Edward Steven Slavishak. Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. x + 354 pp. Illustrations. $89.95 (library), ISBN 978-0-8223-4206-9; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-4225-0.
Reviewed by Will Cooley (Department of History, Walsh University)
Published on H-Urban (December, 2008)
Commissioned by Sharon L. Irish (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
The Soft Flesh of the Steel City
Do cities have identities? And, if so, who gets to create these identities? In Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh, Edward Slavishak argues that the Steel City’s Gilded Age boosters believed that by celebrating industrial work and the image of workers’ bodies, they could smooth class conflict while selling Pittsburgh to the world. However, these representations of Pittsburgh were often contested by Progressive reformers. Pittsburgh emerged as a contradictory place that created immense fortunes while mangling body parts. Where some saw “majesty,” Slavishak notes, others saw “suffering and danger” (p. 10). Slavishak investigates Pittsburgh’s identity, and finds that boosters and critics utilized the worker’s body as “both text and spectacle at the turn of the century, used alternately to offer instruction and pleasure, polemic and horror to the city’s residents, visitors, and observers” (p. 265).
Slavishak adds the industrial workplace to Keith Gandal’s assertion that war, the West, and the urban slum were sites where masculinity was honed during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elites, attracted to the narrative of creative mastery and the manliness of strenuous work, “seized upon the worker’s body as a useful, recognizable vehicle of civic pride” (p. 9). Early workers in the area’s coal, glass, and steel industries were often skilled and native-born, and they were seen as the ideal representation of the industrial revolution in Pittsburgh because of their mix of force, self-control, and ingenuity. However, the industrial work process was quickly changing, in part due to the automation and proto-scientific management efforts by the same employers who valorized skilled work. Immigrants from southern, central, and eastern Europe increasingly filled the city’s workplaces, and Slavishak finds these laborers “failed to capture the imagination of the city’s cultural elite” (p. 53). Derided as Hunkies, Polacks, and peasants, the middle and upper classes saw them as unruly and violent, and could not view their exertions as a noble and glorious “craft.” Countering historians that have increasingly focused on “racial” explanations for this prejudice, Slavishak argues that these workers’ lack of skill was as detrimental as their origins in the eyes of elites.
Yet, city boosters generally chose to ignore the de-skilling of production and its effect on workers. The idea of the master craftsman remained vital to Pittsburghers’ and their city. One enthusiast contended that the best image for the city was the man who combined “the highest skill of the chemist, the largest skill of the capitalist and manufacturer, as well as the brawn of the highest developed form of the American working-man” (p. 98). Civic leaders and manufacturers praised the machine and automation as signs of progress, but insisted that work remained ennobling and inherently masculine. Their visual representations depicted the ideal Pittsburgh worker as an iron-tough, skilled Anglo-American male, even as immigrants and women increasingly filled the ranks of the city’s workers (p. 110). Many of these images and descriptions were overtly homoerotic, as workers were almost always depicted as shirtless, well-muscled, hard bodies. One writer toured the Homestead works and felt workers’ muscles; afterwards he wrote admiringly of the “swift and splendid action of their bodies” (p. 106). Slavishak does not touch on the erotic appeals of worker bodies, but the more sedate white-collar classes undoubtedly longed for this type of explicit masculinity.
Slavishak observes that boosters and industrialists had competition in the definition of Pittsburgh, however. Progressive reformers indicted employers for lack of workplace safety and humane conditions. These experts also used workers’ bodies to make their claims, and one of the most effective visuals was the maimed worker. While elites fecklessly promoted industrial advancement and the city’s abundant wealth, muckrakers forced the public to acknowledge the underside of prosperity. “For Pittsburgh’s critics,” Slavishak notes, “workers’ bodies, dead and fragmented, became the shattered stepping-stones upon which a century of industrial development and accumulated wealth had traveled” (p. 199).
However, Slavishak finds fault with capitalists, critics, and artists alike, all of whom took turns putting representations of workers’ bodies to use for their own respective agendas. These discourses and images, Slavishak explains, reduced workers and their labor to artifacts, as “industrial work became a shadowy performance and the industrial worker became simply a body of work” (p. 15). Employers clearly cared little for their hands, and Slavishak provides stark details of the industrial accidents that ravaged workers’ bodies. Yet he also charges that sympathetic reformers were overeager for “specimens” to indict the abuses of the bosses, and could not “distinguish workers as individuals with their own identities and histories,” while artists who were frequently called on to make workers symbolize Pittsburgh merely saw bodies, not people (pp. 182-183). Workers’ bodies became the figures of the city for good or ill, but production and the daily lives of workers remained mostly unseen. Perhaps Pittsburghers, like many consumers, preferred not to know by what means and under what conditions their products were made.
This criticism is intriguing, but Bodies of Work generally avoids presenting a counter-narrative from workers’ perspectives, and little is learned about how workers felt about their bodies or identities. Slavishak claims it is “impossible” to determine what Pittsburgh workers thought about these spectacles and studies, as their feelings were “obscured by lack of evidence and the privileges of business and civic leaders” (p. 273). A host of experts and elites assessed worker’s bodies, but “each increasingly ignored the possibility that Pittsburgh workers’ lives could be defined by anything other than their work” (p. 266).
A lack of source material is a challenge for any labor historian, but Slavishak misses some opportunities to add workers’ thoughts on their bodies to the dialogue. Outside of an occasional poem from labor journals, the book is generally devoid of worker voices. In addition, a cultural approach to workers’ lives would have rounded the depiction of workers from simple bodies at work. For instance, Slavishak states that workers’ participation in boxing and tug-of-war were “but two examples of physical leisure activities in which workers sought more sophisticated physical and mental development to prepare them for the trials of the workday” (p. 168). As Elliott Gorn and Roy Rosenzweig have shown, sports and recreation provided much more than mere preparation for work. Rather, they were a popular way for workers’ to reclaim their bodies from the discipline of industrial capitalism. Likewise, Slavishak examines the Homestead strike from the vantage point of journalists who often reduced strikers to brutish savages (p. 73). A cultural reading of the violent work stoppage might have provided deeper insight into how workers and their families viewed their bodies and hoped to shape Pittsburgh as more amenable place to labor and live.
Overall, Bodies of Work is an absorbing and inventive history. The book includes thirty illustrations that bring the argument to life, and Slavishak’s melding of visual studies and labor history is imaginative and provocative. The author’s criticisms of elite efforts to reduce workers’ bodies might inspire other labor historians to consider how workers thought about themselves and their cities. Pittsburgh became the “Steel City,” but surely the manner in which residents from all classes embraced this identity was not solely a top-down project.
. Elliott Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prizefighting in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986); and Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870-1910 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-urban.
Will Cooley. Review of Slavishak, Edward Steven, Bodies of Work: Civic Display and Labor in Industrial Pittsburgh.
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