In 1959 working as a pickler cleaning brass fittings for use in the production of thermostats may not have been the dirtiest job ever, but my husband’s first full time job out of high school definitely left an impression on him.
As a pickler he said, “I cleaned corrosion from the brass fittings before they were soldered. It was a day time job. I earned my first real money – $1.55 an hour,” he said.
“The supervisor really wanted me to stay. He often came over asked me ‘is there anything we need to get you?’ They wanted to make it comfortable for me to be there.” He laughed. “People did not like that job. They would bid off as soon as they could.”
During the brief three months he worked as a pickler, he received a nickel an hour pay increase to encourage him to stay and work the job nobody wanted.
The despicable job used a heavy metal bucket. “It weighed about 15, maybe 20, pounds. The steel buckets were woven of probably an eighth-inch steel with leads every half inch for the brass fittings for the heating and cooling units. I would load them up and dunk them in the caustic acid.”
He walked a circuit from one dunking container to another. “I would dunk them into a pit and leave them there for a certain period of time. Take it out, dunk it into water, lift it out and put it into a neutralizing chemical. All day long I was putting in and taking out these heavy buckets of metal. Then I had to put the fittings on a tray, blow them dry, take them from there and put them in barrels for processing. I did that all day long. Every activity was timed. I had to keep going from one bucket to another, all day, switching each batch to the next phase. I gained a lot of strength doing that. I could do 25 push-ups easily by the time I quit.”
“I wore rubber gloves and a heavy rubber apron to keep the acid from getting onto me. Every week I changed out the acid. I carried it in a five gallon bucket. I went out back, opened a lid in the ground and dumped the used acid into the tank beneath it.”
“And the fumes! The fumes were there all the time. The fumes would eat the skin from your nose if you worked the job long enough. There was a vent or a hood over it all but no mask was provided or even suggested to be worn.”
“I didn’t stay there long enough for the fumes to eat at my nose, but there were people who said it would over time.”
Instead he quickly found a second full time job, one more appealing to him: building cabinet frames in a woodworking shop. Eventually he settled into his life-time career of quality control in the polymer and carbon black industries.
Many years later another company bought out the thermostat plant and production moved away, leaving the facility dormant. Sixty years after his three month stint as a pickler, he heard that the nearby community had once considered building a football field on the site where the plant once stood. It was the perfect location until soil studies revealed the extent of the contamination from the production process and its waste disposal.
Even in 1959, freshly hired picklers quickly realized cleaning brass was dangerous, dirty work and found safer jobs. They left; the company stayed and permanently etched its mark in the earth.