Three books on local history | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Three books on local history

The Fort Pitt Block House gets its due; Pittsburgh during World War I; and a look at Pittsburgh's TV and film past.


Three new paperbacks peek into local history from very different angles.

Pittsburgh has only six years on its oldest building. That gives Emily M. Weaver a substantial story to tell in The Fort Pitt Block House (History Press, 157 pp., $19.99), out just in time for the structure's 250th anniversary, next year. Though built as a defensive redoubt for Fort Pitt, the Block House spent much longer as a private residence — including multi-family housing — and even did time as a candy store before the Daughters of the American Revolution took it over and fought for its preservation. Weaver, the building's curator, cogently makes the most of this first comprehensive history of Pittsburgh's first landmark.

In Pittsburgh in World War I: Arsenal of the Allies (History Press, 144 pp., $19.99), Elizabeth Williams offers an overview of life here in 1917-18. Perhaps you knew that Allegheny County produced half the steel used by the Allies, and that 60,000 Pittsburgh men went to war. But the scale of mobilization Williams documents is still astounding: Most of the city's then-vast industrial base was dedicated to the war effort, and "around 500,000 Pittsburghers were already employed in war work" before the U.S. even entered the conflict.

Williams, college archivist at LaRoche College, also offers intriguing material about anti-German nativism in a city of immigrants; labor activism; the city's nurse shortage; and how, in 1918, the local Red Cross chapter collected about 182,000 pounds of peach pits and nut shells as material for the making of gas masks (whose technology was also partly developed here).

Pittsburgh Film and Television (Arcadia Publishing, 127 pp., $21.99) is, perhaps fittingly, mostly photographic images, an oddly curated bunch selected and with captions by local film-and-TV historian John Tiech. Charming photos of Fred Rogers' early days keynote a section on local broadcast history. A chapter on location filmmaking — with lots of unpeopled, contemporary shots of Monroeville Mall (famously used in Dawn of the Dead) — feels largely superfluous. More interesting are behind-the-scenes movie-production shots, dating to the 1990s. The quality of the stills (many by Tiech himself) is variable, but it's nice to be reminded that films including Hoffa, Dogma and The Mothman Prophecies were shot here. Bonus: trade ads from the early film industry. "Why not hitch up with a live concern and get the best that is going," cajoled the Wonderland Film Exchange in 1908.

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