Announcing Pullman: Labor, Race, and the Urban Landscape in a Company Town

Manufacturing Town of Pullman, c. 1880. Pullman Company Acrhives, 13-01-04, box 1, folder 10 (oversize).

In 1880, the Pullman Palace Car Company opened a new factory on a patch of tallgrass prairie near Lake Calumet along the Illinois Central Rail Road. Here the company would manufacture its world-renowned sleeping cars, railcars outfitted with beds, lounges, and restaurants to make long-distance train travel not only comfortable but luxurious. The site was rather remote, some twelve miles south of downtown Chicago where most manufacturers had established their firms. But for George Mortimer Pullman, the company’s founder, president, and namesake, the location was ideal. For upon this isolated and unsettled landscape, Pullman hoped not only to manufacture sleeping cars, but also a community. From the factory, Pullman hoped to establish a town that would not only be physically distant from Chicago, but also embody a more profound cultural difference from modern city life. To Pullman, the violent labor conflicts that racked the nation’s cities over the last decades stemmed from the squalid conditions and immoral influences of city life. If working people could only live in refined, sanitary homes away from the temptations of dance halls, saloons, and labor unions, he believed, then they would not only be content but also morally improved. Pullman therefore situated his factory at the center of a town that bore his name, providing his workers with not only homes, but also stores, a school, and even a church.

But George Pullman’s vision tells only part of the story of the neighborhood that continues to bear his name. The women and men who lived in Pullman’s homes, worked in Pullman’s shops, or were employed on Pullman’s trains brought their own visions and expectations to this model town. Both collectively and individually, they refused to adhere to the company’s vision of a quiescent worker, and many even challenged the company’s more paternalistic attempts to control their lives. Factory workers organized unions and argued that Pullman’s decision to offer his employees housing did not release him from paying a living wage. Pullman Porters, the attendants Pullman hired to wait upon the company’s sleeping car passengers, also organized to challenge the company’s prejudiced, and overbearing working conditions. A position that Pullman almost universally reserved for African Americans, Pullman Porters were never given the opportunity to live in the company’s town. It was not until the town itself became embedded in the larger changes that transformed south Chicago throughout the twentieth century that African Americans moved to the community for the first time.

In the summer of 2011, the Scholl Center hosted two, one-week National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks in American History and Culture Workshops for community college faculty. The workshops were led by Janice L. Reiff, a former Scholl Center member and currently Associate Professor of History at the University of California at Los Angeles, and used Pullman’s history as a window through which to explore the role of race, labor and urban development in the history of industrial America. In addition to visits to the Pullman community, the workshops also spent time in the Newberry’s archives. The library’s holdings of midwestern railroad companies is one of the Newberry’s many strengths, and in addition to the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railraod, the Illinois Central Railroad, the Newberry is also the repository for the Pullman Company Archives. In fact, Reiff was instrumental in bringing Pullman’s records to the library.

The Scholl Center digitized a number of Pullman Company records for the workshop and we’re pleased to announce the publication of Pullman: Labor, Race, and the Urban Landscape in a Company Town, a web exhibit that tells Pullman’s story in all its complexity. Through photographs, manuscripts, illustrations, and photos, the exhibit illuminates Pullman as the company town from which is began to the urban neighborhood it remains today. Along the way, it situates Pullman within the broader history of industrial America, exploring the ways in which both the town and the company highlight the imporance of race, labor, and urban development in American life. The exhibit is the first of its kind to consider the entirety of Pullman’s history, featuring nearly three hundred items form the Newberry’s collections.

By Chris Cantwell

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