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Slavic Migration to Pittsburgh

Slavic Migration to Pittsburgh

by Larry Ciptak

from Out of This Kitchen: a History of the Ethnic Groups and Their Foods in the Steel Valley


The Slavs–Lithuanian, Rumanian, Russian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Polish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian in descent–made up half of the workforce in the mills of Pittsburgh in the early 1900s.

The Slav immigrants took the unskilled, manual labor jobs in the mills that others wouldn't take: working in cinder pits, handling steel billets and bars and loading trains. "Their labor is the heaviest and the roughest in the mill," wrote Margaret Byington in her 1910 book, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town. "Accidents are frequent, promotions rare."

The Slavs were hard-working country people who came in large numbers in response to the demands of the mills for strong, unskilled laborers. "The mill offers them its lowest wage; the community meets them with indifference; the landlords exploit their helplessness," Byington wrote. Their chance of transcending laborer status was very slim.

But even their status at the bottom of the mill ladder was precarious. When tough economic times would force a cutback in mill labor, the Slavs (along with the blacks) would be the first to go. Mill administrators would then give unemployed English-speaking skilled workers the Slav's jobs until times improved and the skilled men returned to their previous employment.

The housing conditions in turn-of-the-century Second Ward (from Carnegie Steel on the Monongahela River to Eighth Avenue) where the Slavs lived were distressing. Smoke settled heavily in the neighborhood. The water supply was inadequate, toilet facilities were lacking, and virtually all the buildings were overcrowded, as almost half of Slovak families took in boarders to supplement their income.

The taking of boarders had negative effects on the Slav children, according to Byington. "Keeping lodgers ruins the training as well as the health of the children. The overworked mother has neither the time nor patience for wise discipline. More serious is the injury to the moral tone of the Slavic community caused by the crowding together of single men and families … even younger children learn evil quickly from the free-spoken men."

The infant mortality rate in the Second Ward in 1907 was appalling: among the Slavs one child under two years of age died to every three born, according to a study conducted by Byington. "Against many of these deaths was the physician's entry 'malnutrition due to poor food and overcrowding'," she noted.