Monday, September 5, 2016

Historic Pullman and the origin of Labor Day

On the far south side of Chicago, along the banks of Lake Calumet you can take a walk through history in the Pullman neighborhood: Chicago's own National Park!

The Little Dragans and I checked out this neighborhood by taking one of the guided walking tours offered the first Sunday of each month.

First, some history. George Pullman (1831-1897) began manufacturing the Pullman sleeper cars in Chicago in the 1860s. In order to offer an alternative to overcrowded (and unsanitary) city-living, he built an industrial city. Anyone who worked in the factory was also furnished with a company-owned home--well, for which they paid the rent right out of their paycheck back to the company.

Two houses with a shared porch along "Foreman's Row," one of the nicer sections of town. All brick is original and was fired from Lake Calumet clay. I love the little "eyebrows" above the windows made with darker brick.

These were nice houses, too, especially for the 1880s: two to three bedroom with indoor plumbing (!) and a full backyard. Garbage collection was every single day from the back alleys and the whole town was designed on an impressive septic and fire-prevention system. The idea was to prevent outbreaks of diseases like cholera which were rampant in industrialized cities at the time. A healthy, not-dead workforce is a more profitable workforce, it turns out...

The city also boasted amenities such as a hotel, a market, a church, one bar, and a huge indoor arcade which was one of the first ever North American "malls." Lots of opportunities for you to spend that hard-earned paycheck right back to the company (I feel like you can see where this is headed.)

The beautiful Hotel Florence, site of the town's one bar.

Gorgeous "Greenstone Church" constructed from serpentine limestone. The company wanted to rent the church to any denomination that would use it, but none ever did, preferring to worship in homes or meeting rooms for free. So this church stayed vacant for much of the 19th century.
Basic map of the town as it stood at its peak: 12,000 residents strong.

So this seems like a sort of utopia, right? Rather than live in squalor in the crowded inner city, you get a house with plumbing, places to socialize and live comfortably with your friends, family, and coworkers (who are also your friends and family). Why doesn't everyone do this, right???

Well, it's because of what happened next.
In 1893 the worst economic depression to ever hit the United States slows Pullman car production to near stagnation.

Workers' hours, and ipso facto their paychecks, were cut by more than 30%.

But rent stayed the same. So did the price of goods in the markets in Pullman.
The shareholders still got paid their dividends and the company continued to make an uninterrupted 6% return on the investment in the town.

So now your two week paycheck might be $9.07, but rent was still $9.00 and it was taken directly out of your check. Here's your 7 cents with which to feed your family...

Beautiful homes along "Arcade Row," now sucking up your entire paycheck with no other means to earn income in town.

So the workers went on strike.
And President Grover Cleveland overruled Illinois' governor and allowed the National Guard to be called in.
Twelve workers died, many more were injured.
This was pretty much the death knell for the town of Pullman. A series of court battles followed which eventually led to the forced dismantling of the company ownership of the town. Some of the homes are actually STILL owned by descendants of the families who were able to purchase them after the break up of the monopoly.
George Pullman died of a heart attack in the midst of the turmoil.
AND in an effort to appease labor unions who were (understandably) outraged by the violence in Pullman, President Grover Cleveland ratified the national recognition of Labor Day. Which we are all celebrating today.

If you're in Chicago, a trip down to Pullman is a great chance to stroll its streets and imagine what life was like way back when. The first weekend in October is the only time of year you can tour the old factory and the Hotel Florence. Check the Historic Pullman Foundation's website for details:

Two Little Dragans enjoying the freedom of a day off of school and the fact that they are not expected to work in factories anymore...

1 comment:

  1. I think I will be visiting the first weekend of October 2017! Interesting history and I bet 9 put of 10 people don't know the origin of Labor Day.