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SharePrint Media File

Type: Video

Series Title West Virginia: A Film History

Filmmaker Mark Samels

Company West Virginia Humanities Council

Format DVD


She was curious, sensitive and remarkably observant. Raised in an upper-class home, Rebecca Harding became fascinated with the working class life outside her window. In her early twenties she began to write about it.

“A cloudy day, do you know what that is in a town of ironworks? The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me. I open the window and can scarcely see through the rain the grocer shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.”

In her steel-ribbed corsets and dragging skirts, Harding explored Wheeling’s gritty, industrial district where thousand of Irish, Welsh and German laborers toiled.

“Masses of men, dull faces bent to the ground. Skin and muscle and flesh grimed with smoke and ashes. Stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal. Breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot. Vileness for soul and body.”

Harding’s story “Life in the Iron Mills,” published in the Atlantic Monthly, shocked readers across the country. It was the first time an American writer had portrayed industrialism in such realistic terms. Southerners claimed it showed that working conditions in northern factories were worse than those on plantations.

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