How many hours per week did Andrew Carnegie's steel workers put in on average from 1885 until 1900 when he sold his business?


It is unlikely to be possible to offer an "average" for the number of hours worked per week by Andrew Carnegie's steel workers (or anyone else's steel workers, for that matter). The primary difficulty here is the range of processes encompassed by the term "steel workers".

A secondary problem is that the number of hours in the working week changed dramatically for many of those workers right in the middle of your chosen time period. The Homestead Strike, which ended in late November 1892 was something of a "watershed moment" in that regard (see below).

We are, however, fortunate in having a nearly-contemporary source, published in 1910, which described not only the then state of the steel industry, but also its recent history. That source is The Steel Workers by John Andrews Fitch, which was published as part of the Pittsburgh Survey in 1910.

Steel Workers

Both the Bessemer process and the Open-Hearth process were being used for the initial production of steel ingots or "pigs" (a term inherited from the iron industry) by the 1890s. The workers in these factories (known as "Bessemer Men" and "Open-Hearth Operatives" respectively), and the changes they had experienced in their working conditions are described in chapters III to V ofFitch's book.

The steel ingots were then taken to the rolling mills where sheet steel was produced. The steel workers here used very different technologies and worked in very different environments. Nevertheless, they were steel workers. The "Men of the Rolling Mills" are the subject of Fitch's Chapter VI.

There were also pipe workers, who produced steel pipe. However, although they are mentioned in passing by Fitch on a number of occasions, he doesn't offer nearly as much detail about them as he does for other steel workers.

Steel Production as a "Continuous Industry"

As Fitch observes,

"... a fruitful way to reduce costs, from the production standpoint, is to eliminate wastes. To accomplish this, as well as to increase output per unit of capital, the steel mills operate day and night, and steel making is held to be essentially a "continuous industry"."

  • [Fitch, 1910, p166]

The implication of this is that:

"The mills are operated twenty-four hours in the day, and to man them the crews must work either in two shifts of twelve hours each or in three shifts of eight hours."

  • [Ibid]

It would appear that by 1890, workers involved in producing the raw-steel ingots were generally working 12-hour shifts, while those employed in the sheet mills were working 8-hour shifts. (According to Fitch, those involved in producing steel pipe seem to have been working 10-hour shifts, although he doesn't explain how that would fit with mills operating 24 hours per day. Nevertheless, it seems that situation had continued up until the time of the report's publication in 1910 [Ibid: footnote p170]).

Bessemer Men and Open-Hearth Operatives

In 1886, Andrew Carnegie had stated that:

"At present every ton of pig iron made in the world, except at two establishments, is made by men working in double shifts of twelve hours each, having neither Sunday nor holiday the year round. Every two weeks the men change to the night shift by working twenty-four hours consecutively."

  • [Ibid, p167]

The two exceptions at that date were, apparently, furnaces owned by Carnegie's Company.

The late 1880s and early 1890s were a period of considerable industrial unrest in the iron and steel industries, with notable strikes at the Edgar Thompson furnaces, and especially the Homestead Strike in 1892, which effectively broke the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. One of the objectives of these strikes was a reduction in working hours and an end to Sunday working. They were unsuccessful, and both the 12-hour shift and Sunday working remained the general rule for the production of steel ingots or pigs.

Thus, we can say that for workers involved in the production of steel ingots, the normal working week was seven twelve-hour shifts. i.e. 84 hours, over the period in question.

The "Men of the Rolling Mills"

For the men working in the production of sheet steel the situation was rather different, and establishing their working hours is more complex. As Fitch observes:

"As a result of the various causes which have been described in [Chapter VI], the situation had so shaped itself that by 1890 almost all of the sheet mills had recognized the eight-hour day"

  • [Ibid, p167]

Furthermore, Sunday working seems to have been unusual for men working in the production of sheet steel until some time after 1895. Only the Edgar Thompson plant (owned by Carnegie) had always operated during a portion of Sunday, and we are told that Sunday working had been abandoned at Homestead in 1882 [Ibid p168].

Thus, for Andrew Carnegie's workers in this part of the steel industry, the working week seems to have been six eight-hour shifts, or 48 hours, working from Monday to Saturday from 1885 to 1892.

The situation was to change dramatically following the Homestead strike!

"After the strike, all rolling mills at Homestead were put on twelve-hour shifts."

  • [Ibid p169]

It is easy to see this as simple retribution inflicted by the company following the strike. Changes in other mills happened more slowly, but by 1910 Fitch would be able to write that:

"... the eight-hour day is now practically gone in the Pittsburgh steel mills."

  • [Ibid]

With the lengthening working day came an increase in Sunday working. As noted above, the change seems to have begun in about 1895, but as Fitch observed:

"... in 1907 - 08 most of the steel mills of the Pittsburgh District were as actively at work at 5pm on Sunday as at any hour in the week"

  • [Ibid]

So, in summary, we can say the following about the working hours of workers involved in the production of sheet steel between 1885 and 1901:

  • From 1885 to 1892 their working week seems to have been six eight-hour shifts, or 48 hours.
  • For workers at the Homestead plant this increased to six twelve-hour shifts, or 72 hours, from 1892 in the aftermath of the strike.
  • For workers at all plants there was a move towards twelve-hour shifts from the mid 1890s. The 12-hour shift would be the norm by 1910.
  • For workers at all plants there was a move towards increased Sunday working from the mid 1890s. Sunday working would be the norm by 1907.

Pipe Workers

The wider upheavals described above seem to have had much less impact on pipe-workers. Even as late as 1910, Fitch would observe that:

"It should be noted, however, that there are large numbers of ten-hour men in the pipe mills of the National Tube Company at McKeesport, and in the cold-rolled shafting department at the Jones and Laughlin plant; also in works fabricating structural material which are not, of course, properly steel-making plants."

  • [Ibid footnote p170]

Even leaving aside the men employed in fabricating structural material, who Fitch (quite reasonably) suggests were not sensu stricu "steel-workers" according to the definitions used in his report (being "consumers" rather than "producers" of steel), this seems surprising. However, Fitch does not offer a reason why men involved in the production of steel pipe were treated so differently.



How many hours per week did Andrew Carnegie's steel workers put in on average during 1885's - 1900 when he sold his business?

Here is what I've found so far on the hours per week.. 12 hours per day 7 days a week. 84 hours per week was pretty much an industry standard for steel workers. No breaks, not even for food. 1 day off per year, the Fourth of July, At Carnagie's Mills.

Homestead and its Perilous Trades 1894.
" So a man works in peril of his life for fourteen cents an hour," I remarked.
" That's what he does. It ain't the only business he does it in, though."
" No," put in a young villager, who was looking on like ourselves. " A man'll do most anything to live."

"And it is twelve hours' work without stop ? "
" You bet ! And then again you see we only get this pay part of the time. The mills are liable to be shut down part of the year. They shut down part of the night sometimes, and of course we're docked. Then, again, the tendency of the proprietors is to cut down the tonnage men; that is, the 'rollers' and 'heaters' are now paid by the ton, but they'll some day be paid by the day, like the rest of us."

" You bet they will," said my guide, who seemed quite familiar with the facts.

" Of course, you understand the tonnage men are responsible for their product. You see the improvement of machinery helps them, but it don't help the common laborer much. It wouldn't help the tonnage men if the company could fill their places cheaper. They don't pay them by the ton because they want to, but because they have to. But the tonnage men 'll get it next year."

"That's right," said the man at the furnace door, as he seized his shovel to " line" the furnace.

There were exceptions: experiments in lower hours to boost productivity, some unions temporarily won lower hours as concessions before 1890, and in economic down times when labor was cheap the owners brought in relief workers to reduce costs... but generally 84 hours per week was necessary to keep the factory running 24 hours a day with two shifts of workers.As David Montgomery suggests, "There had never been a Golden Age in which 'the steel industry was controlled by the skilled workers."'

This practice was only abandoned in 1923, due to public and political pressure.

The American Experience.
The life of a 19th-century steel worker was grueling. Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. Carnegie gave his workers a single holiday-the Fourth of July; for the rest of the year they worked like draft animals. "Hard! I guess it's hard," said a laborer at the Homestead mill. "I lost forty pounds the first three months I came into this business. It sweats the life out of a man. I often drink two buckets of water during twelve hours; the sweat drips through my sleeves, and runs down my legs and fills my shoes."


The end of the 12-hour day in the steel industry.
In 1907, 97 percent of all employees in blast furnaces surveyed by the Bureau of Labor worked 7 days regularly

The 12-hour day arose from the nature of the iron and steel industry. The basic process of the industry required continuous operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The simplest method of achieving this was to operate two shifts of approximately 12 hours each, with workers alternating from daywork to night- work every week or two, sometimes working through a "long shift" of up to 24 hours.

Large corporations vigorously fought efforts to unionize their employees. At the conclusion of the unsuccessful struggle of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers against the Carnegie Steel Co. at Homestead, Pa., in 1892, the Homestead Works continued using the 12-hour shifts. After the strike against U.S. Steel in 1901 failed, the corporation operated certain departments 12 hours a day, including Sunday. From 1890 to 1911, the average size of plants grew larger, and the percentage of unskilled labor increased. Almost without exception, employers chose the long day.


Notes on Labor, 1875-1900 Industrial Work: Steel – work 12 hr days, 7 days a week.


Homstead in Context.
In March (1888), Carnegie offered representatives of the Knights(early union) the chance to work with a wage cut under the sliding scale if they accepted the return of the twelve-hour day. Only after they rejected this offer did Carnegie hire replacement workers and Pinkertons to guard them; then he imposed his terms unilaterally.


The American Experience "They wipe a man out here every little while," a worker said in 1893. "Sometimes a chain breaks, and a ladle tips over, and the iron explodes.... Sometimes the slag falls on the workmen.... Of course, if everything is working all smooth and a man watches out, why, all right! But you take it after they've been on duty twelve hours without sleep, and running like hell, everybody tired and loggy, and it's a different story."


Work in America: An Encyclopedia of history, Policy, and Society, Volume 1.
The men who labored in the steel mills in the early unorganized days of the industry could be said to exist -- not live; exist-- in a state of industrial slavery. It was the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century in America but for the workers it was still the Dark Ages. [...] Their bodies bent under the weight of a 12-hour day, the seven-day week. They became "old" at 40. Only the hardiest could survive the long hours, the miserable conditions. The work was dangerous and dirty(Abel 1976, 14)

Answer to question which came up in comments... organized labors influence diminished as steel replaced iron as the product of choice in the early 1890s.

In 1892, nationwide steel production surpassed that of iron for the first time. >

The power of the Amalgamated Association (leading Union) was overwhelmingly concentrated in the iron-producing sector, which became increasingly irrelevant as the size of the steel sector grew ever larger. The reason the Amalgamated was stronger in the older sector had to do with the difference between iron and steel producing technology. While iron still had to be puddled by hand, technological innovations in steel mills made it increasingly easy to train immigrants and other less-skilled workers to replace skilled union men.

  • 1
    Your conclusion on the number of hours worked seems to be contradicted by John A Fitch in The Steel Workers (page167). He states that in 1890 the workers worked either 8-hour, or 12-hour shifts, depending on which factory employed them. At that date it was normal for those involved in the production of pig iron to work 12-hour shifts. Those working in sheet mills worked shorter, 8-hour, shifts. – sempaiscuba Dec 19 '17 at 22:05
  • I think Mr. Fitch is perhaps referring to Iron Mills. Iron and Steel workers were synonymous, but Iron mills and steel mills were not. Steel mills became more prevalent in the early 1890's as steel production eclipsed iron production. Due to Automations introduced Steel mills employed less skilled labor and labors leverage over the owners diminished. – JMS Dec 19 '17 at 22:16
  • On the contrary, Fitch is quite clear about it being steel mills. The details are set out in earlier chapters. The change in the proportion of skilled and unskilled workers it also described in that chapter. (It's also worth noting his comments that 10-hour shifts were not uncommon in steel pipe mills) – sempaiscuba Dec 19 '17 at 22:22
  • Edgar Thomson Mill and the Homestead Mill were both 8 hour mills under unions in the 1880's.. and Carnegie broke both Mills to 12 hour days by the early 1890's. – JMS Dec 19 '17 at 22:38
  • Your Source: In 1892...... After the strike, all the rolling mills were put on the twelve hour shifts... The substitutions in other mills were made more slowly, but the eight hour day is now practically gone in the Pittsburgh... ... 1897... all gone over to the twelve-hour system. page 169. – JMS Dec 19 '17 at 22:59

It varied during that time.

From the article cited in the answer by JMS, Homestead in Context:

For example, Carnegie introduced the eight-hour day at Edgar Thomson in 1879. He did the same at some departments at Homestead after he purchased that plant in 1882. Carnegie did this not because of worker requests, but because Jones convinced him that a fresh crew of men every eight hours would produce better results. (emphasis mine)

The same article gives us the time when the 8-hour day schedule, for Carnegies workers, ended, and why. (In 1888)

In January, all but two of the plant furnaces shut down because of lack of orders. In March, Carnegie offered representatives of the Knights the chance to work with a wage cut under the sliding scale if they accepted the return of the twelve-hour day.Only after they rejected this offer did Carnegie hire replacement workers and Pinkertons to guard them; then he imposed his terms unilaterally.

So we know up until that point in 1888, Carnegie was running his plants on an 8-hour shift. He then shifted the schedule back to the 12 hr shift more typical in the rest of the industry:

Even though the Edgar Thomson mill operated nonunion from that point on, the Amalgamated Association did not see this as the start of an antiunion campaign. In fact, the Amalgamated was sympathetic to Carnegie's position, arguing that the eight-hour day put Edgar Thomson at an unreasonable disadvantage as long as other mills still worked their employees twelve hours. (all emphasis mine)

So we can see the hours worked by Carnegie steel employees varied from 8 hour days from 1879-1882 (depending upon the site) though 1888 ,and shifted back to 12 hour days after 1888.

  • You didn’t read the rest of the source. He broke both the edger Thomson and homestead mills to the 12 hour schedule by early 1890s – JMS Dec 20 '17 at 0:56
  • I included that, second paragraph. – justCal Dec 20 '17 at 1:05
  • Edited to clarify years and hours. – justCal Dec 20 '17 at 1:13
  • 8 hour days in before 1870s-1882 represented the unionized skilled workers who subsequently saw there unions busted and the 12 hour schedule forced upon them. . They were the exception. But even they had to work 12 hour days by the early 1880s – JMS Dec 20 '17 at 1:56
  • Wasn't debating the unions broken, just showing the hours were <12 for several years within your time frame (up until 1888-so I would say late 1880's), as per your source. (I have to ask, did you loose a bet on the Steelers this weekend?) – justCal Dec 20 '17 at 2:25

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