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Lessons in Economics


Lessons in Economics: Intro

While the 1950s marked an era of heavy investment and expansion for U.S. Steel, increased output of steel from foreign sources began to impact domestic markets. With their post-war economic recoveries well underway, Europe and Japan emerged as major competitors in the global steel market. Tightening profit margins, rising production costs, and high-stakes antitrust issues increasingly factored into the strained relationship between the government and the steel industry. In testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly in 1957, American steelmakers argued they could not increase wages without increasing prices for their goods.50 Roger M. Blough, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of U.S. Steel, was the chief spokesperson for the corporation in 1962, when U.S. Steel raised its prices by 3.5 percent. President John F. Kennedy called the move “a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest” and lay blame at “a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility.”51

PR campaigns to educate U.S. Steel stockholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and the public on the economics of steel production routinely emphasized the defense of the free enterprise system against the perceived threats of communism and socialism. The ultimate aim was to secure favorable attitudes from voting citizens and government representatives. Photographs in U.S. Steel corporate literature supported PR efforts “to promote wide understanding of the necessity for profits, of the tremendous capital outlay involved in steel making, and of the low price at which steel is sold.”52 In U.S. Steel annual reports, photographs illustrating production and research accompanied statistics relating to the corporation’s profits.

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Selection of springs made by U.S. Steel, American Steel & Wire, Waukegan, Illinois.

U.S. Steel Annual Report, 1951. Corporate Reports Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

Douglas A. Fisher. Steel Serves the Nation, 1901-1951: The Fifty Year Story of United States Steel. New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1951.

Douglas A. Fisher. Steel Serves the Nation, 1901-1951: The Fifty Year Story of United States Steel. New York: United States Steel Corporation, 1951.


Lessons in Economics: Body

In 1951, the corporation published Steel Serves the Nation, 1901–1951: The Fifty Year Story of United States Steel. CEO and chairman of the board of directors Irving S. Olds underscored the volume’s celebration of the company’s achievements “in terms of service to the nation” noting that “profitable and successful industrial projects carry with them a rich overflow of benefits to the public.”53 U.S. Steel commissioned the prominent German graphic artist M. Peter Piening to design the volume.54 The corporation would have been familiar with the Bauhaus artist’s work with major advertisers, as art director for Life and Fortune, and as designer of logos and trademarks for well-known products and companies. Piening’s artful choice of color and fonts and placement of photographs is evident throughout the handsome volume. A variety of photographic treatments elevated the visual impact of images: full-bleed photographs that extended to the edges of the page; dramatic two-page spreads; and photo montage and silhouetting.

The corporation exclusively commissioned Fritz Henle to take photographs documenting present-day U.S. Steel operations, lending a certain consistency to the look and feel of the publication. The German-born photographer had earned a reputation for his elegant style and use of the Rolleiflex camera in travel, fashion, documentary, and industrial photography.55 In a compressed schedule of 10 weeks, he traveled more than 20,000 miles documenting 30 of U.S. Steel’s subsidiary plants around the country. Henle employed a modernist sensibility in his sharp, detailed portrayals of mining pits, factory operations, research laboratories, and expansive plants that reveal the human as well as technical aspects of the steel-making process.



Fritz Henle. Tin plate inspection, Columbia Steel Company, Pittsburg, California.

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In addition to Henle’s work, Steel Serves the Nation featured photographs from outside sources (including U.S. military forces, picture agencies, and companies using steel) that illustrated steel products from tin cans to skyscrapers. Text and images served to engage readers in understanding the role of private enterprise in creating steel products that enhanced the life of every American. U.S. Steel distributed 100,000 copies of Steel Serves the Nation in libraries nationwide. Dramatic photographs throughout the anniversary volume supported Olds' assertion that “the heart of the American way of life for business is the incentive and progress generated by competition among producers constantly endeavoring to improve their products, to reduce their operating costs, to enlarge their markets and to realize a fair return of their investments.”56



Fritz Henle. Tube welding, Gary Works, Gary, Indiana.

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Lessons in Economics: Footnotes

50 Richard F. Sentner, Marketing in the United States Steel Corporation: Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Washington D. C., August 16, 1957. (New York: United State Steel Corporation, 1957).

51 John F. Kennedy, News Conference, April 11, 1962, Official White House Transcript. See: Accessed August 21, 2019.

52 McLaine in Henderer, A Comparative Study of the Public Relations Practices in Six Industrial Corporations: United State Steel Corporation, Aluminum Company of America, The Westinghouse Corporation, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, Koppers Company, Dravo Corporation, 95.

53 Irving S. Olds in Fisher, Steel Serves the Nation, 9.

54 While M. Peter Piening is not credited in Steel in the War or Steel Making in America, the design of these volumes is similar to Steel Serves the Nation.

55 Henle’s work in the 1930s for the Lloyd Triestino steamship line included photographs of China and Japan that were also featured in Fortune magazine. Henle worked for the Office of the War Information during World War II.

56 Irving S. Olds in Fisher, Steel Serves the Nation, 9.

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