This 1942 book by Marcia Davenport could be subtitled An Industrial Romance, as could the 1945 movie starring Greer Garson and Gregory Peck.
Pittsburgh, 1873. The Scott family owns a steel mill, and sixteen-year-old Mary Rafferty has just started work as maid in their home. There are 5 Scott children, but 17-year-old Paul is the only one who truly values the mill as anything other than a source of dividends. William Jr, the eldest, is engaged to a young Boston socialite and wants to to maximize his take from the mill to support their joint social ambitions. Elizabeth is “plain and angular and earnest, full of purpose and good works.” The twins Constance and Edgar, 9-year-olds when Mary first meets them, are always into mischief–“known in the backyards and nurseries of Western Avenue as holy terrors and limbs of the devil”…as they grow older, Constance dreams of marrying an English aristocrats, moving to Europe to get away from what she sees as her boring famile, and meeting “all the wicked people,” while Edgar prefers life as a rather raffish gentleman of leisure than doing any kind of serious work.
Paul, though, shares with his father William a strong personal bond with the mill, the work it does, and the people who work there. Will Jr, who as oldest is the presumptive future chief of the mill, has no desire whatsoever to be a part of scenes such as a Bessemer Converter blow:
And now excitement, familiar but primevally keen, swept everything else aside. The great bulbous brute towering above him began to rumble and belch. From its mouth high overhead a stream of scarlet flame threw itself at the acid winter sky. The blower gave a sign. The blow was ready, and suddenly the usual concert of barbaric noises in the shed was drowned in one fearful ear-crushing roar as the cold blast was shot into the converter’s belly. Element grappled with element, oxygen in a death-struggle with carbon, a battle more terrible and wonderful than man had ever made before. The flame, steady and fearfully red, began to change color, a descending scale of blinding flashes echoing from the death-and-birth agony of the elements. Inside the beast steel was being born, and from the vessel’s roaring mouth the solid fire changed from red to blue, to orange, to yellow…
Paul does see things differently from his father in that believes that a more scientific approach to steelmaking will be necessary if they are to compete successfully with giants like Carnegie Steel. When he returns from college he sets up a metallurgical laboratory at the mill, and an open hearth furnace is installed to help in the switch of focus to specialty steels.
There is an immediate strong attraction between Paul and Mary, but the are obstacles–not only the very different class positions of Paul and Mary, but the fact that Mary’s brother..a key skilled worker at the mill…is also a labor leader, attempting to organize a union among Scott employees. And while William Scott Sr does care about his workers, he will resist any attempts to interfere with what he see as his management prerogatives.
Mary quickly comes to share Paul’s emotional bond with the mill, and she also develops a strong sense of connection to and responsibility for the entire family..indeed, more of a sense of connection and responsibility that than felt by some of the family’s own members.
The book begins with Mary starting work for the Scott family, but the history of the mill goes back further, to its founding by Paul’s immigrant grandfather–and the book extends the story through multiple generations, up through the early years of World War II. The mill played an important role in arming Union forces in the Civil War, and a similar role in later conflicts. The importance of this exemplar of heavy industry to the national defense is played up strongly, as one might expect in a book published in 1941.