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Our work environments shape our working lives. At least, that’s the theory behind a lot of offices, like ostentatiously goofy Silicon Valley campuses complete with game rooms, giant slides, and endless free food. This 1998 paper by William Littmann recounts how, around the turn of the twentieth century, industrialists took this idea to an extreme. The factory plants they built were designed to change the sort of people workers were, guiding them into adopting middle-class values.

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It was no coincidence that this turn in industrial design came at a time when factories faced major strikes, as well as high turnover levels and unmotivated workers. Littmann writes that many company executives were convinced that foreign-born workers, whose numbers were growing, lacked American thrift, honestly, and industriousness. They responded by introducing measures designed not just to encourage employee loyalty but to transform workers’ values. These “welfare capitalism” measures ranged from toilets and new drinking water wells to profit sharing plans and education programs.

By 1926, Littman writes, nearly two thirds of large industrial firms had recreational facilities for employees. At one Chicago plant, a “clubhouse” building opened in 1904 that included a two-story auditorium, six bowling allies, and rooms for billiards, smoking, and reading. A consultant advised the company on using the recreational opportunities to provide “elevating influences” for workers, starting with physical activities. He also recommended enabling employees to work their way up to intellectual pursuits like night classes.

The idea was to encourage workers to spend their free time in the employer-provided recreational facilities instead of their own neighborhoods. Company officials argued that socializing within their immigrant communities prevented them from “adjusting to the demands of modern industrial labor,” Littmann writes. A sociologist who oversaw “Americanization classes” at a General Electric plant maintained that “every foreign colony in this country is a part of backward Europe on our soil.”

Littman writes that companies publicly identified clubhouses as places where blue- and white-collar workers, and employees from different departments, could interact freely. But the facilities were often segregated with separate spaces for blacks and whites, or for immigrants and native-born workers.

Women were also often banned from the clubhouses. One International Harvester plant built a separate “cottage” for female workers designed to model an elite living style with separate rooms for cooking, leisure, rest, and entertaining. Officials said the cottage would help daughters of workers become “model mothers,” with instructors to “initiate them into the mysteries of the kitchen.”

The clubhouse facilities were never terribly popular, perhaps because they didn’t really offer workers a chance to relax. In various cases, Littman notes, drinking, gambling, and boisterous behavior were prohibited; managers monitored conversations between union members; and restroom matrons intervened to stop women from “loafing” around the toilet room.

The facilities did succeed in at least one way, writes Littmann. They improved the public perception of industrialists who were often in the news for exploiting workers and viciously breaking strikes. But they don’t seem to have done much to give workers a middle-class, “American” mindset.


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International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 53, Patronage, Paternalism, and Company Welfare (Spring, 1998), pp. 88-114
Cambridge University Press on behalf of International Labor and Working-Class, Inc.