America’s Company Towns, Then and Now

A look at these small towns across the United States shows the good, the bad and the ugly of the industrial boom

Mills and smokestacks in Lowell, Massachusetts, considered by some historians to be the first real company town in the U.S. (CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

During the Industrial Revolution, company towns—communities built by businesses—sprouted up across the country. For anyone who wants to tour what remains of them today, it’s helpful to remember two things. First, as Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, says, these places ranged from the awful to the enviable. Towns built by coal companies, for example, were often more on the prison camp end of the spectrum in terms of poverty and abuse. Meanwhile, settlements like Hershey, Pennsylvania, built by the Hershey chocolate company, were meant to be closer to paradise—to woo workers with fancy amenities rather than mistreat them.

Second, as Green explains, to speak about company towns in the past tense is to overlook that they still exist. The original coal and textile towns in America are now largely ghostly, but places like Hershey and Corning, New York, which was invigorated by the Corning glass company, are still going strong. Plus, as the LA Times writes, businesses such as Google and Facebook today are providing housing, amenities and transportation for their workers—meaning that while we think of company towns in sepia tones, they’re also in digital blue.

Historically, textile towns popped up in the early 19th century in New England, then migrated to the Carolinas after the Civil War. The post-Civil-War era also saw coal towns spread out by way of the railroad boom, and towns founded by steel companies followed a similar route.

Although some businesses offered idyllic-looking settings, a bevy of companies once made more money from swindling their workers than from what they mined or produced. During the boom in textile, coal, steel and other industries, workers often earned what’s called scrip instead of real money: a kind of credit they couldn’t spend anywhere but the company store, where prices were often higher than elsewhere. Companies in these places often required that workers live in barebones company housing and send their kids to company-built schools, where the boss’s perspective was king.

In all, there have been about 2,000 company towns across the U.S., from harsh places of abuse to picturesque communities. Read on for a visit to five iconic locations:

Lowell, Massachusetts

The first truly planned company town was Lowell, Massachusetts. In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell, a merchant from Boston, visited factories in England to try to memorize and (illegally) bring back to the United States the technology he saw there. His pilfered ideas helped lay the groundwork for new textile production in Massachusetts, where, in the 1820s, a few years after Lowell’s death, a small group of capitalists founded Lowell—what Green calls “America’s first large-scale planned industrial community.”

As with many of the business-built towns that would come later, Lowell’s location is based largely on its proximity to natural resources: in this case, a waterfall to power the looms. When it came to that other necessary resources—workers—Lowell’s founders recruited young, single women from rural areas. Once at Lowell, they lived in boardinghouses and were required to attend church and lead a “moral” life. Factory bells woke the women up at 4:30 in the morning—and within 20 minutes, they had to be at the mill. In the mid-1830s, protests began, echoed later by several other company towns across the country.

Today, visitors can explore the Lowell National Historical Park. At the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, looms run “at top speed, allowing visitors to feel the buzz of a working mill.” The museum, whose weave room is pictured above, calls itself one of the largest industrial history exhibits in the nation. The historical boardinghouse for Lowell’s first workers stands nearby, also part of the park.

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