Time Period: 19th Century, 20th Century
Topic: Architecture, Community and Reform, Industrialization and Labor, Remaking Urban Space
In 1880, George Pullman founded the town of Pullman just miles south of Chicago. He built the town in response to the massive changes that industrialization brought throughout the United States. The town was a social and economic experiment not before seen in the United States. His attempt to perfect relations between capital and labor had lasting effects on labor relations in the United States.
George Pullman rose to early prominence with his invention of the “sleeper” railroad car. As railroads ushered in new ideas of travel and transportation George Pullman capitalized by creating a comfortable rail car not previously seen. His new rail car would gain national prominence after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. It was Pullman’s car that was used to transport Lincoln’s body to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. George Pullman quickly monopolized the market of the new luxurious rail car and looked just south of Chicago to establish a company town for expansion.¹
Industrialization brought new ideas on capital and labor in the 19th century. New mass production methods increased the working class dramatically. This rising working class asked new questions of labor relations that George Pullman recognized. Founding the town of Pullman was his way to answer these new questions. However, by creating a new town from the ground up, he believed he could cure the urban vices and immorality that lead to problems in labor relations in city centers. This paternalistic approach to city building was done with an underlying economic theme of profit. In building the city, the need for other buildings, markets, schools and churches were needed to furnish the new town. Every building erected in the town of Pullman ceded its economic gains to George Pullman, with all capital expected to return a six percent profit.²
In addition to controlling the town’s economy, George Pullman oversaw the physical development of the town. Believing that by eliminating vices such as gambling, prostitution and alcohol in the city, Pullman’s planning attempted to create the opposite of the urban city centers. In providing each home with new, modern (at the time) conveniences such as gas, running water, sewage removal and regular garbage removal he attempted to uplift the workforce. These flats were surrounded by wide, tree lined streets and pristine manicure lawns. George Pullman believed that by upgrading the living arrangements of his employees he could create the perfect worker.³ However, the lack of personal property and personal autonomy ran counter to his hopes. This came to a head when the country faced the economic depression of 1893.
When Pullman reduced wages, yet did not decrease rent prices, the workers in Pullman decided to strike in 1894. Teamed with national support from the American Railways Union and Eugene Debs workers of the town walked off the job. It was not until Federal intervention that some normalcy returned to the town. The paternalistic efforts to form the perfect company town failed, but ideas that emerged through this experiment continued to influence thoughts on labor in the 20th century.
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- Buder, Stanley. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
- Yellen, Samuel. American Labor Struggles. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936Buder, Stanley. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning 1880-1930
- Buder, Stanley. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning 1880-1930
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