307: Company Town by Hardy Green

by Gerard

307.7670973: Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy. New York: Basic Books, 2010. 209 pp. ISBN 978-0-465-01826-0.

The Dewey has a special place for groups of people that come together to achieve a common goal—307. That’s where books on communities are, no matter if it’s a collection on kibbutzim, a plain tome on towns, or a volume on villages.

(Sorry for the alliterative nightmare, but I’m trying to counteract the overall dreariness and drudgery of today’s book.)

Hardy Green’s Company Town centers on American cities that were built by businesses and corporations in order to place their workers in close proximity to the production line. Hundreds of small cities were built across the country to help facilitate factory lines. All the buildings in the town were owned by the parent company—each house, store, hospital, and church. All these buildings cost money, so naturally, the companies found different ways to defray those costs by passing them down to the workers.

The first of these was Lowell, Massachusetts, where Francis Cabot Lowell established the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813. This company was a textile firm designed to take the raw materials from plant to pants in a single all-purpose building. Around the mill, he and his partners built a town where all the girls who worked there could reside and not have to commute. And this was the general pattern for all such towns to follow. Build a manufacturing or processing center and surround it with a “town” as well as all the necessary amenities.

While this seems like an ideal situation—the company gets close-by workers, and the workers get housing and stores—Green details the inherent tendency toward exploitation in these arrangements. Since the company built the stores and the churches, the prices and taxes due to those establishments were controlled by the company and not by a separate town council. Prices in company stores were generally higher than the regular outside market, and many workers were paid in currency that could only be redeemed at the company store. If you didn’t have the funds, the store would issue you “scrip”, basically an IOU which the employee had to work off before getting paid again.

This isn’t to say that some company towns weren’t better than others. The most notable of these is Hershey, Pennsylvania, a cloyingly sweet town where Milton Hershey provided everything he could for his workers. Many of his establishments still exist. The theme park he built for his workers is now open to the public, and the private boarding school (his wife’s idea) still serves 1,800 students in need these days.

The book itself, though, is rather cumbersome (but not thick). The language is stilted and much of the history is rote and dry. This could have been a rather interesting look into the lives of workers in company towns, but Green doesn’t have the chops to pull it all together. The tone of the book is predominantly anti-big-business. You can tell that even if the towns themselves aren’t explicitly exploitative, Green still digs to find malfeasance at some level. Don’t get me wrong—on the whole, many of these villages were wildly under-regulated and came perilously close to indentured servitude, but many towns now owe their existence to the foresight of the company owners who built them. The other quibble I have with the book is that Wikipedia is used as a primary citation for some of the facts. Sorry folks, but this is still unacceptable. If you want a quick read, this will work in a pinch, but don’t waste too much time on this one.