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)
smithsonianmag.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:

Corning, New York

Like Hershey, Pennsylvania, Corning is both a historic company town and one that’s still very much alive. Although the company, once called Corning Glass Works and now called simply Corning, didn’t found the town, Green writes that it “emerged as the town’s benefactor—and savior” in the mid-20th century. The business poured millions of dollars into housing, recreational facilities and a new library. And in 1951, the Corning Glass Center opened—today called the Corning Museum of Glass.

Now, Corning continues production in the area. As of 2009 almost 5,000 employees lived in the town, and Corning Inc. takes an active role in the town's revitalization. Meanwhile, at the continually expanding museum, visitors can explore glass items both ancient and cutting-edge. As the New York Times writes, the museum “began as what the company called a gift to the community for its 100th anniversary,” and has since become famous for its “nearly 50,000 pieces of glass art, some dating from 1500 B.C.” And the building itself dazzles too. The Times notes that a “100,000-square-foot addition, which cost $64 million, is almost certain to be globally recognized as a light-gathering glass masterpiece itself.”

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