George Pullman: His Impact on the Railroad Industry, Labor, and American Life in the Nineteenth Century

by Rosanne Lichatin

Background

George Mortimer Pullman was an influential industrialist of the nineteenth century and the founder of the Pullman Palace Car Company. His innovations brought comfort and luxury to railroad travel in the 1800s with the introduction of sleeping cars, dining cars, and parlor cars. Like other industrialists of the period Pullman built a company town near his factory to accommodate his workers’ housing needs. He advertised it as a model community which offered his workers modern amenities in a beautiful setting. By 1890, the Pullman Palace Car Company was operating 2,135 railroad cars on approximately 160,000 miles of track in the United States with a work force of 12,367 employees. Unfortunately, the economic panic and depression of 1893 interrupted Pullman’s ambitions when his workers initiated a strike demanding higher wages and better working conditions. This labor conflict grew into a national crisis causing violence, destruction of property, and even death for several strikers.

Essential Question

How did George Mortimer Pullman impact the railroad industry, labor, and American life in the nineteenth century?

Objectives

  • Students will examine primary sources to understand Pullman’s contributions to the railroad industry in the nineteenth century.
  • Students will identify the benefits and costs of living in Pullman’s company town.
  • Students will examine primary sources in order to understand the causes of the Pullman Strike of 1894.
  • Students will read the testimony of participants in the Pullman Strike to determine the strike’s impact on railroad workers and organized labor.

Mot​ivation

To identify the technological innovations of the nineteenth century and understand George Pullman’s role in a larger historical context, one would have to look no further than the Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. This world’s fair provided an opportunity for people of the United States and the world to view the latest developments in agriculture, horticulture, art, electricity, machinery, and transportation. The fair lasted approximately six months and was visited by over 27,000,000 people from all corners of the world. According to Professor Paul Barrett from the Illinois Institute of Technology, “A century ago, every major city aspired to hold a major exposition-indeed every sizeable town hoped to be the scene of a county fair. But Chicago had special reasons to pursue the honor. Chicago was the economic center of the grain, meat and lumber trades of the west . . . The nation’s railroads had centered on Chicago since the 1850s, and by 1890 Chicago was the nation’s second steel-making center and was a major player in virtually every phase of modern industry.” Teachers can use the following sites in order to build student interest in the significant changes that occurred in the area of technology during the nineteenth century with a particular focus on Chicago.
 

Materials

Activity One: The Pullman Cars

Someone once said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” That is perhaps true in the case of George Pullman, who, having made a long uncomfortable railroad journey earlier in his life, determined that railroads needed to provide more comfort and luxury for their passengers. Pullman improved the existing sleeping car and continued to explore other opportunities to make railroad travel a unique experience for those who could afford it. Pullman’s original design, appropriately named “The Pioneer” was not immediately successful. The model was too wide for the existing platforms and bridges of the time and railroad companies did not want to make costly adjustments to accommodate it. However, after the assassination of President Lincoln, a Pullman Sleeping Car was hired to transport his body from Washington, DC, to Springfield, Illinois. Immediately, the railroad company responded by making necessary adjustments to its tracks and platforms. Other railroad companies followed suit so as not to miss out on the opportunity to carry the now famous Pullman car on their tracks. This was the break that Pullman needed to introduce his sleeping car to the American public.

These readings should be done as a homework assignment to prepare for class discussion. The images can also be assigned or used in class in a group activity.

Activity One Documents

Questions for Students

  1. How important was railroad travel to Americans in the nineteenth century?
  2. What changes did Pullman make to improve travel on the rails?
  3. Describe the parlor cars that Pullman designed.
  4. Who do you think benefited from Pullman’s innovations? Who do you think was excluded from these opportunities?
  5. What evidence is there in the New York Times article to indicate that Pullman was a shrewd businessman?
  6. How does the reporter react to his experience in the Pullman sleeping car and dining car?

Activity Two: The Pullman Company Town

Pullman, Illinois, appropriately named for its founder, was perceived by many as a model factory town, famous for the beauty of its landscape and the amenities provided to its residents. Pullman’s goal was to keep his workers happy and morale high. However, according to historian H.W. Brands in The Reckless Decade, “the reality of Pullman was something else. The company owned all the land and buildings in the town; it was at once employer and landlord for five thousand workers and their families . . . The green lawns and tree-shaded gardens were for impressing visitors; workers lived in tenements much like those found in ordinary industrial towns across the country.” The Chicago Tribune (1888) warned, “Pullman may appear to be all glitter and glory to the casual visitor but there is a deep, dark background of discontent which it would be idle to deny.”

Students should read the following account of life in Pullman’s Company Town and answer the questions that follow.

Activity Two Document

Questions for Students

  1. What did a typical Pullman home look like?
  2. What did it cost live in a Pullman home? How did this compare to rents for homes outside the company town?
  3. What public buildings did Pullman provide for his workers?
  4. How does Ely describe the community as a whole in terms of its appearance and architectural style?
  5. Why does Ely describe the ideal of Pullman as “un-American?”
  6. Do you detect any bias in Ely’s descriptions of life in Pullman’s town?
  7. How would you describe the testimony of Frank W.T. Glover?
  8. What insight does Glover provide about housing in the Pullman Company Town?

Activity Three: The Pullman Strike

In response to the Panic of 1893, George Pullman lowered wages, eliminated jobs, and increased the number of hours required of the workers at his factories. At the same time, he refused to lower rents in his company town or prices in his company store. A strike erupted when his employees walked off the job demanding higher wages and better working conditions. This boycott grew in number of participants and in severity and became one of the most serious labor revolts in American history involving both the Pullman workers and eventually the American Railway Union led by Eugene Debs. Railroad traffic was virtually paralyzed, and despite the advice of Governor John P. Altgeld, President Grover Cleveland called in federal troops to force the workers to return to their jobs.

Activity Three Documents

Questions for Students

  1. According to the testimony provided by the workers, what were the most important causes of the Pullman Strike?
  2. How does Pullman justify his wage cuts and the rent charged in his company town?
  3. Is there general agreement among workers regarding their experiences? Are there any contradictions or inconsistencies?
  4. How did the actions of the troops impact the strike? What emotional responses do the images create?
  5. Is violence ever justified as a means to an end? What other strategies could be employed?
  6. What did the testimony of workers reveal about the role of the American Railway Union in this conflict?
  7. What message did this strike and its outcome send to organized labor?

Extension

  1. The Pullman Strike was a catalyst for the establishment of Labor Day as a national holiday. President Grover Cleveland signed this into law in 1864, an election year, to bolster his chances of winning the votes of labor. Students can conduct research on the origins of this holiday and its impact on the presidential election of 1894.
  2. Students might compare the innovations, techniques, and business strategies of George Mortimer Pullman with other industrialists of the Gilded Age, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
  3. The Historic Pullman Landmark District in Chicago has been recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as part of its Restore America initiative. Money has been awarded for the restoration and preservation of this valuable historic landmark for residential use. According to Richard Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “The historic and cultural resources of a community tell the story of its past and make each community unique.” Students should write an editorial supporting the initiative to save this historic site or perhaps research a site in their own community that would be worthy of preservation.

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