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In 1880, George M. Pullman, a railroad mogul who had made his fortune building luxury rail cars, embarked on a new social experiment—a town (named for himself) south of Chicago that housed an expansive factory flanked by modern homes and amenities for his workers. If you know something about the history of Pullman, it’s probably related to the strike in 1894, when thousands of factory employees halted operations for nearly three months and inspired a nationwide boycott of Pullman trains orchestrated by the American Railway Union. Or perhaps you know about the Pullman Porters, the African-American employees who provided service to the passengers on the trains, making up the sleeping berths, shining shoes, carrying luggage, and even providing entertainment here and there. In 1925, they would form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and in 1937, would become the first African-American labor union to win a contract with a major corporation in the U.S.

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When these stories are told, they tend to center the men. Between images of striking carpenters, painters, and blacksmiths; charismatic union leaders like Eugene V. Debs and A. Philip Randolph; and sharply dressed porters, the work of women at the Pullman company has remained largely invisible. Even Almont Lindsey’s 1939 article, which focuses particularly on the ways in which paternalism guided the design and management of the company town, has nothing specific to say about the Pullman women. And in some ways, that’s precisely what Pullman would have wanted. Pullman resisted hiring women and did his best to keep attention away from the company’s female employees. Of course, since the beginning, women both defined and defied the social experiment that was Pullman.

In the Shops

As Douglas Pearson Hoover suggests in his thesis “Women in Nineteenth Century Pullman,” the town was planned with the intention that women’s primary role would be “to mother children and raise them in an air of middle class respectability on a working-class family’s budget.” The homes were designed with domestic work in mind—indoor plumbing, garbage outlets, and a “covered arrangement of clotheslines” in the back. The pedestrian scale of the neighborhood made it possible for men to have lunch at home and find rest in the domestic environment.

Rose Szczerbiak Barlog
Rose Szczerbiak Barlog cleaned the inside of cannon shells with steel wool. She poses in her uniform in front of her Pullman house on Langley Ave. Courtesy of the Quiroz family

But women were also part of the factory operations. In the early days, the handful of women who worked at the factory were either seamstresses or embossers in the glass department. Seamstresses, which made up the largest category of female employees at the time, made and repaired all of the textiles used in Pullman cars: carpets, drapes, upholstery, bed linens, tablecloths, and mattresses. None of the other 60+ job types were open to women, though outside of the town, hundreds of women worked for Pullman in laundries that were scattered across the country. By 1885, Hoover notes, a gender imbalance in the population and the economic imperatives of working-class families forced Pullman to expand the opportunities for women to earn wages within the town and factory.

The goal was to offer women work that would be in line with a domestic role and “not interfere with their primary maternal duties.” Pullman centralized the laundry operations and built a new facility on Florence Boulevard (now 111th Street), where in 1892, more than 100 women washed “soiled bed linens, tablecloths and napkins.” In 1899, a Chicago Tribune article marveled at the laundry’s machines that could wash and iron “30,000 pieces in a day” and the “young women” who fed pieces through the tumbler and the mangler, folded them, and tied them in bundles. The encyclopedic 1893 book, The Town of Pullman, described the laundry facility in even more gushing terms: a structure “supplied with every modern convenience for the comfort of employes [sic],” rooms buzzing with “busy girls, all wearing white caps and white aprons while attending to their multifarious duties” and spotlessly clean linens that “when handled by the girls, [were] sweet and clean.”

The idealized conditions of the laundry exemplifies what Lindsey posits as Pullman’s particular vision of paternalism, an approach to improving the conditions of the working classes, not as philanthropy, but “as a business proposition which would yield dividends…and create a contented and industrious force of skilled laborers.” Lindsey carefully lays out the ways in which Pullman kept tight control over the town’s operations as well as its public image, chiefly with town agents like Duane Doty, who frequently gave tours to visitors to highlight all of the benefits of living in and working for Pullman.

Pullman lost that control, not only of his workers but of his town’s reputation, during the strike of 1894. The strike began as a response to the company’s refusal to reduce the rents on the homes even after months of reduced wages and hours during the economic panic of 1893. Though the company’s overwhelmingly male workforce meant that the strikers were mostly men, the women who joined the strike played a pivotal role. That women in Pullman were union members at all was itself unusual. Alice Kessler-Harris notes that, in the late nineteenth century, the rates of unionized women were far lower than men, “something like 3.3 percent of the women who were engaged in industrial occupations in 1900.” That’s partly because women at the time “were young, temporary workers who looked to marriage as a way to escape the shop or factory” and partly because union men saw women as their competitors more than their allies. But the newly formed American Railway Union (ARU), headed by Eugene V. Debs, allowed women in their ranks, and those members were motivated and effective participants in the Pullman strike. A week into it, the Chicago Tribune, reported that “the shop girls are taking the most active part and in reality are accomplishing more…than the men. They are also more enthusiastic and are determined to stay out of the shops until they carry their point.”

One young seamstress at the Pullman shops, Jennie Curtis, served as president of the Girls’ Union Local No. 269. Her impact on the strike has become a Pullman legend. Her overwrought but impassioned speech convinced the members of the ARU to support a boycott of Pullman trains, which effectively expanded the Pullman strike nationwide, as railway workers refused to touch a train with a Pullman car attached to it. And perhaps most damaging to Pullman’s reputation, her letter describing the abuses she witnessed in the sewing room shattered any illusions about the working conditions for female employees:

…the tyrannical and abusive treatment we received from our forewoman made our daily cares so much harder to bear. She was a woman who had sewed and lived among us for years, one, you would think, who would have some compassion on us when she was put in a position to do so. When she was put over us by the superintendent as our forewoman, she seemed to delight in showing her power in hurting the girls in every possible way. At times her conduct was almost unbearable….When a girl was sick and asked to go home during the day, she would tell them to their face they were not sick, the cars had to be got out, and they could not go home. She also had a few favorites in the room, to whom she gave all the best work…

On the Railroad

At the Pullman shops, the women wage-earners were almost exclusively white, many of them European immigrants. But the Pullman company was also one of the largest employers of Black workers in the country. Those workers were chiefly Pullman Porters, smartly dressed and highly professional men who provided service on the trains that matched the railcar’s opulence and comfort. For decades, these services were provided only by Black men, but at the turn of the century, the Pullman company began to offer maids on their cars as an additional level of luxury to passengers.

Like the porters, Pullman maids were Black, and their work had uncomfortable ties to the labor of the enslaved. In fact, as Theodore Kornweibel, Jr. points out, the introduction of Pullman maids was a return to a similar service offered by rail lines during the antebellum years. “At least two antebellum lines, the Richmond & Danville and the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore, assigned maids to passenger trains, [enslaved women] to staff the ladies’ cars on the former line and probably free black women to work on sleeping cars for the latter.” Pullman maids worked long-distance trips and, much like their porter counterparts, were expected to “keep passengers’ rooms tidy, collect trash, remake beds, repair garments, and perform other personal service.” Maids were expected to give free manicures or style hair whenever time allowed, and they were paid “less than $80 a month in the 1920s.”

While the maids performed similar work to the porters, their struggles were often greater. Both positions relied on tips to make a decent wage, but since their clientele were “women, the elderly, and the infirm,” Kornweibel notes, maids made less than the porters, “who rubbed shoulders with…businessmen, politicians, actors, and sports stars.” And when the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was fighting for better conditions, the maids were eventually dropped from the official name in favor of having them join the Ladies’ Auxiliaries, whose members were mostly porters’ wives. As a result, the needs of the porters took precedence over the maids in negotiations with the company.

Worse still was the position of the car cleaners. Many Black women found work cleaning the interiors of Pullman cars, “sweeping up trash and litter; mopping floors; disinfecting spittoons; cleaning hoppers (toilets); brushing seats; washing windows; dusting woodwork; cleaning carpets by hand, on one’s knees; and polishing metal surfaces.” These jobs were difficult and paid little, but since employment options were limited for Black women, they made up the overwhelming majority of the Pullman company’s car cleaning workforce in the southern car yards.

New Work for the Modern Woman

In the early twentieth century, more women took roles as clerks, secretaries, and salespeople. When the company installed a new switchboard in the early 1920s, they hired a handful of telephone operators, who could collectively handle an impressive 850 calls a day. Of course, along with most industries, the gendered boundaries of work unraveled during the world wars. The Pullman factory in Chicago pivoted to help the war effort, building troop and hospital cars, as well as aircraft, tanks, and shells. Here, women stepped in as welders and riveters, and other jobs that men had left vacant when they went to fight overseas.

Historic Pullman Foundation
WWII-era welders, Courtesy Historic Pullman Foundation

While Pullman’s vision may have been to create an environment where women’s work was solely domestic and/or maternal, without it the Pullman company likely would not have survived into the twentieth century, much less for more than a century. Perhaps it’s both fitting and ironic, then, that since the designation of Pullman as a National Monument in 2015, the park has been led entirely by women, and the Administration Clock Tower at the center of the factory grounds that was long dominated by men now boasts an all-women permanent staff.

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Cambridge University Press on behalf of International Labor and Working-Class, Inc.
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Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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University of California Press on behalf of the National Council on Public History
19th Century British Pamphlets, 19th Century British Pamphlets
LSE Library
19th Century British Pamphlets, 19th Century British Pamphlets
LSE Library
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Feminist Studies, Inc.
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Railway & Locomotive Historical Society (R&LHS;)