What did Frick’s workers hear from Homestead?
By Christian Ryder
Henry Clay Frick bought Clayton after building his wealth on the profits from coke plants and steel mills, mainly in the Pittsburgh area. This includes the steel mill in the industrial town of Homestead, about 8 miles away from downtown Pittsburgh. The workers at this factory, however, lived in a vastly different environment from the Fricks. Living in cheap and compact housing near the Homestead Steel Mill, workers could not escape the overwhelming presence of the factory. Its large brick chimneys were visible throughout town and the pervasive, low hum of the mill saturated the town’s soundscape. In the following sound clip, I have re-constructed the sonic world of an industrial worker who lived half a mile from the Homestead Steel Mill in 1890.
In the clip, notice the chirping of birds, the rattle of horse-drawn carriages, and the ringing of church bells. These sounds were common features in a nineteenth-century town, but now they are completely engulfed by a deep rumble. Notice how only the strike of the church bell is heard, but not its gradual decay. Notice how the birds lose amplitude in their calls. The volume and timbre of these commonplace sounds are muffled because the low drone of the Homestead Steel Mill swallows higher register sounds into its overtone series.
Sound clip created by Christian Ryder
These industrial sounds were relatively new in nineteenth-century Pittsburgh. Since steel mills and other factories were not yet regulated for their noise pollution or marked as culprits for hearing damage, they were allowed to dominate. The new palette of sounds—coke furnaces, steam billows, and forging presses against molten steel—collated into an abstract, indistinguishable blur of sound that permeated daily life. In short, the sounds of nature were replaced by the sounds of work.
Despite the constant noise, Homestead workers considered the factory sounds to be an integral part of the town’s identity. In his study of industrial Homestead, William Serrin quoted one worker who explained that the sound was “not noise to him…it was just the mill, just Homestead” (61–2). In fact, people in Homestead became so accustomed to the factory’s rumble that they claimed it was the “silence that was frightful.” Others explained that the steel mill “sounded just like a locomotive.” In the 1890s, trains would have been the only other point of reference for people trying to describe the colossal roar of industrial sounds. These comments suggest that the Homestead community understood industrial sound to be an important characteristic of their soundscape, what musicologist R. Murray Schafer describes as a “soundmark,” or feature that makes “the acoustic life of the community unique.” In this sense, the mill folded into the identity of the town and provided a sense of stability through its constant hum.
Among the many dangers workers faced when making steel, the environmental noise may have deeply impacted the long-term health of the people of Homestead. According to the World Health Organization, excess environmental noise “increases the risks of hypertension, sleep disturbance, hearing [and] cognitive impairment, with other health impacts such as adverse birth outcomes and mental health problems.” The workers of Homestead had no choice but to live in close proximity to the Steel Mill. By contrast, the Frick’s residence at Clayton was sheltered not only from the daily noise pollution but also from its compound effects. Consider how natural surroundings may have been emerging as the ultimate luxury at this time.
The soundscape in Homestead is undeniably complex. Without the loud low rumble of the mill, people sensed there was something wrong. Since this sound was embraced by its community, could it still be considered undesirable noise? Is a quiet landscape a privilege in the post-industrial world? How would you feel if the ambient hum coming from sources such as roads or airplanes suddenly vanished?