Sloss Furnace Company Sloss Furnace - Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Company, Birmingham Alabama

Sloss resigned from the Pratt Company in 1879, and for a time assumed charge of the Oxmoor furnaces. Factional differences between Louisville and Cincinnati interests led to his resignation from Oxmoor in the spring of 1881. Because of a high demand for pig iron and with the encouragement of DeBardeleben - who ordered the Pratt Company coal for five years at cost plus ten percent, Sloss decided to form his own company. The L&N committed its support and its capital, and one of its directors, B.F. Guthrie, became the company vice-president. Sloss himself assumed the presidency, and his sons, Fred and Maclin, became secretary-treasurer and general manager, respectively.

The new Sloss Furnace Company bought fifty acres of land between the tracks of the Alabama Great Southern and the L&N in an area then situated on the northeast border of the city. Furnace construction was supervised by Harry Hargreaves, a Swiss-English immigrant and an associate of the English inventor Thomas Whitwell. In the early 1970's Hargreaves in introduced the Whitwell recuperating hot blast stove at Cedar Point, N.Y. Raising Fawn, Georgia, and South Pittsburg, Tennesee. The Whitwell stoves he set up at the number one Sloss Furnace were the first installed in the Birmingham district.

The first furnaces, 65x16 (the diameter is measured at the widest point - the bosh), was blown in 12 April 1882. The second furnace, 75x16 1/2 was built in 1882 but was not blown in for more than a year due to a shortage of coke. The furnaces and their auxiliary equipment were generally considered the best, most advanced technology available.

The furnaces were of metal plate construction with vertical elevators used to handle raw material. There were six Whitwell stoves - three per furnace. The two brick casting sheds and steam blowing engine house had large arched ventilation openings on the sides. Two 84" blowing engines, fed by ten boilers, provided air for the hot blast. Two-hundred forty-two bee-hive ovens supplied coke.

The stock bins were located on the south side of the site under a long, open-sided metal shed. The furnaces were hand-filled, and the iron was sand-cast. Although the basic symmetrical pattern of furnaces and supporting structures was repeated in subsequent construction, neither the original buildings or operating equipment survive.

Originally the company owned only a small percentage of its raw material. Coke was supplied by Pratt, and ore was supplied by a firm associated with Mark W. Potter. Sloss did own two limestone quarries, some sand deposits, and two small ore mine near Steele in St. Clair County and on Red Mountain. But the mines did not produce sufficient ore and contracts with independent companies were necessary.

The company's growth hinged not only on capital, raw materials, and improved technology, but also on the physical labor necessary to mine the mineral fields and the keep the furnaces in blast. Skilled labor was scarce and was recruited in the North, often at rates higher than those customary in Northern iron and steel centers. Other skilled laborers came from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. They not only brought needed furnace skills, but also supplied, by 1889, almost 20% of the state's mining labor. Additional immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe joined them in the mines by the turn of the century. Southern whites constituted about 30% of the state's mining labor in 1889 and were important to the skilled iron and steel trades. The bulk of the district's labor, however, was black. Unlike the Southern textile industry, iron and steel in Birmingham was built on black labor. Significantly, the district's reliance on-black labor increased over time. Constituting 41% of Birmingham's-industrial work force in 1880, blacks made up more than half the city's wage earners by 1900. Their percentage in the iron steel industry was even higher, 65% in 1900 and 75% in 1910.

At the blast furnaces the proportion of blacks to whites was extremely high. One observer commented that blacks outnumbered whites at Birmingham furnaces by ten to one. All the foremen, however, were white- For most blacks, this was their first exposure to industrial work, and like many other recent migrants to industrialism, they exhibited high levels of absenteeism and turnover.

In testimony given before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Labor and Capital at Birmingham session in the fall of 1883, James Sloss claimed that absenteeism was so high among black furnace workers that, in a typical month, he had to hire 565 men to do the work of 269. Sloss believed that a change in work habits would lower production costs by ten percent, but that he was "utterly powerless" to affect it: "As long as they have a dollar in their pockets they feel independent and indisposed to work. Dismissing them from your services has no terrors to them."

Even the raising or lowering of wage rates, Sloss asserted, would provide no leverage. It was "almost impossible," he believed, to keep his force at work after Saturday, and "not infrequently" his;;workers would be absent until Tuesday or Wednesday. Blacks worked well, Sloss claimed, while they were at work, ("the colored man likes the furnace business; he has a fondness for it."), but their independence was clearly the company's most serious labor "problem." There is no reason to believe that Sloss was any less a racist than the average white American of the period, but his testimony ought not to be discounted for that reason. Other observers also noted high levels of absenteeism among turn-of-the-century black industrial workers. Like English hand-loom weavers, Irish canal diggers, and many first-generation migrants to industrial society, black furnace workers valued their free time more than additional wages.

In the early-20th century immigrant steelworkers at northern furnaces also exhibited high levels of absenteeism, and had no difficulty in justifying it. After an unauthorized absence of three weeks, one Polish worker defended himself by simply exclaiming: "What the hell, work all time goddam job, what the hell." In the face of a work schedule of twelve hours a day, seven days a week, under conditions of hot, intense, and exhausting labor, with a chance for upward mobility considerably less than white labors, the choice of time over money was hardly irrational.

Sloss attempted to resolve his problem by trying to attract family men, believing that they would provide a more stable work force than the young, unmarried, and "restless" blacks who, he claimed, made the bulk of the furnace workforce. He built forty-eight tenements at the city furnaces site as part of an effort to accomplish that end. But the short-run the only solution was the existence or an abundance of black labor. "I have got another set down-town," Sloss asserted, "that I can drum up whenever those who are at work leave."

There is no evidence that Sloss, or other early furnace managers, attempted to employ white labor in sizable numbers. It is unlikely any such attempt would have been successful. White laborers was seen, by one of the district's early boosters, as "dignified." Reserving the heavy manual jobs for blacks prevented the development of class consciousness. The semi-privileged status of white labor was believed to excite "a sentiment of sympathy and equality on their part with the classes above them."

And even if whites were successfully recruited for furnace jobs, at least one manager believed that the rate of absenteeism would remain unchanged.

The success of the Sloss Company, therefore, hinged on the district's supply of black labor. As long as black workers were available to feed the boilers, charge the furnaces, and break and load pig iron, there was apparently little need for technological innovation. As early as 1900, one observer of Birmingham's labor noted the close relationship between black labor supply and technological change: "In the Southern iron-works great numbers of negroes were employed with wheelbarrows to carry heavy loads of fuel or ore or metal from one place to another; but in the Carnegie Works in the Pittsburgh district there was a great network of overhead tracks, on which nearly everything could be shifted in any direction by steam."