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Our Hearts Belong to Daddy

One of the most comforting images we have inherited from the nineteenth century is of authority: a sentimental picture of a kindly father, superimposed on the face of a boss or a political leader. This notion of authority was based on paternalism of a literal kind—the paternalism of fathers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who were, in effect, the bosses of farms and businesses run as family enterprises. But in the more fragmented and disorderly families of the nineteenth century, few fathers had such secure control over either their children’s work or their behavior. This did not change people’s need to imagine fathers as benevolent authorities; nor did it prevent such desires from being converted into metaphors of the leader as a father, and the boss as a father. These new images, based more on longings than on the realities of social or economic life, concealed the fact that employers were anything but protective and loving in their relations with their employees.

The history of paternalism in the nineteenth century is pervaded by disappointment and confusion. When people looked to their employers for the guidance they once received from their fathers, and didn’t get it, they found their idea of the authority figure had to change. But no new image of authority was clearly suggested by this disappointment. Under modern industrial conditions, what a boy learns about his father’s protectiveness is not what a young adult learns about a boss. Relations at work are hardly a natural extension of relations in the family. As a child leaves the family, he or she can only see the primary relationships there reflected in work or politics as in a distorting mirror. This distorting mirror of authority is a legacy from the last century which still troubles our society.

In the earlier part of the nineteenth century workhouses, asylums, and prisons were described in paternalistic imagery more frequently than were factories. These corrective institutions not only punished their inmates but also attempted to “reform” their characters—a duty that the institutions claimed for themselves “in loco parentis.” It was believed that there were certain moral diseases which the normal family was too weak to cope with: insanity, sexual perversion, and the like. Other diseases, it was thought, were caused by abnormal family life: indolence, “despairing alcoholism,” prostitution. Moreover, it was assumed that if the authority which replaced the parent were to succeed where the natural parent failed, the liberty of the person being treated would have to be radically curtailed.

In the famous Panopticon model prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, for instance, the cells are arranged in a circle around a central observation tower, so that the inmates can be constantly observed by doctors, workhouse managers, or prison guards. The inmates cannot talk to each other, nor can they see whether the guards are observing them, since Bentham designed an ingenious set of louvers and blinds for the central guard tower. (The plan of the Panopticon, published in 1843, was later used in the building of such institutions as the Rennes Prison in 1877 and the American federal penitentiary of Statesville in the early twentieth century.) This design was the purest application of the principle that the people in command should always be in a position to oversee, anticipate, and discipline the movements of those in their charge. In such a setting for moral reform, the factory foreman or prison official acquires far more power than the natural parent, and nurturance is replaced by one-sided control: the subject is influenced but cannot approach or influence those who are taking care of him or her.

The first attempts of industrial bosses to act in loco parentis to their workers were considerably less harsh than these corrective schemes; they were concerned to protect rather than reform the people in their charge. In the United States in the 1820s, there was great resistance to the building of large factories—a resistance that owed much to the Jeffersonian idea that the immorality commonly associated with European poverty would be imported to America if its agricultural economy were supplanted by industrialism. In order to convince Americans that industrialism was not necessarily a source of corruption, the industrialists who built the mills in Waltham and Lowell, Massachusetts, designed industrial communities in which older, “wholesome” values would be carefully preserved. The workers in these experimental communities were young women recruited to work in the mills for only a few years; they were expected to save money, and to leave the mills when they found a suitable husband. Unlike Robert Owen in his experimental factory at New Lanark in Scotland, these American entrepreneurs had no thought of morally reforming the lives of the young women they employed by introducing them to standards very different from those of their families. They hoped mainly to encourage the values that most Americans associated with the traditional farm family, and so to rob industrialism of its sting.

To this end, the industrialists who planned the Waltham mills arranged that reading groups, lectures, and Bible classes would be held for the workers in the evenings. They provided the first comprehensive health care program in this country for their employees. And acting in loco parentis, the owners of these factories undertook to protect the morality of the young girls who worked there by building dormitories for them—dormitories supervised by matrons who were on duty from the time the girls returned from the mills until they left for work in the morning. In the design and operation of the dormitories, however, the authoritarian control of Bentham’s Panopticon reappears in fact, if not by intention. The dormitories were long, high-ceilinged rooms where the beds were arranged as in a hospital ward. The matrons were on duty in these rooms even while the young women slept; not only did they protect the girls from intruders, they also kept them from escaping. The young men who came to visit them had to make appointments that were timed and supervised by the matrons, and there was no question of allowing privacy for courtship or sex. In the institutional setting of the mill, the matrons acted as surrogate parents, controlling the lives of the working girls much more strictly than their natural parents would have done.

The Panopticon, New Lanark, the Waltham mills were all conceived against the grain of nineteenth-century values which placed great emphasis on the individual. They all attempted to create a community. Tough-minded businessmen criticized these early versions of paternalism as costly, idealistic, unnecessary. But by the end of the last century, such schemes had been absorbed into the economy in ways that made them profitable. Large company towns were built throughout eastern America from Hershey, Pennsylvania, to Cincinnati, Ohio;1 several factory owners built large complexes around Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds that included housing for workers as well as the plants themselves; in the suburban developments around Paris and Lyon, industrialists began to invest in real estate development and to buy retail stores at which their employees shopped.

Like the Waltham factory owners, these industrialists were concerned to provide community services for their workers, but unlike those in Waltham, they argued openly that these services were morally valuable because happy workers were more productive and less likely to strike than unhappy ones. The corporate paternalists tried to bring together family life and factory work by creating images of themselves as benevolent authorities. They wanted a secure chain of command over this stable community of workers, from whom they could obtain higher rates of productivity.

Perhaps the most dramatic case of an employer seeking to become the leader of a paternalistic community was that of George Pullman, president of the Pullman Palace Car Company based in Pullman, Illinois. His efforts ended in disaster, showing the peculiar hazards to which paternalistic social organization and personal authority were subject in industrial society. On May 12, 1894, Pullman’s workers began a strike that lasted for three months. Before it was over it spread from the suburb on the south side of Chicago where the Pullman works were located to other cities throughout the US. This was the first attempt by American workers to call a general strike and one of the first times federal troops were used on a large scale to put down civil disorder.

Before the strike Pullman was thought to be one of the most successful of the company towns then being built in America, and Pullman was thought of as a superior employer, combining something of the idealism of the Saint-Simonians with an almost machine-like capacity to ccoordinate a large-scale organization. Nationally, the Pullman Palace Car Company had 14,000 employees, of whom 5,500 worked in the town. By the time of the strike, Pullman had built housing for 12,600 people. Their lives were rigidly controlled, far more so than in other company towns of the era: alcohol was banned in the stores and the town inn, both of which were owned by Pullman. There were also rules on cigarette smoking and a curfew.

More important, perhaps, no worker was allowed to buy his own house, since this would weaken Pullman’s control. In 1890 he told a visitor:

It is truly my intention to form another town, near this one, where each resident will build a cottage after his own inclination, suited to his own needs, and which will be his own…. I do not think the time has come yet for beginning this enterprise. If I had sold the sites to my workingmen at the beginning of the experiment, I should have run the risk of seeing families settle who are not sufficiently accustomed to the habits I wish to develop in the inhabitants of Pullman city, and all the good of my work would have been compromised by their presence. But today, after ten-years’ apprenticeship, several families recognize the advantages of them and will see that they are observed, wherever they may settle. Such families form the pick, and I hope to sell the building lands near the workshops to some of them, little by little. [Italics added]

This attitude many of Pullman’s workers at first seemed to understand and approve. They were mostly immigrants, largely Swedish and northern German peasants who found Pullman’s patrimonial assumptions not all that different from the protective control of the European landowners they had once worked for. For such immigrants Pullman seemed to offer material and emotional protection. This small Illinois town offered them the security of order in the chaos of American society.

Its protective features appealed as well to native-born Americans, who were having a hard time in the new industrial towns. A farm boy who moved first to Chicago and then to Pullman explained:

We had a little cottage on the west side [of Chicago] but there was mud on all sides of us, two beer saloons within a block, clouds of soft coal, poor sewerage, villainous water, and everything else that was bad and disagreeable…. There were many deaths in our section of the city from diphtheria and scarlet fever, and we found it next to impossible to keep everything clean…. I found I could work here [in Pullman] at wages fully equal to those paid in the city, and that I could rent a whole brick house with water and drainage…for $15 a month…. We have a clean and comfortable house and plenty of pure air. My children are healthy and, as far as my wife, she has seemed like a different woman.

  1. 1

    See Daniel J. Walkowitz,Worker City, Company Town (University of Illinois Press, 1978).

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