Produced by An Anonymous Volunteer
THE IRON PUDDLER
MY LIFE IN THE ROLLING MILLS AND WHAT CAME OF IT
By James J. Davis
Introduction by Joseph G. Cannon
The man whose life story is here presented between book covers is at the
time of writing only forty-eight years old. When I met him many years
ago he was a young man full of enthusiasm. I remember saying to him
then, "With your enthusiasm and the sparkle which you have in your eyes
I am sure you will make good."
Why should so young a man, one so recently elevated to official
prominence, write his memoirs? That question will occur to those who
do not know Jim Davis. His elevation to a Cabinet post marks not the
beginning of his career, but rather is the curtain-rise on the second
act of one of those dramatic lives with which America has so often
astounded the world. Bruised and bleeding in a southern, peon camp,
where he and other hungry men had been trapped by a brutal slave driver,
he drank the bitter cup of unrequited toil. And from this utter depth,
in less than thirty years, he rose to the office of secretary of labor.
There is drama enough for one life if his career should end to-day.
And while this man fought his way upward, he carried others with him,
founding by his efforts and their cooperation, the great school called
Mooseheart. More than a thousand students of both sexes, ranging from
one to eighteen years, are there receiving their preparation for life.
The system of education observed there is probably the best ever devised
to meet the needs of all humanity.
The brain of James J. Davis fathered this educational system. It is his
contribution to the world, and the world has accepted it. The good it
promised is already being realized, its fruits are being gathered. Its
blessings are falling on a thousand young Americans, and its influence
like a widening ripple is extending farther every day. It promises to
reach and benefit every child in America. And to hasten the growth of
this new education, James J. Davis has here written the complete story.
I have known Mr. Davis many years and am one of the thousands who
believe in him and have helped further his work.
The author of this autobiography is indeed a remarkable man. He is
sometimes called the Napoleon of Fraternity. Love of his fellows is his
ruling passion. He can call more than ten thousand men by their first
names. His father taught him this motto: "No man is greater than his
friends. All the good that comes into your life will come from your
friends. If you lose your friends your enemies will destroy you." Davis
has stood by his friends. As a labor leader and a fraternal organizer,
he has proved his ability. Thousands think he is unequaled as an orator,
thinker and entertainer. His zeal is all for humanity and he knows man's
needs. He has dedicated his life to the cause of better education for
the workers of this land. His cause deserves a hearing.
J G Cannon WASHINGTON, D. C., JUNE, 1922.
"Where were you previous to the eighth and immediately subsequent
thereto?" asked the city attorney.
The prisoner looked sheepish and made no answer. A box car had been
robbed on the eighth and this man had been arrested in the freight
yards. He claimed to be a steel worker and had shown the judge his
calloused hands. He had answered several questions about his trade,
his age and where he was when the policeman arrested him. But when they
asked him what he had been doing previous to and immediately subsequent
thereto, he hung his head as if at a loss for an alibi.
I was city clerk at the time and had been a steel worker. I knew why the
man refused to answer. He didn't understand the phraseology.
"Where were you previous to the eighth and immediately subsequent
thereto?" the attorney asked him for the third time.
All the prisoner could do was look guilty and say nothing.
"Answer the question," ordered the judge, "or I'll send you up for
Still the man kept silent. Then I spoke up:
"John, tell the court where you were before you came here and also where
you have been since you arrived in the city."
"I was in Pittsburgh," he said, and he proceeded to tell the whole story
of his life. He was still talking when they chased him out of court and
took up the next case. He was a free man, and yet he had come within an
inch of going to jail. All because he didn't know what "previous to the
eighth and immediately subsequent thereto" meant.
The man was an expert puddler. A puddler makes iron bars. They were
going to put him behind his own bars because he couldn't understand
the legal jargon. Thanks to the great educational system of America the
working man has improved his mental muscle as well as his physical.
This taught me a lesson. Jargon can put the worker in jail. Big words
and improper phraseology are prison bars that sometimes separate the
worker from the professional people. "Stone walls do not a prison make,"
because the human mind can get beyond them. But thick-shelled words do
make a prison. They are something that the human mind can not penetrate.
A man whose skill is in his hands can puddle a two hundred-pound ball of
iron. A man whose skill is on his tongue can juggle four-syllable words.
But that iron puddler could not savvy four-syllable words any more than
the word juggler could puddle a heat of iron. The brain worker who talks
to the hand worker in a special jargon the latter can not understand has
built an iron wall between the worker's mind and his mind. To tear down
that wall and make America one nation with one language is one of the
tasks of the new education.
If big words cause misunderstandings, why not let them go? When the
stork in the fable invited the fox to supper he served the bean soup in
a long-necked vase. The stork had a beak that reached down the neck of
the vase and drank the soup with ease. The fox had a short muzzle and
couldn't get it. The trick made him mad and he bit the stork's head off.
Why should the brain worker invite the manual worker to a confab and
then serve the feast in such long-necked language that the laborer can't
get it? "Let's spill the beans," the agitator tells him, "then we'll all
get some of the gravy."
This long-necked jargon must go. It is not the people's dish. With foggy
phrases that no one really understands they are trying to incite the
hand worker to bite off the head of the brain worker. When employer and
employee sit together at the council table, let the facts be served in
such simple words that we can all get our teeth into them.
When I became secretary of labor I said that the employer and employee
had a duty to perform one to the other, and both to the public.
Capital does not always mean employer. When I was a boy in Sharon,
Pennsylvania, I looked in a pool in the brook and discovered a lot of
fish. I broke some branches off a tree, and with this I brushed the fish
out of the pool. I sold them to a teamster for ten cents. With this I
bought shoe blacking and a shoe brush and spent my Saturdays blacking
boots for travelers at the depot and the hotel. I had established a
boot-blacking business which I pushed in my spare time for several
years. My brush and blacking represented my capital. The shining of the
travelers' shoes was labor. I was a capitalist but not an employer; I
was a laborer but not an employee.
"Labor is prior to and independent of capital," said Lincoln. This is
true. I labored to break the branches from the tree before I had any
capital. They brought me fish, which were capital because I traded them
for shoe blacking with which I earned enough money to buy ten times more
fish than I had caught.
So labor is prior to capital - when you use the words in their right
meaning. But call the employee "labor" and the employer "capital,"
and you make old Honest Abe say that the employee is prior to and
independent of the employer, or that the wage earner is independent of
the wage payer or, in still shorter words, the man is on the job before
the job is created. Which is nonsense.
Capital does not always mean employer. A Liberty Bond is capital but it
is not an employer; the Government is an employer but it is not capital,
and when any one is arguing a case for an employee against his
employer let him use the proper terms. The misuse of words can cause a
miscarriage of justice as the misuse of railway signals can send a train
into the ditch.
All my life I have been changing big words into little words so that the
employee can know what the employer is saying to him. The working man
handles things. The professional man plies words. I learned things
first and words afterward. Things can enrich a nation, and words can
impoverish it. The words of theorists have cost this nation billions
which must be paid for in things.
When I was planning a great school for the education of orphans, some of
my associates said: "Let us teach them to be pedagogues." I said:
"No, let us teach them the trades. A boy with a trade can do things. A
theorist can say things. Things done with the hands are wealth, things
said with the mouth are words. When the housing shortage is over and we
find the nation suffering from a shortage of words, we will close the
classes in carpentry and open a class in oratory."
This, then is the introduction to my views and to my policies. They
are now to have a fair trial, like that other iron worker in the Elwood
police court. I know what the word "previous" means. I can give an
account of myself. So, in the following pages I will tell "where I was
before I came here."
If my style seems rather flippant, it is because I have been trained
as an extemporaneous speaker and not as a writer. For fifteen years I
traveled over the country lecturing on the Mooseheart School. My task
was to interest men in the abstract problems of child education. A
speaker must entertain his hearers to the end or lose their attention.
And so I taxed my wit to make this subject simple and easy to listen to.
At last I evolved a style of address that brought my points home to the
men I was addressing.
After all these years I can not change my style. I talk more easily than
I write; therefore, in composing this book I have imagined myself facing
an audience, and I have told my story. I do not mention the names of the
loyal men who helped work out the plans of Mooseheart and gave the money
that established it, for their number is so great that their names alone
would fill three volumes as large as this.
I THE HOME-MADE SUIT OF CLOTHES
II A TRAIT OF THE WELSH PEOPLE
III NO GIFT FROM THE FAIRIES
IV SHE SINGS TO HER NEST
V THE LOST FEATHER BED
VI HUNTING FOR LOST CHILDREN
VII HARD SLEDDING IN AMERICA
VIII MY FIRST REGULAR JOB
IX THE SCATTERED FAMILY
X MELODRAMA BECOMES COMEDY
XI KEEPING OPEN HOUSE
XII MY HAND TOUCHES IRON
XIII SCENE IN A ROLLING MILL
XIV BOILING DOWN THE PIGS
XV THE IRON BISCUITS
XVI WRESTING A PRIZE FROM NATURE'S HAND
XVII MAN IS IRON TOO
XVIII ON BEING A GOOD GUESSER
XIX I START ON MY TRAVELS
XX THE RED FLAG AND THE WATERMELONS
XXI ENVY IS THE SULPHUR IN HUMAN PIG-IRON
XXII LOADED DOWN WITH LITERATURE
XXIII THE PUDDLER HAS A VISION
XXIV JOE THE POOR BRAKEMAN
XXV A DROP IN THE BUCKET OF BLOOD
XXVI A GRUB REFORMER PUTS US OUT OF GRUB
XXVII THE PIE EATER'S PARADISE
XXVIII CAUGHT IN A SOUTHERN PEONAGE CAMP
XXIX A SICK, EMACIATED SOCIAL SYSTEM
XXX BREAKING INTO THE TIN INDUSTRY
XXXI UNACCUSTOMED AS I AM TO PUBLIC SPEAKING
XXXII LOGIC WINS IN THE STRETCH
XXXIII I MEET THE INDUSTRIAL CAPTAINS
XXXIV SHIRTS FOR TIN ROLLERS
XXXV AN UPLIFTER RULED BY ENVY
XXXVI GROWLING FOR THE BOSSES BLOOD
XXXVII FREE AND UNLIMITED COINAGE
XXXVIII THE EDITOR GETS MY GOAT
XXXIX PUTTING JAZZ INTO THE CAMPAIGN
XL FATHER TOOK ME SERIOUSLY
XLI A PAVING CONTRACTOR PUTS ME ON THE PAVING
XLII THE EVERLASTING MORALIZER
XLIII FROM TIN WORKER TO SMALL CAPITALIST
XLIV A CHANCE TO REALIZE A DREAM
XLV THE DREAM COMES TRUE
XLVI THE MOOSEHEART IDEA
XLVII LIFE'S PROBLEMS
XLVIII BUILDING A BETTER WORLD BY EDUCATION
THE IRON PUDDLER
CHAPTER I. THE HOME-MADE SUIT OF CLOTHES
A fight in the first chapter made a book interesting to me when I was a
boy. I said to myself, "The man who writes several chapters before the
fighting begins is like the man who sells peanuts in which a lot of the
shells haven't any goodies." I made up my mind then that if I ever wrote
a book I would have a fight in the first chapter.
So I will tell right here how I whipped the town bully in Sharon,
Pennsylvania. I'll call him Babe Durgon. I've forgotten his real name,
and it might be better not to mention it anyhow. For though I whipped
him thirty years ago, he might come back now in a return match and
reverse the verdict, so that my first chapter would serve better as my
last one. Babe was older than I, and had pestered me from the time I was
ten. Now I was eighteen and a man. I was a master puddler in the mill
and a musician in the town band (I always went with men older than
myself). Two stove molders from a neighboring factory were visiting me
that day, and, as it was dry and hot, I offered to treat them to a cool
drink. There were no soda fountains in those days and the only place to
take a friend was to the tavern. We went in and my companions ordered
beer. Babe, the bully, was standing by the bar. He had just come of age,
and wanted to bulldoze me with that fact.
"Don't serve Jimmy Davis a beer," Babe commanded. "He's a minor. He
can't buy beer."
"I didn't want a beer," I said. "I was going to order a soft drink."
"Yes, you was. Like hell you was," Babe taunted. "You came in here to
get a beer like them fellers. You think you're a man, but I know you
ain't. And I'm here to see that nobody sells liquor to a child."
I was humiliated. The bully knew that I wanted to be a man, and his shot
stung me. My friends looked at me as if to ask: "Are you going to take
that?" And so the fight was arranged, although I had no skill at boxing,
and was too short-legged, like most Welshmen, for a fast foot race. Babe
had me up against a real problem.
"Come on over the line," he said.
Sharon was near the Ohio border and it was customary to go across the
state line to fight, so that on returning the local peace officers would
have no jurisdiction. We started for the battle ground. Babe had never
been whipped; he always chose younger opponents. He was a good gouger,
and had marked up most of the boys on the "flats" as we called the
lowlands where the poorer working people lived. A gouger is one who
stabs with his thumb. When he gets his sharp thumb-nail into the
victim's eye, the fight is over. Biting and kicking were his second
lines of attack.
As we walked along I was depressed by the thought that I was badly
outclassed. There was only one thing in my favor. I hated Babe Durgon
with a bitter loathing that I had been suppressing for years. It all
went back to the summer of 1884 when I was eleven years old. Times were
hard, and the mill was "down." Father had gone to Pittsburgh to look
for work. I was scouring the town of Sharon to pick up any odd job that
would earn me a nickel. There were no telephones and I used to carry
notes between sweethearts, pass show bills for the "opry," and ring a
hand-bell for auctions. An organized charity had opened headquarters on
Main Street to collect clothing and money for the destitute families of
the workers. I went up there to see if they needed an errand boy. A
Miss Foraker - now Mrs. F. H. Buhl - was in charge. She was a sweet and
gracious young woman and she explained that they had no pay-roll.
"Everybody works for nothing here," she said. "I get no pay, and the
landlord gives us the use of the rooms free. This is a public charity
and everybody contributes his services free."
I saw a blue serge boy's suit among the piles of garments. It was about
my size and had seen little wear. I thought it was the prettiest suit I
had ever seen. I asked Miss Foraker how much money it would take to buy
the suit. She said nothing was for sale. She wrapped up the suit and
placed the package in my arms, saying, "That's for you, Jimmy."
I raced home and climbed into the attic of our little
four-dollar-a-month cottage, and in the stifling heat under the low roof
I changed my clothes. Then I proudly climbed down to show my blue
suit to my mother. "Where did you get those clothes, James?" she asked
I told her about Miss Foraker.
"Did you work for them?"
"No; everything is free," I said.
Mother told me to take the suit off. I went to the attic, blinking a
tear out of my eyes, and changed into my old rags again. Then mother
took the blue suit, wrapped it up carefully and putting it in my hands
told me to take it back to Miss Foraker.
"You don't understand, James," she said. "But these clothes are not for
people like us. These are to be given to the poor."
I have often smiled as I looked back on it. I'll bet there wasn't a dime
in the house. The patches on my best pants were three deep and if laid
side by side would have covered more territory than the new blue suit.
To take those clothes back was the bitterest sacrifice my heart has ever
A few days later there was a fire sale by one of the merchants, and
I got the job of ringing the auction bell. Late in the afternoon the
auctioneer held up a brown overcoat. "Here is a fine piece of goods,
only slightly damaged," he said. He showed the back of the coat where a
hole was burned in it. "How much am I offered?"
I knew that I would get fifty cents for my day's work, so I bid ten
cents - all that I could spare.
"Sold," said the auctioneer, "for ten cents to the kid who rang the bell
I took the garment home and told my mother how I had bought it for cash
in open competition with all the world. My mother and my aunt set to
work with shears and needles and built me a suit of clothes out of the
brown overcoat. It took a lot of ingenuity to make the pieces come out
right. The trousers were neither long nor short. They dwindled down and
stopped at my calves, half-way above my ankles. What I hated most was
that the seams were not in the right places. It was a patchwork, and
there were seams down the front of the legs where the crease ought to
be. I didn't want to wear the suit, but mother said it looked fine on
me, and if she said so I knew it must be true. I wore it all fall and
half the winter.
The first time I went to Sunday-school, I met Babe Durgon. He set up the
"Little boy, little boy,
Does your mother know you're out;
With your breeches put on backward,
And the seams all inside out!"
This was the first time that my spirit had been hurt. His words were
a torment that left a scar upon my very soul. Even to this day when
I awake from some bad dream, it is a dream that I am wearing crazy
breeches and all the world is jeering at me. It has made me tender
toward poor children who have to wear hand-me-downs.
To-day psychologists talk much of the "inferiority complex" which spurs
a man forward to outdo himself. But Babe Durgon and I didn't go into
these matters as we trudged along through the dark on our way to do
battle "over the line." At the foot of the hill, Babe exclaimed:
"What's the use of going any farther? Let's fight here." It was in front
of a new building - a church-school half completed. We took off our coats
and made belts of our suspenders. Then we squared off and the fight
began. Babe rushed me like a wild boar and tried to thrust his deadly
thumb into my eye. I threw up my head and his thumb gashed my lips and
went into my mouth. The impact almost knocked me over, but my teeth
had closed on his thumb and when he jerked back he put me on my balance
again. I clouted him on the jaw and knocked him down. He landed in the
lime box. The school had not yet been plastered, and the quicklime was
in an open pit. I started in after the bully, but stopped to save my
pants from the lime. There was a hose near by, and I turned the water on
Babe in the lime bath. The lime completely covered him. He was whipped
and in fear of his life. Choking and weeping he hollered, "Nuff." We got
him out, too weak to stand, and gently leaned him up in a corner of the
school building. There we left the crushed bully and returned to town.
But before I went I gave him this parting shot:
"Do you know why I licked you, Babe? It wasn't what you said in the
tavern that made me mad. I didn't want a glass of beer, and you were
right in saying I was a minor. Where you made your mistake was when you
made fun of my breeches, seven years ago. And do you remember that blue
suit you had on at the time? I know where you got that blue suit of
clothes, and I know who had it before you got it. If you still think
that a bully in charity clothes can make fun of a boy in clothes that he
earned with his own labor, just say so, and I'll give you another clout
that will finish you."
All bullies, whether nations, parties or individuals, get licked in
the same way. They outrage some one's self-respect, and then the old
primordial cyclone hits them.
CHAPTER II. A TRAIT OF THE WELSH PEOPLE
My family is Welsh, and I was born in Tredegar, Wales. David and Davies
are favorite names among the Welsh, probably because David whipped
Goliath, and mothers named their babies after the champion. The Welsh
are a small nation that has always had to fight against a big nation.
The idea that David stopped Goliath seemed to reflect their own national
glory. The ancient invasions that poured across Britain were stopped in
Wales, and they never could push the Welshmen into the sea.
The Welsh pride themselves on hanging on. They are a nation that has
never been whipped. Every people has its characteristics. "You can't
beat the Irish" is one slogan, "You can't kill a Swede" is another, and
"You can't crowd out a Welshman" is a motto among the mill people.
I didn't want to leave Wales when my parents were emigrating. Though I
was not quite eight years old I decided I would let them go without me.
The last act of my mother was to reach under the bed, take hold of my
heels and drag me out of the house feet first. I tried to hang on to the
cracks in the floor, and tore off a few splinters to remember the old
homestead by. I never was quite satisfied with that leave-taking, and
nearly forty years later when I had car fare, I went back to that town.
I never like to go out of a place feet first, and I cleared my record
this time by walking out of my native village, head up and of my own
On that trip I paid a visit to the home of Lloyd George in Cricuth.
Joseph Davies, one of the war secretaries to the prime minister, invited
me to dinner and we talked of the American form of government. (Note the
spelling of Davies. It is the Welsh spelling. When my father signed his
American naturalization papers he made his mark, for he could not read
nor write. The official wrote in his name, spelling it Davis and so
it has remained.) "You have this advantage," said Mr. Davies. "Your
president is secure in office for four years and can put his policies
through. Our prime minister has no fixed term and may have to step out
at any minute."
"Yes," I replied jokingly, "but your prime minister this time is a
Since then four years have passed and our president is out. But Lloyd
George is still there (1922). And he'll still be there, for all I know,
until he is carried out feet first. The instinct of a Welshman is to
These things teach us that racial characteristics do not change. In
letting immigrants into this country we must remember this. Races that
have good traits built up good countries there abroad and they will in
the same way build up the country here. Tribes that have swinish traits
were destroyers there and will be destroyers here. This has been common
knowledge so long that it has become a proverb: "You can't make a silk
purse out of a sow's ear."
Proverbs are the condensed wisdom of the ages. Life has taught me