Illinois: Pullman Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A National Historic Landmark, this residential neighborhood of Chicago, one-half mile square, was originally a company town constructed by and for the Pullman Palace Car Company. The architect was Solon Spenser Beman, and the landscape designer was Nathan F. Barrett. (Some structures that were originally part of the company town may be found outside the landmark district’s borders–north of 111th Street in North Pullman and west of Cottage Grove Avenue in Roseland.)

Site Office

Historic Pullman Foundation

11111 South Forrestville Avenue

Chicago, IL 60628

ph.: (773) 785-3828

Web site: www.pullmanil.org

A working-class neighborhood on the far southeast side of Chicago, Pullman began its existence in the 1880’s as a company town, a home to the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, manufacturer of railway cars. There were two predominant opinions about the town: It was either a worthy social experiment or the ultimate in corporate paternalism. In the aftermath of a bitter strike by Pullman Company employees in 1894, however, observers generally agreed the experiment had been a failure.

Modern Preservation Efforts

The Pullman area has been well preserved; its appearance in the 1990’s is remarkably similar to its appearance a century earlier. One can see the multifamily buildings that were constructed for occupancy by the rank-and-file Pullman Company employees and the grander, single-family dwellings that were home to the company’s executives. Among the highlights are row houses on Champlain Street, including an attractive group with bay entries in the 11400 block. Numerous other original structures, including the Pullman Company administration buildings, the Green Stone Church, the Hotel Florence, and the Pullman Stables, also have been preserved.

George Pullman, founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company, conceived the company town when he decided to expand and consolidate the company’s manufacturing and repair facilities in 1880. He had been in the railway car business since the 1850’s, making the first significant improvements in railroad sleeping cars since these cars were introduced in the United States in 1836. His “Pioneer” sleeping car gained publicity when it was chosen to be part of the train that carried slain U.S. president Abraham Lincoln’s body from Chicago to Springfield in 1865. The Pullman Palace Car Company was incorporated in 1867, and its sleeping, dining, and hotel cars became the standard of the day for luxurious travel. The company did not sell its cars to railroads, but rather leased them and managed all the cars’ operations, including supplying the cooks, porters, and waiters who worked on them.

Origins of the Community

By 1879, the company’s factory in Detroit and its three repair shops in other cities were insufficient to serve its thriving business. In 1880, George Pullman chose a four thousand-acre site a few miles south of Chicago, on the shore of Lake Calumet, as the location for his new manufacturing and repair facilities. He also decided the site would include homes, shopping areas, and recreational opportunities for workers. Many social reformers of the era decried the squalid conditions in which factory workers lived. The planned community of Pullman was one of the options put forth as a solution to this problem, but George Pullman’s moves were driven by business considerations, not social reform. He believed that workers who lived in relative comfort and cleanliness were likely to be more productive and loyal, and less susceptible to alcoholism, absenteeism, and labor unrest, than those who lived in slum conditions. He also intended to charge rents high enough to make the town profitable.

Architect Solon Spenser Beman and landscape designer Nathan F. Barrett were commissioned to plan the factory and the surrounding community. At this time, it was unusual for architects to work on industrial buildings, and it also was unusual to put an architect and landscape designer to work on an entire town. Ground was broken for the railway car factory in April, 1880, and work on the rest of the town proceeded quickly. The Pullman Company took numerous steps to minimize costs, hiring its own construction workers rather than using an outside labor force, and establishing its own carpentry shops and brickyards to produce materials. By January 1, 1881, the town was ready for its first residents: Lee Benson, a foreman from the Detroit factory, with his wife, child, and sister. The car works began operation in April of that year, and by the following month there were 350 residents of Pullman.

A Planned Community

From the beginning, the town won praise for its beauty and cleanliness. The housing stock ranged from tenement buildings, housing anywhere from 12 to 48 families, to detached homes that were reserved for Pullman Company executives. With the exception of sixty frame houses that were occupied by construction workers, all the residential buildings were brick with stone trimmings and slate roof. There were ample parks and playgrounds, while saloons and brothels were prohibited. The town’s one and only bar was in the Queen Anne-style Hotel Florence. Other major public buildings included the Green Stone Church, the Pullman School, and the Arcade–the latter housing most of the town’s retailers, its theater, library, post office, bank, and municipal and professional offices. In one respect, the town disappointed George Pullman; he had hoped to attract a wide range of industries, but most of the manufacturing companies that came to the town either were controlled by him or were suppliers to his company. For the most part, though, the town–at a cost of eight million dollars–was a source of great pride to the industrialist.

The town and the factories were administered by different agencies, but both were responsible to the Pullman Company. Certain features of the town did not sit well with workers. Rents were high; even after adjusting for the greater attractiveness and sanitation of the dwellings in Pullman, rental costs averaged 20 to 25 percent more than those in Chicago or other nearby communities. Also, workers were not allowed to buy homes in Pullman. George Pullman was adamantly opposed to subdividing the property, believing the special character and integrity of the model town would be compromised if this happened. When economic conditions were favorable, the company did not discourage employees from buying homes in surrounding communities. After the Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression, there was substantial discrimination against workers who did not rent homes in Pullman. Labor organization was prohibited in the town, and workers alleged that the company employed “spotters” to check for prounion and otherwise liberal tendencies among the citizenry. High utility rates and library fees were other sources of discontent among Pullman residents.

Political Status of the “Town”

Although referred to as a town, Pullman was not an independent municipality; politically, it was part of the village of Hyde Park, just south of Chicago. George Pullman and the Pullman Company, however, were sufficiently powerful to keep the village government from interfering significantly in the administration of the town. While George Pullman had some disagreements with village trustees, he preferred their governance to rule by Chicago. When Hyde Park residents were to vote in 1887 on annexation to Chicago, George Pullman was able to have the company town’s area excluded from consideration. A state court nullified the 1887 annexation vote, however, and set another referendum for 1889; this time the town of Pullman was included. George Pullman campaigned vigorously against annexation, and most company town residents voted against it, but the proannexation forces carried the day, with 62 percent of the vote.

With or without annexation, it probably would have been impossible to keep the town of Pullman isolated from the rest of Chicago–or the problems of the day. The once-rural region south of Chicago industrialized and grew rapidly during the 1880’s and 1890’s, and neighboring communities such as Kensington and Roseland often hosted prolabor speakers who would have been banned in Pullman. The factors that precipitated the Pullman Strike, however, did not come together until the Panic of 1893.

Town and Company

During 1893, the population of Pullman, and the Pullman Company’s employment in the town, had peaked at 12,600 and 5,500 respectively. The company’s total employment was much greater–14,500, including all the personnel who worked in the Pullman cars on various rail lines. In 1893, significant economic problems began to spread throughout the United States: 642 banks failed, 22,500 miles of railway went into receivership, and businesses laid off thousands of workers. The depression’s effects on the Pullman Company were postponed a bit because the number of travelers visiting the Columbian Exposition in the spring of 1893 in Chicago created a huge demand for rail cars. This was only a temporary increase in business, however, and by the summer of that year the company was reducing its workforce and slashing wages for the employees who remained. Those who lived in the model town particularly resented the fact that their rents stayed the same while their wages were reduced and that there were decreasing housing options for them. Several of those who lived outside Pullman claimed they were threatened with firings if they did not move into the town. At the same time, company executives took no pay cuts.

The company’s staunch antiunion posture had prevented effective labor organization up until this time. Some employees had joined the Knights of Labor in 1886 and had gone on strike briefly, demanding shorter working hours and higher wages, but the company had refused to negotiate and managed to break the union. The extent of the workers’ grievances in 1893-1894 was such that the union movement finally managed to take hold. They were attracted to a relatively new and rapidly expanding organization, the American Railway Union, founded by Eugene Victor Debs. Since membership was open to employees of any company involved in the operation of railroads, although the Pullman Company owned and managed only a few miles of railway, its workers were eligible. With labor organizing forbidden in Pullman, the union signed up members in such neighboring areas as Grand Crossing and Kensington in the spring of 1894.

Union Strike

Union leaders cautioned Pullman Company employees against a strike, but the workers were not inclined to take this advice. In May, 1894, workers presented the company with demands for either a restoration of pay cuts or reduction in rents. George Pullman refused to consider either, and on the night of May 10 the union’s grievance committee authorized a strike but did not set a date for it. The next morning, Pullman Company employees went to work, but there arose a rumor that the company would shut down operation at noon. The grievance committee called all workers out of the shops to give the action the status of a strike instead of a lockout.

The workers and the union were ill prepared for a strike; the union had no treasury to pay strike benefits to the workers, who had few resources of their own. Other unions and sympathetic groups provided the necessities of life for strikers and their families. The Pullman Strike dominated discussion at the American Railway Union’s first convention in June, 1894. Convention delegates called for all union members to refuse to handle Pullman cars or equipment–a move designed to deprive the company of a major source of revenue and lead it to a greater willingness to negotiate. For its part, however, Pullman Company was prepared to wait out the strike and at some point replace strikers with nonunion labor.

The Strike Becomes a National Issue

Still, the Pullman boycott made the local strike into a national issue, and set up a confrontation between the American Railway Union and the General Managers’ Association, representing railroads. The boycott had some success; by the end of June, fifty thousand workers on all railway lines had walked out. Transportation in and around Chicago was particularly disrupted, and the delivery of mail also was a problem, setting the stage for federal government intervention. The union had offered crews for trains carrying mail, as long as those trains had no Pullman cars, but the railroads generally declined such an arrangement. Acting at the direction of Richard Olney, attorney general of the United States, a group of U.S. attorneys obtained an injunction from a Chicago circuit court prohibiting any action that could interfere with the movement of mail–including a prohibition of communications among union officers.

Union leaders chose to ignore the injunction. One of the next major occurrences in the boycott, however, apparently did not happen at the direction of union leadership, but was more or less spontaneous; a huge mob overran the Rock Island Railroad yards in Blue Island, southwest of Chicago, early in July. Some in the crowd were strikers, some sympathizers, some merely curious. Trains were no longer able to run over the lines, and the U.S. military was called in to disperse the crowd. Disturbances, including a fire at the Columbian Exposition grounds and destruction of railroad property, continued sporadically for several days, but the situation eventually calmed down and most of the troops left on July 19.

Failure of the Strike

Meanwhile, the strike and the boycott were losing steam, with little support forthcoming from other labor organizations. The strikers’ resolve also was weakened by the arrests of Debs and other union leaders, ostensibly for violating the Olney injunction. In mid-July, Pullman Company officials posted a notice inviting strikers to reapply for work, although strike leaders and certain others would be ineligible for employment.

Bitterness remained in the Pullman area after the strike ended, although community leaders tried to put a brave face on the model town. Shortly after the strike ended, the chain of events that would dissolve the company town began; Illinois attorney general Maurice T. Maloney brought charges questioning the company’s right to own and manage the town. An Illinois circuit court sided with the company, but in 1898 the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s finding. George Pullman had died the previous year. His successors were willing to abide by the court’s decision, and dismantling of the model town began. Many houses were sold to Pullman Company employees. In retrospect, most observers pronounced the Pullman company town experiment a failure; one of the negative factors most frequently cited was the prohibition of home ownership.

During the twentieth century, the housing stock in Pullman deteriorated; built all at once, it aged all at once. In the 1960’s, the Roseland Chamber of Commerce proposed destroying and rebuilding the entire area, a move that Pullman residents fought successfully. The area was declared a state historic landmark in 1969, a national one in 1971, and a city landmark in 1972. Residents began working together to preserve and renovate Pullman, establishing the Historic Pullman Foundation in 1973. In the 1990’s the state of Illinois bought the Hotel Florence and company administration buildings for a proposed Pullman State Historic Site.

For Further Information
  • Buder, Stanley. Pullman: An Experiment in Industrial Order and Community Planning, 1880-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Somewhat sympathetic to George Pullman. Combined with Lindsey’s book below, provides a broad view of the company town and the labor problems.
  • Doty, Mrs. Duane. The Town of Pullman: Its Growth with Brief Accounts of Its Industries. Pullman, Ill.: T. P. Struhsacker, 1893. Reprint. Chicago: Pullman Civic Organization, 1974. A boosterish text written by the wife of a town official. Primarily a historical curiosity.
  • Lindsey, Almont. The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942. Reprint. Chicago: Phoenix Books, 1964. An excellent and comprehensive study of the strike and of the conditions in Pullman and the nation leading up to it; the book is favorable to labor, but gives space to the company’s stance.
  • Schneirov, Richard, Shelton Stromquist, and Nick Salvatore, eds. The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890’s: Essays on Labor and Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. A collection of academic essays detailing and analyzing the history and politics of the Pullman Strike.
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