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Reading 3: The Hopewell Village Community
For more than 100 years, from the late 18th to the late 19th century, Hopewell Furnace was the center of a self-contained rural society of 200-300 people, all of whose work was directly or indirectly related to the production of iron. Many of these people lived in tenant houses furnished by the company. Much of their food was grown on acreage belonging to the company. They bought everything they couldn't grow or make themselves from the company story or itinerant peddlers. The heart of the community was the glowing furnace, whose cycles of filling and tapping set the pace of life.
A clear-cut paternalistic hierarchy of relationships characterized village society. The daily lives of the workers varied with the work they performed; their skills and responsibilities determined their social positions. During his term as ironmaster, Clement Brooke sat at the top of the economic and social pyramid, sharing profits and power only with his absentee partners. From his comfortable home overlooking the entire furnace community, the ironmaster made policy decisions, assumed responsibility for the successful operation of the enterprise, and largely controlled the lives of the furnace employees and their families. The ironmaster's mansion was at once family home, business headquarters, boarding house, and social center. The ironmaster and his family lived in the fashionable style of country gentry, wearing fine clothing and enjoying expensive furniture and other luxuries. A large staff of household servants, drawn largely from the wives and daughters of furnace workers, worked at the "Big House."
The furnace clerk was second only to the ironmaster in importance. He kept the books, acted as paymaster, and placated unhappy customers. He also managed the company store, ordering supplies for the village and charging workers' purchases against their wages. He was trusted with setting priorities for filling orders and could extend credit. The clerk also managed the furnace in the ironmaster's absence. Besides his considerable salary, the clerk was provided with room and board and travel expenses. The holders of this prestigious job often lived in the home of the ironmaster, a position that an enterprising clerk might well expect to attain in time.
Below the management level, the most important man in the community was the founder, the person responsible for the efficient operation of the furnace. He had immediate oversight of the iron workers and was accountable for the quality of their products. Because of his important position, he and his family held considerable prestige in the community.
The majority of other Hopewell Furnace workers labored in 12-hour shifts at grimy, often dangerous tasks. The noisy, reeking, fiery hot furnace defined their work. Skilled craftsmen such as moulders and colliers enjoyed higher earnings and greater prestige than ordinary furnace workers or ancillary workers such as woodcutters, miners, teamsters, and household servants. Moulders, the elite of the furnace workforce, received higher rates than the founder. Fillers and guttermen had the most dangerous jobs and received less pay than the skilled workmen. Blacksmiths, mill and wheelwrights, and other skilled artisans provided indirect, but essential services to the furnace. Farmers and farm workers developed the arable land of the village and grew much of its food.
Many women found paid employment at Hopewell, although few appear in the furnace records. Some skilled women earned wages as seamstresses, cooks, and candle makers for the Big House. Others added to the family income by boarding single men, selling eggs and chickens, marketing home-baked or home-preserved products, and sewing, repairing, or laundering clothing. Many women and children helped with farm work at harvest time. Children were apprenticed at early ages or went to work to help support their families.
Some African Americans were also employed at Hopewell and received equal pay with white workers for the same jobs. They were, however, most often working at the less skilled jobs. Neither living quarters nor social activities were segregated. The forests of southeastern Pennsylvania were known as a shelter for runaway slaves. Because many black workers appear on the records of Hopewell Furnace for only short periods of time, and because there is some evidence that Clement Brooke was an abolitionist, it is possible he provided runaway slaves with jobs until they could move on to safer areas further north.
While a class system did exist within the workplace, there was also a strong sense of community in Hopewell. Only the ironmaster and his family were really set apart. Everyone else found that their social lives ebbed and flowed with the rhythms of the furnace. When a long blast ended, the people celebrated their temporary freedom from its demands. They held "entertainments," went fishing or hunting, skating or sleighing. At special times, Election Day or the Fourth of July, civic duties were combined with social drinking. Workers and their families often danced, and sometimes fought, the night away. For Hopewell workers, life was a mixture of much hard work and some play.
Questions for Reading 3
1. Compare the duties of owner, ironmaster, clerk, and founder. If you had to choose, which of these jobs would you prefer? Why?
2. Which furnace workers were considered the most important and were paid the most?
3. Which jobs were the most dangerous? Why? How well were these jobs paid? Why do you think that was so?
4. What paid work did women and children perform? What unpaid work do you think they provided? How important do you think this unpaid work was to the community?
5. The reading suggests that there was a degree of equality at Hopewell Furnace. How would you compare that "equality" with today's definition?
Reading 3 was was adapted from the National Park Service's visitor's guide to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site and the handbook, Hopewell Furnace: A Guide to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Pennsylvania (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, Handbook 124, 1983).