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A photograph of the New York City skyline

Building New York City

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It is against public policy and subversive of the fundamental principles of American liberty that a whole community of workers should be denied employment or suffer any other social detriment on account of membership in a church, a political party or a trade union.

Steel strikers declaration, 1892


In 1892, Andrew Carnegie's steel manager tries to crush the steelworkers union at the Homestead works in Pittsburgh. When wage cuts aren't accepted, the entire work force is laid off. The robber baron detective agency of choice, Pinkerton, and the militia, armed by the Governor with Gatling guns, protect the strike breakers. After four months, the strikers lost.

Rockefeller sends his congratulations to Carnegie. The victory is so crushing that essentially, the steel industry is de-unionized for the next 45 years.

As a result, J.P Morgan's U.S Steel is able to work 200,000 men twelve hours a day.


By 1902, 65 skyscrapers are being constructed and it isn't their walls that take the weight, but the steel.


The skyscraper workers known as 'roughnecks' have no harness or safety rope, or even hard hats. There's nothing between them and an 85m drop. One slip... and you're dead.

The thing I hate worse than poison is to take on a new man when we're near the top. They all get used to it, or get killed. Skyscraper worker

Veteran workers are called 'fixers'. New guys are called 'snakes' because they're deadly to be around. A falling man will grab for anything, and anybody, on the way down.

Building skyscrapers is the nearest peace-time equivalent of war. In fact, the analogy is startling, even to the occasional grim reality of a building accident where maimed bodies, and even death, remind us that we are fighting a war of construction against the forces of nature. William Starrett, foreman

They have an 8hr working day, take meals when they can, and there's no toilet breaks. And the pay, at four dollars a day, is only twice the going rate for manual labour. Not great pay considering two out of five die or are disabled on the job.

By the end of the 19th century, America's urban population has increased 87 times. In Chicago alone, in just ten years, they build 50 steel frame buildings, and in just 20 years, its population more than doubles to almost 1.7m. From 860 to 1900 the population of the US grows from 31m to 75m.

Did you know?

The Native American Mohawks were often used as labourers on the skyscrapers because it was believed they had no natural fear of heights. In fact, they were afraid, but unlike their American workers, their culture meant they never showed it. , Before skyscrapers, a high floor meant a lot of stairs walking, and so the rent was less. The invention of the safe elevator, by Otis in 1852, reversed that. Now, it wasn't the ground floor, but the penthouse that cost the most., Skyscrapers were so radical that when people first saw them they thought they would blow over.