Crafting Pennsylvania Steel’s Macho Myths

Dedication of the Steel Statue, Sesquicentennial International Exhibition, August 4, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

Charles Walker’s gritty diary of labor in the bowels of an Aliquippa, Pennsylvania steel mill helped popularize the “men of steel” macho. Four years later, the same steel manufacturer that employed Walker, Jones and Laughlin, upped the ante commissioning a giant statue for the Sesquicentennial Exhibition, the world’s fair in Philadelphia. This grandiose sculpture, “the Spirit of Steel,” featured three classically-inspired heroic males making steel, the central figure holding a winged I-beam aloft, an offering to the world.

These heroic, men-of-steel interpretations further solidified the legend of the Pennsylvania steelworker as American folk hero. The fictional legend of Joe Magarac would take it even further. In 1931, Owen Francis introduced a comic-strip-style, Paul Bunyanesque man-of-steel in Scribner’s Magazine. This gentle immigrant giant would “appear out of nowhere to protect steel workers from molten steel and other dangers” in the mills. Magarac was both management and labor-friendly, working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year enthusiastically squeezing out steel railroad rails “from between his fingers.”

These exaggerated, overwrought masculine images of the American steel worker came to an abrupt halt in the 1980s, when American steel manufacturing was caught off guard when “Germany, Japan, and other steelmaking nations built brand-new capacity” leading to a sharp decline in production, employment and optimism. It resulted in a halving of industrial employment and the collapse of the entire industry. By the end of the 20th century, Pennsylvania’s “out-of-date steel plants” and the laborers who had perpetuated the legend had all but disappeared.

Steel’s bleak future would have been unimaginable on the sunny Wednesday afternoon of August 4, 1926 when visitors to the Sesquicentennial in deep South Philadelphia considered the day’s options. In the stadium, one could watch the “Mounted Police Gymkhana,” an “exhibition of relay racing, rescue racing, Roman riding, pyramid riding, mounted wrestling, trick riding and platoon formation.” A “Super-Contest of Rodeo Champions,” also scheduled in the stadium, promised “the greatest context of brain and brawn … ever witnessed.” In the Sesqui Bathing Pool the Women’s Swimming Championships were underway. In the Sesqui auditorium, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Brahms symphony No. 1 in C Minor. And at 2 o’clock, that busy day, a crowd gathered for the steel statue’s dedication. There, in the promenade extending Broad Street into the fairgrounds the Sesqui’s own military band provided music before speeches by Mayor Kendrick and steel executives before Gloria Vittor, the five-year-old daughter of sculptor Frank Vittor, yanked the cord releasing drapery over the gigantic grouping.

The Inquirer described the heroic figure and it’s setting: on the right side of the monumental figure “stands a furnaceman, exerting his strength to tilt a huge ladle of molten steel into ingot molds. On the left side there is a smith swinging a huge hammer and typifying the traditional worker in iron and steel. Flames from the furnaces sweep up around the legs of these three figures. On the pedestal on which they stand there is done in bas-relief a series of striking sculptural pictures of scenes in the steel industry; men working  before open-hearth furnaces; others chipping steel and loading it upon ‘buggies;’ trains of cars hauling coal and iron ore, fleets of steel barges transporting products upon the  interior rivers;  blast furnace plants in operation and rolling mills pouring forth tongues of flame.”

Steel Statue under construction by Bostwick Steel Lathe Company, July 7, 1926 (PhillyHistory.org)

That night, “fifty 500-candle power searchlights, concealed in the base of the group [flooded] multi-colored rays of light upward around the pedestal and the stalwart figures of the steel workers,” added the Pittsburgh Gazette Times.

The Italian-born sculptor Frank Vittor had established himself in Pittsburgh eight years prior to the Sesquicentennial. Vittor “created the individual plaster pieces in his Pittsburgh studio using live models in order to realistically depict the muscles and facial details,” we learn from historical curator Nicholas P. Ciotola, “He then shipped the completed work by freight trains to Philadelphia, where he assembled it and coated it with a composition of wax, oil, and paint to protect the plaster from the elements. When unveiled, The Spirit of Steel weighed two tons and stood towering ninety feet high – taller than all of its surroundings on the event grounds.”

Vittor received a gold medal from the Sesquicentennial Exhibition Association for his sculpture. He would attract other opportunities to glorify the story of steel. In the 1930s, Vittor received a commission “for what would become his most lasting tribute to the industrial might western Pennsylvania,” four figures: pioneers, transportation, electricity, and, of course, steel, for the pylons of Pittsburgh’s George Westinghouse Memorial Bridge.

Unlike the monumental plaster “Spirit of Steel” at the Sesquicentennial, these were carved in stone.

[Sources: Making Steel, Stories from PA History, ExplorePAHistory.com (WITF and PHMC); Clifford J. Reutter, “The Puzzle of a Pittsburgh Steeler: Joe Magarac’s Ethnic Identity,” Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 63 (January 1980); Nicholas P.  Ciotola, “From Honus to Columbus: The Life and Work of Frank Vittor,” in Italian Americans: Bridges to Italy, Bonds to America. Edited by Luciano J. Iorizzo and Ernest E. Rossi, (Teneo Press, 2010); “Steel Industry Statue at Sesqui-Centennial Dedication Wednesday,” Pittsburgh Gazette Times, August 1, 1926;  “Steel Men to Give Statue Wednesday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 1, 1926; [Daily Schedule] The Sesqui-Centennial International Exhibition, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 4, 1926; Statue “Steel” Unveiled, The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 5, 1926; Frank Vittor [obituary] The Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan 25, 1968.]

For more about the story of Pennsylvania steel, see this post: “Men Of Steel.”

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