It was a very good day for Charles M Schwab

Woodrow Wilson with Charles M Schwab (Courtesy Woodrow Wilson Historical Association via the Commons on Flickr)

An old photograph shows Charles M Schwab on top of the world.

True, the most recognizable figure in the photograph is President Woodrow Wilson, who looks down on Schwab from the platform of his special train car.  The day is sunny.  Wilson’s secret-service man and his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, stand in the shadows.  Something has just happened or is about to happen.  A large floral arrangement leans against the train’s railing, its funny shape capped with a flamboyant bow.

Edith’s presence in what appears to be an official photograph (the widowed president married her on December 18, 1915) establishes that this photograph was taken no earlier than 1916.  The carefree postures of the figures and their light-colored clothing indicate that it’s spring or summer.  The president, always natty, is decked out in a light-colored suit and a boater.  Summer it was—sometime between Memorial and Labor Day.

Though the president is bathed in light, charisma emanates from the homely yet somehow magisterial Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939).  Here, with his back to the president—as though ignorant of his presence—, Schwab looks straight into the camera, his bluff exuberance setting the tone.  He and his two unidentified companions share a joke, as if they posed with the president every day.  Certainly, Schwab and the younger men exude solidarity, though he is evidently more powerful than they.

As for the young men themselves, what unconventional outfits they are wearing!  The one on the left wears a tie with his overalls; the one on the right, though seemingly equally careless of his dress, wears a good striped dress shirt (without the customary collar or tie) under a smock-like jacket.  No belt to the pants but two large buttons on his lapel.  Are they campaign buttons?  No, for they contain only numbers rather than words.  They are more like badges, some sort of ID.

One more figure is implied the scene: Carl T. Thoner (1888-1938), the photographer, whose name is stamped on the photograph’s corner.  Thoner worked for the war department, so this scene was part of Wilson’s presidency—pertaining to governing rather than running for office.  Yet the fact that the photograph bears Schwab’s signature and later ended up in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library testifies to the personal significance the occasion had for both men.

When did the careers of Wilson and Schwab intersect?  Schwab was one of the greatest industrialists of his time, a great steel man, self-made, a “master hustler,” some called him.  He’d learned what he knew from the likes of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

Born in Pennsylvania, Schwab had worked his way up in Carnegie’s mills, becoming president of Carnegie Steel while in his thirties.  After helping to found United States Steel Corporation and being its first president, he broke out on his own to take control of a smaller competitor, Bethlehem Steel.  Under Schwab’s ownership, Bethlehem Steel became the one of the world’s largest and most important heavy-manufacturing concerns.

In Schwab, a deftness with finance and industrial relations combined with innovative ideas about how to make steel.  He became great by perceiving the importance of the so-called I-beam, a product that, because of its great tensile strength, made possible skyscrapers, enormous ships, better bridges—all the emblems of modernity.  Hitherto, steel had been made in shorter lengths, requiring more welding and lacking the I-beam’s versatility.  By retrofitting his steel works around the beam’s production and more closely integrating steel-making more generally, Schwab increased Bethlehem’s annual sales from $10 million in 1904 to $230 million in 1916.  In the process, Schwab became immensely wealthy, embracing philanthropic causes but also living in a recklessly lavish style.

As part of his corporate stewardship, Schwab developed one of the nation’s most successful early soccer teams.  Founded in 1907, Bethlehem Steel Football Club hit its stride in 1913, winning a string of national championships thereafter, thanks in part to Schwab’s recruiting top talent from Scotland.  Was the man standing next to Schwab a soccer player?  The players, who worked in Schwab’s plants, were given time off to practice and travel to games.

No, the key to this photograph is Schwab’s appointment to head up the nation’s Emergency Fleet Corporation in the summer of 1918.  World War I was wearing on, and the nation’s program to produce a large number of ships for the merchant marine was faltering.  Schwab put his own life’s work on hold to move down to Philadelphia, where the government’s new Hog Island shipyard was located.  There, he reinvigorated the nation’s shipbuilding program.  The completion of the Quistconck (the subject of my previous post) in record time was attributed largely to Schwab’s energy and ability.

So, this photograph, like the one I wrote about previously, was taken at Hog Island, Philadelphia, on August 5, 1918.  The president and his wife had come down from Washington by train for the day, where, at noon, they presided over the Quistconck’s christening.  The men flanking Schwab are shipyard workers, one almost certainly the foreman MacMillan, who had driven the first rivet of the Quistconck on Feb 18, 1918, and was being celebrated at the christening as a near-hero.  The many thousand workers who had worked on the ship each contributed a mite to buy an enormous bouquet of roses, which was presented to the First Lady that day.

This photograph records the Wilsons’ final moment at the shipyard, when, just before their train pulled away, the President leaned over to give his best to Charles M. Schwab.

Image from this source.

Christening the Quistconck

The SS Quistconck launched (Courtesy of the NARA via Wikimedia Commons)

5 August 1918

There were no speeches, it being a hot day.  So, with a minimum of ceremony, and before a crowd of some 60,000 people, the new First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, clumsily christened the new cargo ship, the champagne splashing off its hull and all over her lovely dress of lavender voile.  A small detail lost in the excitement of the moment, as the enormous freighter slid down the ways under the gaze of dignitaries, the tens of thousands of shipyard workers who built her, and their families.  Meanwhile Edith’s husband, the President Woodrow, suddenly boylike, waved his hat in the air and led the crowd in a riotous patriotic cheer.  Bands played tinny airs, almost drowned out, while flags flapped in a sultry breeze.

It was a curious phase of WWI, with the long war nearly over and America’s concomitant shipbuilding effort only just then hitting its stride.  After years of maintaining its neutrality, the United States had entered the war in the spring of 1917, partly in response to Germany’s relentless U-Boat attacks upon all trans-Atlantic shipping.  It was another year before the US had embarked on an ambitious breakneck program to build a whole fleet of ships to replace the many US vessels that German submarines had destroyed.  (Germany sank some 6.2 million tons of Allied and neutral ships in 1917 alone.)

One result of this determination was the overnight creation of the vast Hog Island shipyard on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Built on swampy outlying land (where the Philadelphia airport stands today), the shipyard consisted of 50 enormous bays.  Covering 1.25 miles of land along the Delaware River, the yard, which 30,000 workers labored in harsh winter conditions to build, was the largest of any in the world.  Though something of a boondoggle (the $50-million shipyard was essentially defunct by 1921), Hog Island was at the same time a source of great national pride, a proof of what American industry and a common sense of mission could together accomplish.

(Some scholars also credit Hog Island workers, who lived in an instant city and represented many food traditions, with giving the bulky sandwich known as the hoagie to the world.)

The Quistconck was the first vessel to be launched, of the hundreds that Hog Island was expected to produce.  Though some of the ships were never built (the end of the war made them unnecessary), the Hog Island shipyard produced 248 5500-ton steel vessels over a two-year period, at the unprecedented rate of one every three to four days.  The shipyard was innovative in applying standardized assembly-line techniques to shipbuilding, helping to restore and modernize the nation’s inadequate and sadly decimated merchant marine.  Essential to any military effort abroad, many of these ugly supply vessels saw service in WWII.

Mrs Wilson, who had been married to the president for less than a year, was given the privilege of naming many of the vessels.  Believing she was descended from Pocahontas and therefore a living representative of America’s indigenous nobility, Edith Wilson gave the ships Indian names.  Quistconck was Hog Island’s native Delaware name.

The ships are coming (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)The Quistconck’s christening celebrated the mobilization of a whole society around the national interests perceived to be in play during WWI.  Whether or not this was the whole story of the shipyard, art and photography record the vigor of patriotic sentiment that kept the crowds cheering on that hot August day.

Top image from this source.
Poster by James Henry Daughetry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Click here to see other WWI shipbuilding posters on the website
of the American Merchant Marine at War.