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The Town of Pullman
By Richard Schneirov, Indiana State University

Pullman was an innovator not only in business and industry but in ameliorating the social problems faced by the new class of capitalists of which he was a part. He was a founder and officer in the exclusive Commercial Club and a founder and President of the Young Men's Christian Association. He was particularly interested in "the labor question." As the country shifted from a society of small producers composed of family farmers and artisans, to an industrial capitalist society, the class question rose to the fore. The grievances of workers and their propensity to join unions and engage in strikes and violence-tinged social upheavals was becoming the central issue of the Gilded Age. Following the 1877 railroad strike and “great upheaval,” Pullman volunteered to help lead the Citizens Law and Order League, which sought to enforce the laws on the prohibition of alcohol to minors. To Pullman and others of his class the improvement of working-class character was key to social order. In their thinking the ideal workingman would strive to ascend into the middle class through hard work, refraining from alcohol and associating with the saloon fraternity, and deferring immediate gratification in favor of saving for the future. The resultant product was to be a worker who would struggle to leave his class, rather than unite with the rest of his fellows to fight for better working conditions and pay.

By the 1880s, many reformers had shifted from personal reform through revivalism, education, and public exhortation to an environmental emphasis. They believed that by changing the social environment in which the worker lived and worked they could induce habits of respectability, uplift workers’ character, and change social attitudes. In 1879 Pullman followed closely the movement in New York to create model tenements that would offer working class families clean and ventilated room to reduce sickness and disease and promote good morals by inducing men to stay at home rather than escape to saloons. In return, investors would receive a reasonable 7% return.

The idea that improving workers’ material conditions of life could be made compatible with the most efficient and economical business practices lay at the heart of Pullman’s plan in 1880 to build a model town south of Chicago. The town was intended neither as philanthropy or charity nor as a utopian experiment. It was an attempt to demonstrate that reform and uplift could be made a paying proposition, just as he had turned comfort, beauty, and luxury in railroad travel into a successful business enterprise. As Pullman put it:

Capital will not invest in sentiment nor for sentimental considerations for the laboring classes. But let it once be proved that enterprises of this kind are safe and profitable and we shall see great manufacturing corporations developing similar enterprises, and thus a new era will introduced into the history of labor. 1

The town of Pullman would be built fourteen miles south of central Chicago with its rough working class districts, its dirty air and unhealthful tenements, and its union organizing and strikes. Unlike the typical town or city, which grew haphazardly without order or forethought, Pullman would be designed according to a well-thought out plan; yet unlike the typical utilitarian company town, which served immediate profit, Pullman would be dedicated to social uplift.

Pullman hired a renowned architect, Solon Spenser Bemen and a landscape designer, Nathan F. Barrett, to plan the town on a two and a half mile strip of land between Lake Calument and the Illinois Central Railroad tracks. The industrial area of the town included the Pullman car works comprising nine buildings over thirty acres; non-Pullman businesses included allied factories, foundries, and lumberyards. The industrial area was kept separate from the 150-acre town to its south. The builders of Pullman first laid water, sewer and gas lines so that every home would have indoor plumbing and be free from floods or standing water during rains. Bemen created a hierarchically-ordered housing system on a grid pattern of streets. Company officers, town retailers, and professionals had the largest homes, followed by foremen, skilled workers, and then unskilled laborers. The latter lived in large three story tenements. The company provided shrubbery and lawn care, painted residences, collected garbage and barrels of ashes, and cleaned tenement halls.

The most outstanding feature of the town was the large Florence Hotel named after Pullman’s favorite daughter and used for visitors and business dealings. Instead of a central avenue with retail shops or a company store, the town had the Arcade and Market Hall buildings, which housed stores leased to independent retailers, along with a library, theater, and meeting rooms. Pullman also had a Bank building, a school with playground, a Greenstone Church with 800 pews, and an imposing clock tower. Along the edge of the town, the architect built a large park and an artificial two-acre island on Lake Calumet with athletic facilities. With the exception of the Florence Hotel’s bar, there were no saloons in Pullman. By 1884 the town had 1400 dwelling units and 8500 inhabitants.

With the same marketing flair that Pullman had used to drum up interest in his railroad cars, Pullman attracted visitors to his model town. Hailed in one story as “the eighth wonder of the world", Pullman’s planned environment became a favorite tourist attraction, especially for visiting business groups. Hundreds visited daily, and accounts were almost uniformly laudatory. In 1887, one Englishman wrote in the (London) Times that “No place in the United States has attracted more attention or has been more closely watched.” 2

But, as the novelty passed, some concerns arose. Despite its family-friendly image and the fact that a majority of its employees were relatively highly paid skilled workmen, the town as well as the company itself experienced a high degree of turnover. In 1892, the average length of residence was four and a quarter years. According to one observer, “No one regards it as a real home.” Moreover, men outnumbered women by between 2 and 3:1. The large number of single men usually resided in other workers’ homes as boarders. Even as the town grew to 14,700 in 1892, thousands of Pullman’s workers lived outside the town’s limits in nearby Kensington, Roseland, or Gano. Only two-thirds of Pullman’s workers actually lived in the town and one-half of those were boarders.

Many workers resented their inability to buy their homes, a limitation that Pullman adamantly retained. Pullman officials conducted periodic inspections of workers’ homes to make sure they were not damaged and that the town maintained a proper public image. Moreover, rent was higher in Pullman than elsewhere; in 1893 it comprised one-third rather than the more typical one-fifth of a workers’ income. Because the majority of Pullman’s residents were immigrants, many wanted to build their own ethnic institutions and were attracted to nearby towns where this was allowed. Others dissented from Pullman’s single, generic Christian church and desired to build their own denominational churches. Last, but hardly least, many male workers objected to the absence of close-at-hand saloons and opted for living in nearby “wet” towns.

Richard T. Ely, a Christian, pro-labor reformer, was the first outside observer to write critically of Pullman’s claim to have solved the ubiquitous labor question. While praising Pullman for diffusing the benefits of concentrated wealth to his workmen and accepting at face value the goal of promoting middle-class respectability, Ely reported workers’ resentment at total surveillance of their lives and their lack of self-government. As Ely put it, Pullman was a “benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such way as shall please the authorities.” That suffocating paternalism, which contradicted American notions of personal independence and freedom, would soon become an issue of national importance. 3

Bibliography

  • Stanley Buder, Pullman, An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

  • Almont Lindsey, “Paternalism and the Pullman Strike.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jan., 1939): 272-289.

  • Carl Smith, Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, The Haymarket Bomb and the Model Town of Pullman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.


1. Mrs. H. E. Starrett, “Pullman—A Social, and Industrial Study,” Weekly Magazine (Sept. 16, 1882).

2. Buder 93

3. Richard T. Ely, “Pullman: A Social Study,” Harpers Weekly 70 (February 1885): 452-66. Web excerpt at: http://www.library.cornell.edu/Reps/DOCS/pullman.htm



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