An Accurate Account of the “Men Who Built America” Part 8

This is the eighth in my series of posts about the five businessmen the History Channel profiled in a terribly inaccurate and un-historical TV miniseries titled The Men Who Built America. I’m writing these posts in response to several comments and e-mails from TV viewers who have expressed interest in a more accurate version of the story. (Click here to see all Al’s columns on the program and its subjects.)

Post #8: Carnegie’s Childhood.

Andrew Carnegie was born in a small town in Scotland in November of 1835. His parents didn’t put him in school until he was eight years old, and when they did the cheapest school in town was all they could afford. There was only one teacher, and the class size varied between 150 and 180 students during the four or five years he was able to attend. When his family left Scotland his school days ended; from then on he would have to educate himself in what little spare time was available to a child who worked sixty hours a week in a sweatshop.

Before Andrew ever went to school he learned a poignant lesson about being a second class citizen. The Hunts, the richest family in the area, lived on a large estate called Pittencrieff Manor, and once a year they opened the gates to let the common people come on their property. On the estate were a large manicured park, and the ruins of several historic old buildings including Malcolm’s towerDunfermline Palace; and Dunfermline Abbey, where Andrew’s personal hero Robert the Bruce was buried.  Only one family was excluded. Tom Morrison, Andrew’s maternal grandfather, had earned the ire of the Hunt family with his radical politics, and he and all his family were denied access to the estate.

Each May young Andrew had to listen to all the other boys talking about day they’d spent playing in the old palace and watching the peacocks that strutted around the property. Children who shared his admiration for Scotland’s traditional heroes may well have told him of visits to Robert’s grave.

Children are cruel, and young Carnegie must have had to put up with some teasing over his pariah status. He vowed that someday he would open the gates of Pittencrieff to everyone.

In 1848 Andrew’s father William Carnegie decided to take his family to the United States, to join some relatives in the Pittsburgh area. He had heard about America being the Land of Opportunity, but didn’t fully understand what the expression meant. Sadly, the senior Carnegie continued to try to make a living as a hand weaver in the new world, where his skills were just as obsolete as they were in Scotland. The loom he was able to procure was not sophisticated enough for damask work, so he made tablecloths and sold them for pennies.

Andrew, who started his career before his thirteenth birthday, would spend the next fifty-odd years seizing every opportunity that came within reach. For him America was a land were the sky was the limit.

His first job was as a “bobbin boy,” changing bobbins in a textile factory. The pay was $1.20 per week, the equivalent of about $35 per week in today’s money. Looking back on that first job as an adult, he would say “I have made millions since, but none of those millions gave me such happiness as my first week’s earnings. I was now a helper of the family, a breadwinner, and no longer a total charge upon my parents.”

Soon he was able to secure a job at a factory that made bobbins, at a wage of $2.00 per week, a 67% increase in pay. At the bobbin factory the thirteen-year-old spent his days all alone the basement of the factory, shoveling coal into the steam engine that ran the plant and keeping the engine running properly.

Young Carnegie was not content with his sweatshop job, but he never doubted that he could improve the situation. In his autobiography he said of that time “my hopes were high, and I looked every day for some change to take place. What it was to be, I knew not, but that it would come I felt certain if I kept on.”

In a letter to a cousin back in Scotland, Andrew described the opportunities America offered in glowing terms. He said that he expected to prosper in ways that wouldn’t have been available to a poor child in Scotland. “If I don’t,” said the future mogul, “it will be my own fault, for anyone can get along in this country.”

It didn’t take Andrew long to figure out that if he made himself more valuable to employers, he could get better pay and working conditions. Today the personnel department of a big company is called the “human resource” department, and the term is one example of corporate-speak that is actually accurate. People are resources, and some are more valuable than others. Andrew understood the concept while he was still in his early teens.

He was able to demonstrate his penmanship and math skills to the owner of the bobbin factory, who started pulling him out of the basement on an intermittent basis and putting him to work as a clerk. Andrew liked office work much better than his basement duties, so he continued to look for ways to make himself more valuable upstairs than downstairs. Always a fine salesman, Andrew talked several friends into pooling their money with him to hire an accountant named Mr. Williams to teach them double-entry bookkeeping at night.

But before Andrew could complete his training as a bookkeeper another opportunity presented itself. A family friend mentioned that one of the telegraph offices in town had an opening for a telegram delivery boy. The job, if he could get it, would be a definite upgrade from what he was doing at the bobbin factory. The pay was fifty cents a week higher, and instead of spending half his time alone in a basement shoveling coal into a steam engine he would be out in the fresh air delivering telegrams to wealthy businessmen.

William Carnegie, by now a defeated and bitter man, told Andrew that applying for the job would be pointless, because a wage of $2.50 per week was surely out of reach for a fourteen year old. Andrew sold his father on letting him apply, and went to the telegraph office for an interview. He sold himself to the boss, and when asked when he would be able to start he told his new employer that he was ready to start immediately. He spent the rest of the day in training.

Andrew launched into his career as a telegram boy with characteristic enthusiasm.

There was scarcely a minute in which I could not learn something or find out how much there was to learn and how little I knew. I felt that my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb.

I had only one fear, and that was that I could not learn quickly enough the addresses of the various business houses to which messages had to be delivered. I therefore began to note the the signs of these houses up one side of the street and down the other. At nights I exercised my memory by naming in succession the various firms. Before long I could shut my eyes and, beginning at the foot of a business street, call off the names of the firms in proper order along one side to the top of the street, then crossing on the other side go down in regular order to the foot again.

The next step was to know the men themselves, for it gave a messenger a great advantage, and often saved a long journey, if he knew member or employees of firms. He might meet one of these going direct to his office. It was reckoned a great triumph among the boys to deliver a message upon the street.

 Andrew Carnegie’s enthusiasm for jobs that some people would describe as “menial labor” give us a revealing glimpse into his character. Until his retirement many years later he would apply the same cheerfully aggressive attitude to everything his hand found to do. The same passion for excellence that would  make him the richest man in the world in future years made him the best telegram boy in Pittsburgh in 1850.

While he was honing his messenger boy skills, Carnegie made time to improve his mind in other ways as well. At fourteen he learned that an entrepreneur and philanthropist named Colonel James Anderson had just established a free lending library for the use of “working boys,” but that the definition of “working” used by the librarian in charge didn’t include clerks or messenger boys. Andrew wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, arguing that kids like himself could benefit from education just as much as boys who worked with their hands.

The Colonel directed his librarian to change the policy to include all categories of work. Carnegie immediately started taking full advantage of Anderson’s generosity. “The treasures of the world which books contain,” he would later say, “were opened to me at the right moment.” He would spend every spare moment reading, even bringing a book with him to the telegraph office so he could read whenever he had an idle minute between delivery assignments.

Years later Carnegie would erect a monument to Colonel Anderson in Pittsburgh. When he wrote his autobiography, he was not shy about the gratitude he felt. “I bless his name” said Carnegie of Anderson.

Next week’s post will cover Carnegie’s childhood relationship with Thomas Scott and the Pennsylvania Railroad.

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