Pittsburgh Stories and Tips

The Cultural Connection

Exhibit at Heinz Regional History Center Photo, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


I have mentioned before that Pittsburgh has many close ties to Central and Eastern Europe. Thanks to guide Owen Lipsett, a knowledgeable source on the history and peoples of those regions, I have learned that at one time, Pittsburgh had the largest Slovak population of any city in the world. That was the reason first President of Czechoslovakia Masaryk came to then "Steel City" to gather support for the formation of that country in 1918.

If I am not mistaken, then the large concentration of Slavic and other Central European peoples in the city followed Andrew Carnegie’s constant quest for better technology and cheaper, less skilled, less organized labor than the original German iron and steel workers who had given him all the trouble with the Homestead Strike and Battle of Homestead in 1892. After Germans were banned from the mills, enter Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Bulgarians, and others. (Our guide Jan could excel on a quiz matching each national group with a decade marking that group's greatest influx, but don't expect me to do that!)

Their neighborhoods are still lined up along the banks of the Monongahela on Pittsburgh’s Southside, beginning just a few blocks east of Smithfield Street Bridge and extending all the way to Homestead and beyond. Markets, restaurants, bakeries, shops, churches, and community buildings represent a multitude of European cultures, all originally immigrated here to work in Andrew Carnegie’s mills as early as 1875, when the first mill, now U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thompson Works, was built in Braddock. (Carnegie’s first contract for this mill was from its namesake and then-governor of the state, Edgar Thompson, for rails for the Pennsylvania railroad.)

Our guide Jan is a fountain of information about the ways in which Pittsburgh changed the lives of these peoples and the ways in which they changed Pittsburgh. In addition, a permanent exhibit at Heinz Regional History Center records and displays the customs of a city whose population was at one time fifty-percent immigrant workers.

They brought with them many traditions, including the cookie table set up for weddings. To this day, when a bride reserves a hotel space for a reception in Pittsburgh, the manager in charge of the event asks not "Do you want a cookie table?" He asks, "Where do you want the cookie table?" Our tour group gets a good idea of how big the cookie table might be when Jan informs us that hers was twice as long as our bus.

Jan’s mother was worried about how to get all the cookies to the reception, and the husband-to-be, not privy to this custom, couldn’t understand all the commotion about transporting some cookies. We can’t fathom the problem either, until Jan enlightens us--there were eight-hundred dozen cookies! These would last three days, the typical length of celebration for a "Hunky" wedding. And, judging from the cookies Jan has baked for us according to her grandma’s recipes, they are addictive! I wonder if her grandma resembled one of these ladies in a photo at Heinz History Center.

Well, the one in native garb certainly looks like she could bake some yummy cookies!

Jan’s aunt ran a boarding house for workers. Some would sleep in a bed shared by another worker on a different shift. This was called "hot racking," and you can easily imagine why. The mills ran 24 hours, and men worked seven-day weeks, twelve-hour shifts. There was no union from 1892 until the 1940’s. Many were burned by hot slag, but reporters thought the glowing by-product dancing on the floors was "beautiful" in its incandescence--and Pittsburgh had its share of reporters in those days, because what was happening there was like nothing ever before.

The pace of production had never been imagined. Fast and furiously, Carnegie’s steel was building a new infrastructure and a new industrial nation, but it didn’t stop there, either. It was building everything: railroads, armaments, skyscrapers, bridges, Brooklyn Bridge, Panama Canal, and eventually the biggest ball bearing in the world for Greenbank Observatory.

At the height of the steel boom, mills were expanding so fast that sewage wasn’t adequate. Beginning at the site of the present Waterfront Shops in Homestead was the largest open hearth in the world! Workers lived in small dwellings surrounding courtyards where the only water supply for the entire compound was next to the common toilet. Typhoid was rampant. In addition, an exhibit, Breath of Hope, at Heinz Regional History Center until July 4, explains that with 100,000 new immigrants each year, an epidemic of tuberculosis necessitated the city’s setting up the first sanitariums in the country and setting new standards for patient care.

The once-upon-a-time pollution of the city’s three rivers is infamous, and Jan watched the dumping of slag into them. That’s what teen children of immigrant workers did on Saturday night. It was their typical date night! They drove to spots on the opposite riverbank and watched the fiery cascade, like a volcano as it was plunged from the top of a hot blast furnace. It was their first fireworks!

Nowadays, Pittsburgh is famous for its clean air and water, but community centers all along the rivers still offer ethnic dinners, plays, dances, music, and more to those who wish to find them. From Lithuanian to Polish to Hungarian, festivities abound, and most are open to the public. Polka, anyone? There is plenty of that, and as a firsthand spectator several years ago of the yearly polka event at Seven Springs Ski Resort, I can tell you that these folks can dance non-stop for thirteen hours. (Yes, I timed them!) I mean, of course, thirteen hours for three days in a row, the typical length of any festivity.

Authentic native costumes can be viewed at a little museum at Duquesne University. The school’s Tamburitzans, all scholarship students, travel the world presenting song and dance of Eastern and Central Europe. One is lucky to catch them in Pittsburgh, but they do appear there several times each year. An exhibit at Heinz History Center also displays costumes and native dress, such as this outfit worn by a Serbian singer who was famous in the early half of the Twentieth Century.

To help us appreciate the enormity and influence of Central European culture in Pittsburgh, Jan tells us that until the 1950s, the language of the street on the Southside was still Slovak. In addition, the city boasts the second largest Italian population in America next to New York City. Bulgarians are represented. (Jan recommends Old Europe on Carson Street as a great Bulgarian restaurant.) Then, of course, there are the "Bo-Hunks" (Jan’s term for Bohemians or present-day Czechs, including herself), Hungarians, and dozens more.

Just as I am beginning to think that Jan is exaggerating how common the term "Hunky" is in this city, we drive past the AFL-CIO in Braddock, and in front of the building, we see a plaque commemorating "The Great Strike of 1919--The Hunky Strike!" Demonstrating complete solidarity, 350,000 workers of all nationalities stood with "Hunkies"--who testified that they had bought war bonds and donated to the American Red Cross--and shut down the industry without any union! (I imagine this is when they became proud to be "Hunkies"!) To see nationality percentages for workers in 1919, click here and scroll down to the chart.

This strike was long after Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and even J. P. Morgan had "managed" the steel business. This strike found bewildered managers testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor about "Bolshevik instigation," while at least one Slavic worker testified, "The first thing that was wrong, they would call me a Hunky." Names stick, but connotations have changed, especially for those who made the steel that built this city. Slavic workers let America know, just as their forefathers let the Hapsburgs know, that they wanted recognition for their hard work.

No wonder locals are so proud of their skyline! Their fathers built it.

Know what else Pittsburghers are proud of? Their unity. Visitors must appreciate it, too, when they see this pretty city all cleaned and sparkling in three rivers.

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