George Pullman & Pullman, Chicago, Illinois (2007)

Excerpt from Mark Pimlott’s book, Without and within: Essays on territory and the interior (Episode Publishers: Rotterdam).

Mark Pimlott
artdesigncafé - design | 27 December 2011

George Pullman & Pullman, Chicago, Illinois

A Company Town was potentially an environment in which labour and local resources could be completely exploited. Yet, it also might be regarded as benign: an urban microcosm, a Utopia, in which a model society of perfect workers might be established. This was the pretension of Pullman, named after its funder and founder, next to Lake Calumet, just south of Chicago. George Pullman, manufacturer of the famous Pullman train coach, was an entrepreneur who had started a business in Chicago in 1860 moving buildings, achieved by removing them from their foundations and raising them to a new street level. [1]

George Pullman intended to create a controlled and predictable environment for the production of Pullman coaches. His reasoning was that efficiency of production would be increased if the efficiency of workers was increased. Greater profit thus would be guaranteed. In years preceding the foundation of the town, Pullman had made genuine efforts to improve the lot of his workers, whom he understood to often be living in poor conditions, affecting their well-being and their ability to work. He was a member of the Commercial Club, among whose stated objectives was "to advance by social intercourse and by a friendly exchange of views the prosperity and growth of [Chicago]." They "concerned themselves with honest urban government, increasing educational facilities, and improving the city’s housing, sewerage and transportation." [2]

Like other business leaders, George Pullman came to see a relation between the qualities of workers’ living conditions and the shape of society as a whole. [3] Poor conditions were directly linked to a variety of social ills, notably civil disobedience. In Pullman’s view, poorly housed workers were prone to carelessness, unproductivity and political agitation: they needed to be inculcated with good values. The Town was intended to be the representation of Pullman’s entire enterprise, a demonstration of the possible and desirable harmony between worker and industry: "both the company’s showplace and the solution to its labor problems." [4] The idea that harmony can be achieved through rendering continuous the place of dwelling and the place of work is central to understanding the contemporary American urban condition in terms of both its physical characteristics and its economic relationships.

By providing high-quality housing and good wages, Pullman aimed to attract a better sort of worker, the kind of worker that would take pride in his labours and his manner of living. The worker was to be improved by his environment, and "elevated and refined" by it. [5] Workers were intentionally isolated and protected from possible sources of agitation, either in the form of labor movement activists or the grumblings of the urban dispossessed. [6]

Pullman— the man, the company— owned and operated Pullman the Town and controlled all aspects of life within it. [7] The workers paid their rent to Pullman (they could not own their own homes— rather, those who wished to do so bought property elsewhere and commuted to Pullman to work); they shopped in stores that paid their rent to Pullman, studied in his schools or his library, and worked in his factories. This was regarded as strange, even by those impressed with the feats of rationalisation and orderliness credited to the town and its proprietor. Yet, Pullman’s most significant exclusion was any form of civic government. The Town was an administrative entity, merely an aspect of the Pullman Palace Car Company’s operations, for which George Pullman was completely unapologetic. For him, the town was more a machine for profit than a benevolent project. He spoke of the administration of the town as being identical to the administration of a household or any kind of business. In the case of governance, Pullman’s hold over the town was close to absolute control. An important article by Prof. Richard T. Ely in Harper’s Monthly published in February 1885 was written after an extensive study of the town, and concluded that the "idea of Pullman is un-American [...] it is benevolent, well-wishing feudalism, which desires the happiness of the people, but in such a way as will please the authorities." [8] He wrote: "that the power exercised by Bismarck (the unifier of Germany), was ’utterly insignificant when compared with the ruling authority of the Pullman Palace Car Company in Pullman’" [9] Indeed, Pullman, in its paternalism and its denial of many aspects of self-determination, strayed far away from the Jeffersonian ideal of a self-sufficient yeoman society, and hence, from American-ism.

Pullman can be thought of as a prototype for the American suburb of the 1950s and 1960s, in terms of the relations between industry and citizenry and the environment of these relations. Pullman can find its closest associations with tied housing in Britain, or tied communities associated with a variety of industries such as found in Britain or Germany in the nineteenth century. There, the dependence of dweller upon employer was perpetually reinforced. Like the ideal working communities of Robert Owen, a moral order was implicit. In the case of Pullman, this moral order was more for the benefit of the employer than the employee. Pullman the company town was separated from the city centre, its entirety distanced from its turmoils and situated instead in the conceptual frontier. George Pullman equated employee self-realisation with the holding of property (however illusory) and the development of propriety. Propriety, respectability, sobriety, thrift, were all prized attributes for a citizen, a tenant, an employee. The relation between employer and employee and the employee’s relation to the city and to his fellows as defined in Pullman was to remain a psychological template for future relations between corporations and employees, as individuals and as citizens.

Within the confines of Pullman, everything was taken care of; facilities provided by the company were replacements for those found in the city centre. In this, Pullman served as a prototype for those regional corporate headquarters of the 1960s and later that contained their own quasi-urban functions, isolated from the distractions of the city, enhancing their employees’ powers of concentration. If associations between employees could be limited to other employees alone, then a (corporate) culture of consensus could be cultivated, or inculcated. George Pullman went so far as to extend his company’s influence into the streets, places of leisure and the home. By the time of the regional corporate headquarters’s arrival, the site of dwelling— the displaced suburb— was already self-policing, already tuned to homogeneity of the economic and social profiles of its residents. [10] The contiguity, therefore, between the site of work and the site of dwelling, was ensured. [11]

The construction of Pullman was important for the development of the idea of the occupation of the American territory— in that it reinforced the tie between that occupation and the idea of labour. This was not the isolated labour, however, associated with the homestead (the homestead had been reduced in Pullman to a rented dwelling that had to be maintained to prescribed standards), but labour whose source was a paternalistic company. Pullman was employer, institution, landlord, proprietor, and father all at once. Occupation of the American space involved gratitude to a patron. It was a feudal condition in the guise of liberty and free enterprise. The baldness of its presentation ultimately led to its failure, as it became abundantly clear that there was no freedom in Pullman, let alone political (democratic) representation.

City and territory, town and country

Despite the failure of Pullman, the idea of the Company Town never entirely disappeared from considerations of American urban development. Company Towns were built after Pullman’s demise. [12] What remained of the Company Town idea were the precedents it set regarding relations between urban centres and dependent settlements located in proximity to them. The explicit relations between corporate authority and citizenry dependent upon it had been severely tested in the failure of Pullman. The manifest presence of authority, or rather, its apparent lack, was to become an important aspect of future urban and regional planning and development, wherein a prevailing illusion of freedom was of central importance.

Pullman failed because Pullman restricted its workers’— its citizens’— freedom to determine their own circumstances, whether that freedom pertained to governance, movement, leisure or consumption. The company’s authority was inscribed in the contract that existed between employer— who doubled as city administrator— and employee, who, although a citizen, always had to regard himself first as an employee. The company’s authority was furthermore represented by the settlement’s buildings.

However, there were aspects of company-employee relations described within the Company Town model that, if adequately disguised, could be extended and made successful. It was possible that people would exchange their labour for good living conditions in idealised settings that sustained the feeling or illusion of independence. The Company Town as such did not need to exist to make this relation work: all that was necessary was an elaborated exchange between company and employee that could be construed as of benefit to the employee’s lifestyle. For higher income groups, this kind of exchange had proven to be attractive. The explicit relation between company and worker in the Company Town was replaced by an implicit relation that was more difficult to locate. The suburbs constructed for higher income workers— speculative developments rather than those planned by corporations— were the backdrop for this new kind of relation.

The genesis of the modern North American suburb, the ubiquitous non-urban, non-rural environment, is found in the contrasting approaches and theoretical bases to the making of extra-urban settlements at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Conflicts in the aims of business and industry, utopian reformers, pragmatists and speculative developers were ultimately merged in the practice of making such places. The nature and experience of the suburb are reflections of overlapping ideas. Business leaders yearned for isolation of the worker and the sites of production in order to maximise profit; utopians advocated isolation for the generation of models for a new society; pragmatists campaigned for isolation to test systems of economic relations that might benefit society. All— to a degree— are achieved in the contemporary suburb and in its relations to both its region and the urban centre(s).

George Pullman & Pullman, Chicago: 1 | Footnotes: 2