Nerves of Steel!: Watch People Climb Tall Buildings During the 1920s.

Thrillseek­ers! Are you gird­ing your loins to rejoin the amuse­ment park crowds this sum­mer?

No wor­ries if you don’t feel quite ready to brave the social­ly dis­tanced roller­coast­er lines. Indulge in some low-risk ver­ti­go, thanks to British Pathé’s vin­tage news­reels of steeple­jacks, steel­work­ers, and win­dow clean­ers doing their thing.

While these trades­peo­ple were called in when­ev­er an indus­tri­al chim­ney required repair or a steel beam was in need of weld­ing, many of the news­reels fea­ture icon­ic loca­tions, such as New York City’s Wool­worth Build­ing, above, get­ting a good stonework clean­ing in 1931.

In 1929, some “work­men acro­bats” were engaged to adorn St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca and the Vat­i­can with thou­sands of lamps when Pope Pius XI, in his first offi­cial act as pope, revived the pub­lic tra­di­tion of Urbi et Orbi, a papal address and apos­tolic bless­ing for the first time in fifty-two years.

Some gen­der bound­aries got smashed in the after­math of WWII, but “steeple­jills” were nov­el­ty enough in 1948 that the scriptwriter pre­dictably milks it by hav­ing the announc­er crack wise to and about the uniden­ti­fied woman ready to climb all the way to the rim of a very tall smoke­stack.

“There it is! That long thing point­ing up there, it’s all yours!”

These days such a jib might con­sti­tute work­place harass­ment.

Did she get the job?

We don’t know. We hope so, who­ev­er she is — pre­sum­ably one of twen­ty female Lon­don­ers respond­ing to the help want­ed ad described in the Leth­bridge Her­ald, below:

Watch more scenes of vin­tage steeple­jacks — and jills — at work in a British Pathé “Nerves of Steel” playlist here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Sto­ry Behind the Icon­ic Pho­to­graph of 11 Con­struc­tion Work­ers Lunch­ing 840 Feet Above New York City (1932)

Watch the Com­plete­ly Unsafe, Ver­ti­go-Induc­ing Footage of Work­ers Build­ing New York’s Icon­ic Sky­scrap­ers

Watch 85,000 His­toric News­reel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  She’s had a ter­ri­ble fear of heights since a near miss in the Tro­gir Bell Tow­er some 14 years ago. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Mary Beaty says:

    it would be good to men­tion (and iden­ti­fy in your videos) the Mohawk high steel work­ers. Here’s one arti­cle — about one group. When I lived in Brook­lyn (and dur­ing 911), the Hau­denosaunee (Mohawk) still lived there and worked. They prob­a­bly still do.

    also, as men­tioned [1] Edmund Wil­son, Apolo­gies to the Iro­quois with a Study of The Mohawks in High Steel by Joseph Mitchell, Syracruse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1992, p. 14

    “…By the 1920s, they began trav­el­ling to New York City to work on projects there (under the 1794 Jay Treaty, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple born in Cana­da are allowed to work in the Unit­ed States). Their rep­u­ta­tion quick­ly grew, and soon the leg­endary Kah­nawake Sky­walk­ers were work­ing on all the major projects in New York City includ­ing the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge and Empire State Build­ing.

    The tra­di­tion of Kah­nawake steel work­ers, men and more recent­ly women, trav­el­ling to work in New York each week con­tin­ues to this day – it is esti­mat­ed that approx­i­mate­ly 200 make the week­ly trip.

    ALSO: They were there in Sep­tem­ber 2011 to clean up the trag­ic, tan­gled mess of what their fore­fa­thers had helped to build, and they were there in May 2013 to put in the final riv­ets of the 124 metre spire atop the One World Trade Cen­tre built to replace the Twin Tow­ers.

    ALSO: I can’t remem­ber if it’s Ful­ton (or West 4th…Chambers?) Any­way there is a very long blue and white WAMPUM BELT dec­o­ra­tion in the sta­tion that nobody ever looks at. It’s bro­ken up by stairs and land­ings, but it’s very clear if you take the time. Have a fun hunt.

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