Terrible working and living conditions of 19th Century gave birth to a special type of cities. With the intent to run away from the bad consequences of industrialization, industrialists created cities of their own.
Rapid urbanization and industrialization of 19th Century meant also segregation of working class, terrible working conditions, almost non-existent provision of health services, exploitation, environment pollution, housing shortage and high rents, low life expectancy, low level of education, social polarization, malnutrition and starvation.
Often associated with utopian idealism, big industrialists thought how to reduce the negative consequences of industrialisation and ensure the uninterrupted production in their factories. Their answer was – company towns. Towns created, owned and managed by the company itself.
The first company towns emerged in the 19th Century England (New Lanark in 1816, Bessbrook in 1846, Saltaire in I852, Bournville in I879, Port Sunlight in I886), and the idea got its own physical expression later also in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and extensively in the United States (Pullman, Chicago being the most striking example).
Economic and social pioneering devices
The company town was an “essentially temporary pioneering device, where ‘pioneering’ includes social as well as economic pioneering” (Porteous, 1970: 129). Company towns were “a method of opening-up the possibly unexplored, usually unexploited, territory” (thus often connected with extraction industries), but also unexplored and unexploited human potential that was impossible in diseased, polluted and miserable “normal” cities.
Despite philanthropic, socially-conscious and enlightened image of these industrialists, the majority of such communities came into being “through the dictate of economic necessity” (Porteous, 1970: 129) and needed to ensure the sufficient supply of labor and limit social unrests. Company towns thus haven’t functioned as the means of production, but as “parts of the infrastructure which makes production possible” (Porteous, 1970: 127) and an attempt to renegotiate the relationship between capital and labor through socially-engineered environment (Crawford, 1999).
Physical expression of a company
These new town came to symbolize the physical expression of economic enterprise and – despite many differences in physical appearance and in their policies toward labor – in general shared five characteristics:
- The town was financed, built and operated by only one company;
- The landholder of the town is or was also the primary employer;
- The architecture of the town reveals a clear hierarchy separating management from labor and reinforcing ethnic segregation;
- Housing was constructed cheaply and with uniformity; and
- Housing was located near the worksite to maximize efficiency (Porteous 1974; Sicotte, 2009).
Urban planning of these towns was rather simplistic: “Of necessity.. . a pioneering town in a strange place will have a simple plan . . . which can be easily laid out.” (Rasmussen, 1951: 39) Even though there is no ideal company town layout, the initial plan of Pullman in Illinois is often used as an illustration their general arrangement of space – central axis along railway tracks or road with plant at the beginning, surrounded by public amenities and uniform housing (especially the ones build before WWII). Company towns were despite homogeneity nevertheless characterized by segregation and well established hierarchy between dwellings of different types of workers.
For several decades, company towns across US and Europe played their role well. Nevertheless, excessive paternalism invoked resistance among inhabitants, while the emerging Welfare State could not stand a competition. Decline of company towns was coming.
(This is the first part of the story of company towns. Continue reading: Decline of Company Towns)
- Porteous, J. D. (1970) ‘The Nature of the Company Town’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 51: 127-142.
- Sicotte, D. (2009) ‘Power, Profit and Pollution: The Persistence of Environmental Injustice in a Company Town’. Human Ecology Review 16 (2).
- Crawford, M. (1999) ‘The “New” Company Town’. Settlement Patterns: 48-57.