Historic labor jobs that constructed Cincinnati


History books don’t often tell of the day-to-day workers who toil to make a living. Cincinnati was a river city, a border city, a manufacturing city. It was possible because of the blood, sweat and hard work of the people who built this city and who did many long-forgotten jobs.

For the first few decades of Cincinnati’s existence, workers were either artisans or manual workers. German immigrants had the money to buy land and the skills to work as butchers, bakers, and tailors. Irish immigrants who were discriminated against as Catholics were demoted to unskilled, dangerous jobs like digging the trench for the Miami & Erie Canal and laying railroad tracks.

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Working on the river

The arrival of steamers on the Cincinnati riverside in 1811 brought a new business with them – shipbuilding. The landing was also full of stevedores and dock workers heaving heavy packages and boxes up and down the gangways to load and unload cargo.

When a boat arrived, dock workers were hired to do the backbreaking work, which lasted 20 to 30 hours straight, then had to sit and wait for another boat and work, sometimes a week later. This gave the false impression that they were lazing around.

Dock workers were mostly Irish workers until slavery was abolished in 1865 and black workers took over these jobs.

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Lafcadio Hearn was one of the few journalists who wrote about the stevedores. In his 1876 article, Levee Life, in the Cincinnati Commercial, he wrote about their lives and the songs they sang. “Roustabout life in the truest sense is the life of the (black) population of the Rows and partly of Bucktown … and echoes of the old plantation life still live in their songs and pastimes.”

Dirty work

In the mid-19th century, Cincinnati was the world leader in pork packaging, earning the unflattering nickname of Porkopolis. Dirty and smelly, the gutters red from innards and pork jawbones, the meat packaging was vital to the development of the city’s economy.

Drivers drove pigs through the city streets to the slaughterhouses, the largest of them in Brighton. The pigs were then processed through a series of chambers where they were hung, killed, bled and cleaned, then cut up and the strips salted for preservation. It was grueling, dirty work.

“The hammer, the knife, the ax, the boiling kettle, the merciless scraper have all done their job,” wrote Charles Fenno Hoffman in his 1835 travelogue, “A Winter in the Far West”. He described the beginnings of the assembly line – or dismantling line. At that time, 120,000 pigs were slaughtered and processed in a year in Cincinnati.

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Workers process pigs at a pork packaging plant in Cincinnati.  Lithograph by Henry Farny,

Soap makers like William Procter and James Gamble would then buy the lard from packers, turn it into lard, and use large presses to squeeze the liquid out for the lard oil. The fat, oil, and fats were cooked and then solidified into bars of soap.

Women in factories

Women often complemented their families as seamstresses, but also found work in factories in the early 19th century because some men preferred to be their own bosses rather than work for another man.

Many of the jobs were in clothing factories, working extremely long hours in inadequate light and inadequate ventilation for meager wages. Ohio History Central found that women routinely worked 96 hours a week, which is the equivalent of six days 16 hours a day. A woman who worked in a Cincinnati shoe factory in 1850 made $ 3 a week. That’s just over three cents an hour.

Despite the conditions, the work was beneficial to widowed or unmarried women and ultimately enabled them to fight for women’s rights.

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Skilled workers

When The Enquirer first launched in 1841, newspaper reporters, publishers, and printers were often one and the same person. The tasks became more specialized as the newspapers increased in size and number of pages.

Typesetters were highly qualified workers who set each individual letter of the type by hand upside down on a stick and then placed it on the printing machine. The next day the typesetter picked up every letter and put it back into the appropriate boxes, ready for the next issue.

As the steamship industry faded in the late 19th century, machine builders who built engines turned to making machine tools. Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. was founded in 1890 and grew into the largest mechanical engineering company in the world in the 1930s.

Cincinnati Milling Machines, 1942 Cincinnati Milling Machine Company

Railroad engineers are still around, but the engineers on Cincinnati’s five slopes have been gone since 1948. Main Street Incline was the first to open in the city in 1872 with steam-powered cables.

The production engineer operated the gas and brakes from a cabin in the powerhouse on the hilltop. Communication with the attendant in the valley station took place via a bell system.

Although the driver had a wonderful view of the city from his vantage point, he was too busy concentrating on the two platforms at the same time, six times an hour, 19 hours a day.

Advantages of the job

After a tough day, workers often sat in one of the city’s 2,091 saloons to relax in the 1890s. But in order for them to have a pint or two, someone had to puree the hops, pour the beer, and roll the barrels out of the hillside storage cellars, then load them onto horse carts for delivery.

Brewing crews weren’t big, but they worked long hours with the benefit of free drinks. Gambrinus Stock Brewing Co. limited its employees to drinking 12-14 glasses of beer a day while working. The workers at Mörlein drank an average of 25 glasses a day.

That’s a lot of beer.

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Men work at Andrews Steel in Newport in this mosaic by artist Winold Reiss, part of a series created for Union Terminal.  In 1921, workers there went on strike to press for better conditions, including ending the 80-hour week.

Tribute to the workers

Workers are not announced and rarely recognized. When the Union Terminal was being built, artist Winold Reiss created a series of mosaic murals, many of which celebrate the work that Cincinnati built. The murals depict 35 workers in the city’s industries – printing, soap making, meat packing, pottery, sheet metal working, chemical processing, engineering.

In 2013, Enquirer reporter Cliff Radel researches and identifies the real workers who modeled for the murals. Recognized after 80 years of anonymity.

Sources: “They Built a City: 150 Years of Industrial Cincinnati”, “Workers on the Edge: Work, Leisure, and Politics in Industrializing Cincinnati, 1788-1890” by Steven J. Ross, Cincinnati: A City of Immigrants Website, Immigrant Entrepreneurship Website, “The Grand Old Lady of Vine Street” by Graydon DeCamp, Cincinnati Views.