Part 2 out of 3
The spirit of building was in our blood; we took pride in the
mill, and the mill owners were our captains. They honored us for
our strength and skill, they paid us and we were loyal to them.
We showed what bee men call "the spirit of the hive." On holidays
our ball team played against the team of a neighboring mill, and
the owners and bosses were on the sidelines coaching the men and
yelling like boys when a batter lifted a homer over the fence.
That was before the rattle heads and fanatics had poisoned the
well of good fellowship and made men fear and hate one another.
Sometimes the Welsh would play against the Irish or the English.
At one time most all the puddlers in America were English, Irish
In these ball games, I am glad to say, I was always good enough
to make the team. After telling of being a bandsman at thirteen
and a puddler at sixteen, I would like to say that at seventeen I
was batting more home runs than Babe Ruth in his prime, but
everything I say must be backed up by the records, and when my
baseball record is examined it will be found that my best playing
on the diamond was done in the band.
WRESTING A PRIZE FROM NATURE'S HAND
After melting down the pig-iron as quickly as possible, which
took me thirty minutes, there was a pause in which I had time to
wipe the back of my hand on the dryest part of my clothing (if
any spot was still dry) and with my sweat cap wipe the sweat and
soot out of my eyes. For the next seven minutes I "thickened the
heat up" by adding iron oxide to the bath. This was in the form
of roll scale. The furnace continued in full blast till that was
melted. The liquid metal in the hearth is called slag. The iron
oxide is put in it to make it more basic for the chemical
reaction that is to take place. Adding the roll scale had cooled
the charge, and it was thick like hoecake batter. I now
thoroughly mixed it with a rabble which is like a long iron hoe.
"Snake bake a hoecake,
And lef' a frog to mind it;
Frog went away, an'
De lizard come and find it."
Any lizard attracted by my hoecake would have to be a salamander
--that fire-proof creature that is supposed to live in flames.
For the cooling down of that molten batter didn't go so far but
that it still would make too hot a mouthful for any creature
The puddler's hand-rag is one of his most important tools. It
is about the size of a thick wash-rag, and the puddler carries it
in the hand that clasps the rabble rod where it is too hot for
bare flesh to endure.
The melted iron contains carbon, sulphur and phosphorus, and to
get rid of them, especially the sulphur and phosphorus, is the
object of all this heat and toil. For it is the sulphur and
phosphorus that make the iron brittle. And brittle iron might as
well not be iron at all; it might better be clay. For a good
brick wall is stronger than a wall of brittle iron. Yet nature
will not give us pure iron. She always gives it to us mixed with
the stuff that weakens it--this dross and brimstone. Nature hands
out no bonanzas, no lead-pipe cinches to mankind. Man must claw
for everything he gets, and when he gets it, it is mixed with
dirt. And if he wants it clean, he'll have to clean it with the
labor of his hands. "Why can't we have a different system than
this?" I heard a theorist complain. "I'll bite," I said. "Why
can't we?" And I went on boiling out the impurities in my puddle.
Man's nature is like iron, never born in a pure state but
always mixed with elements that weaken it. Envy, greed and malice
are mixed with every man's nature when he comes into the world.
They are the brimstone that makes him brittle. He is pig-iron
until he boils them out of his system. Savages and criminals are
men who have not tried to boil this dross out of their nature.
Lincoln was one who boiled it out in the fires of adversity. He
puddled his own soul till the metal was pure, and that's how he
got the Iron Will that was strong enough to save a nation.
My purpose in slackening my heat as soon as the pig-iron was
melted was to oxidize the phosphorus and sulphur ahead of the
carbon. Just as alcohol vaporizes at a lower heat than water, so
sulphur and phosphorus oxidize at a lower heat than carbon. When
this reaction begins I see light flames breaking through the lake
of molten slag in my furnace. Probably from such a sight as this
the old-time artists got their pictures of Hell. The flames are
caused by the burning of carbon monoxide from the oxidation of
carbon. The slag is basic and takes the sulphur and phosphorus
into combination, thus ending its combination with the iron. The
purpose now is to oxidize the carbon, too, without reducing the
phosphorus and sulphur and causing them to return to the iron. We
want the pure iron to begin crystallizing out of the bath like
butter from the churning buttermilk.
More and more of the carbon gas comes out of the puddle, and as
it bubbles out the charge is agitated by its escape and the
"boil" is in progress. It is not real boiling like the boiling of
a teakettle. When a teakettle boils the water turns to bubbles of
vapor and goes up in the air to turn to water again when it gets
cold. But in the boiling iron puddle a chemical change is taking
place. The iron is not going up in vapor. The carbon and the
oxygen are. This formation of gas in the molten puddle causes the
whole charge to boil up like an ice-cream soda. The slag
overflows. Redder than strawberry syrup and as hot as the fiery
lake in Hades it flows over the rim of the hearth and out through
the slag-hole. My helper has pushed up a buggy there to receive
it. More than an eighth and sometimes a quarter of the weight of
the pig-iron flows off in slag and is carted away.
Meanwhile I have got the job of my life on my hands. I must
stir my boiling mess with all the strength in my body. For now is
my chance to defeat nature and wring from the loosening grip of
her hand the pure iron she never intended to give us.
MAN IS IRON TOO
For twenty-five minutes while the boil goes on I stir it
constantly with my long iron rabble. A cook stirring gravy to
keep it from scorching in the skillet is done in two minutes and
backs off blinking, sweating and choking, having finished the
hardest job of getting dinner. But my hardest job lasts not two
minutes but the better part of half an hour. My spoon weighs
twenty-five pounds, my porridge is pasty iron, and the heat of my
kitchen is so great that if my body was not hardened to it, the
ordeal would drop me in my tracks.
Little spikes of pure iron like frost spars glow white-hot and
stick out of the churning slag. These must be stirred under at
once; the long stream of flame from the grate plays over the
puddle, and the pure iron if lapped by these gases would be
Pasty masses of iron form at the bottom of
the puddle. There they would stick and
become chilled if they were not constantly
stirred. The whole charge must be mixed
and mixed as it steadily thickens so that it
will be uniform throughout. I am like some
frantic baker in the inferno kneading a batch
of iron bread for the devil's breakfast.
"It's an outrage that men should have to work like this," a
reformer told me.
"They don't have to," I replied. "Nobody forced me to do this.
I do it because I would rather live in an Iron Age than live in a
world of ox-carts. Man can take his choice."
The French were not compelled to stand in the flame that
scorched Verdun. They could have backed away and let the Germans
through. The Germans would not have killed them. They would only
have saddled them and got on their backs and ridden them till the
end of time.
And so men are not compelled to face the scorching furnaces; we
do not have to forge the iron that resists the invading cyclone
and the leveling earthquake. We could quit cold and let wild
nature kick us about at will. We could have cities of wood to be
wiped out by conflagrations; we could build houses of mud and
sticks for the gales to unroof like a Hottentot village. We could
bridge our small rivers with logs and be flood-bound when the
rains descended. We could live by wheelbarrow transit like the
Chinaman and leave to some braver race the task of belting the
world with railroads and bridging the seas with iron boats.
Nobody compels us to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight off
nature's calamities as the French fought off their oppressor at
Verdun. I repeat, we could let nature oppress us as she oppresses
the meek Chinese--let her whip us with cold, drought, flood,
isolation and famine.
We chose to resist as the French resisted--because we are men.
Nature can chase the measly savage fleeing naked through the
bush. But nature can't run us ragged when all we have to do is
put up a hard fight and conquer her. The iron workers are
civilization's shock troops grappling with tyrannous nature on
her own ground and conquering new territory in which man can live
in safety and peace. Steel houses with glass windows are born of
his efforts. There is a glory in this fight; man feels a sense of
grandeur. We are robbing no one. From the harsh bosom of the
hills we wring the iron milk that makes us strong. Nature is no
kind mother; she resists with flood and earthquake, drought and
cyclone. Nature is fierce and formidable, but fierce is man's
soul to subdue her. The stubborn earth is iron, but man is iron
ON BEING A GOOD GUESSER
The charge which I have been kneading in my furnace has now
"come to nature," the stringy sponge of pure iron is separating
from the slag. The "balling" of this sponge into three loaves is
a task that occupies from ten to fifteen minutes. The particles
of iron glowing in this spongy mass are partly welded together;
they are sticky and stringy and as the cooling continues they are
rolled up into wads like popcorn balls. The charge, which lost
part of its original weight by the draining off of slag, now
weighs five hundred fifty to six hundred pounds. I am balling it
into three parts of equal weight. If the charge is six hundred
pounds, each of my balls must weigh exactly two hundred pounds.
I have always been proud of the "batting eye" that enables an
iron puddler to shape the balls to the exact weight required.
This is a mental act,--an act of judgment. The artist and the
sculptor must have this same sense of proportion. A man of low
intelligence could never learn to do it. We are paid by weight,
and in my time, in the Sharon mill, the balls were required to be
two hundred pounds. Every pound above that went to the company
and was loss to the men.
I have heard that "guessing pigs" was an old-time sport among
farmers. To test their skill, each farmer would guess the weight
of a grazing pig. Then they would catch the porker, throw him on
the scales, and find out which farmer had guessed nearest the
mark. Sunday clothes used to be badly soiled in this sport.
But the iron worker does not guess his pigs. He knows exactly
how much pig-iron he put into the boil. His guessing skill comes
into play when with a long paddle and hook he separates six
hundred pounds of sizzling fireworks into three fire balls each
of which will weigh two hundred pounds.
The balls are rolled up into three resting places, one in the
fire-bridge corner, one in the flue-bridge corner, and one in the
jam, all ready for the puddler to draw them.
My batch of biscuits is now done and I must take them out at
once and rush them to the hungry mouth of the squeezing machine.
A bride making biscuits can jerk them out of the oven all in one
pan. But my oven is larger and hotter. I have to use long-handled
tongs, and each of my biscuits weighs twice as much as I weigh.
Suppose you were a cook with a fork six feet long, and had three
roasting sheep on the grid at once to be forked off as quickly as
possible. Could you do it? Even with a helper wouldn't you
probably scorch the mutton or else burn yourself to death with
the hot grease? That is where strength and skill must both come
One at a time the balls are drawn out on to a buggy and wheeled
swiftly to the squeezer. This machine squeezes out the slag which
flows down like the glowing lava running out of a volcano. The
motion of the squeezer is like the circular motion you use in
rolling a bread pill between the palms and squeezing the water
out of it. I must get the three balls, or blooms, out of the
furnace and into the squeezer while the slag is still liquid so
that it can be squeezed out of the iron.
From cold pig-iron to finished blooms is a process that takes
from an hour and ten minutes, to an hour and forty minutes,
depending on the speed and skill of the puddler, and the kind of
iron. I was a fast one, myself. But you expected that, from the
fact that I am telling the story. The man that tells the story
always comes out a winner.
I START ON MY TRAVELS
Now that I was a master puddler, I faced the problem of finding
a furnace of my own. I saw no chance in Sharon. Furnaces passed
from father to son, so I could not hope to get one of the
furnaces controlled by another family. My father was not ready to
relinquish his furnace to me, as he was good for twenty years
more of this vigorous labor.
I wanted to be a real boss puddler, and so, when I was eighteen
I went to Pittsburgh and got a furnace. But a new period of hard
times was setting in, jobs were getting scarce as they had been
in 1884. That was the year when we had no money in the house and
I was chasing every loose nickel in town. The mill at Sharon was
down, and father was hunting work in Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
Then after a period of prosperity the hard times had come again
in 1891 and '92. My furnace job in Pittsburgh was not steady. The
town was full of iron workers and many of them were in desperate
need. Those who had jobs divided their time with their needy
comrades. A man with hungry children would be given a furnace for
a few days to earn enough to ward off starvation. I had no
children and felt that I should not hold a furnace. I left
Pittsburgh and went to Niles, Ohio, where I found less
competition for the jobs. I worked a few weeks and the mill shut
down. I wandered all over the iron district and finally, deciding
that the North held no openings, I began working my way toward
the iron country in the South.
The Sharon mill did not shut down completely. The owner
operated it at a loss rather than throw all his old hands out on
the world. Twenty years later I met him on a train in the West
and we talked of old times when I worked in his mill. As long as
he lived he was loved and venerated by his former employees.
Father was putting in short time at Sharon and was badly
worried. He was thinking of setting out again to go from town to
town looking for work, but I had advised him against it. I had
told him that he would merely find crowds of idle men roaming
from mill to mill along with him. My brothers gave him similar
"Father," we said, "it is a time of business depression and
wide-spread unemployment. If you went to Pittsburgh you might
find a few weeks' work, but it would not pay you to go there for
it. You would have to lay out cash for your board and lodging
there before you could send anything home to mother. Keeping up
two establishments is harder than keeping up one. You have a home
here partly paid for, and a big garden that helps support that
home. It is better for you to stick with this establishment and
work at half time in the mill than to roam around at big expense
seeking full time in some other mill. There may be no mill in the
land that is running full time."
This had not occurred to him. What lay beyond the hills was all
mystery. But we young fellows had been brought up in the American
atmosphere, we had read the Youth's Companion and the newspapers,
and our outlook was widened; we could guess that conditions were
the same in other states as they were in our part of
Pennsylvania, for we were studying economic causes.
"It is better for you to stay here and wait for good times to
come again. Hang on to your home, and if in a few months or a few
years the mills begin booming again you will be secure for life.
But if the iron industry doesn't revive, give up that trade and
find other work here. If necessary go out and work on a farm, for
the farming industry will always have to be carried on."
Father saw the force of our argument. So he stayed and kept his
home. He has it to-day. But if he had wandered around as millions
of us did in those hard days he would surely have lost it. This
was my first little attempt to work out an economic problem. I
had studied all the facts and then pronounced my judgment. It
proved right, and so I learned that in my small way I had a head
for financiering. This encouraged me, for it taught me that the
worker can solve part of his problems by using his head.
The fear of ending in the poor-house is one of the terrors that
dog a man through life. There are only three parts to the labor
problem, and this is one of them. This fear causes "unrest." This
unrest was used by revolutionists to promote Bolshevism which
turns whole empires into poor-houses. Such a "remedy," of course,
is worse than the disease. I think I know a plan by which all
workers can make their old age secure. I will go into it more
fully in a later chapter.
THE RED FLAG AND THE WATERMELONS
I have said that the labor problem has three parts. I call them
(1) Wages, (2) Working Conditions and (3) Living Conditions. By
living conditions I mean the home and its security. My father had
reached the stage where this was the problem that worried him. He
was growing old and must soon cease working. But his home was not
yet secure and he was haunted with the fear that his old age
might be shelterless. We told him not to worry; the Davis boys
were many and we would repay him for the fatherly care he had
given us. But he was a proud man (as all muscular men are), and
he could find no comfort in the thought of being supported by his
sons. I am glad he never had to be. Independence has made his old
age happy and he has proved that a worker, if he keeps his
health, can provide for his old age and bring up a big family
We older boys left home and hunted work elsewhere. I was young
and not bothered about working conditions or living conditions. I
was so vigorous that I could work under any conditions, and old
age was so far away that I was not worried about a home for my
declining years. Wages was my sole problem. I wanted steady
wages, and of course I wanted the highest I could get. To find
the place where wages were to be had I was always on the go. When
a mill closed I did not wait for it to reopen, but took the first
train for some other mill town. The first train usually was a
freight. If not, I waited for a freight, for I could sleep better
in a freight car than in a Pullman--it cost less. I could save
money and send it to mother, then she would not have to sell her
All of this sounds nobler than it was. In those days workers
never traveled on passenger trains unless they could get a pass.
Judges and statesmen pursued the same policy. To pay for a ticket
was money thrown away; so thought the upper classes and the lower
classes. About the only people that paid car fare were the
Knights of Pythias on their way to their annual convention.
Railroad workers could get all the passes they wanted, and any
toiler whose sister had married a brakeman or whose second cousin
was a conductor "bummed" the railroad for a pass and got it. None
of my relatives was a railroad man, and so to obtain the free
transportation which was every American's inalienable right, I
had to let the passenger trains go by and take the freights.
Once I got ditched at a junction, and while waiting for the
next freight I wandered down the track to where I had seen a
small house and a big watermelon patch. The man who lived there
was a chap named Frank Bannerman. I always remember him because
he was a communist, the first one I ever saw, and he filled my
pockets with about ten pounds of radical pamphlets which I
promised to read. He made a bargain with me that if I would read
and digest the Red literature he would give me all the
watermelons I could eat.
"I'm a comrade already," I said, meaning it as a merry jest,
that I would be anything for a watermelon. But he took it
seriously and his eyes lit up like any fanatic's.
"I knew it," he said. "With a face like yours--look at the
brow, look at the intellect, the intellect." I was flattered.
"Come here, wife," he called through the door. "Come here and
look at the intellect."
The wife, who was a barefooted, freckle-faced woman, came out
on the porch and, smiling sweetly, sized up my intellect. I made
up my mind that here were the two smartest people in America. For
they saw I was bulging with intellect. Nobody else had ever
discovered it, not even I myself. I thought I was a muscle-bound
iron puddler, but they pronounced me an intellectual giant. It
never occurred to me that they might have guessed wrong, while
the wise old world had guessed right. If the world was in step,
they were out of step, but I figured that the world was out of
step and they had the right stride. I thought their judgment must
be better than the judgment of the whole world because their
judgment pleased me. I later learned that their judgment was just
like the judgment of all Reds. That's what makes 'em Red.
"Are there many of us where you come from?" the man asked.
"Many what?" I asked.
"Communists, communists," he said excitedly.
I wanted to please him, because we were now cracking the melons
and scooping out their luscious hearts. So I told him how many
comrades there were in each of the rolling mills where I had
worked. I had to invent the statistics out of my own head, but
that head was full of intellect, so I jokingly gave him a fine
array of figures. The fact was that there may have been an
addle-pated Red among the mill hands of that time, but if there
was I had never met him.
The figures that I furnished Comrade Bannerman surprised him. I
counted the seeds in each slice of watermelon and gave that as
the number of comrades in each mill. The number was too high.
Comrade Bannerman knew how many Reds there were in the country,
and it appeared that the few mills I had worked in contained
practically the whole communist party. He got rather excited and
said the numbers were growing faster than he had imagined. He had
figured that it would take forty years to bring about the Red
commonwealth, but with the new light I had thrown on the subject
he concluded that the times were ripening faster than he had
dared to hope, and that there was no doubt the revolution would
be upon us within three years.
The comrade told me he was not popular in the village for two
reasons. The capitalistic storekeepers called him a dead beat and
the church people had rotten-egged him for a speech he had made
denouncing religion. I saw by his hands that he didn't work much,
and from the hands of his wife I learned who raised the
watermelons he was feeding to me. I remember wondering why he
didn't pay his grocery bill with the money he spent on pamphlets
to stuff in the pockets of passers-by.
ENVY IS THE SULPHUR IN HUMAN PIG-IRON
While I was feasting on the watermelons and feeling at peace
with all the world, a long passenger train pulled into the
junction. The train was made up of Pullmans and each car was
covered with flags, streamers and lodge insignia. On the heels of
this train came another and then another. These gay cars were
filled with members of the Knights of Pythias going to their
convention in Denver.
At the sight of these men in their Pullmans, my friend the
communist first turned pale, then green, then red. His eyes
narrowed and blazed like those of a madman. He stood up on his
porch, clenched his fists and launched into the most violent fit
of cursing I ever heard. The sight of those holiday-makers had
turned him into a demon. He thought they were capitalists. Here
was the hated tribe of rich men, the idle classes, all dressed up
with flags flying, riding across the country on a jamboree.
"The blood-sucking parasites! The bleareyed barnacles!" yelled
Comrade Bannerman. He shook his fists at the plutocrats and
cursed until he made me sick. He was a tank-town nut who didn't
like to work; had built up a theory that work was a curse and
that the "idle classes" had forced this curse on the masses, of
which he was one. He believed that all the classes had to do was
to clip coupons, cash them and ride around the country in Pullman
palace cars. Here was the whole bunch of them in seven "specials"
rolling right by his front door. He cursed them again and prayed
that the train might be wrecked and that every one of the
blinkety blinkety scoundrels might be killed. If all these idle
plutocrats could be destroyed in a heap they would be lifted from
the backs of the masses, and the masses would not have to work
Bannerman was a fool, and I could even then see just what made
him foolish. He was full of the brimstone of envy. The sight of
those well-dressed travelers eating in the dining cars drove him
wild. He wanted to be in their places, but he was too lazy to
work and earn the money that would put him there. I knew that
they were not rich men; they were school-teachers, doctors,
butchers and bakers, machinists and puddlers. They had saved
their money for a year in order to have the price of this
convention trip to Denver. Comrade Bannerman was pig-iron, and
envy made him brittle. He should have been melted down and had
the sulphur boiled out of him. Then he would have been wrought
iron; as were the men he was so envious of.
He was not envious of me, of course, because he thought I was a
tramp. Indeed he thought I was as envious as he, and so he
classed the two of us as "intellectuals." From this I learned
that "Intellectuals" is a name that weak men, crazed with envy,
give to themselves. They believe the successful men lack
intellect; are all luck. This thought soothes their envy and
keeps it from driving them mad.
I thanked Comrade Bannerman for his pamphlets and threw him a
few coins to pay for the melons he had given me. But my peep into
his soul had taught me more than his propaganda could teach me.
Later I read all the pamphlets because I had promised I would.
They told of the labor movement and the theories at work in
Germany. One of them was called Merrie England and declared that
England had once been merry, but capitalism had crushed all joy
and turned the island into a living hell. I remembered my mother
in Wales rocking her baby's cradle and singing all day long with
a voice vibrant with joy. If capitalism had crushed her heart she
hadn't heard about it.
When the lodge excursion train had passed on toward the
convention city, I hopped a freight and bade Comrade Bannerman
goodby. Had I told him that from my earnings I had salted away
enough money to buy his little shack he would have hated me as he
hated the lodge members in the Pullmans. I did not hate those
men. They were doing me a service by traveling across the
country. For they belonged to the fare-paying classes; their
money kept the railroads going so they could carry politicians
and some of us working men free.
LOADED DOWN WITH LITERATURE
After I had read the various pamphlets that Bannerman gave me I
was like the old negro who went to sleep with his mouth open. A
white man came along and put a spoonful of quinine in his mouth.
When the negro woke up the bitter taste worried him. "What does
it mean?" he asked. The white man told him it meant that he "had
done bu'sted his gall bladder and didn't have long to live." A
mighty bad taste was left in my mouth by those communist
pamphlets. If they were telling the truth I realized that labor's
gall bladder had done bu'sted and we didn't have long to live.
One book said that British capitalists owned all the money in the
world and that at a given signal they would draw the money out of
America and the working men here would starve to death in
twenty-nine days. It seemed that some crank had fasted that many
days in order to get accurate statistics showing just how long
the working man could hope to last after England pushed the
button for the money panic.
Another book said that Wall Street now owned ninety per cent.
of the wealth in America and was getting the other ten at the
rate of eight per cent. a year. Within twelve years Wall Street
would own everything in the world, and mankind would be left
naked and starving.
The wildest book of all was called Caesar's Column. It was in
the form of a novel and told how the rich in America worshiped
gold and lust instead of God and brotherly love, and how they
drove their carriages over the working man's children and left
them crushed and bleeding in the street. America had ceased to be
a republic and was an oligarchy of wealth all owned by a dozen
great families while the millions were starving. The end of the
book described a great revolution in which the people arose, led
by an Italian communist named Caesar Spadoni. The mob took all
the fine houses and killed the rich people. Caesar took the
bodies and, laying them in cement like bricks, he built an
enormous column of corpses in Union Square towering higher than
any building in New York. He established his headquarters in a
Fifth Avenue palace and was directing the slaughter of all men
who owned property, when some of his followers got jealous of his
fine position and killed him and burned the house. By that time
everything in America was destroyed, and the hero of the book,
having invented an air-ship, flew away to South Africa to escape
the general demolition. This book was being circulated by
communists as a true picture of what the country was coming to.
These pamphlets came into my hands at a time when work was
getting scarcer every day and a million men like myself were
moving about the country looking for jobs. Then for the first
time I realized my need for a broader education. If these things
were true, it was my duty to stop chasing the vanishing job and
begin to organize the workers so that they might destroy the
capitalists. But how could I know whether they were true? I had
no knowledge of past history. And without knowing the past how
could I judge the future? I was like the old man who had never
seen a railroad train. His sons took him thirty miles over the
hills and brought him to the depot where a train was standing.
The old man looked things over and saw that the wheels were made
of iron. "It will never start," he said. He knew that if his
wagon had heavy iron wheels, his team could never start it. But
his sons said: "It will start all right." They had seen it
before; they knew its past history. Soon the train started,
gathered speed like a whirlwind and went roaring away down the
track. The old man gazed after it and then, much excited, he
exclaimed. "It will never stop!"
The wisest head is no judge unless it has in it the history of
past performances. I had not studied much history in my brief
schooling. The mills called me because they needed men. Good
times were there when I arrived, and as for hard times, I was
sure they "would never start." Now the hard times were upon us
and panic shook the ground beneath our feet. "It will never
stop," men cried. Had they studied the history of such things
they would have known that hard times come and hard times go,
starting and stopping for definite reasons, like the railway
I had done the right thing in quitting school and going to the
puddling furnaces at a time when we needed iron more than we
needed education. The proverb says, "Strike while the iron is
hot." The country was building, and I gave it iron to build with.
Railroads were still pushing out their mighty arms and stringing
their iron rails across the western wheat lands. Bridges were
crossing the Mississippi and spanning the chasms in the Rocky
Mountains. Chicago and New York were rising in new growth with
iron in their bones to hold them high. My youth was spent in
giving to this growing land the element its body needed.
Now that body was sick. What was the matter with it? Lacking an
education, I was unprepared to say. When I left school my theory
was that every boy should learn a trade as soon as possible. Now
I saw that a trade was not enough. A worker needs an education,
also. The trade comes first, perhaps, but the education ought to
follow on its heels.
During the next ten years of my life I was a worker and a
student, too. My motto was that every one should have at least a
high-school education and a trade.
THE PUDDLER HAS A VISION
That caravan of railroad cars bearing the happy lodge members
to their meeting in the Rockies, had started a train of thought
that went winding through my mind ever after. In fancy I saw the
envious Bannerman shaking his fist at his thriftier, happier
brothers. Should I denounce the banding together of men for the
promotion of fun and good fellowship? Were these men hastening
the downfall of America as the communist predicted? Is not good
fellowship a necessary feeling in the hearts of civilized men?
Love of comrades had always been a ruling passion with me. I
joined my union as soon as I had learned my trade, the
Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers of North
America. It was a long name, and we liked every word in it. We
felt the glow of brotherhood, and as I said before, we used to
share our jobs with the brother who was out of work. The union
paid a weekly benefit to men who had to strike for better working
conditions. At that time there were no death benefits nor any
fund to educate the children of members killed in the mills. When
such a death happened, the union appointed a committee to stand
at the office window on pay-day and ask every man to contribute
something from his wages. There is a charitable spirit among men
who labor together and they always gave freely to any fund for
the widow and orphans. This spirit is the force that lifts man
above the beasts and makes his civilization. There is no mercy in
brute nature. The hawk eats the sparrow; the fox devours the
young rabbit; the cat leaps from under a bush and kills the
mother robin while the young are left to starve in the nest.
There is neither right nor wrong among the brutes because they
have no moral sense. They do not kill for revenge nor torture for
the love of cruelty, as Comrade Bannerman would in praying that
the train be wrecked and the rich men burned to death in the
ruin. The beasts can feel no pity, no sympathy, no regret, for
nature gave them no conscience. But man differs from all creation
because he has a moral sense, he has a conscience. My conscience
has been a very present thing with me through all my life. I am a
praying man. I never take a doubtful step until I have prayed for
"You'll never get anywhere, Jim," fellows have said to me, "as
long as your conscience is so darn active. To win in this world
you have got to be slick. What a man earns will keep him poor.
It's what he gains that makes him rich." If this is so, the
nation with the lowest morals will have the most wealth. But the
truth is just the opposite. The richest nations are those that
have the highest moral sense.
But this was a great problem for a young uneducated man. To be
told by some of my fellows that dishonesty was the only road to
wealth, and to be shown in communist documents that the
capitalists of America were stealing everything from the workers,
put a mighty problem up to me. And that's what made me pray for
guidance. I pray because I want an answer, and when it comes I
recognize in it my own conscience. Praying banishes all selfish
thoughts from mind, and gives the voice of conscience a chance to
be heard. I pray for a higher moral sense, that which lifts man
above beasts, and when my answer comes and I feel morally right,
then all hell can't make me knuckle under. For civilization is
built on man's morals not on brute force (as Germany learned to
her sorrow), and I fight for the moral law as long as there is
any fight left in me.
Nature planned that when the cat ate the mother robin, the
young robins in the nest must starve. Nature had other robins
that would escape the enemy. But among men it is wrong for the
little ones to suffer when the hand that feeds them is destroyed.
For man has sympathy, which beasts have not. Sympathy is the iron
fiber in man that welds him to his fellows. Envy is the sulphur
that pollutes these bonds and makes them brittle. Suppose some
master puddler of humanity could gather thousands of men into a
melting-pot, a fraternity whose purpose was to boil out the envy,
greed and malice as much as possible, and purify the good metal
of human sympathy. How much greater the social value of these men
would be. Bound together by good fellowship and human sympathy
these men could pool their charity and build a happy city where
all the children of their stricken comrades could be sent to
school together, there to learn that man is moral, that the
strong do not destroy the weak, that the nestling is not left to
fate, but that the fatherless are fathered by all men whose
hearts have heard their cry.
This vision came to me in the darkest days of my life. I had
seen the children of my dead comrades scattered like leaves from
a smitten tree never to meet again. I had left my parents' roof
to be buffeted about by strikes and unemployment, and I feared
that our home would be lost and my brothers scattered forever.
The voice of hate was whispering that the "classes" would ride
down the children of the poor, and with this gloomy thought I
went to bed. My couch was a bed of coal slack, and I was
journeying to a mill town in a freight car.
As we rolled along, I saw in a vision train after train of
lodge men going to some happy city. They were miners and steel
workers, as well as clerks and teachers, and they were banded
together, not like Reds to overthrow the wage system, but to
teach themselves and their children how to make the wage system
shed its greatest blessings upon all. The city they were going to
was one they had built with their own hands. And in that city was
a school where every trade was taught to fatherless children, as
my father taught his trade to me. And with this trade each child
received the liberal education that the rich man gives his son
but which the poor man goes without. This was the wildest fancy I
had ever entertained. It was born of my own need of knowledge. It
was a dream I feared I could not hope to realize.
JOE THE POOR BRAKEMAN
A brakeman stuck his head in the end window of the box car and
shouted at me:
"Where're you going?"
"Birmingham," I answered.
"What have you got to go on?"
I had some money in my belt, but I would need that for the
boarding-house keeper in the Alabama iron town. So I drew
something from my vest pocket and said:
"This is all I've got left."
The trainman examined it by the dim light at the window. His
eye told him that it was a fine gold watch. "All right," he said
as be pocketed it and went away. I never knew whether I cheated
the brakeman or the brakeman cheated me. The watch wasn't worth
as much as the ride, but the ride wasn't his to sell.
I had bought the watch in Cincinnati. A fake auction in a
pawnshop attracted my attention as I walked along a street near
the depot. The auctioneer was offering a "solid gold, Swiss
movement, eighteen jeweled watch" to the highest bidder. "This
watch belongs to my friend Joe Coupling," he said, "a brakeman on
the B. & O. He was in a wreck and is now in the hospital.
Everybody knows that one of the best things a railroader has is
his watch. He only parts with it as a matter of life and death.
Joe has got to sell his watch and somebody is going to get a
bargain. This watch cost eighty-five dollars and you couldn't buy
the like of it to-day for one hundred. How much am I offered?"
Some one bid five dollars, and the bidding continued until it was
up to twenty-five dollars. At that price the watch was declared
sold, and I strolled on, thinking the matter over. I figured that
the story of Joe the injured brakeman must be false. If he had an
eighty-five-dollar watch he could borrow forty on it. Why should
his "friend" have sold it outright for twenty-five? The fakery of
it was plain to any one who stopped to think. Who then would be
fool enough to pay twenty-five dollars for a fake watch at a side
auction? Not I. I was too wise. "How easy it is," I said to
myself, "to solve a skin game."
The next day I happened to pass the place again and they were
selling the same watch. I listened for the second time to the sad
story of Joe the brakeman. He was still in the hospital and still
willing to sacrifice his eighty-five-dollar gold watch to the
highest bidder. Just for fun I started off the bidding at two
dollars. The auctioneer at once knocked down the watch to me and
took my money. The speed of it dazed me, and I stumbled along the
street like a fool. What was the game? I held the glittering
watch in my hand and gazed at it like a hypnotized bird. I came
to another pawnshop and went in. "What will you give me on this
watch?" I asked. The pawnbroker glanced at it and said he
couldn't give me anything but advice.
"I can buy these watches for three dollars a dozen. They are
made to be sold at auction. The case is not gold and the works
I had been caught in the game after all. The whole show had
been put on for me. The men who did the bidding the first day
were "with the show." Their scheme was to get a real bid from me.
When I failed to bite, they rung down the curtain and waited for
the next come-on. The show was staged again for me the following
day, and that time they got me. I had the "brakeman's watch" and
he had the laugh on me. In the next wreck that Brakeman Joe got
into I wished him the same luck Comrade Bannerman wished for the
trainload of plutocrats. "If I should meet Joe now," I said, "I'd
gladly give him back the timepiece that he prizes so." Let us
hope that the brakeman I gave the watch to down in Alabama was
There was much to think of in that auction incident. Experience
will often give the lie to theory. My theory of the game was good
enough for me. I acted on my theory, and they got my money.
Perhaps the theory of Bannerman was wrong. He claimed he knew
just how the capitalists were robbing labor. Suppose we backed
his theory with some money and got stung? I was now theory shy
and I have stayed away from theories ever since.
If you know the facts, no swindle can deceive you. I spend my
life in getting facts. I now have seen enough to know that
capitalism is not a swindle. If all hands labored hard and
honestly the system would enrich us all. Some workers are
dishonest and they gouge the employers. Some employers are
dishonest and they gouge the workers. But whether employer or
employee does the robbing, the public is the one that's robbed.
And they are both members of the public. In making the world
poorer they are rendering a sorry service to the world.
Dishonesty is the thing that does the trick. And it is not
confined to any class. It was not a capitalist but a slick wind
worker who robbed me by the watch swindle. He had to swing his
jaw for hours every day in order to steal a few dollars.
A DROP IN THE BUCKET OF BLOOD
In Birmingham I found a job in a rolling mill and established
myself in a good boarding-house. In those days a "good boarding-
house" in iron workers' language meant one where you got good
board. One such was called "The Bucket of Blood." It got its name
because a bloody fight occurred there almost every day. Any meal
might end in a knock-down-and-drag-out. The ambulance called
there almost as often as the baker's cart. But it was a "good"
boarding-house. And I established myself there.
Good board consists in lots of greasy meat, strong coffee and
slabs of sweet pie with gummy crusts, as thick as the palm of
your hand. At the Bucket of Blood we had this delicious fare and
plenty of it. When a man comes out of the mills he wants quantity
as well as quality. We had both at the Bucket of Blood, and
whenever a man got knocked out by a fist and was carted away in
the ambulance, the next man on the waiting list was voted into
our club to fill the vacancy. We had what is called "family
reach" at the table (both in feeding and fighting). Each man cut
off a big quivering hunk of roast pork or greasy beef and passed
the platter to his neighbor. The landlady stood behind the chairs
and directed two colored girls to pour coffee into each cup as it
These cups were not china cups with little handles such as you
use in your home. They were big "ironstone" bowls the size of
beer schooners, such as we used to see pictured at "Schmiddy's
Place," with the legend, "Largest In The City, 5c." (How some of
us would like to see those signs once more!) To prevent the
handles from being broken off, these cups were made without
handles. They were so thick that you could drop them on the floor
and not damage the cups. When one man hit another on the head
with this fragile china, the skull cracked before the teacup did.
The "family reach" which we developed in helping ourselves to
food, was sometimes used in reaching across the table and felling
a man with a blow on the chin. Kipling has described this hale
and hearty type of strong man's home in Fulta Fisher's Boarding-
House where sailors rested from the sea.
"A play of shadows on the wall,
A knife thrust unawares
And Hans came down (as cattle fall),
Across the broken chairs."
But the boarders did not fight with knives at the Bucket of
Blood. Knifing is not an American game. We fought with fists,
coffee cups and pieces of furniture, after the furniture went to
pieces. We were not fighting to make the world safe for
democracy, although we were the most democratic fellows in the
world. We slept two to a bed, four to a room. Not always the same
four, for like soldiers on the firing line, some comrade was
missing after every battle.
These fights started in friendly banter. One fellow would begin
teasing another about his girl. The whole table would take it up,
every man doing his best to insult and enrage the victim. It was
all fun until some fellow's temper broke under the strain. Then
a rush, and a few wild swings that missed. Then the thud of a
blow that connected, and the fight was over. These men had arms
with the strength of a horse's leg, and as soon as their "kick"
struck solid flesh, the man hit was knocked out. He wouldn't be
back for supper, but the rest of us would, without having our
appetites disturbed in the least. I didn't like these methods,
but if the boys did I was not going to complain.
My practice of studying at night offended my roommates. The
lamplight got in their eyes. There were three fellows in the room
besides myself. For several nights they advised me to "cut out
the higher education, douse that light and come to bed." Finally
they spoke about it in the daytime. "Majority rules," they said,
"and there's three of us against you. We can't sleep while you
have that lamp burning. The light keeps us awake and it also
makes the room so hot that the devil couldn't stand it. If you
stay up reading to-night we'll give you the bum's rush."
I was so interested in my books that I couldn't help lingering
with them after the other fellows went to bed. Everything grew
quiet. Suddenly six hands sized me and flung me out the window.
It was a second-story window and I carried the screen with me.
But as it was full of air holes it didn't make a very competent
parachute. I landed with a thud on the roof of the woodshed,
which, being old and soft with southern moss, caved in and
carried me to the ground below--alive. The fellows up above threw
my books out the window, aiming them at my head. They threw me my
hat and coat and my valise, and I departed from the Bucket of
Blood, and took up my abode at "The Greasy Spoon."
A GRUB REFORMER PUTS US OUT OF GRUB
The Greasy Spoon isn't an appetizing name; not appetizing to
men who live a sedentary life. But it was meant as a lure to men
who live by muscular toil. It sounded good to us mill workers
for, like Eskimos, we craved much fat in our diet. We were great
muscular machines, and fat was the fuel for our engines.
Muckraking was just beginning in those days, and a prying
reformer came to live for a while at the Greasy Spoon. He told us
that so much grease in our food would kill us. We were ignorant
of dietetics; all we knew was that our stomachs cried for plenty
of fat. The reformer said that our landlady fed us much fat meat
because it was the cheapest food she could buy. Milk, eggs and
fruits would cost more, and so this greedy cruel woman was lining
her pocket at the expense of our lives.
The landlady was a kindly person, and she took the reformer's
advice. She banished the fat pork, and supplied the table with
other food substitutes, but she was generous and gave us plenty
of them. We ate this reformed food and found we were growing
weaker every day at the puddling furnace. We got the blues and
became sullen. Gradually all laughter ceased in that boarding-
house. We even felt too low to fight. At the end of two weeks
there was one general cry: "Hog fat, and plenty of it!" Our
engines had run out of fuel; and now we knew what we needed. We
were so crazy for bacon that if a hog had crossed our path we
would have leaped on him like a lion and eaten him alive.
Fat came back to the table, and the Greasy Spoon again rang
with laughter. How foolish that reformer was! He did no work
himself and was a dyspeptic. He tried to force his diet upon us,
and he made us as weak as he was. How many reformers there are
who are trying to reshape the world to fit their own weakness. I
never knew a theorist who wasn't a sick man.
To-day we understand that we can't run a motor-car after the
gasoline is played out. The burning of the oil in the engine
gives the power. The burning of fats in the muscles gives the
laborer his power. Sugar and starches are the next best things to
fat, and that's why we could eat the thick slabs of sweet pie. We
relished it well and have burned it all up in our labor in the
mills. We came out with that healthy sparkle that dyspeptics
When we realized that the reformer didn't know what he was
talking about, and that in his effort to help us he was hurting
us, we saw he was our enemy, and we gave all of his ideas the
"horse laugh." His theory that the boarding-house keepers were in
a conspiracy to rob the workers by feeding them pork instead of
pineapples turned out to be much like all the "capitalist
conspiracies" in Comrade Bannerman's pamphlets. I am glad I have
lived in a world of facts, and that I went therefrom to the world
of books. For I have found there is much falsehood taught in
books. But life won't tell a fellow any lies.
A man who knows only books may believe that by writing a new
prescription he can cure the world of what ails it. A man who
knows life knows that the world is not sick. Give it plenty of
food and a chance to work and it will have perfect digestion.
THE PIE EATER'S PARADISE
The Greasy Spoon was all right. It was a peaceful place. The
landlady was Irish, and her motto was: "If there's any fighting
to be done here I'll do it myself." On the sideboard she kept a
carving knife as big as a cavalry saber. Whenever two men started
a row, she grabbed this carving knife and with a scream like a
panther she lit into them.
"Stop yer fightin' before I hack your hands off!"
The men were in deadly fear of her because they knew she meant
business. The sight of that swinging knife quelled every riot
before it got started. We fellows were like children in that we
only thought of one thing at a time. And when we saw the
landlady's carving knife we forgot whatever else was on our
minds. This woman was a real peacemaker. She not only wanted
peace, she knew how to get it. Such things afford us lessons that
are useful all our lives. This woman had learned by sad
experience that healthy men will quarrel and thump each other;
that these fights put men in the hospital, after breaking her
dishes and splattering her tablecloths with blood. Hating
bloodshed, she prevented it by being ever ready to shed blood
herself. She stood for the moral law, but she stood armed and
Impractical men have told me that right will always triumph of
itself; it needs no fighters to support it. The man who believes
that is ignorant, and such ignorance is dangerous. Right is
always trampled down when no fighter upholds it. But men will
fight for right who will not fight for wrong. And so right
conquers wrong because right has the most defenders. Let no man
shirk the battle because he thinks he isn't needed.
The reason a woman with a carving knife was strong enough to
put a stop to fighting in the Greasy Spoon was this: she had
behind her every man except the two who were fighting. Had
either of those men struck down the woman, then twenty other men,
outraged by such a deed, would then and there have swarmed upon
the two and crushed them. The woman stood for right and she
always triumphed because she had (and these two knew she had) the
biggest bunch of fighters on her side.
This is what peace means, an equilibrium between forces. It is
the natural law,--God's way of keeping peace. And any plan for
World Peace that is builded not upon this law is nothing. Justice
must stand with an upraised sword. When two states quarrel she
must admonish them, and let them know that should they overthrow
her, all good nations would rush in and crush them. The same law
that keeps peace in a rowdy boarding-house will keep the peace of
the world. For what is this world but a big wide boarding-house,
and all the nations rough and greedy grabbers at the table?
I left the Greasy Spoon and went to the "Pie Boarding-House."
The Greasy Spoon had peace, but peace is not enough. After peace
comes prosperity. The Pie House represented prosperity. For the
woman who ran it knew how to make more pies than the fellows ever
heard of. You see, we were all from the British Isles where they
have pudding. The pie is an American institution. Nobody knows
how to make pies but an American housewife. And lucky that she
does, for men can not thrive in America without pie. I do not
mean the standardized, tasteless things made in great pie
factories. I refer to the personally conducted pies that women
used to make. The pioneer wives of America learned to make a pie
out of every fruit that grows, including lemons, and from many
vegetables, including squash and sweet potatoes, as well as from
vinegar and milk and eggs and flour. Fed on these good pies the
pioneers--is there any significance in the first syllable of the
word--hewed down the woods and laid the continent under the plow.
Some men got killed and their widows started boarding-houses.
Here we workers fed on proper pie, and we soon changed this
wooden land into a land of iron. Now the pie is passing out and
we are feeding on French pastry. Is our downfall at hand?
Life in the Pie Boarding-House was a never-ending delight. You
never knew when you sat down at the table what kind of pie would
be dealt you. Some of the fellows had been there half a year and
swore that they had seen fifty-seven varieties and were expecting
new ones at any meal. The crowd here was a selected crowd. It was
made up of the pie connoisseurs of mill-town. Word was quietly
passed out among the wisest fellows to move to this boarding-
house and get a liberal education in pie. So it was a selected
and well-behaved crowd. They didn't want to start any rumpus and
thus lose their places at this attractive table.
And that is one way that virtue is its own reward. Only the
well-behaved fellows were tipped off to the pie bonanza. From
this I learned that the better manners you have, the better fare
you will get in this world. I had steadily risen from the "Bucket
of Blood," through the "Greasy Spoon" to a seat at the cherished
"Pie" table. Here the cups were so thin that you couldn't break a
man's head with them. I was steadily rising in the social world.
CAUGHT IN A SOUTHERN PEONAGE CAMP
It was while I was in Birmingham that the industrial depression
reached rock bottom. In the depth of this industrial paralysis
the iron workers of Birmingham struck for better pay. I, with a
train load of other strikers, went to Louisiana and the whole
bunch of us were practically forced into peonage. It was a case
of "out of the frying pan into the fire." We had been saying that
the mill owners had driven us "into slavery," for they had made
us work under bad conditions; but after a month in a peon camp,
deep in the swamps of Louisiana, we knew more about slavery than
we did before. And we knew that work in the rolling mills, bad as
it was, was better than forced labor without pay. To-day when I
hear orators rolling out the word "slavery" in connection with
American wages and working conditions, I have to laugh. For any
man who has ever had a taste of peonage, to say nothing of
slavery, knows that the wage system is not real slavery; it's not
the genuine, lash-driven, bloodhound-hunted, swamp-sick African
slavery. None is genuine without Simon Legree and the Louisiana
bloodhounds. The silk-socked wage slave, toiling eight hours for
six dollars, is not the genuine old New Orleans molasses slave.
He may carry a band and give a daily street parade, but if he's
not accompanied by Simon Legree and the bloodhounds, he is not a
genuine Uncle Tom, his slavery is less than skin deep. You can't
fool me. I know what real slavery is. I know as much about
slavery as the man that made it. He's the guy that taught me. I
worked under Simon Legree in Louisiana.
On the way to New Orleans we paused at a siding, and a native
asked me, "Who are all them men, and which way are they goin'?"
I told him "which way" we were going, and that we were needing
jobs. He replied:
"You-all are comin' down hyah now looking for food and work. In
'65 you was down hyah lookin' fo' blood!"
When we reached the great city on the Mississippi, we scattered
over the town looking for jobs. I saw a pile of coal in the
street before a boarding-house. I asked for the job of carrying
in the coal. There were two tons of it. I toted it in and was
paid a dollar. New Orleans was a popular winter resort where
northerners came to escape the severe cold of the North Atlantic
States. I was given the job of yard-man in this boarding-house. I
carried in groceries, peeled potatoes, scrubbed the kitchen floor
and built fires each evening in the guests' rooms. Each room had
a grate, and I carried up kindling and coal for all of them. For
this work I received a dollar a day, with two meals (dinner and
supper) and was permitted to carry away from the kitchen all the
cooked food that remained after the guests had eaten. This
privilege had grown out of the custom of the colored help in the
South having their "man" to feed. I had several men to feed. My
"gang" was still looking for work and not finding any. Times were
desperate. For five cents a man could get a glass of beer and
floor room to sleep on in a lodging-house for homeless men. This
was called a "Five Cent Flop" house. My pals were not able at
times to raise the five cents a day to buy sleeping quarters. It
was late fall and too cold to sleep in the "jungle" down by the
levee. The poor fellows were able to stave off starvation by
visiting various free lunches during the day. Every night I
arrived with my dollar, and that meant beer and beds for a score.
I also brought along a flour sack half full of biscuits, cold
pancakes, corn bread, chicken necks and wings and scraps of
roasts and steaks. These hungry men, with their schooners of
beer, made a feast of these scraps. My loyalty in coming every
night and giving them everything I could scrape together touched
them deeply. They regarded me as deserving special honor, and
while they believed in democracy as a general proposition, they
voted that it would be carrying equality too far if they
permitted me to get no more out of my work than all the rest got.
So they decided that I was to have a fifteen-cent bed each night
instead of a five-cent flop with the rest of them. And I was
assigned to the royal suite of that flop house, which consisted
of a cot with a mosquito bar over it.
At this time they were holding "kangaroo" court in the New
Orleans jail. Every vagrant picked up by the police was tried and
sentenced and shipped out to a chain-gang camp. Nearly every man
tried was convicted. And there were plenty of camp bosses ready
to "buy" every vagrant the officers could run in. My bunch down
at the flop house was in deadly terror of being "kangarooed" and
sent to a peon camp in the rice swamps.
One day when I was renewing the fuel in the room of a Mrs.
Hubbard from Pittsburgh, I found no one in the apartment and Mrs.
Hubbard's pearls and other jewels lying on the dresser.
Immediately I was terrified with thought of the kangaroo court. I
knew that the jewels were valued at several thousands of dollars.
If I went away some one else might come into the room and
possibly steal the jewels, for they were lying in plain sight and
were valuable enough to tempt a weak-willed person. I sounded an
alarm and stayed in the doorway. I refused to leave the room
until Mrs. Hubbard returned and counted her valuables.
She found them all there and thanked me for guarding them. She
said it was by an oversight that she had gone away without
locking up her treasures. She asked me how she should reward me.
I told her that I was already rewarded, for I had guarded her
jewels in order to protect myself from being suspected of their
theft and so kangarooed into a slave-camp.
But in spite of all my precautions, I landed there after all.
The gang down at the flop house was dazzled by an employment
agent, who offered to ship them out into the rice country to work
on the levee for a dollar a day and cakes. The men were wild for
a square meal and the feel of a dollar in their jeans. So they
all shipped out to the river levee and I went along with the
As our train rattled over the trestles and through the cypress
swamps the desperate iron workers were singing:
"We'll work a hundred days,
And we'll get a hundred dollars,
And then go North,
And all be rich and happy!"
When we reached the dyke-building camp I learned how ignorant I
really was. I could not do the things the older men could. I was
young and familiar only with the tools of an iron puddler. The
other men were ten years older and had acquired skill in handling
mule-teams and swinging an ax. They saw I couldn't do anything,
so they appointed me water carrier. The employing boss was what
is now called hard-boiled. He was a Cuban, with the face of a
cutthroat. Doubtless he was the descendant of the Spanish-English
buccaneers who used to prowl the Caribbean Sea and make
headquarters at New Orleans. Beside this pirate ancestry I'll bet
he was a direct descendant of Simon Legree. He suspected that I
couldn't do much in a dyking camp, so he swarmed down on me the
second week I was there and ordered me to quit the water-carrying
job and handle a mule team and a scraper. I saw death put an arm
around my neck right then and there. But I wouldn't confess that
I couldn't drive a team.
I put the lines over my head, said "Go 'long" as I had heard
other muleteers say, and, grasping the handles of the scraper, I
scooped up a slip load of clay. My arms were strong and this was
no trick at all. But getting the load was not the whole game. The
hardest part was to let go. I guided the lines with one hand and
steadied the scraper with the other as I drove up on the dump.
Then I heaved up on the handles, the scraper turned over on its
nose and dumped the load. But that isn't all it dumped. The mules
shot ahead when the load was released, and the lines around my
neck jerked me wrong side up. The handle of the scraper hit me a
stunning blow in the face and the whole contraption dragged over
my body bruising me frightfully. I staggered to my feet with one
eye blinded by the blood that flowed from a gash in my brow.
Simon Legree cursed me handsomely and told me I was fired. I
asked him where I would get my pay, and he told me he was paying
me a compliment by letting me walk out of that camp alive. I went
to the cook shack and washed the blood off my face. I was a
pretty sick boy. The cook was a native and was kind to me.
"Boy, you're liable to get lockjaw from that cut," he said.
"I'll put some of this horse liniment on it and it'll heal up."
He then bandaged it with court-plaster.
"It's a long way back to New Orleans," the cook concluded. "And
you might as well have something to keep your ribs from hitting
together." He cut off a couple of pounds of raw bacon and put it
in my pocket together with a "bait" of Plowboy tobacco. And so I
hit the road. When I came to the place where my pals were
working, cutting willows along the levee, I told them of my
"Never mind, boy," they said. "You go back to New Orleans and
wait for us. After we've worked our hundred days to get a hundred
dollars each, we will work a few days more to get a hundred
dollars for you. Then we'll all go north and be rich together."
I began footing it thirty-five miles to the city. I decided,
like Queen Isabella, to pawn my jewels to enable me to discover
America again. I had an old ring and I met a darky who had a
quarter. He got my ring. After tramping all day I was exhausted.
I came to a negro cabin and went in and offered the "mammy" a
pound of bacon for a pound of corn pone. I further bargained to
give the first half of my other pound of bacon if she'd cook the
second half for me to eat. She cooked my share of the bacon and
set it and the corn bread on the table. I ate heartily for a
while, but after two or three slices of the bacon, I was fed up
on it. She hadn't cooked enough of the grease out of it. I began
feeding this bacon to a pickininny who sat beside me.
"Man, don't give away your meat," the mammy said. I told her
that I had had all I wanted. Then she said to the pickininny:
"Child, doan eat that meat. Save it foh you papa when he come
When I got into New Orleans the next morning, I traded my
Plowboy tobacco for a bar of laundry soap. With my twenty-five
cents I bought a cotton undershirt. Then I went into the "jungle"
at Algiers, a town across the river from New Orleans, and built a
fire in the jungle (a wooded place where hoboes camp) and heated
some water in an old tin pail I found there. Then I took off all
my clothes and threw my underwear away. A negro who stood
watching me said:
"White man, are you throwing them clothes away?"
"I certainly am," I replied.
"Why, them underclothes is northern underelothes. Them's woolen
clothes. Them's the kind of underclothes I like."
"You wouldn't like that bunch of underclothes," I said.
"Because if you look in the seams you will find something that
is unseemly. I've been out in a levee camp."
"Hush mah mouf, white man," laughed the negro. "Them little
things would never bother a Louisiana nigger. Why we have them
things with us all the time. We just call 'em our little
He picked up the garments and walked off proud and happy. I
took my soap and warm water and scrubbed myself from crown to
heel. I put my clothing in the pail with more soap and water and
boiled the outfit thoroughly.
Then I went back to New Orleans and got my old job in the
boarding-house. I saved all my money except my fifteen cents for
the nightly flop. A month later my gang came roaring back from
the peon camp. They had worked thirty days and had not got a
cent. Slave-driver Legree had driven them out when they demanded
a reckoning. They were lucky to escape with their lives, their
cooties and their appetites. Instead of financing me, I had to
finance them again. They finally got cleaned up and we all went
back to Birmingham, where the strike was over.
"Show us that spieler," they said, "who told us the wage system
was the worst kind of slavery. If daily wages is slavery, God
grant that they never set us free again."
A SICK, EMACIATED SOCIAL SYSTEM
The hard times I have been describing were in the early
nineties. The year before there had been a financial crash.
Nobody seemed to know what was the matter at the time, but it has
since been learned that the hard times were the fruit of crop
failures, if one can call failure fruit. All over the world bad
years had destroyed the harvests. This great loss of foodstuffs
was exactly the same as if armies in war had ravaged the fields.
Farmers had to borrow money to buy food. They had no other buying
power. So trade languished, credit was strained, and finally came
the financial collapse. It happened after the good crop years
were returning. That's why the people could not understand it.
Farmers were raising crops again, but labor was idle and could
not buy bread.
The lesson is this, when commerce is starved down to a certain
point, it goes to pieces. Then when the food comes it can not
assimilate it. It is like a man who has been without food for
thirty days. His muscles have disappeared, his organs have
shrunk, he can not walk; he is only skin and bones. The
disappearance of the muscles is like the disappearance of labor's
jobs in hard times. The shrinkage of the vital organs is like the
shrinkage of capital and values. When the starved man is faced
with food he can not set in and eat a regular dinner. He must be
fed on a teaspoonful of soup, and it is many months before his
muscles come back, his organs regain their normal size and he is
a well-fed man again. So it is with the industrial state. It can
be starved by crop failures, by war waste or by labor slacking on
the job. Anything that lessens the output of field and factory,
whether it be heaven's drought or man's loafing, starves the
economic state and starves all men in it. If crop failure should
last long enough, as it does in China, millions of men would die.
If war lasts long enough, as it did in Austria, millions of
citizens must starve. If labor should try slacking, as it did in
Russia, the economic state would starve to death and the workers
die with it.
Men who have been through strikes and lockouts until they have
been reduced to rags and hunger place no trust in the Russian
theory that men can quit work and loaf their way to wealth. We
loafed our way to hunger, misery and peonage. We saw that the
whole world would come to our fate, if all should follow our
example. Luckily we won our point, so we went back to work and
helped feed the starved social state, and in a few years America
was rich again. And America continued rich and fat until the
World War wastage shrank her to skin and bones again. Much of her
muscle has disappeared (1921: five million workers are idle) and
she must be nursed back by big crops, and big output by labor
before she will be strong enough to reabsorb into her system
every muscle in America.
That's my belief. That's my gospel. I did not make this gospel.
It is God's law and we can not alter it. If I were asked to write
the BIBLE OF LABOR, this chapter would be the law and the
prophets. And from these truths I would advise each man to write
his own Ten Commandments.
BREAKING INTO THE TIN INDUSTRY
I decided to leave Birmingham as soon as my stomach had got
used to regular meals and my pocket knew what real money felt
The dry years had ended and once more the northern farms were
yielding mammoth crops. But the country was so sick that it
couldn't sit up and eat as it ought to. So the farmers were
selling their crops at steadily falling prices. This drove some
of them frantic. They couldn't pay interest on their mortgaged
farms, and they were seeking to find "the way out" by issuing
paper money, or money from some cheap metal with which they could
repudiate their debts. Banks could not collect their loans,
merchants could not get money for their goods, manufacturers were
swamped by their pay-rolls and had to discharge their men. Coxey
was raising a great army of idle men to march on Washington and
demand that the government should feed and clothe the people.
All my savings had long since gone, and from the high life in
the Pie Boarding-House I had descended to my days of bread and
water. All men were in a common misery. If a hobo managed to get
a steak and cook it in the bushes by the railroad track, the
smell of it would draw a score of hungry men into the circle of
his firelight. It was a trying time, and it took all the
fortitude I had to look hopefully forward toward a day when
things would begin picking up and the wheels of industry would
whirl again. The idle men who had camped by the railroads had
drunk their water from, and cooked their mulligan stews in,
tomato cans. The tin can had become the badge of hoboing. The tin
trade was new in America and I foresaw a future in the industry,
for all kinds of food were now being put up in tin, whereas when
I was a child a tin can was rarely seen. I decided that two
trades were better than one, and I would learn the tin plate
trade. I went to Elwood, Indiana, and found a place there in a
tin mill. My knowledge of puddling, heating and rolling,
occasionally working in a sheet mill similar to a tin mill,
prepared me for this new work. In tin making a piece of wrought
iron is rolled thin and then covered with a thinner coating of
pure tin. After this is done the plate remains soiled and
discolored, and the next process is to remove the stain and
polish the tin until it shines like silver.
To have a job and eat pie again made me happy. Our union
contained several hundred members, so I had a lot of prospective
friends to get acquainted with. I was then nearly twenty-one and
a pretty good mixer; I liked men and enjoyed mingling with them
and learning all I could from what they told me. When they
drifted into a saloon I went along for the company. I did not
care to drink, so I would join some impromptu quartet and we
would sing popular songs while the other fellows cheered us with
the best will in the world. A drink of beer or two heightens a
man's appreciation of music, and the way the boys applauded my
singing makes me rather regret the Volstead Act. It queered my
act. Since beer disappeared nobody has asked me to sing.
Prohibition may be good for the health but it is sure death to
Those were happy days. But just when all my troubles seemed
ended and the rainbow of promise in the sky, a new cloud
appeared, black and threatening. In fact it swept down like a
tornado. The men decided to strike.
A strike! Of all things! We owned about the only jobs in
Indiana. Our strike wouldn't last long--for the mills. For us it
would last forever. The day we walked out, others would walk in.
And it would be so small a part of Coxey's army that the main
body would march on and never miss it. I had just gone through
that long, soul-killing period of idleness and had barely managed
to find a job before I collapsed. Now that we were to strike I
would have to push that job aside and sink back into the abyss.
In reaching Elwood, I had tramped from Muncie, Indiana, to
Anderson, a long weary walk for one whose feet, like mine, were
not accustomed to it. From Anderson I tramped to Frankton, and
there I caught a freight and rode the bumpers to Elwood. The
train took me right into the mill. It was summer and the mill had
been shut down by the hard times. The boss was there looking over
the machinery. They were getting ready to start up. I faced him
and he said: "Do you want a job?"
"Yes," I said.
"What at? Greasing up to-night," he said. Weary and hungry as I
was from my hoboing, I went right to work, and all night I, with
a few others, greased the bearings. The next day he gave me a job
as a catcher. A catcher is one who seizes the rolled plate as it
comes out and throws it back to the roller. It has to be rolled
many times. The boss who gave me this much-wanted job was Daniel
G. Reid, who afterward became one of the big men in the tin
After I became Secretary of Labor I was a dinner guest at the
White House. When I arrived the President said: "Here's an old
friend of yours." To my surprise and keen pleasure President
Harding led forward my old boss, Daniel G. Reid. There was much
laughing and old-time talk between us. "Do you recall," said Mr.
Reid, "how during the tin strike of '96, you steered to the lodge
room and unionized men who came to take the place of the
strikers?" Mr. Reid thought this was a great joke. He had always
been favorable to ending the strike and signing the men's
agreement, but for a long time had been deterred by his
partners. Mr. Reid in nearly every conference was selected for
chairman, and this was considered by the employers a very fine
tribute of respect and confidence. Turning to the president, Mr.
Reid said: "If Jim is as industrious in your service as he was in
the Elwood tin mill you have got a good secretary. Jim knew more
about the tin plate business when he was a worker than any other
man in America. I wanted to get him to join our sales department
but he declined my offer!"
When the matter of the Elwood strike was referred to the next
regular meeting I had been working only three weeks. I wrote to
my father in Sharon asking for his counsel on the subject. He
wrote back: "In as much as it isn't a question of wages or rules,
I'd vote to stay on the job and wait for my pay. There's no pay
out here to be had even by waiting. The mill is down, and if we
hadn't raised a big potato crop we wouldn't know where to look
for our next meal."
UNACCUSTOMED AS I AM TO PUBLIC SPEAKING
With father's warning on my mind I went to the meeting where
the strike was to be voted. Nobody had opposed the strike, for
the cause was plainly a just one. The men wanted their pay to be
issued to them every week, and they were entitled to it. The only
question in my mind was one of expediency. Could we hope to win a
strike at a time like that when the mills were on the verge of
closing because of bad business?
While the speakers were presenting the reasons for the strike I
noticed that not a man examined or discussed the dangers in it.
The mind of the meeting was made up. I was talking to the fellow
who sat beside me, and I told him what my father had written me.
"I agree," he said. "A strike at a time like this doesn't seem
to be the right thing to do."
"If you don't think it a wise move," I said, "why don't you get
up and say so. For this meeting is going to vote strike in the
next two minutes, sure as fate."
"I can't make a speech," he said. "You do it."
The men were paid monthly checks and had never heard any
complaint from their landlords and grocerymen who were willing to
wait for their pay. The complaint had been made by a few
outsiders who wanted to see money circulate faster in town and
thus boom things up a bit. They had aroused the strike spirit of
the men by speeches like this:
"The bosses own you body and soul. They regard you as slaves.
Your work makes them rich and yet they won't pay for your work.
While they are piling up profits you go around without a nickel
in your jeans. At the end of the week you want your pay. Why
don't they give it to you? Because they would sooner borrow money
without interest from you than go to the bank and pay eight per
cent. for it. You men are their bankers and don't know it. You
could have your money in the bank instead of in their pockets--it
would be drawing interest for you instead of drawing interest for
them! The interest on the wages of you men is five hundred sixty
dollars a month. No wonder they hold your pay for a month and put
that five hundred and sixty dollars in their pockets. But those
wages are yours as fast as you earn them. The interest on your
money belongs to you. That five hundred and sixty dollars a month
belongs in your pockets. But it will go into the bosses' pockets
as long as you are willing to be robbed. You have rights, but
they trample on them when you will not fight for your rights. Are
you mice or men?"
When it was put that way they answered that they were men. The
strike was "sold" to them before the meeting, without their
having had a chance to state their side of it. I felt that this
was wrong. There are lynch verdicts in this world as well as
verdicts of justice. When men have a chance to make up their own
minds their verdict is always just. But here a little group who
knew what they wanted had stampeded the minds of the men, and a
verdict won that way is like a mob verdict.
I decided to get up and speak, although it was really too late.
It seemed to me like calling a doctor after the patient is dead.
"Men," I said, "I'm a newcomer here and I never made a speech in
my life. I wouldn't try to now, only I've been asked to by
others--by somebody that's been here a long time. He thinks there
ought to be a little more said before we ballot. It's a hot day
and I don't want to keep you here if you don't want to listen to
me. What I've got to say probably don't amount to much."
"Go ahead," somebody said.
"We've decided to strike, and I don't know how it will turn
out. I've been out of work for several months and you fellows
haven't, so I can tell you what it's like. The country is
thronging with idle men. If we lose this strike we can roam all
over the country before we find another job. I came all the way
here from Alabama, where they drove a bunch of iron workers into
the peonage camps, and I was glad to get out alive. Conditions
are awful bad in this country and I have been trying to study
'em. Money is scarcer now than it's ever been before. They tell
us that the bosses are keeping our wages in their pockets. That's
a mistake. They haven't got anything in their pockets. They've
mortgaged their homes and pledged everything they own. They're
having a devil of a time to rake up the money every month to meet
the pay-roll when it's due. They aren't taking in the money as
fast as they're paying it out. Their salesmen are on the road
trying to sell tin plate, but the tinners are so hard up that few
of them can buy.
"I believe we ought to get our pay every week, but how can we
get it if the boss hasn't got it? We've got to look at this thing
in the light of facts. The facts are that we have our jobs and
are sure of our pay once a month. There are a million men who
would like to have what we have. Those men will swarm in and take
our jobs. You can't stop them. A hungry man can't be stopped by
the cry of 'scab.' You all know that there are so many union men
now idle that we have to pass around our jobs to keep the men in
this town from starving. When word goes out that we have struck,
you'll see the workers swarm in here like locusts. They'll be
glad to take their pay by the month. What's the use of a strike
that hasn't got a chance to win? We joined the union to make our
jobs secure and to get good pay. We're getting good pay. Our jobs
are secure unless we lose them in this strike.
"I don't believe we've looked at both sides of the case. I
don't believe the boys really want this strike. The demand for it
originated outside our ranks. Who started it? Wasn't it started
by fellows who want us to get our pay quicker so they can get it
quicker? They're the ones that worked up this strike. They tell
us that the bosses are robbing us because they hold our pay till
the end of the month. They say we ought to have it in the bank.
They know we wouldn't put it in the bank. You know we wouldn't
put it in the bank. We don't want to put it in the bank, and you
bet your boots they don't want us to put it in the bank. They're
liars when they say they're boosting for the banks. They're
boosting for their own pockets.
"But we've really got our money in a bank--or what's good as a
bank. The mill keeps our money for us just the way a bank would.
No bank in town pays interest on checking accounts, you know
that. Then why take our money out of the mill office and put it
in a bank? It's just as safe in the mill office. And you've got
the right to draw on it if you really need money in the middle of
the month. Only in case of death or accident does a man need
money in the middle of the month. And he can go to the pay window
and get it when he needs it. The doctor doesn't send his bill
till the end of the month. The landlord doesn't collect the rent
till the end of the month. The grocer and butcher let you run a
bill till the end of the month. Some of us are really better off
getting our pay at the end of the month. For it's all there for
us and we can pay our bills promptly and hold up our heads as
men. If we didn't leave our money in the office until the end of
the month, we might blow it in at a bar, and when the wife wanted
money to pay the rent and food bill we would have to tell her we
were broke and she would have to hang her head. When the landlord
and butcher came for the money she would have to try to stand
them off. Do we want to let the rent go unpaid until the landlord
cusses us out? Is that what we are striking for? If the landlord
and butcher are willing to wait till we draw our pay, we ought to
be willing too. Isn't it better to wait a month for pay than to
wait a year? I'm right here to tell you that after this strike
we'll wait for our pay until hell freezes over and the devil goes
"Let us make no mistake. We are calling this strike not of our
own free will, but were shoved into it by a lot of slick talkers
that are in business and are not workers. They have hoodwinked
us. They have made fools of us. A speaker asked are we mice or
men. I ask them are they rats or men. I want these rats to come
out of their holes and stand upon this floor. Who was the first
man that suggested this strike? I want to see the color of his
hair. Stand up, if he's in the hall. If he isn't here, why isn't
No one answered.
"If this strike was called by outsiders," I cried, "why don't
the outsiders do the striking? Whose jobs will be lost in this
strike--our jobs or the outsiders' jobs? If the man who started
this strike has a job that won't be lost in the strike, then I
claim that we have made a bad mistake. And if we're making a
mistake, men, what are we going to do about it?"
I sat down, exhausted by the first attempt at public pleading I
had ever made. Everything grew dark about me, and I knew that I
had done my best and that I was through. I was quite young, and I
went to pieces like an untrained runner who had overdone himself.
The men were talking to one another, and somebody moved that
the meeting take a recess until after supper. It would give time
to think it over and find out what the men really thought about
the strike proposition.
LOGIC WINS IN THE STRETCH
At seven o'clock we met again and several men made short talks
opposing the strike. Each fellow, when he got up, seemed to have
a lot of ideas, but when he tried to express them he grew
confused, and after stammering a while he could only put forth
the bare opinion, "I don't think we ought to strike." This
meeting was quite different from the other one. Here every man
was thinking for himself but nobody could say anything. In the
previous meeting the speakers had talked passionately, and the
rest had been swept along with them as a unit. In other words,
the first session had become group-minded instead of individual-
minded. It is like the difference between a stampede and a
deliberative body. The second meeting was calmly deliberative and
it finally voted a reconsideration, and the strike resolution was
If this were a novel, it would be fine to record in this
chapter that the young orator who at the last moment turned the
tide and saved the day became the hero of the union and was
unanimously elected president. That's the way these things go in
fiction. And that is exactly what happened. In due time I found
myself at the head of the Local, and nearly every man had voted
for me. I started negotiations for more frequent paydays, and a
few months later we were being paid on the first and fifteenth of
the month. Life is indeed dramatic,--at least it has seemed so
to me. Some men say that life has no meaning; that men are the
playthings of blind forces that crush them, and there is no
answer to the riddle. This is nonsense. I admit that we are in
the grip of blind forces. But we are not blind. We can not change
those forces. If we fight against them they will crush us. But by
going with them, guiding our careers along their courses, they
will bear us to the port we're steering for.
The mob spirit in man is one of those blind forces that so
often lead to shipwreck. The mob-mind differs from the mind of
reason. To tell them apart is like distinguishing mushrooms from
toadstools. They look alike, but one means health and the other
is poison. Life has taught me the difference between a movement
and a mob. A movement is guided by logic, law and personal
responsibility. A mob is guided by passion and denies
I have seen meetings turned into mobs and mobs dissolved again
into meetings. Swept by passion we willed a strike. That strike
would have been just, and, yet, it would have ruined us. We were
like a mob in which every man forgets his own responsibility, The
mob mind would have rushed us to our own ruin. My speech called
for individuals to stand up. That set each individual thinking:
"If I stand up, that crazy guy will smash me." Each man became
responsible again. The mob was gone, and all we had was
individual men, each thinking for himself. That thinking then
went on and each man reached a verdict based on logic, sense and
duty. The meeting could no longer speak with one voice. It
couldn't talk at all. It stammered. The action showed that each
mind stood apart, alone. And yet the vote revealed that they were
I have watched the long struggle of unionism in America and I
know the law that has governed all its ups and downs. Wherever it
was still a movement it has thrived; wherever it became a mob it
fell. The one Big Union was a mob. No movement based on passion
finally wins; no movement based on reason finally fails. Why then
say life is a riddle and man helpless?
When I became Secretary of Labor, one of the first letters I
received was from Mrs. Eli Baldwin whose coal oil I burned
shamelessly, studying far into the night. Mrs. Eli Baldwin wrote
from Atlanta, Indiana, where she now lives:
"When your roommates complained because your light kept them
awake, I knew what you were doing. I knew that you were studying
their problems for them, getting yourself an education so you
would know how to get them better wages and better working
This letter pleased me more than I can tell. This kind old
lady, now eighty-two, had faith in me and feels that her faith
was justified. Now, then, can I believe that life is
meaningless,--that there is no plan, and that all man's efforts
are foredoomed to failure?
I MEET THE INDUSTRIAL CAPTAINS
Elwood, Indiana, was a small village that had been called Duck
Creek Post-Office until the tin mill and other industries began
making it into a city. In my capacity as president of the local
union and head of the wage mill committee, I was put in personal
contact with the heads of these great industrial enterprises.
This was my first introduction to men of large affairs.
I approached them with the inborn thought that they must be
some sort of human monsters. The communist books that Comrade
Bannerman had given me taught me to believe that capitalists had
no human feelings like ordinary mortals. I therefore expected to
find the mill-boss as cunning as the fox and ape combined. I
supposed that his word would be worthless as a pledge and would
be given only for the purpose of tricking me. His manners I
expected to be rude; he would shout at me and threaten me, hoping
to take away my courage and send me back to my fellows beaten.
What I found, of course, was a self-possessed man, the model of
courtesy and exactness. He differed from us men in one respect.
His mind was complex instead of simplex. That is, he could think
on two sides of a question at the same time. He had so trained
his mind by much use of it that it was as nimble as the hands of
a juggler who can keep several objects tossing in the air at the
same time. We men were clumsy thinkers, and one thing at a time
was all we could handle without fumbling it.
The great manufacturer never showed any emotion. He was never
angry, domineering, sneering or insulting. He kept these emotions
under control because they could do him no good, and because they
would give pain to others. We fellows never hesitated to show how
we felt. We would jibe one another, laugh at a fellow to his
chagrin, and when we were angry bawl each other out unmercifully.
For a fellow to smile when he was angry and not let the other
fellow know it, was a trick we had not learned. That a
bloodthirsty, cruel capitalist should be such a graceful fellow
was a shock to me. I saw from the start that the communist
picture of a capitalist as a bristling, snorting hog was the
farthest thing from the truth. The picture was drawn by malice
and not from a desire to tell the truth.
I learned that when Mr. Reid and his fellows gave their word
they never broke it. It was hard to get a promise from them, but
once they made a promise they always fulfilled it. If they said
they would meet us at a certain hour, they were always there on
the minute. They were patient, firm and reasonable, and they
always treated us as their equals.
They always gave us the reasons for the stand they took. At
first I doubted their sincerity, but in the end I learned that
the reasons they cited were the true reasons. At first they
thought that they would have to guard themselves against roguery
and doubledealing on the part of the tin workers. This showed
that they had had unpleasant experiences. For, men who knew their
business as well as they did must surely have had some cause for
their suspicion. Baseless suspicion is a trait of ignorant men,
and these men were not ignorant. A burnt child dreads the fire.
I decided to take them as my models, to learn all their virtues
and let them know that I was as square in my dealings with them
as they were with me. I studied their business as thoroughly as I
studied the case of the men. I soon got from them all the
concessions we had demanded when we called the strike. It was
fortunate for us that the strike was cancelled, for we kept our
jobs and in due course got all the things that we were going to
In fact, I got so many concessions by dickering with those
bosses that I made life a burden for them at times. I knew the
cost of every different kind of plate the mill put out, and so I
could demand a high rate of wages and support my demands with
logic. My midnight studies had not been in vain. It all came back
in cash to the working man; and yet it was my own pals who had
rebuked me for being too bookish. This did not make me sour. I
loved the fellows just the same, and when they showed their faith
in me, it more than paid me back.
But I had learned this general rule: The average working man
thinks mostly of the present. He leaves to students and to
capitalists the safeguarding of his future.
SHIRTS FOR TIN ROLLERS
In summer the temperature in the tin mills is very high. It is
as hot as the Fourth of July in Abyssinia. One day a
philosophical fellow was talking religion to me. He said, "I
don't believe in hell as a place where we boil forever in a lake
of brimstone. It can't be as hot as that. My constitution never
could stand it." His constitution stood up under the heat in the
tin mill. So it is plain that the tin-mill temperature was
somewhat less than the temperature of the Pit.
Outsiders began coming into the mills and giving us workers a
chill by telling us that the heat was killing us. The men used to
cool themselves down with a glass of beer at the close of the
day. The social investigators told us that alcohol taken into the
system at such a time would cause sunstroke. If beer was fatal,
most of us figured that we had been dead for years and didn't
know it. The effect of constant complaints was to demoralize us
and make our work harder. I thought at first that these
investigators were our friends and I gave them all the help I
could. But instead of helping us, they only hurt us, and then I
soured on their misapplied zeal. They were a species new to me
that seemed to have sprung up in the hard times, just as cooties
spring up in time of war. And like cooties, they attached
themselves to us closer than a brother and yet they were no
brothers of ours. The social investigators nibbled away at the
men and kept them restless in their hours of ease. They sat at
our boarding table and complained of the food. Corned beef and
cabbage was one of our regular dishes. Mr. Investigator turned up
his nose and said: "I never touch corned beef. If you knew as
much about it as I do, you would insist on steaks or roast beef
instead. You know what corned beef is, don't you?"
The men got mad and one fellow said: "Yes; it is dead cow. All
meat is dead animals. Now give us a rest."
"Yes, it's all dead, but some of it is a whole lot deader than
you imagine. I've been investigating the packing business, and
I'll tell you all about corned beef and wienies." He then went on
with a lot of sickening details and when he got through he found
that the younger men had not eaten any dinner. The older men paid
no attention to him and worked right ahead to the pie and
toothpick stage, but the younger fellows had been euchred out of
dinner and went back to work with wabbly steps and empty
This convinced me that the investigator was a false alarm. If
corned beef was poison, as he said, there wouldn't be a working
man alive in America. But millions have eaten corned beef all
their lives and have thrived on it. Things are never one tenth so
bad as the agitators say. They merely take the heart out of men
and send them back to work weakened and unhappy.
This fellow had a favorite joke which he sprang every meal.
After sniffing at the soup and meat and cabbage he would exclaim:
"Hebrews, 13-8." We thought it was some jibe about the fat pork,
and after he had sprung it every day for a week we learned that
he was hitting at the monotony of the diet. The verse in the
"Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to-day, and forever."
The fellow came into the mills and sympathized with us because
we worked with our shirts off. To withstand the heat we stripped
to the waist. We didn't want to wear a shirt. It would have clung
to our flesh and hampered our moving muscles. We were freer and
cooler without any cloth to smother us. It was a privilege to go