The fellmonger’s office

Wool pulling. Credit: Rudolf A. Clemen, By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927).

Wool pulling. Credit: Rudolf A. Clemen, By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927).

Fellmongers disappeared from the American industrial landscape in the last century. They were specialized meat and leather industry byproducts dealers who also prepared skins and leather from lamb pelts removed in slaughterhouses. In 2000, the last American fellmongers processed a batch of wool inside the Pittsburgh Wool Company. The exercise was captured in a documentary film produced for the Pittsburgh History Center and was documented in reports I prepared for the History Center and for the National Park Service (now in the Library of Congress: HAER No. PA-572).

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James Callery’s Duquesne tannery (right) shortly after it was built. It later became the Pittsburgh Wool Company. The site on the Allegheny River north shore had tanneries and wool pulleries there continuously from the 1830s through 2000.

Pittsburgh Wool Company facade, 1996. Photo by author.

Pittsburgh Wool Company facade, 1996. Photo by author.

Before nineteenth century specialization created managerial, sales, and task-specific roles inside wool pulleries and tanneries, the craftsmen who plied their trade separating wool from skins all were known as fellmongers or simply wool pullers. Frank Hayson worked most of his adult life (since 1949) inside the Pittsburgh Wool plant — a solid brick factory built as a tannery in the 1880s and which replaced a series of earlier wood tanneries at the site that were destroyed in fires between the 1830s and 1880s.

Frank Hayson (inset) prepares to pull wool. February 2000. His watch and a spray bottle hang on wood paddles nailed to an upright beam near his pulling beam. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson (inset) prepares to pull wool. February 2000. His watch and a water bottle hang on wood paddles nailed to an upright beam near his pulling beam. Photo by author.

Like many industrial workers, Hayson lacked a desk and other spaces modern office dwellers take for granted. He and his coworkers adapted the spaces around them to fit their workflows and to accommodate their personal needs for storing personal items like wrist watches to work-related items like gloves, knives, and shears.

Pittsburgh Wool second story "wet department." Pulling beams highlighted. HAER PA,2-PITBU,96- (sheet 5 of 8) - Pittsburgh Wool Company, 1230 River Avenue, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, PA

Pittsburgh Wool second story “wet department.” Pulling beams highlighted. HAER PA,2-PITBU,96- (sheet 5 of 8) – Pittsburgh Wool Company, 1230 River Avenue, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, PA

These photos show Hayson’s workspace in what was known as Pittsburgh Wool’s wet department. It was located on the old tannery’s second story. He worked his entire day moving back and forth between racks of pelts suspended from racks. He would remove the pelts, which had been treated with a depilatory the day before, and drape them over a wood pulling beam. He then would remove the wool and sort it into cloth bins by grade. The wool was taken to a dryer and was baled before being shipped to textile mills and the skins were dropped into cleaning drums where they were prepared for shipment to overseas tanneries.

Frank Hayson stands on the edge of the wool pulling area, February 2000. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson stands on the edge of the wool pulling area, February 2000. Cloth wool bins are scattered on the floor in front of him and his gloves are on wood paddles mounted to the upright post in the center. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson sharpens shears that he used to trim wool from pelts that would not come free by hand. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson sharpens shears that he used to trim wool from pelts that would not come free by hand. Photo by author.

It paid more than the other jobs.  Yeah, depending on how hard you worked at it, you know. But everybody didn’t try and get it because a lot of guys, they didn’t like it.  You know, you had to learn it, using the shears and this and that. It took a long time to learn.  It took me a long time to learn, you know. — Frank Hayson, Feb. 23, 2000.

 

Frank Hayson sharpens shears that he used to trim wool from pelts that would not come free by hand. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson sharpens shears that he used to trim wool from pelts that would not come free by hand. Photo by author.

In February 2000, I asked Hayson about his daily pulling quota. He replied,

Oh, usually about 200 skins a day. I pulled about 200. Sometimes I pulled 250 and maybe the guy over here, maybe if he’s a little sluggish or the skins weren’t pulling to good, he couldn’t do his, I’d take some of his, too. There’s days I pulled 300 skins in one day, you know.

Frank Hayson inspects pelts on a rolling rack before selecting one for pulling. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson inspects pelts on a rolling rack before selecting one for pulling. Photo by author.

I’d do it in eight hours or sometimes less than eight hours.  If I didn’t finish them, I’d come in a little early the next morning and get them done.  I’d do a little on my own time to get them done.  I come out a little earlier than the starting time to get them done, you know, to keep my quota up, you know. — Frank Hayson, Feb. 23, 2000.

Frank Hayson pulls wool from a pelt. The wool was loosened by the depilatory which was applied to the skin side of the pelt the night before. Photo by author.

Frank Hayson pulls wool from a pelt. The wool was loosened by the depilatory which was applied to the skin side of the pelt the night before. Photo by author.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

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