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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein