Sold My Soul to the Company Store

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891 courtesy of Wikicommons

Marquette Lumber company store, circa 1891
courtesy of Wikicommons

Yesterday I got to do a very fun character interview from Phineas Bell, protagonist of Somebody to Love’s point of view for the Kimi-chan Experience. I was surprised by the last question she asked Phin, which was about how a company town in the late 19th, early 20th century worked. I had actually done a lot of research into the whole company system and learned a lot of fascinating and terrible things. So why not share that with you here?

If you’re at all interested in the 21st century debate about minimum wage, if you paid even a little attention to the Occupy movement or the 1% versus 99% discussion, then you will likely flip your lid when you learn about what the company system was back in the day and how it affected the lives of working men and women just over a hundred years ago. Because in a time before labor laws, back when the Gilded Age was also known as the Robber Baron Age, the 1% could get away with a lot more than they get away with now. (And I know, they get away with a LOT now)

“Company towns” generally grew up around mines or other sorts of remote, labor-intensive operations. In the simplest terms, the mine employed the men, paid them, owned their houses, and owned the store where everyone bought everything. These were the days before everyone owned a car, and a trip to the next town over or anyplace where an average person could shop at the competition’s establishment was a major, expensive undertaking. In essence, you were stuck where you were.

The disadvantage of being committed to one place was that whatever the owner of the mine where you worked and the town that you lived in wanted to charge for rent or groceries or just about anything, they could charge. You had no choice but to pay their price or hit the road, homeless and unemployed. It’s easy to think from our 21st century perspective that hitting the road would be the obvious choice, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time before unemployment compensation or easy transportation, a job could literally be the difference between life and death.

courtesy of Wikicommons

courtesy of Wikicommons

Unfortunately, it was the most vulnerable strata of the population that was at the mercy of these company systems. We’re talking uneducated laborers without a lot of support. They had families that depended on them and very little recourse to lodge complaints when times were tough and bosses were unfair. It wasn’t until much later that the government began to step in and pass laws to fix the blatant abuses of company towns.

One of the most shocking problems that these company systems had was that when times got tough for the bosses, they would start paying their workers in scrip instead of cash. Scrip was more or less Monopoly money that could only be used at the company store. It was worthless, especially for anyone hoping to save enough to get out of the horrible situation they were in.

Now, it wasn’t all super horrible, and the company town system did begin to change near the turn of the century, particularly after the Pullman Strike of 1894. Pullman, Chicago was one of the earliest company towns, planned and paid for by the Pullman railroad car manufacturer. When the company hit hard times in 1894, it tightened its belt by reducing workers’ wages without reducing the rents on their company-owned housing. The workers went on strike, demanding fairer conditions. The government stepped in, and after an investigation found that the workers’ lives were better off under the company system than they would have been otherwise. However, public opinion condemned the “paternalistic” style of the company town as “un-American.” Compromises and new ways of creating a balance between industry and humanity were hammered out.

It didn’t all happen overnight, and the reason why I’m a little vague in that last sentence is because there wasn’t one big push or law or incident that changed things, but rather a slow, steady progression through the first two decades of the 20th century. Wage laws were passed, health care laws came into being, but most importantly, automobiles became much, much more affordable. Honestly, the company system declined when workers no longer needed to live in the company town immediately surrounding their mine, and instead had the mobility to live miles away in a friendlier environment.

Don’t you just love how the dots connect in History?

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2 thoughts on “Sold My Soul to the Company Store

  1. Had to read after I spotted your title, with the line from “Sixteen Tons” one of my favorite kind of “novelty” songs. And it really is about company stores, and just what you’ve described up above. Really interesting. With all that research, is there another story on the topic in there? 😉 Have fun, and thanks for the post.

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