Francis G. Couvares, The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877-1919, 1984

Increasingly, historians locate resistance and culture in sites of leisure. Such historical works, posit the idea that leisure serves as illustration of social and cultural behaviors/ideals while exhibiting the conflicts that occur between the plebian and middle/upper classes. Francis G. Couvares work The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877-1919 explores the city’s transition from a plebian dominated society to one guided by business and professional elites through eventual civic engagement.

Pittsburgh’s initial inception reveals a burgeoning metropolis controlled by its skilled craftsman such as puddlers in iron and glass works that created an “aristocracy of the mills”. The dominant industrialists held little sway over such craftsman who determined their own work and production schedules, “In neither iron nor glass making had technology allowed managers to dispense with skilled craftsmen.” (13) Craft unions formed which “codified” this autonomy in order to protect “the very character of autonomous work” (24). Such craft unions existed not to change society but to conserve its “way of work”. (24) The formation of the Amalgamated Association, LA 300, and the Knights of Labor serve as examples of such organizations. The 1877 Railroad Strike solidified unions and worker solidarities. Labor strength also contributed to a “sense of community” among working peoples in Pittsburgh. Plebian leisure culture emerged as central to early Pittsburgh even if offended the austere sensibilities of the Presbyterian dominated industrial elite (Couvares also points out the lack of organization among the elites, their lack of connection to East Coast power centers, the absence of cosmopolitanism among them, and their general isolation from each other … note she also points out that the spatialization of the city led many to interact with working class burghers more regularly. They also dodged any sense of civic duty or responsibility. Finally, as a contributing factor to their “cultural isolation” may have been the tendency not to escape the region even for college as most went to Western Penn. – which later became the University of Pittsburgh). This leisure culture illustrated the general public nature of working class life in mid-late nineteenth century Pittsburgh. Local theatre (geared toward working class audiences especially male dominated ones), sports, art, and music served as central factors in working class leisure. Volunteer fire companies provided another marker of this culture providing homosocial space, entertainment for the public at large (in the form of parades most often), and a general “interpretation of the private/public sphere of plebian culture”. (45) [note – as in other works, these fire companies experienced a recession of elites as the century progressed though politicians recognized the value of such organizations when gathering political support. The professionalization of the fire department in 1870 changed the dynamics of fire companies but did not fully erase their importance immediately.

The temperance movement illustrated two forces at work: 1) the ambivalence that emerged within the labor movement toward alcohol and 2) the shifting political dynamics in the city that resulted in a weakened plebian culture socially and politically. First, the labor movement’s relation to temperance focused on increased efficiency and better workers. The Murphy Movement (like the Washingtonian movement seen in Wilentz’s Chants Democratic) refused to endorse prohibition or demean working class drinkers (it emphasized the “cult of manliness” so common in the 1800s that made self control and self respect central attributes of masculinity). In fact, Murphy refused political affiliations. The labor movement promoted a similar vision of workers but emphasized its Republican characteristics just as municipal politics changed to a more material machine basis. The professionalization of politics, centralized municipal power such that it no longer involved numerous power centers but one. The union lodge and assembly hall were being bypassed. All the old centers of plebian politics, including the firehouse , the veterans lodge, the sports club, the grocery, the tobacco shop, and the saloon, appeared destined to be co-opted and harnessed by new political forces.” (61)

The Magee Machine wielded a patronage politics that transformed the working classes into clients, the firehouse once a symbol of plebian culture became another warehouse for political appointments. Simultaneously, business leaders formed their own organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce to mobilize their own interests (though Couvares notes they didn’t engage consistently until the 1890s… also they formed in part to oppose the Magee institution i.e. the whole business efficiency/good govt. argument). Between the Magee Machine and the national push by Democrats and Republicans, the labor movement declined, adopting an almost libertarian political position. Temperance organizations such as the “Law and Order League” attempted to limit alcohol and tobacco sales, alienating workers in the process creating an ethnic/religious divide as many Catholics viewed prohibition as social control. Internal divisions within labor did little to ease this process (its early emphasis on a Republicanism based on ethnic diversity actually hurt it as class and ethnic distinctions hardened in the late 1800s). However, despite the Law and Order League’s failure (the police never really seriously enforced its prohibitionist stance), both it and the Chamber of Commerce had begun the process of organizing business and professional elites politically.

In the two decades spanning from 1890 to 1910, the city’s spatialization and demography changed. By 1910 the city had expanded its sheer physical size through annexation, while new immigrants poured in from Eastern and Southern Europe earning the nickname “hunkies” and a general stereotype as docile, malleable workers whose efforts undercut previous immigrants and union members. This growth “shattered” the old bonds of community. Moreover, what had once been the “craftman’s empire” no longer persisted. Clerks, engineers, and technicians gained a new supervisory authority that further limited the power of skilled craftsman, “In the age of steel craftsman non longer directed the work team or trained newcomers in the skills required for production. Instead, clerks, engineers, and technicians devised and transmitted work instructions to machine tenders who laced the customary expertise of the craftsman.” (88). Older craftsmen, resented the new immigrants for their ethnicity, their less militant work habits, and the fact they undercut their own labor. Unions proved no more receptive and had for years discriminated against or grudgingly accepted such new comers such that “hunkies” felt little compulsion to be or remain loyal. Ironmasters exploited this division between workers. The fragmentation of the working class complete, business and professional leaders devoted themselves to civic improvement.

Worried about growth and future investment, business and professional leaders now concerned themselves with the city. Leisure activities with the notable exception of drinking, had become acceptable [note- is this another example of working class communities influencing middle and upper classes?] for the middle and upper classes. The elite classes grew more cosmopolitan and organized as numerous clubs and civic societies emerged. Their children now left the region for tertiary education attending the usual Ivies. An explosion in park building both for beautification and socialization efforts (Progressive era reformers attempted to embed middle class values/behaviors into working class peoples through park construction and activities though most resisted the attempt instead choosing the burgeoning commercial pursuits of the day). The failure of Progressive efforts to convince the working and immigrant classes of their idea resulted in a grudging acceptance that elites would on some level have to cooperate or negotiate with the masses, “If they chose to serve the working class, they would have to do so on terms dictated by a clientele which recognized with acute discrimination the difference between service and domination.” (115). Working class Burghers recognized the battle over leisure represented on some level submission or resistance, “Through the issues were often very different, questions of power and authority lay behind all working class criticism of public and private paternalism.” (117). Thus many chose the latter or a forced elites to accept some of their own customs/rituals. The moment Progressive workers/reformers “became censors or moral instructors, their clients retreated.” (115). As numerous other historians have noted about Progressives, said reformers never realized that what working class peoples wanted was not “therapy: or “uplift” but “elemenatary support in their struggle to survive in the industrial city.” (119) Ironically, despite working class efforts to resist the plebian dominated city of the mid-1800s would emerge nevermore. Even local sports fell under the control of elites as the Pittsburgh Pirates professionalized local baseball (robbing the amateurs of its large audiences which also helped knit communities together) and boxing, though enjoyed by the masses, was promoted and run by leading businessmen of the metropolis.

Still, Couvares suggests that the importance of this period lay in the understandings it established among immigrants, working/immigrant classes, and business/professional leaders. For immigrants, they found a space that they could claim as American, bolstering their own ties to the nation, “given the hope of achieving some measure of security and freedom, immigrant working people would choose to build a future in industrial America.” The working classes illustrated their desire to maintain their own sense of America also. Their efforts at solidarity, leisure, and unionization “legitimized ethnic roots, ridiculed pious self righteousness, and opened the door to a society as apparently democratic as those audiences at the movies, the amusement park, and the ball field.” (131) Finally, elites and reformers drew from their experience the reality that reform imposed from above was neither what workers needed or wanted, “It had also been pointed by those progressive reformers who came to recognize the parochial character of their own values, and who insisted that building a decent social order required addressing worker’s fundamental demands for security and dignity.” (131).

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License