Historic and Geographic Context

Situated at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, and adjacent to abundant natural resources including coal, oil, natural gas, shale, and clay, Pittsburgh is located in a strategic position for industry. The city became a natural leader in the manufacture of raw materials. At the time of the Survey, the Pittsburgh District (Allegheny County) was producing “not far from one-sixth of the iron and steel tonnage of the world” (Commons and Leiserson, 116) in addition to a significant amount of coal. Products were easily transported west and south along the Ohio River, which formed where the two other rivers merged.

The census of 1910 showed that just over 1,000,000 people lived in a 10-mile radius of Pittsburgh, the fifth largest population after New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. Sharply divided by numerous ravines, bluffs, and the three rivers, Pittsburgh neighborhoods were relatively isolated until streetcars, automobiles, and tunnels began to break down those barriers around the turn of the 20th century. Leading Pittsburgh industrialists of the 19th century such as Andrew Carnegie became the city’s leading philanthropists and founded museums, art galleries, libraries, music halls, parks, and universities. These factors meant that Pittsburgh was becoming a modern city with a rich cultural life.

At the same time, Pittsburgh’s industrial success had been founded on the hard work and low wages of poor, often immigrant, labor. The Pittsburgh Survey set out to uncover the reality of life for these workers.

To help visualize Pittsburgh at the time of the survey, visit our Google Earth tour.