It was a very good day for Charles M Schwab

Woodrow Wilson with Charles M Schwab (Courtesy Woodrow Wilson Historical Association via the Commons on Flickr)

An old photograph shows Charles M Schwab on top of the world.

True, the most recognizable figure in the photograph is President Woodrow Wilson, who looks down on Schwab from the platform of his special train car.  The day is sunny.  Wilson’s secret-service man and his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, stand in the shadows.  Something has just happened or is about to happen.  A large floral arrangement leans against the train’s railing, its funny shape capped with a flamboyant bow.

Edith’s presence in what appears to be an official photograph (the widowed president married her on December 18, 1915) establishes that this photograph was taken no earlier than 1916.  The carefree postures of the figures and their light-colored clothing indicate that it’s spring or summer.  The president, always natty, is decked out in a light-colored suit and a boater.  Summer it was—sometime between Memorial and Labor Day.

Though the president is bathed in light, charisma emanates from the homely yet somehow magisterial Charles M. Schwab (1862-1939).  Here, with his back to the president—as though ignorant of his presence—, Schwab looks straight into the camera, his bluff exuberance setting the tone.  He and his two unidentified companions share a joke, as if they posed with the president every day.  Certainly, Schwab and the younger men exude solidarity, though he is evidently more powerful than they.

As for the young men themselves, what unconventional outfits they are wearing!  The one on the left wears a tie with his overalls; the one on the right, though seemingly equally careless of his dress, wears a good striped dress shirt (without the customary collar or tie) under a smock-like jacket.  No belt to the pants but two large buttons on his lapel.  Are they campaign buttons?  No, for they contain only numbers rather than words.  They are more like badges, some sort of ID.

One more figure is implied the scene: Carl T. Thoner (1888-1938), the photographer, whose name is stamped on the photograph’s corner.  Thoner worked for the war department, so this scene was part of Wilson’s presidency—pertaining to governing rather than running for office.  Yet the fact that the photograph bears Schwab’s signature and later ended up in the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library testifies to the personal significance the occasion had for both men.

When did the careers of Wilson and Schwab intersect?  Schwab was one of the greatest industrialists of his time, a great steel man, self-made, a “master hustler,” some called him.  He’d learned what he knew from the likes of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie.

Born in Pennsylvania, Schwab had worked his way up in Carnegie’s mills, becoming president of Carnegie Steel while in his thirties.  After helping to found United States Steel Corporation and being its first president, he broke out on his own to take control of a smaller competitor, Bethlehem Steel.  Under Schwab’s ownership, Bethlehem Steel became the one of the world’s largest and most important heavy-manufacturing concerns.

In Schwab, a deftness with finance and industrial relations combined with innovative ideas about how to make steel.  He became great by perceiving the importance of the so-called I-beam, a product that, because of its great tensile strength, made possible skyscrapers, enormous ships, better bridges—all the emblems of modernity.  Hitherto, steel had been made in shorter lengths, requiring more welding and lacking the I-beam’s versatility.  By retrofitting his steel works around the beam’s production and more closely integrating steel-making more generally, Schwab increased Bethlehem’s annual sales from $10 million in 1904 to $230 million in 1916.  In the process, Schwab became immensely wealthy, embracing philanthropic causes but also living in a recklessly lavish style.

As part of his corporate stewardship, Schwab developed one of the nation’s most successful early soccer teams.  Founded in 1907, Bethlehem Steel Football Club hit its stride in 1913, winning a string of national championships thereafter, thanks in part to Schwab’s recruiting top talent from Scotland.  Was the man standing next to Schwab a soccer player?  The players, who worked in Schwab’s plants, were given time off to practice and travel to games.

No, the key to this photograph is Schwab’s appointment to head up the nation’s Emergency Fleet Corporation in the summer of 1918.  World War I was wearing on, and the nation’s program to produce a large number of ships for the merchant marine was faltering.  Schwab put his own life’s work on hold to move down to Philadelphia, where the government’s new Hog Island shipyard was located.  There, he reinvigorated the nation’s shipbuilding program.  The completion of the Quistconck (the subject of my previous post) in record time was attributed largely to Schwab’s energy and ability.

So, this photograph, like the one I wrote about previously, was taken at Hog Island, Philadelphia, on August 5, 1918.  The president and his wife had come down from Washington by train for the day, where, at noon, they presided over the Quistconck’s christening.  The men flanking Schwab are shipyard workers, one almost certainly the foreman MacMillan, who had driven the first rivet of the Quistconck on Feb 18, 1918, and was being celebrated at the christening as a near-hero.  The many thousand workers who had worked on the ship each contributed a mite to buy an enormous bouquet of roses, which was presented to the First Lady that day.

This photograph records the Wilsons’ final moment at the shipyard, when, just before their train pulled away, the President leaned over to give his best to Charles M. Schwab.

Image from this source.

2 responses

  1. A really wonderful, informative, and well-written post. I very much enjoyed reading it and learned a great deal. I had never heard of Schwab before but of course Bethlehem Steel was a well-known company……………By the by, you described what was going in that photo nicely.

    • Gee, thanks for the praise. It took me many months, since first seeing this photograph, to figure out what it was about. I had never even heard of Schwab and was happy to learn about this larger-than-life figure.
      Have a good weekend, Sam–
      Susan

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