This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Freedom: A History of US.
Webisode Menu Tools & Activities For Teachers About the Series Search This Site
Webisode 4: Wake up, America
Introduction Segment 1 Segment 2 Segment 3 Segment 4 Segment 5 Segment 6 Segment 7

See it Now - click the image and explore
Belmont Nail Works
Segment 4
Page 2

Factory jobs were often dangerous. If you had an accident, no one paid your medical bills. Mill workers sometimes went into the mills as children and left when they died. Conditions in mines were worse. There was no fresh air to breathe and the fumes left many miners seriously ill. Most Americans didn't know what life was like in factories and mills and mines. Then, in 1861, an article called "Life in the Iron Mills" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the most important magazine of the day. It was written anonymously by a shy woman named Rebecca Harding, who had grown up in a wealthy family in the bustling iron mill town of Wheeling, West Virginia. It was the commonplace folk of Wheeling whom she wrote about See It Now - Belmont Nail Works, people whose lives were so different from hers they might as well have lived in a different galaxy:

Hear It Now - Rebecca Harding"Smoke rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron foundries, and settles down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets. Smoke on the wharves, smoke on the dingy boats, on the yellow river, clinging in a coating of greasy soot to the house-front, the two faded poplars, the faces of the passers-by. Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal, breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body."

People wept when they read the story and learned—often for the first time—of the wage slaves who tended the scalding pots of liquid metal that became the iron and steel needed to build the railroads and machines the nation was demanding.

Did Rebecca Harding's story help those workers? Probably not, for no one then knew how to smelt iron, or dig minerals, or make steel without hard, life-destroying labor. Someday the problem would be solved by labor laws, and by other machines. But in the nineteenth century no one knew that. Harding's story made some people of her time aware of the horror of mill work.

Icon Key
See it Now Hear it Now Check the Source
Image Browser
Additional Resources
Did You Know?
Herman Melville signed aboard a ship in 1837. His first voyage was on a merchant ship to Liverpool, England. Then he went to sea on a whaling ship. Before he was twenty-five he had sailed to Cape Horn, to the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), and to Tahiti.

Did you know that Freedom is adapted from the award-winning Oxford University Press multi-volume book series, A History of US by Joy Hakim?

Previous Continue to: Segment 5. Page 1
Email to a friend
Print this page