A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Seven


The Town of Pullman

The idea of an industrialist creating a community for their workforce was not a new one by the time George Pullman – he of Pullman carriage fame – got round to it in 1880. After all, there were the successful models of Sir Titus Salt who created Saltaire in Yorkshire and the Krupp Munitions Company in Essen to emulate. The theory, perhaps, was that a happy workforce was a productive workforce but for the American industrialist what drove the venture was his belief that capitalism was the best way to meet all material and spiritual needs.

Pullman bought some 4,000 acres of land west of Lake Calumet in Chicago in 1880 for $800,000, although the actual town only occupied some 300 acres of the site. The first permanent residents, the Benson family, moved in on 1st January 1881 and by 1884 the town was completed, boasting some 350 residents. Pullman was run on a strictly capitalist basis and was expected to return a profit of 7% per annum. Employees were given two pay cheques, one for their rent which was immediately paid back to their landlord, and the other for the essentials of life which they could only buy from shops owned by their benevolent employer.

There was a strict demarcation policy as to who could live where. Detached, eight or nine roomed houses, commanding a monthly rent of between $28 and $50 were sited near the factory and were only available to company executives who were spared having to traipse past the less commodious dwellings. Foremen and company officials were allocated in Dutch colonial style row houses for which they paid $2 per month. Skilled workers had to make do with smaller quarters whilst the unskilled were accommodated in two room apartments. The houses, though, were well built and still stand today.

There was only one church in the town – after all the factory used interchangeable parts so why wouldn’t one church do for all denominations? – and there was no pub, although the hotel used to accommodate visiting dignitaries had its own private bar. According to mortality statistics, it was the healthiest place to live but it came at a cost. Pullman ruled the place with a rod of iron, prohibiting independent newspapers, public meetings and open discussion. Harper’s Weekly commented in 1885 that Bismarck was insignificant “compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman”. Regular inspections were carried out on the properties and if there was a breach of cleanliness a worker could be given 10 days’ notice to leave.

By 1892 the town had turned a profit and was valued at $5m. But although the place was aesthetically pleasing, man cannot live on views alone. In 1894 America was in the grip of a depression and sales of Pullman’s goods stalled. He cut wages but didn’t reduce the rents he was charging. The result was that the residents were trapped and plummeting into debt. This, in turn, fuelled discontent. As one resident was reported as saying, “we are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechised in the Pullman church and when we die we shall go to the Pullman hell”.

The only way out was to strike. The action received the support of the railway unions who removed Pullman cars from the trains and was only resolved when Federal troops were called in and started shooting strikers, 34 of whom were killed. The dust-up spelt the end for Pullman’s utopia, the Illinois Supreme Court, in 1898, a year after Pullman’s death, ruling that a company town was illegal and forcing the company to sell off the housing. It seems that capitalism isn’t all-powerful, after all.


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