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.
    https://www.ictinc.ca/kahnawake-skywalkers-a-brief-history-of-mohawk-steel-workers. 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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