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A Brief History of Chicago's Pullman District Through Photos

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After the pomp and circumstance of a presidential visit today, Pullman will become Chicago's first national monument, a towering achievement for supporters who have spent decades trying to get this unique factory town the recognition it deserves. We've looked at the history of this 4,000-acre worker's village, built by railroad car tycoon George M. Pullman, before, but wanted to delve further into its story, since this collection of buildings represents a key setting in the history of labor and civil rights, and take a look at the rail cars that made Pullman his fortune. Thanks to staff at the Newberry Library — Alex Teller, manager of publications, historian and Director of Continuing Education Rachel Bohlmann and reference librarian Jo Ellen McKillop Dickie — we've assembled a collection of rare photos of Pullman, and put some of the history of this important place in context.

George Pullman started the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago to build fashionable rail cars just before the end of the Civil War (one of his early models carried the body of President Lincoln across the country as people mourned the assassinated leader). But it wasn't until the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, which struck a transit hub like Chicago particularly hard, that Pullman began to be concerned about labor issues. He decided he wanted to remove his company from the turmoil of Chicago and the urban intensity of the city, and build a plant about 15 miles, then just prairie and open land. As Pullman began making plans, the Haymarket Square Riot of May 1886, when a labor rally for an eight-hour workday turned deadly when a bomb was thrown into the crowd, reinforced his beliefs. At the time, Pullman's rich neighbors on Prairie Avenue began building fortified mansions to protect themselves from the masses in case of a riot. That's why the Glessner House looks like a fortress.

The 4,000-acre Pullman village, which workers began moving into in 1881, had some interesting restrictions; no alcohol sold except for inside the Florence Hotel, only one approved church, all the workers' kids went to the same public school and everything was purchased from company stores. Unlike the housing around the stockyards, it was clean, sanitary and modern, but it created a paternalistic environment. Were workers happy? Yes and no. People said Pullman was too controlling and autocratic. There was absolutely no labor organization, an undemocratic restriction on speech. By 1893, the U.S. had another recession, and in response, the Pullman Company cuts wages. That was happening all over, but the company don't cut or adjust the rent in Pullman, or the cost of goods in the company store. The workers get squeezed, which lead to a strike in 1894.

Pullman had different styles of housing based on the kind of work that you did. Managers had larger houses than the regular workers. It created a class-based system of housing and amenities based on your rank in the company.

The Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of African-Americans after the Civil War, but not necessarily because of a groundbreaking stance on Civil Rights (black workers couldn't live in the Pullman village, for instance), but because porters didn't initially get paid a real wage, and had to make the majority of their money from tips. When the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, a pioneering African-American union then led by A. Philip Randolph, organized in 1925, their chief complaint was the meager pay they had begun to receive, as well as tips, didn't add up to a living wage. They organized under the slogan "fight or be slaves."

When the Pullman strike began in the summer of 1894, Pullman refuses to negotiate or even talk with the strikers. It ramped up when the Association Railway Unions (ARU) launched sympathy strikes and boycotted the handling of any trains with Pullman cars, which put a wrench in transportation across the country. Finally, President Cleveland issued an inunction to stop the boycott. Eugene Debs, a leader of the ARU, was arrested and despite being defended by Clarence Darrow, was convicted and given a six-month jail term; he'd use it to reflect and begin considering socialism, and later run as a socialist candidate for president multiple times. In 1896, Jane Addams gave a speech about the strike called "A Modern Lear," in which she compares Pullman to King Lear, full of pride and foolishness, and the workers to Cordelia.

In some ways after the strike, nothing changed for the workers, but for the company, it did have some dire effects. The government ruled it was illegal for a company to own a town, and forced them to sell the pullman company houses starting in 1897. The town was disbanded in light of the strike. Pullman, whose dream of a utopia was crushed, became isolated and withdrawn and died in 1897.

·Looking Back at Pullman, Chicago's First National Monument [Chicago Curbed]
·Previous Pullman coverage [Chicago Curbed]