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Masters of the Universe

January 17, 2011

The ultimate Hunky, Joe Magarac ("donkey" in Croatian)was a mythical Slavic steel worker, generous, brave and self sacrificing. "He did the work of 29 men, never slept, worked 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He stirred vats of hot steel with his bare hands and twisted horseshoes and pretzels out of iron ingots and ate steel soup for lunch." Picture from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The disparity of income in this country between the richest one percent and the rest of us is at an all time high, led by ruthless financiers who consider themselves “masters of the universe.” A century ago the masters were industrialist robber barons who built  massive empires often through unethical and illegal business practices, and whose wealth and methods are now rivaled by today’s billionaires.

After an around the world tour in the 1880’s, the richest man in the world,  Andrew Carnegie said, “the Americans were the saddest-looking race we had seen.  Life is so terribly earnest here.  Ambition spurns us all on, from him who handles the spade to him who employs thousands.  We know no rest… In this world we must learn not to lay up our treasures, but to enjoy them day by day as we travel the path we never return to.”  Americans, he thought, “worked harder than was necessary and much harder than the British. ‘No toilers, rich or poor, like the Americans!’

1907 from Pittsburgh Survey, by Lewis Hine. The work was hard, hot and dangerous. There were few safety concerns and worker fatalities were common. The men took pride in taking risks and enduring the heat and danger and over time, "Hunky" became a badge of honor.

At about the same time, the local clergymen in the steel towns approached Carnegie asking that his steel mills be shut down once a week on Sundays so that the men could attend church; currently they worked 12 hours every day, dragging sore and tired bodies to church on Saturday nights.

Steel plant manager Jones relayed the message from Carnegie to the “bigoted and sanctimonious cusses” that if they “even tried to interfere with these works, I will retaliate by promptly discharging any workman who belongs to your Churches and thereby get rid of the poorest and most worthless portion of our employees.  If they don’t want to work when I want them, I shall take good care that they don’t work then they want to.”  And then he docked their pay.

The infant mortality rate amongst slavic families was as much as 3 times higher than the national average, due to lack of access to medical care and unclean conditions in the tenements. Slovak women, 1905, Augustus Sherman.

The infamous Homestead lockout of 1892 culminated in the murderous showdown between largely “hunky” workers and their wives against 300 armed Pinkerton agents on July 6, 1892.  Publicly, Carnegie sympathized with the laborers, and feigned surprise when the New York Herald later contacted him for comment on the bloody strike, saying that the news of the disaster “grieved me more than I can tell you. It came on me like a thunderbolt in a clear sky.”

Carnegie wrote the "Gospel of Wealth" in the mid 1880's. Herbert Spencer told Carnegie that it was his duty to earn his wealth in order to assure the survival of the fittest - that being the continued supremacy of the male, White Anglo Saxon Protestant.

Yet prior to the lockout, the once penniless Scottish immigrant sent a telegram to Henry Clay Frick, his business partner, “…. Of course you will win, and win easier than you suppose, owing to the present condition of the market.”  While Frick fought the battle to the bitter end, Carnegie remained holed up in his castle in Scotland, cowardly unwilling to face the workers or the public himself. (He later complained the lockout was ruining his vacation.)

In 1907, Olive Sage, the widow of Russell Sage (another robber baron of the time), commissioned "The Pittsburgh Survey" to study the living and working conditions of the ethnic working class. Others like Mother Jones, Jane Addams and Florence Kelly worked selflessly to improve the lives of all immigrants at the turn of the century.

Over the next several days Carnegie telegrammed again and again: “Never employ one of these rioters. Let grass grow over works. Must not fail now…. Am with you to end whether works run this year, next or never. No longer question of wages or dollars.” (On his deathbed, Carnegie asked to see Frick from whom he had  been estranged for two decades.  Frick replied, “tell him I’ll see him in hell”).

Despite having built his empire upon their backs, hunkies, in Carnegie's estimation, were not the "fittest", and Spencer suggested that he ensure that these less desirable immigrants not be encouraged, lest they thrive.

How, I wondered, could the same man exclaim that “Americans were the victims of a work ethic gone mad” on the one hand and then ruthlessly push thousands of human beings into a subhuman existence on the other?  The answer, I suspect, lay in his unabashed admiration of his good friend Herbert Spencer, the English philosopher who embraced the concept of social Darwinism, and who coined the term “survival of the fittest.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nicholas Harmon permalink
    January 17, 2011 11:36 am

    I am always proud of your blog, but this one was especially well done. Congratulations!

  2. January 17, 2011 12:29 pm

    Thank you, Nick. I should have put in some references for this blog:

    Lewis Hine as Social Critic, 2009, by Kate Sampsell Willmann
    Andrew Carnegie, 2006, by David Navaw American Experience, episode on Andrew Carnegie
    Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie, 1920, by Andrew Carnegie
    The Pittsburgh Survey, 1907-19089, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation

    • March 29, 2015 3:01 pm

      Thank you. My work has gone mostly unrecognized. i tried to strike a blow for considering the photographer as important to the photograph. What had happened instead is my ideas have been disconnected from my name and used freely, much like images made by people like Lewis Hine have been disconnected from their names and used freely. It’s refreshing to see a reference.

      I like your work very much.

  3. January 17, 2011 1:38 pm

    I love the way you have described Carnegie’s Jekyll and Hyde character. The same type of faux humanity seems to characterize the New York financial and private equity people, and of course the Enron crowd. I had the opportunity to read the definition and profile of a sociopath this weekend, and it describes these folks to a tee. Excellent!

  4. Stan permalink
    January 17, 2011 2:15 pm

    Jekyll and Hyde indeed, and at his end a social (sic) benefactor in providing millions for public libraries in N. America and the UK. The majority of the buildings are still in use. Similar to the modern Gates-Buffet social benefaction or is it guilt? as they donate their hard-earned (!) wealth to society before they die.

    • January 17, 2011 2:36 pm

      Stan, you will NOT believe what I am unearthing about his so called philanthropic efforts, at least in the early years. Lots of digging through old catalogs and scientific reports.. can hardly wait to share.

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