills from passing the massive work site (which stretched a nearly 4.5-mile expanse from Eighth Avenue in West Homestead, Pennsylvania to Braddock) en route to Downtown or Christmas shopping in Monroeville. Members of my family—uncles and cousins—and close family friends, were employed there until the early 1980s. The several thousand lay-offs that occurred then resulted in a mass exodus of laborers, administrative staff, supervisors and executives from steel town, USA to other cities and states where jobs were more plentiful. Not only did the mill closure affect Pittsburgh economically, but it also subsequently split up families, mine included.

What was striking about the Gaughan collection even more than the visuals was the fact that almost none of the captions identified a worker by name. More often, it was “Press Operator.” “Roll Turner.” “Machinist.” Perhaps that’s attributable to some of the photographs having been taken in the early 1900s, and documentation of employee names was either lost or never indicated at the time.

In the case of men and women who sacrificed sweat, muscle, time, and their very health to make the steel industry—which ultimately contributed to America’s prosperity—successful, the lack of names seems a huge disservice...

...which led to the prompt, “blue collar family life,” as the theme for the inaugural edition of Blast Furnace, slated for January 2011 posting to this site. While the industrial age may be a thing of the past, it’s a topic worthy of writing about; one that may remain close at heart for many.

If you are a writer, you have the ability, and—dare it be said—the obligation to document what matters in the vast macrocosm, and in your own remarkable microcosm.

Looking forward to reading your submissions!

- R. Clever, Editor/Publisher