Past As Prologue: How The Namesake Of Pullman Tried To Improve Worker’s Lives, But Failed
NOTE: The following essay and its audio component are part of an ongoing series produced in conjunction with the Washington State University history department. The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
BY KAREN PHOENIX
Some industrialists in the late 1800s attempted to improve living conditions for their workers, though not successfully.
Take George Pullman, the inventor of the railroad sleeping car. Fun fact: Pullman, Washington is named after him, though it’s not clear why. Pullman was concerned about the living conditions of his workers. So when he built his factory south of Chicago in the 1880s he also built a model town next to it.
The housing for his workers was spacious (by the standards of the day) and included the latest technology — indoor plumbing and sewers. There were stores, a church and a fancy hotel. The town was tightly controlled by Pullman, who did random inspections and fired people for drinking on their days off. But, hey, indoor plumbing, right?
Then came a nationwide economic downturn. In 1893, Pullman reduced wages by 30% but kept rent the same. Workers went on strike. Pullman refused to negotiate with the strikers and left town.
President Grover Cleveland sent the National Guard. Troops fired on the strikers. Thirty-four people were killed, and the strike failed. Eight years later, the Supreme Court of Illinois forced Pullman to sell the town, and it was annexed by Chicago.
The strike—and the violence that occurred—became George Pullman’s legacy, rather than his attempt to create the utopian worker’s town. When he died, his family buried him in a lead-lined coffin because they were concerned workers would try to desecrate it.
There were many other bloody strikes during the Gilded Age, which impacted whole industries like the railroad or garment workers, and bloody strikes in mining camps and other factory towns. Communism and anarchism also grew during this time.
While there are a lot of differences between our situation today and the Gilded Age, there are important lessons for us, most especially that when large groups of people feel like they don’t have an opportunity to rise economically, or feel that there are fundamental failures in economic or governmental systems, they may try to overturn those systems in some way.
We’ve seen echoes of this, although not nearly to the degree or scale, in the Occupy Wall Street movement among many others today.
What the struggle over recognition for WSU’s Gay Awareness student group shows is some of the similarities between rural and urban LGBTQ rights. Rural areas — especially college towns like Pullman or Moscow — are also queer places. People in cities who were against gay rights used the same tactic as those in Pullman—the public-referendum—to deny housing or employment equality to LGBTQ people. Continue Reading Past As Prologue: Rural Places Are Queer Places And The History Of WSU’s LGBTQ Awareness
Learn how sheep ranchers in the late-nineteenth century in Eastern Oregon were already a part of complex agricultural and industrial systems that provided food, clothing and commodities to markets across the U.S. Continue Reading Past As Prologue: Sheep, Ranching And The Beginning Of Industrial Agriculture In The Northwest
Prohibition did not limit the demand of alcohol, and many people did not support it, including the police. On an early morning in March 1920, Seattle Police Lieutenant Roy Olmstead and Sergeant T.J. Clark met a crew of bootleggers loading a shipment of Canadian whiskey from Vancouver, B.C. for Seattle. Olmstead and Clark were not there to arrest the criminals, but to watch over the process, since they controlled the operation. Continue Reading Past As Prologue: A Seattle Police Bootlegging Racket Informs Lessons Of Modern Drug Cartels