A Brief Overview of the Pullman Story
George Mortimer Pullman was born in Brockton, NY to his mother, Emily, and father, James. When he was young, his family relocated to Albion, NY along the Erie Canal. Pullman dropped out of school when he was 14 and began working with his father, helping him move houses during the expansion of the Erie Canal.
Pullman sought opportunity in the growing city of Chicago. Built on a bog, the city of Chicago was unable to construct a sewage system without first raising the level of the streets. Using his knowledge of relocating buildings to new foundation, Pullman devised a way to raise Chicago's buildings to the new grade level, thus making his early fortune.
Pullman rode the railroads from New York to Illinois. These cross-country trains were considered cramped and uncomfortable, and it was this experience that led Pullman to turn his attention to the railroads. He saw the need for a rail car that would provide comfortable and elegant accommodations for overnight travelers and began designing his first sleeping car.
The first Pullman sleeping car, the Pioneer, was constructed in 1864. Although not an immediate success, the Pioneer received national attention when it was chosen as the car to transport President Lincoln's body from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. The high demand for his cars led George Pullman to found the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1867.
Employing a mostly white workforce, the Pullman car transformed the experience of passenger railroad travel, setting a new standard. The company produced a variety of cars including sleeping cars, hotel cars, parlor cars, and dining cars. These were too expensive for railroad companies to purchase outright, so Pullman built his business model around leasing the cars and providing the employees necessary to serve passengers.
"[C]apital will not invest in sentiment, nor for sentimental considerations for the laboring class. But let it once be proved that enterprises of this kind are safe and profitable and we shall see great manufacturing companies develop similar enterprises, and thus a new era will be introduced in the history of labor." George Pullman, to the Hour Week Journal of New York, August 5, 1882
Demand for Pullman cars and a growing workforce led Pullman to the development of his company town. The Pullman Palace Car Company purchased 4,000 acres for its town and factory between Lake Calumet and the Illinois Central rail line south of Chicago. Architect Solon Spencer Beman and Landscape Architect Nathan Barret were hired to design the buildings and layout of the Pullman and factories.
Housing for workers was separated from the industrial areas and took shape primarily as row houses with streets in front and alleys in the rear for the daily trash collection. Indoor plumbing and relative spaciousness put Pullman's accommodations well above the standards of the day.
Ground breaking occurred in spring of 1880, and work proceeded at a furious pace, with over 100 railroad cars of supplies per week unloaded at Pullman over the summer. By fall, factory buildings were taking shape and work began on the first non-industrial building in town: The Hotel Florence. The first factory shops completed were those that would refine the building materials as they came in. A brickyard was built south of the site to supply materials needed for the "first all-brick city."
Pullman desired buildings that would be both practical and aesthetically pleasing, so Beman designed houses in the simple, yet elegant, Queen Anne style while including Romanesque arches for buildings that housed shops and services. Though he strove to avoid monotony, Beman imbued the town with visual continuity. Barret aided the breakup of monotony by designing Arcade Park and Lake Vista in a curvilinear fashion.
Though he provided a beautiful, sanitary, and orderly town for his workers and their families, George Pullman did not provide these accommodations freely. believing a person does not value those things for which they do not pay, Pullman charged a rent to his buildings that would ensure a six percent return on the company's investment in building the town.
"There are variety and freedom on the outside. There are monotony and surveillance on the inside. None of the "superior," or "scientific" advantages of the model city will compensate for the restrictions on the freedom of the workmen, the denial of opportunities of ownership, the heedless and vexatious parade of authority, and the sense of injustice arising from the well founded belief that the charges of the company for rent, heat, gas, water, etc. are excessive –if not extortionate… Pullman may appear all glitter and glow, all gladness and glory to the casual visitor, but there is the deep, dark background of discontent which it would be idle to deny." The Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1888
The factories at Pullman attracted thousands of people, the majority of which were skilled workers. These workers commanded a higher salary than unskilled workers, and Pullman had intended his town to attract and retain these employees. The company made efforts to employ women in "appropriate" jobs such as sewing. By the fall of 1883, the population of Pullman topped 8,000. Ethnically diverse, less than half of Pullman residents in 1885 were native-born, most being immigrants from Scandinavia, German, England, and Ireland.
Not all workers at the Pullman factories lived in Pullman. Out of necessity or choice, many moved out to the surrounding neighborhoods that developed. These neighborhoods provided places for single-denomination houses of worship, saloons, and property ownership that were not possible in Pullman.
Beyond the profit on the company's investment and the effect of the surroundings on the workers, George Pullman had an eponymous showplace to exhibit the living proof of his philosophy. The town attracted visitors, and during the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, visitors from near and far came to marvel at the town. Pullman did, however, have its detractors; labor leaders were mistrustful of the decidedly capitalist scheme, while other capitalists saw it as inviting trouble and doubted it could possibly be as profitable as George Pullman intended. It wasn't. Returns on the town never reached the six percent threshold promised to its investors. When one of the partners in Procter & Gamble approached George Pullman for advice on building a model town for a Cincinnati soap factory, he advised against the idea.
As Chicago was on display in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition, the grip of financial panic was closing around the country in general and the railroad industry in particular. Despite the stimulus provided by travelers from around the nation flocking to the fair itself, railroads had become mismanaged and overbuilt. Pullman exhibits in the Transportation Building at the World's Columbian Exposition helped spur fairgoers to visit the Pullman neighborhood, and most found cause to praise George Pullman's grand experiment.
The World's Fair visitors did not see the annoyance of Pullman workers and residents at company paternalism and red tape that festered under the surface. As 1893 wore on, orders at the factory declined, and decreases in wages came without corresponding decreases in rents. Since rents were deducted from paychecks, workers were left with what amounted to starvation wages. Meanwhile, the corporate dividends were undisturbed. Discontent and grievance could remain silent no longer.
Last updated: August 20, 2015