Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company motion picture filmscirca 1919
The Midvale Steel Company manufactured steel parts and was known for casting, forging, and machining high-quality steels, including alloy steels, and precision steel products for a wide array of industries. Their primary business came from work related to railroad and ordnance manufacturing. This small collection consists of five reels of film that document operations at the Midvale Steel Plant in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. While the reels are not dated, they are believed to be from 1919. The films document the various stages of production at the plant with a focus on the precision steel making processes for which Midvale was known.
- circa 1919
- Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company (Organization)
5 reels (400 ft) : si., b&w ; 28mm. 2 videocassettes (VHS). 1 film strip ; 35mm.
The Midvale Steel Company manufactured steel parts and was known for casting, forging, and machining high-quality steels, including alloy steels, and precision steel products for a wide array of industries. Their primary business came from work related to railroad and ordnance manufacturing. They had contracts for producing ordnance for the U.S government and making tools and products for private companies like the Pennsylvania Railroad and Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia.
The company was established in 1867 in the Nicetown area of Germantown, Philadelphia near the Reading Railroad line by English steel-maker William Butcher (circa 1791-1871). Upon his death in 1871, the Butcher Steel Works became the Midvale Steel Works with engineer Wiliam Sellers (1824-1905) as president. They changed their name again in 1880 to the Midvale Steel Company.
Midvale Steel was notable for its early experimentation with alloy steels. In 1870, they produced a specialized chrome alloy for the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, considered among the largest practical applications of alloyed steel at the time. In 1879, they supplied steel for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
In 1875, the company began the manufacture naval guns and shells and became an important contractor for the U.S. government. Starting in 1900, they supplied the government with marine engines, gun carriages, and armor plates for U.S. Navy ships.
With the rapid expansion brought about by World War I, the company became the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company in 1915, and owned plants in Johnstown and Coatesville, Pennsylvania, as well as the original works in Philadelphia. In 1917 Midvale ranked among the top twenty American corporations in revenue.
Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915), esteemed efficiency expert, started his career at Midvale in the early 1880s working his way from a Store Room clerk to becoming their Chief Engineer. He left to work for the Bethlehem Steel Company in 1890.
Midvale began hiring African American workers starting in the 1890s. In an introduction by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell to the 1967 edition of W.E.B. DuBois groundbreaking The Philadelphia Negro, he wrote:
“Clerks and white- collar jobs were, of course, unobtainable [for African Americans], but so were both skilled and unskilled jobs in industry. DuBois noted one exception to this at the Midvale Steel Works, where the manager, dubbed a 'crank' by many of his peers, had employed [in 1896] some 200 Negroes who worked along with white mechanics ‘without friction or trouble.’"
With a major increase of ordnance production in 1917, Midvale employed nearly 4,000 African Americans out of a workforce estimated at 11,000 at their Nicetown plant.
In 1923, Midvale’s Johnstown and Coatesville plants were acquired by the Bethlehem Steel Company. The company operated under the name Midvale Steel Company in its original location in Nicetown until 1955 when it merged with the Heppenstall Steel Company to become Midvale-Heppenstall Company. The Nicetown plant in Philadelphia closed in 1976.
Scope and Content
This small collection consists of five reels of film that document operations at the Midvale Steel Plant in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. While the reels are not dated, they are believed to be from 1919. The films document the various stages of production at the plant with a focus on the precision steel making processes for which Midvale was known. The footage includes the production of ingots and bars and the steps towards finished products such as large caliber gun tube’s (presumably for naval ships) as well as steel bars and rods.
Two of the five films include footage of African American workers alongside white workers. Both races appear to work the same jobs on the shop floor without any indication of a segregated workforce a practice at Midvale that dated back to the 1890s.
The collection was gifted to Hagley in 1970 by George Atwell Richardson (1886-1976), an engineer who worked in the steel industry in publicity and sales throughout his career. He worked for Midvale as their advertising manager during the making of this film. A photograph from Atwell’s collection at Hagley includes an image from a booth at a trade show in Chicago. The booth in the 1919 photograph has a notice for a Midvale film that is believed to be the film described here. The photograph provides the circa date for the film and anecdotal evidence of how and where the company used it for promoting the business.
The collection also includes a film strip titled the Story of Iron and Steel produced by Bray Screen Products, Inc. New York City. A mailing address on the film can is to George A. Richardson when he worked for Bethlehem Steel Company (1923-1933).
The original film cans and storage box have been retained and are in Box 1.
Existence and Location of Copies
These films have been digitized. Preservation master files exists as DPX files. There are MPEG4 files available for access. View this collection online in the Hagley Digital Archives.
This collection is open for research.
Film material is housed in cold storage and must reacclimate prior to viewing (Film Cans 1-5). Please contact the Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department at least 48 hours in advance of research visit.
Please note that Hagley Library does not possess playback equipment for 28mm motion picture film.
Language of Materials
- Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company (Organization)
- Richardson, George A., 1886-1976 (Person)
Finding Aid & Administrative Information
- Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company motion picture films
- Kevin Martin
- Description rules:
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description:
- Script of description: