Films of Midvale Steel in Philadelphia, 1919

Video of the Month
Tuesday, July 23, 2019

A collection of five film reels has been safely kept on Hagley's shelves since 1970. Only an incomplete copy on VHS gave us any indication of what they contained. In April, we had the films digitized and were thrilled by what we found.

The films advertise the capabilities and operations at the Midvale Steel and Ordnance Company in Philadelphia. Based on our research, we believe they were produced in the late 1910s and have assigned a circa date of 1919. Having pre-1930s film footage like this is rare -- the Film Foundation estimates 90% of ALL films made before 1929 have been lost or destroyed. That alone makes our circa 1919 footage unique, but that the films depict one of the first integrated industrial labor forces in the Philadelphia region makes them especially significant. 

Midvale Steel Company started in 1867 and specialized in high-quality alloy steels for industry. Midvale secured work and contracts with major railroad companies and the United States government soon after its founding. They were already a critical supplier for large transportation firms and the U.S. Navy before World War I; the escalation of war expanded their operations. This film -- believed to be shot toward the war's end -- captures the company at its zenith, when Midvale ranked among the highest revenue-generating companies in the country.

In the 1890s, Midvale began employing African Americans to work alongside its white labor force, a practice so out of the ordinary among Philadelphia industries at the time that W.E.B Du Bois remarked on it in his seminal 1899 work, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Du Bois wrote:

"The practical exclusion of the Negro from the trades and industries of a great city like Philadelphia is a situation by no means easy to explain...There came some time [at] the Midvale Steel Works [that] a manager whom many dubbed a 'crank'...had a theory that Negroes and whites could work together as mechanics without friction or trouble. In spite of some protest he put his theory into practice, and today any one can see Negro mechanics working in the same gangs with white mechanics without disturbance."

About twenty years later during World War One, an estimated 4,000 African American workers, out of their labor force of 11,000, occupied positions at Midvale in Philadelphia.

Two out of the five reels of Hagley's footage show an integrated workforce together on the shop floor in Philadelphia. 

We are thrilled here at Hagley to be able to finally bring these important films to light.

An edited selection of the footage can be seen below. To see all five reels in their entirety, visit the Hagley Digital Archive.

You might be asking, why are these films among the small percentage that survived from the silent film era and why did you wait so long to make them available? Those are good questions!

The first question, why did they survive. The five reels of film were donated to Hagley in 1970 by George Atwell Richardson, who worked as Midvale’s advertising manager around the time of the film’s production. As I said, most films from before 1929 have been destroyed or lost. The reason is that most films made during that period were on nitrate film, a volatile media and a fire hazard, especially when stored improperly. Films were lost en masse when film storage facilities burned. A few of the major Hollywood studios, including 20th Century Fox (1937) and MGM (1965), as well as lesser-known but historic production companies, suffered major losses from vault fires. Even films not lost by fire were often intentionally destroyed because of the threat posed from their combustible chemistry.

The set of five Midvale films survived because of a fortuitous decision to print the films on 28mm film stock, which happened to be the first 'safety film' produced. All non-nitrate film would come to be known as safety film. If the Midvale films were printed to the 35mm format of the time, it is likely they would not have survived.

Which brings us to the next question...what took Hagley so long to make the films available for research?

While 28mm was much safer to store, it was a format that did not last long. Its manufacturing lifespan lasted less than 10 years. In 1923, Kodak introduced a new 16mm safety film, which became the standard for amateur and industrial use.  

As you can imagine, since 28mm had a very brief life, the technology to view, copy, or digitize the rare format has been very hard to come by. When the films came to Hagley, we did not have the ability to screen them or the budget to transfer them to a more accessible format, and, of course, the notion of digitization remained decades in the future. In the last decade, the cost to digitize motion picture film has slowly dropped as more vendors have acquired the necessary technology. This has given us avenues to access some of the gems that we have been preserving for decades.  

Starting in 2017, the Audiovisual Collections & Digital Initiatives Dept started an intensive survey of our motion picture collections. It was during that survey that we revisited the Midvale Steel films and decided to make it an access priority as we came to understand their significance and possibilities of what they might contain based on our research into Midvale and what we could see on the incomplete and poor quality VHS copy. While we have bolstered our ability to digitize film and video over the last two years, we do not have the capabilities to digitize 28mm. The Midvale films are the only 28mm in our collection. After speaking with a number of vendors, Hagley chose Preservation Technologies in Pittsburgh to do the work on the Midvale films. We drove the films to Pittsburgh -- too nervous to trust them to a courier -- and their team did a fantastic job with the transfer. 

George Atwell Richardson died in 1976. We are forever grateful to him for bringing this collection of films to Hagley.

If you have any questions or comments, please contact Kevin Martin at

Kevin J. Martin is the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Audiovisual and Digital Collections at Hagley Museum and Library.