More Than Bethlehem Steel: South Side’s National Museum of Industrial History

Tucked away in a bundle of abandoned Bethlehem Steel buildings, the National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH) sits inside the former electrical repair shop, which was built in 1913. Although the building was remodeled to open the museum, it still has an industrial feel with garage door walls, pipes and steel beams, and a huge crane suspended from the ceiling in the lobby. Architects and designers preserved the building’s origins rather than removing references to Bethlehem Steel. By believing in an abandoned and forgotten building, NMIH has proven a model for development in Bethlehem as they preserved what many would see as waste and restored what most would see as broken.

The museum’s main exhibit: Machinery Hall. Photo Credit: Raina McKoen

Machinery Hall is the main exhibit within the museum, and was created in celebration of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. Hosted in Philadelphia, countries from around the world would send representatives to the exposition to report back about the state of industry in America at the time. Many pieces in today’s exhibit were also shown in the 1876 Exposition, and continue to operate. Various pieces of machinery – from foot powered saws to enormous steam machines –  have been not only preserved but restored. One particular steam machine was sent to NMIH in the early 2000’s after sitting abandoned in a field for years, rusting and degrading. NMIH rehabilitated it, and the steam machine is currently in an operational state.

One aspect of Machinery Hall that I found particularly interesting was how artful some of the pieces were. Not only was every machine colorful – greens, oranges, blues, reds – but some were embellished with gold, art deco designs and patterns. I was told that the manufacturers of these pieces intentionally decorated them to be eye catching so as to draw attention at the Centennial Exposition. The quantity of Smithsonian artifacts that NMIH houses also is impressive. My guide, Glenn Koehler, the museum’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, stressed how rare it is for a non-Smithsonian titled museum to house so many of these historical artifacts. 

 Another notable aspect of the objects on display is that quite a few of them are donations from local citizens. Former steelworkers and their families have donated passports of those who came to South Bethlehem to work at Bethlehem Steel, migrating from Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, China, and other countries. Alongside the passports are citizenship papers and handwritten letters. At Bethlehem Steel’s peak, the South Side really was a melting pot. Workers came to South Bethlehem and brought with them their own religions, cultures, cuisines, which are still visible in South Bethlehem today. In addition to personal immigration artifacts, the museum also features belongings of steelworkers that were left behind when the factory closed. It is the highly personal pieces such as a steelworker’s boots sitting in a basket of his belongings that makes NMIH special for the South Side Community. The National Museum of Industrial History also features oral histories, recorded for the exhibits and available for visitors to hear. Visitors to the museum can listen to the stories of a variety of workers, including the women workers, that made Bethlehem Steel a major global company.

Signs and images from the March of the Mill Children. Photo Credit: Raina McKoen

Beyond a focus on the steel industry, the Museum showcases the silk and textile industry of the area as well. It is easy for the history surrounding the textile industry to be forgotten behind the overbearing Bethlehem Steel. But at one point, there were more people working in the silk industry than in the steel industry. When steelworkers moved to South Bethlehem with their families, the silk and textile industry saw an opportunity for profit by employing their spouses and children. Work was hard and long, especially for children, who in 1903 alongside labor organizer “Mother Jones” participated in the March of the Mill Children as they advocated for the right to go to school instead of working in the silk factory. Additionally, visitors to the museum will learn about the Allentown silk factories that used the “White House Loom” until the Clinton Administration to create curtains and upholstery for the first family. NMIH houses fabrics created by such Allentown factories that were made for the Kennedy Administration.

The White House loom, threaded for Jackie Kennedy’s upholstery. Photo Credit: Raina McKoen

The National Museum of Industrial History is a hidden treasure that teaches visitors about much more than Bethlehem Steel. Providing a history of radios, silk, propane energy, iron and steel, NMIH offers a wealth of information for those curious about industrial history. It is definitely worth a visit. Next time you’re checking out the Steelstacks or a show at Artsquest, consider stopping by this museum, and supporting the preservation of the South Side’s history.

*Feature photo credit: Glenn Koehler*

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