The Metalworkers

The illustrated story of a Baltimore-based ironworks and its role in building out 19th century America

On the northern edge of Baltimore, in 1843, Irish immigrant Robert Poole, at age 25, opened a modest ironworks and hired machinists, molders, boilermakers, and patternmakers. Among the first generation of modern metalworkers, these craftsmen went on to convert raw iron into gearing, turbines, fire engines, coal cars, and power-generating mechanisms—all destined for an industrializing America.

In the 1850s, Poole, an engineer and inventor, came to national attention after his company cast the columns that still encircle the base of the dome of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. By the1880s, his ironworks employed more than 800 operatives (as hourly and skilled workers were called then), and it had become the leading metal-based manufacturer in Baltimore and Maryland.

In a richly illustrated, critically acclaimed publication, author Steven Swett chronicles Poole’s sixty-year stewardship, while, page by page, shining light on the opaque world of metalwork. In everyday language he describes how iron was produced, how molders, machinists, and boilermakers transformed that iron into usable parts and machinery—and, central to his narrative, how their know-how created infrastructure that remains with us today.

We meet individual metalworkers in Poole’s employ, by name and by trade, and learn about their families, religious practices, and their lives at work (long hours spent in heat and noise, facing constant danger). These personal stories enabled the author to describe hand tools and their use in a machine age, the complex relations between labor and management, and the nature of a hierarchical society in a tight-knit, manufacturing enclave—realities of a turbulent era in the American past.

By focusing on a single enterprise and its precedent-setting craftsmen, Mr. Swett gracefully involves readers in the human side of industrialization as it unfolded in 19th century Baltimore and America—a perspective which will reward scholars, students, and those curious about antecedents to the present age.

A graduate of Harvard College with a degree in American History, Mr. Swett spent his career in publishing with The Baltimore Evening Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., and Scholastic Inc. From 2003 to the present, he has been publisher of Bragg Hill Press of Norwich, Vermont and Hanover, New Hampshire.

Mr. Swett also edited a companion book, entitled The Illustrated Story of Robert Poole and his Metalworkers. This 170-page book features the illustrations by artist Stephen Marchesi that also appear in The Metalworkers. These one-of-a-kind, specially-commissioned illustrations show historically accurate portrayals of work during a time before photography was widely used.

Both The Metalworkers and The Illustrated Story of Robert Poole and his Metalworkers are available at the BMI shop (open during public hours) or may be purchased online through Baltimore’s The Ivy Bookshop.

Copies of both books are now available in the BMI shop and at The Ivy Bookshop.

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