Urban Studies Company Towns in the United States
by
Ángela Vergara
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0062

Introduction

Every once in a while, company towns reappear in discussions about housing and employers’ investment in community infrastructure. Whether it is a new Amazon warehouse or Blockchains LLC’s announcement of a “smart city” in Storey County, Nevada, the model of the company town has sparked hope, curiosity, and reservations. Defined as a planned community primarily owned by a single corporation, company towns first appeared in the US landscape in the mid-19th century. Early historical studies focused on textile mills and factories, showing how employers built model communities to control the workforce and avoid the social turmoil that plagued industrial cities at the time. Like model industrial towns in Europe, their American counterparts included free or low-cost housing, company stores, and a wide range of company-sponsored social and recreational programs. Pullman was built in 1881 outside Chicago, and it quickly came to symbolize the ideal company town. But the strike of 1894 questioned the success of paternalism and ability to eliminate conflict. Despite the blow, company towns did not disappear from the US landscape. Indeed, they reinvented themselves. A fresh era started in the 1910s; the so-called new company town included a better design and encouraged homeownership, while welfare capitalism with its scientific ideas and professionals replaced the traditional paternalism of the Pullman era. They also moved west and became the symbol of industrial mining communities, from Montana to Arizona. During the New Deal era, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) housed hundreds of rural workers in labor camps across the nation. At the same time, fruit growers in California and timber companies also built camps and sponsored activities for the workforce. Many of these mining and rural communities did not strictly fit the definition of company towns. More than towns founded, owned, and run by a single company, they were places controlled by a single employer or depended on a single commodity or resource. Like resource towns in other parts of the world, they devastated the natural environment and were usually abandoned after resources were exhausted. The influence of the US company town also reached other countries, as American businesses and entrepreneurs investing abroad brought their experiences and ideas on managing labor. Company towns thrived in the tropical banana lands and the Andes, where companies such as the United Fruit and the Anaconda Copper Corporation built segregated camps. In sum, company towns are an essential chapter in the history of US industrial expansion, shedding light on topics such as urban planning, labor relations, and working-class formation.

General Overviews and Comparative Studies

General overviews have looked to define the company town, identify its main features and regional variances, and periodize its changes over time. They have also looked into the extent company towns in the United States differed from the rest of the world and whether they reflected the country’s exceptionalism. Allen 1966 is one of the first historical studies of company towns. Focusing on the west of the United States, it argues that company towns emerged as a response to the economic needs of geographically isolated industries such as mining and timber. For Porteous 1970, there were basically two traditions: the extractive company town that developed in isolated and frontier regions and the manufacturing town or model villages that appeared in industrial cities. Despite their differences, all company towns depended on the economic prosperity of the company, shared a similar urban form and layout, and provided housing and benefits to their employees. Garner 1984 contributes to the general understanding of company towns by focusing on industrial villages in the Northeast during the 19th century, where manufacturers built model villages to create a new social order. In a social history of housing, Wright 1981 dedicates a chapter to company towns, arguing that their modern houses reflect the ideology of welfare capitalism. Crawford 1995 demonstrates that there were not only economic and regional differences but also changes over time. By looking at the design, housing, and social programs, it differentiates between the early camps of the industrialization era and the new company town that emerged in the 20th century. For some works, a narrow definition of company towns does not account for the diversity of regional experiences. Carlson 2003, for example, extends the definition to include company-dominated towns and work camps, emphasizing how they developed a “cohesive community.” If some camps were ideal communities, Green 2010 argues, others were known for their abuses. Influenced by transnational history, several books have shown the need to understand the company town from a comparative perspective, recognizing that planning ideas moved across borders. Plascencia and Cuádraz 2018 offers different examples from company towns and labor camps in Arizona, paying special attention to the question of race and immigration status. Dinius and Vergara 2011 focuses on the Americas, Gier 2016 on the North Atlantic, and Borges and Torres 2012 provides a worldview.

  • Allen, James. The Company Town in the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

    This classic and accessible book offers a comprehensive study of company towns in western states from the late 19th century into the 1940s. Allen demonstrates that company towns played a significant role in the social and economic history of the US West. The book surveys a wide diversity of company towns including logging, coal, and copper camps, and highlights the influence of company housing, urban planning, and social services on local communities.

  • Borges, Marcelo J., and Susana B. Torres, eds. Company Towns: Labor, Space, and Power Relations across Time and Continents. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    A comparative history of company towns, with examples from different countries and industries. The introduction includes a comprehensive discussion of the main historiographical debates, and Lisa Perry’s chapter on the United States focuses on the case of Wheelwright, Kentucky.

  • Carlson, Linda. Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003.

    A general overview of company towns in the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century. Includes company-dominated towns and work camps, paying attention to community formation, social relations, and employers’ efforts to control the workforce.

  • Crawford, Margaret. Building the Workingman’s Paradise: The Design of American Company Towns. Haymarket Series. London: Verso, 1995.

    A history of company towns from the utopian communities of the 19th century to the end of the new company town era in 1929. While centering on architectural ideas and planning, Crawford shows that economic, social, and labor issues shaped the design of company towns. The book contributes to understanding changes over time and the rise of the “new company town,” a modern camp designed by architects and influenced by welfare capitalism.

  • Dinius, Oliver J., and Angela Vergara. Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011.

    A comparative labor history of company towns in Latin America and the United States. In addition to the Latin American chapters, Andrew Herod places the company town in debates about space, labor, and social engineering; Christopher Post writes about Sunflower Village in Kansas, and Laurie Mercier addresses the mining camps in the United States and Canada.

  • Garner, John S. The Model Company Town: Urban Design through Private Enterprise in Nineteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

    An overview of model industrial towns in New England in the 19th century, focusing on morphology, paternalism, and housing. Places company towns and model mill towns within the process of industrial expansion and pays particular attention to the case of Hopedale, Massachusetts.

  • Gier, Erik de. Capitalist Workingman’s Paradises Revisited: Corporate Welfare Work in Great Britain, the USA, Germany and France in the Golden Age of Capitalism, 1880–1930. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1017/9789048519958

    A comparative study of European and US company towns, challenging views of US exceptionalism. Gier, a sociologist, demonstrates that employers in the North Atlantic shared similar ideas about paternalism and welfare and built company towns to increase production and shape the workforce.

  • Green, Hardy. The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

    This accessible and comprehensive book places the rise and fall of the company town in the history of US industrialization and economic expansion. While recognizing its abuses, Green also argues that many of these camps were model communities and contributed to workers’ well-being.

  • Porteous, J. D. “The Nature of the Company Town.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 51 (1970): 127–142.

    DOI: 10.2307/621766

    Porteous, a geographer, defines company towns according to their layout and urban form, economic and political features, and social programs.

  • Plascencia, Luis F. B., and Gloria H. Cuádraz, eds. Mexican Workers and the Making of Arizona. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2018.

    A labor history of Mexican workers in Arizona that includes workers’ experiences in several company towns including mining and cotton camps.

  • Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

    A general history of housing in the United States. Chapter 10 addresses company towns and how they became examples of welfare capitalism and modern living standards.

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