The iron and steel industry has a deep and complex history in Pennsylvania. Industry flourished in Pennsylvania beginning in the early 1800s with technological advancements, first with iron production and expanded with the start of the production of steel in 1875 (Rose). Industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew W. Mellon, and Charles M. Schwab founded and grew their ventures in Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh became a leader in the industry due to the abundance of resources, especially iron ore deposits and water sources, which were essential elements for productive processing plants and factories of this sector. As these companies grew larger, so too did their work force. Industry in general remained relatively unchecked by the US government into the early 1900s, contributing to the neglect and abuse of low-wage laborers during this period in history (Brody). As the labor force grew and injustices mounted, so did a spirit of collectivism among these workers, ultimately leading to the rise of unionism in the early 1900s. Unions allowed these workers to unite under their common goal of improving conditions and demanding fair wages, leading to many labor strikes and protests which would transform American labor.


Rose, James Douglas. Duquesne and the Rise of Steel Unionism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Brody, David. Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965. Print.

Educational Purpose

This set may be used best as part of a broader lesson on historical research and inquiry. This set will allow students to explore the developments of the industrial era and the rise of unions through a focused inquiry into the steel industry in Pennsylvania. Included are various perspectives and source types that touch on topics such as the cause and effect of industrialization; the industrial tycoons of the Gilded Age; working conditions for industrial laborers; the organization of labor unions; and political and social action of unions. The items in this set will allow students to gain a deeper historical understanding of the subject while also developing historical analysis skills by fostering engagement with both visual and text based primary source documents. The discussion questions below can be developed as guiding questions for research papers or projects.

Grade Levels

This set can be tailored to fit grades 9-12.

State Standards

  • Middle Grades Standards 6-8, Historical Analysis and Skills Development
    • 8.1.8.A. Compare and contrast events over time and how continuity and change over time influenced those events.
    • 8.1.8.B. Compare and contrast a historical event, using multiple points of view from primary and secondary sources.
  • Secondary Standards 9-12, Historical Analysis and Skills Development
    • 8.1.12.A. Evaluate patterns of continuity and rates of change over time, applying context of events.
    • 8.1.12.B. Evaluate the interpretation of historical events and sources, considering the use of fact versus opinion, multiple perspectives, and cause and effect relationships.
  • Middle Grades Standards 6-8, Civics and Government
    • 5.3.4.G. Identify individual interests and explain ways to influence others.
    • 5.3.5.G. Describe how groups try to influence others.
  • Secondary Standards 9-12, Civics and Government
    • 5.3.9.G. Analyze the influence of interest groups in the political process.
    • 5.3.U.D. Evaluate the roles of political parties, interest groups, and mass media in politics and public policy.
  • Middle Grades Standards 6-8, Pennsylvania History
    • 8.2.3.B. Identify historical documents, artifacts, and places critical to Pennsylvania history.
    • 8.2.5.D. Examine patterns of conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations that impacted the history and development of Pennsylvania for responding to individual and community needs. • Ethnicity and race • Working conditions • Immigration • Military conflict • Economic stability
    • 8.2.7.D. Identify local connections and examples of conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations and how this impacted the history and development of Pennsylvania. • Ethnicity and race • Working conditions • Immigration • Military conflict • Economic stability
  • Secondary Standards Grades 9-12, Pennsylvania History
    • 8.2.9.B. Compare the impact of historical documents, artifacts, and places in Pennsylvania which are critical to U.S. history.

Source Set

1. Historical Sketch of the Development of Bethlehem Steel Company and Bethlehem Steel Corporation
2. Bessemer Steel: Ores and methods. New facts and statistics relating to the types of machinery in use
3. Carnegie Steel Company : general statistics and special treatise on Homestead Steel Works
4. A report by John A. Fitch on steel workers
5. Men and steel
6. Steel Workers! Your Questions Answered!
7. Report on the Steel Strike of 1919
8. Steel: the diary of a furnace worker

Inquiry Questions for Research Projects

Refer to the sources identified below to help research these questions.

  1. What natural resources existed in Pennsylvania that fostered the growth of industry? Where did industrial companies establish their plants and why? What improvements and technologies facilitated the transformation of industry after 1873? (Sources #1, #2, #5)
  2. What fueled the demand for iron and steel during this period? What purpose did iron and steel serve? What types of finished materials were these factories producing? (Sources #1, #3)
  3. How did developments in machinery affect industrial laborers? (Sources #2, #3) What were the daily working conditions like for steel laborers? How did increased immigration in the 1800s effect industrial labor forces? (Sources #4, #5, #7, #8)
  4. What were the points of controversy in labor conflicts and more specifically that of the steel industry? What were the sources of friction between laborers and employers? How have laborers and employers organized respectively in response to these conflicts and tensions? (Source #4, #5, #7, #8)
  5. How did labor unions grow in their earliest years of organizing in the mid to late 1800s? How and why did these labor unions form? (Source #4, #5, #7)
  6. What is collective bargaining and how did unions utilize this strategy? What other strategies and courses of actions were employed by unions to advance their cause? What were some successes and failures of labor unions in achieving their objectives? How did the power of unions rise and fall in the early 1900s? What important shifts happened around the 1880’s and then the 1910s? (Sources #5, #6, #7)
  7. What were the advantages for employers to grow their companies into large commercial companies, as in corporitize their industrial business? How did the corporatization of industry affect industrial laborers? How did it affect the power of labor unions? What direct actions did corporations take to challenge unions and collective bargaining strategies?  (Source #4, #5)

Classroom Activities

  1. Mapping exercise: Students are given a blank map of Pennsylvania and are instructed to identify the locations of iron and steel plants discussed in the documents and label them on the map. Students are also instructed to label the location of natural resources which were utilized in the industrial process. Students are permitted to use outside resources beyond the document set to aid in the thorough completion of this activity. 
  2. Point of view writing exercise: Students are instructed to write a letter as is they were an industrial laborer in an iron or steel plant in Pennsylvania, describing their life to their family back home. Students are given a word bank of terms that must be used in their writing to demonstrate new understandings from the documents; the terms include: resources, machines, working conditions, conflict, union, strategy, employer. 

    Additional Resources for Research

    1. Demarest, David, Jr., ed. “The River Ran Red”: Homestead 1892. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.
    2. David Brody, Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott), 1965.
    3. Robert Asher, “Painful Memories: The Historical Consciousness of Steelworkers and the Steel Strike of 1919,” Pennsylvania History 45 (January 1978): 61-86.
    4. Rose, James Douglas. Duquesne and the Rise of Steel Unionism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
    5. Pennsylvania State University Special Collections: Pennsylvania Business History. https://guides.libraries.psu.edu/SC/PAbizhistory/ironandsteel
    6. Historical Society of Pennsylvania unit on Mexican Labor at Bethlehem Steel, https://hsp.org/education/unit-plans/mexican-labor-at-bethlehem-steel
    7. Warren, Kenneth. Big Steel: The First Century of the United States Steel Corporation, 1901-2001. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

      Set created by Stephanie Cuomo, Temple University College of Education.

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