Two Views of Pullmantown

George Pullman was a rich and respected man by the 1880s: an entrepreneur with a lock on the sleeping car business, a magnate with a mansion on Chicago’s Prairie Avenue (complete with its own pipe organ and small theater) and a collection of powerful friends, including the likes of retail kingpin Marshall Field. He was a classic American success story, a small-town farmer’s son turned millionaire. Yet once he made his fortune, George Pullman began to behave strangely like Old-Country nobility. Which explains Pullman, Ill.

His idea was to build a community for all his workers at the new factory about 15 miles outside Chicago. But Pullman was not going to throw up some cheap housing. This would be a special place, a workers’ utopia erected with the same attention to detail that he’d given his sleeping cars. Pullman was never casual about details. He chose the Chicago area in the first place because by his calculation a man could do at least 10 percent more work during the summer near Lake Michigan than in the humidity of St. Louis, the other contender. Other corporate barons like Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt couldn’t understand why Pullman would build a town for his workers. Wall Street investors considered it a colossal waste of money. But Pullman plunged ahead, intent on devising a better way to run a company. His paternal instincts notwithstanding, Pullman had other, more insidious reasons for building his own factory town. It would be his buffer against the anarchists fomenting class warfare around the world. How could people get upset about working conditions if they were living in paradise -- at least his version of it? So in 1884 families began moving into Pullman, a town where, according to a company brochure, "all that is ugly and discordant and demoralizing is eliminated, and all that inspires self-respect is generously provided."

"The Most Perfect City in the World"

Pullman, Ill., would be no industrial slum. No open sewers, no squalor. George Pullman would see to that. He hired a young architect named Solon Bemen who had traveled extensively in Europe. Pullman encouraged him to incorporate the best urban planning he had seen. The result was a company town like no other.

It was full of Queen Anne-style homes—cottages for the workers, slightly larger places for the skilled craftsmen and 14-room houses—the ones closest to the factory—for the Pullman executives. (George himself never lived there.) Even the cottages had the latest appliances— water, gas and indoor plumbing—a rarity in 1880 urban America. Each tree came with a flower bed. Crews hired by Pullman manicured the lawns and cleaned the streets, all named after inventors: Fulton, Morse, Watt and, of course, Pullman. Across from the railroad station was a carefully groomed town square, a schoolhouse for 1,000 children and a 19th-century version of a shopping mall, called the Arcade. It had shops, a post office, a theater, a YMCA, an opera house, a recreation room and a library filled with 8,000 books that Pullman donated. There was a multi-denominational house of worship—the Greenstone Church—a gymnasium, a lake with boats and canoes, a Pullman company band that toured around the world. Even the sewers were meticulously planned: Storm water flowed through cobblestone gutters into Lake Calumet, and sewage was carried in glazed pipes to a reservoir where the water was fermented and recycled as fertilizer.

For factory workers this seemed about as good as life got. They were anxious to live there, willing to work the long hours Pullman demanded. The town’s population grew to more than 8,000, and the outside world was mightily impressed. George Pullman was hailed as a "missionary of civilization."

"The Slave Pen"

The town of Pullman has been compared to a model train set. George Pullman's train set. He controlled everything in his little village. His company owned all the houses. The workers' rent was deducted from their paychecks. His executives ran the town; the residents had no vote. He banned drinking and other vices company spies would report those who misbehaved, who then could be fined or evicted. The only place where alcohol was sold was the Hotel Florence named after Pullman's daughter, the only one of his four children with whom he was close. (His twin sons were alcoholics.)

All the houses were painted the same olive green and barn red as the Hotel Florence. And the obsession with keeping the lawns trimmed was as much for Pullman's sake as for the resident she was a notorious neatness freak. Even Pullman's gesture of providing a library came with a price he charged an annual $3 fee at a time when most public libraries were free.

The fact is that Pullman expected the town to make a profit roughly 6 percent a year for rent on housing, stores, even churches. So his rents were about 25 percent higher than in neighboring communities: A worker's cottage leased for $16 a month; the executive houses cost up to $24.

"Fifty-five hundred workers lived in Pullman's tenements," observed labor writer Sidney Lens, "worked in his shops, prayed at churches rented from him, sent their children to schools built by him, relaxed in his park and, as one worker put it, were 'buried in the Pullman cemetery and go to the Pullman hell.' "Except for the last part Pullman would probably have responded, "What's wrong with that?" He saw himself as a benevolent despot, providing for those he called his "children" who couldn't care for themselves. And, in fact, his state of semi-serfdom worked through the 1880s, a time when business was good.

But when the economy began to nose-dive in the 1890s and Pullman scrambled for ways to cut costs, he concluded that his children would just have to make do with less. He cut their wages. He didn't cut their rents.

And so George Pullman, who figured his workers would never turn against him after all he'd done for them, ended up provoking one of the ugliest labor conflicts in American history.