33-Muro Family in America: Wilmerding, a company town

Introduction

 Nick Muro was a shoemaker in his home town of Agropoli, in Salerno province of Italy. In 1900 he made his first trip to the United States when he was 18 years old. He returned to Agropoli for his marriage to Letizia Scotti in 1909. Sometime after that he returned to the United States. In 1912 Letizia came to the United States with their 2 1/2 year old daughter, Josie. The family settled in Wilmerding, PA.

33-wilmerding-picture20of20workmen20arriving20at20wabco_zpssil2lktz1

 “Arrival of the workmen.”
The train station is in East Pittsburgh. George Westinghouse began his business in Pittsburgh.
Library of Congress, public domain.

 Wilmerding was established as a company town by George Westinghouse, Jr. He was the inventor of the air brake which revolutionized rail travel and safety. His first company was located in Pittsburgh. Wilmerding was estabished as the demand for the air brake increased. Mr. Westinghouse wanted to attract the very best workers possible and instill in them loyalty to his company. His company, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company, would be the main employer and benefactor in Wilmerding. Westinghouse ensured that his workers had access to housing, education and recreational facilities as the town prospered and expanded.

George Westinghouse’s vision was of benefit to the Muro family. Within 10 years of settling in the country Nick secured full-time employment at the factory. Talk of WAB Co. was always part of the visits to Wilmerding when I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Uncle Sammy remembers it during his childhood in the 1940s and 1950s, too.

This posting presents a brief overview on what a company town was like and why they were formed. We will also present some highlights from the life of George Westinghouse. The concluding section consists of a summary of a 1904 news article on the pros and cons of living in Wilmerding.

Relationship note: Nick and Letizia Muro were Sammy’s maternal Grandparents and EmilyAnn’s Great-Grandparents on her maternal line.

Josie was Sammy’s Mom and EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandma.

What was a company town and why was it formed?

Company towns were situated in distant locations. To attract a talented and stable workforce the employer provided housing, schools, recreational facilities and retails shops in the town. There would be only one employer in the town who hired employees for the main business as well as contractors and those who provided services in the shops the company owned in town.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the industrialists who created the company towns wanted an environment that elicited sentiments of loyalty and responsibility in the workers. The company town was envisioned as an antidote to poverty, alcoholism and the unionization of the workforce.

33-wilmerding-wabco20casting_zpsqkj1pgyd

Scene from the flim “Westinghouse Air Brake Co. (casting scene)”.
Library of Congress.

 The main reason why such a paternalistic approach towards workers was taken by the founder of a company town was to ensure that the workers would aspire to rise from their working class status and enter the middle class. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries paternalism had a religious tone as many industrialists considered such an approach their moral and personal responsibility towards their employees.

There were drawbacks to living in a company town, however. The great distance from a large city prevented the workers from readily finding employment elsewhere. Contacts with others from different companies and towns were also limited. Since most stores in town were owned by the company and operated for profit the workers had little choice as to where they would shop. There weren’t any elected officials so workers would become alienated and resentful when things in the town and company took a turn for the worse or leadership was questioned.

Company towns entered a state of decline after WWI. The prospering economy of the 1920s made it possible for employees to seek a variety of opportunities. The increase of public transportation meant that even working class people could now travel long distances to work or search for work. This did away with the need to live close to one’s place of employment. The establishment of lay-away plans also enabled the working class to purchase necessities and niceties on affordable terms. A change of view took place in the population and the paternalism of the past was now looked upon unfavorably.

Some company towns did not pay their workers in cash. This was another effort to retain the workers by limiting their mobility. Workers were paid in scrips which are a provisional certificate of money. The scrips could only be used at company owned stores. Unscrupulous employers charged more than market prices in some company towns leading workers to incur large amounts of debt.

Who was George Westinghouse, Jr.?

33-wilmerding-geo20westinghouse_zpspcxbla7w

George Westinghouse, Jr.
Library of Congress. Public Domain.

George Westinghouse was born in Central Bridge, NY in 1846. He learned about steam engines from his father’s workshop. Westinghouse served in the Union Army during the Civil War. His experiences during the war made him aware of the need for a safer system of brakes needed in the growing railroad industry. His invention of the air brake proved increased the safety of rail travel. This contribution was so important that in 1893 the federal government passed a law making air brakes mandatory in all trains. This resulted in an increase of business for the Westinghouse Air Brake Company which George founded in 1869. Within a few years he was a millionaire.

Westinghouse lost most of his fortune during the Economic Panic of 1907. His health began to decline in 1911 due to a weakened heart. He passed away in 1914. He is remembered for the consideration he extended to his employees providing pension plans, sick days, and good wages.

Wilmerding: In the beginning 

Construction on the Westinghouse Air Brake Company was completed in 1890. George Westinghouse ensured that the employees moving from Pittsburgh to Wilmerding would have satisfactory housing. A building program was created with houses designed to have pleasing features. Houses with 5, 6 or 7 rooms were available.

In 1890 the houses were put up for sale in February and September. The demand for housing continued. By 1900 there were no longer any lots available on the south side of Turtle Creek which runs through Wilmerding.

Westinghouse had originally bought the plots of land in 1889. In 1890 he sold the land to the East Pittsburgh Development Company to develop the employee housing. Two public schools, cultural and recreational facilities were also part of the plans for Wilmerding.

The management style of business barons like George Westinghouse, Jr. was known as Paternalistic Capitalism. It was worker centered. Westinghouse was known as a benevolent baron. A reporter from “The Wilmerding Times”, dated September 30, 1904, followed him through his workday. Westinghouse was personally involved in onsite management of all his plants. He travelled extensively in the US and Europe to be in touch with the management and workers.

The Intention of Paternalstic Capitalism

The goal of paternalistic capitalism was to attract and retain a skilled labor force. It was also envisioned as a counterforce to unionization and involvement by the federal government in the regulation of business. The industrialists who promoted this management style had a sincere belief that through providing for the basic needs of their employees well-being on every level that they in turn would abandon the behaviors that accompanied a lower class lifestyle. It was hoped that the workers would aspire to middle class life and respectability. Immigrants would embrace American ideals and leave their ethnic ways behind.

While the theory sounds good the application was not always successful. At their best a company town could be like Wilmerding and at their worst they could be a form of entrapment where workers rebelled against the management and ended up destroying the town, as happened in Pullman, Illinois. Some company towns that were run along the lines of welfare capitalism did offer their workers basic amenities but did little in terms of safety in the workplace, reasonable hours, and decent wages.

Reportage of Wilmerding in 1904

At the Library of Congress is an article from the September 2nd, 1904 issue of “The Wilmerding Times”. In this article we get a vivid word picture of what the town looked like and what the local politics were like in 1904. Some highlights are:

  • In the heart of town was a well cared for park around which were the YMCA, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company’s General Office and a Public School. The park and these buildings gave Wilmerding the appearance of a college town.
  • The streets were paved and always kept clean.
  • The residential streets had substantial homes, many trees and well cared for gardens. There were prizes awarded by the company for the best gardens each year.
  • All streets had sewers and arc lights at night.
  • There were adequate police on the force and a strong volunteer fire company.
  • In 1904 there were two public schools and another one in the planning stage.
  • The following denominations had houses of worship in Wilmerding: Roman Catholic,; Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian; United Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and United Brethren
  • During a slow economy the Westinghouse Air Brake Company had to lay off workers due to fewer orders from the railroads. This was the drawback to living in a town where only one company was the main employer.
  • The YMCA played a major role in promoting physical fitness classes as well as providing a place for a variety of social activities. It also offered a wide variety of courses such as bookkeeping, typing, penmanship and machine design. They also had English language classes for the immigrant worker.

 

Discussion with Uncle Sammy, Sunday, July 26, 2015 11:00 – 11:30 a.m. 

Uncle Sammy and I discussed the evolution of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company into the 21st century. We also shared memories of our trips to Wilmerding when we were children. These are the key points raised during our discussion:

  • The improvement for standards of safety in factories as well as the organization of labor improved the conditions for American workers in the mid to late 20th century.
  • Then the cost of manufacturing became too great for companies to maintain profitability. This resulted with the gradually off-shoring of jobs beginning in the late 1970s and throughout the 1990s.
  • We watched the film clips of the workers in Westinghouse plants that are available at the Library of Congress. Although these might have been acceptable at the time they were not acceptable to labor unions. See Resources section for a link to one film. Others are available once you are on the site.
  • Today these same unsafe conditions exist at overseas facilities where most of our manufactured goods are produced. A question arises as to how these countries and governments will handle issues of worker safety in the future. Is it possible that a form of paternalistic capitalism will develop there? Will workers eventully organize? If so, how will they organize and where will the resources for it come from?
  • Today, WAB Co. still manufactures air brakes but the main source of profit is in the manufacture of railway cars.
  • Uncle Sammy remembers Wilmerding and the towns along the Allegheny River being subject to heavy pollution. During his childhood visits to Wilmerding in the 1940s and 1950s there were many coal mines that provided coal to the coke plants. In turn the coke was used by mills such as Bethlehem Steel and U.S. Steel.
    • On a hot summer day with heavy inversion the pollution remained very noticeable in the air.
    • The surrounding countryside showed signs of industrial pollution.
    • House cleaning was an ongoing effort. In the summers all the windows were open because there was no air-conditioning. This placed a great burden on the housewives, especially those who lived close to the plant and the railroad line that ran along Station Street.
  • By the time I experienced visits to Wilmerding in the late 1950s and all throughout 1960s, the town improved. I do not remember seeing industrial waste. Wilmerding reminded me of the small towns in Upstate New York where the family vacationed during the summers at the Red Pine Farm.
  • In the late 1960s a highway was constructed through the part of town where the Muro family had lived. Some of our family relocated to East McKeesport. By the 1970s the towns in the area were very suburban in character with shopping malls and more modern housing than I remember in Wilmerding.

 

Special Note About my use of information from “The Wilmerding Times”

If you read the entire article at the Library of Congress it is good to keep in mind that you are reading journalism from a different time. Some of the language used to describe of people from other backgrounds, near the end of the article, are not acceptable by today’s standards. The link is given in the Resources section.

 

Resources

Company Town
Company Town
Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Company_town

Company Towns-Slavery by another name
http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/company-towns/

Five Famous Company Towns in History

http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/5-famous-company-towns

 

Brief Bio of George Westinghouse

Who Made America? | Innovators | George Westinghouse, Jr.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/theymadeamerica/whomade/westinghouse_hi.html

George Westinghouse – NNDB

http://www.nndb.com/people/808/000060628/

About George Westinghouse
Library of Congress

http://www.loc.gov/collections/films-of-westinghouse-works-1904/articles-and-essays/the-westinghouse-world/about-george-Westinghouse/

“A Big Man With a Hundred Thousand Horsepower Inside”
From The Wilmerding Times, September 30, 1904
The Library of Congress

http://www.loc.gov/collections/films-of-westinghouse-works-1904/articles-and-essays/the-westinghouse-world/a-big-man-with-a-hundred-thousand-horsepower-inside/

Photo of George Westinghouse
Library of Congress, Public Domain
Call Number
BIOG FILE – Westinghouse, George, 1846-1914 [P&P]
Digital Id
cph 3b39671

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b39671

Library of Congress Catalog Number
93511337

 

Wilmerding History

Official website of Wilmerding, PA

http://www.wilmerdingboro.com/history.html

Wikipedia-Wilmerding, PA

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilmerding,_Pennsylvania

 Welfare Capitalism and Paternalistic Capitalism

Welfare Capitalism
Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welfare_capitalism

Life in Wilmerding The ideal home town 

Life in Wilmerding, the ideal home town
Library of Congress

http://www.loc.gov/collections/films-of-westinghouse-works-1904/articles-and-essays/the-westinghouse-world/life-in-wilmerding/

Public Domain Images

“The Workmen Arrive”
Note: The Train Station is in East Pittsburgh
Library of Congress

Film Clips of the Westinghouse Air Brake Company

The Library of Congress has films taken at the plant during 1904. I have used screen shots from some of them. To view the film please use the following links:

 

Scene from the flim “Westinghouse Air Brake Co. (casting scene)”.
Library of Congress

Film Clip URL: http://www.loc.gov/item/96521942/

Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA dcu Digital Id

westhpp 2234

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mbrsmi/westhpp.2234

 

Our Future Reading List

To learn more Paternalistic Capitalism we plan to check out the following books:

“Benevolent Barons: American Worker-Centered Industrialists 1850-1910”
by Quentin R. Skrabec, Jr. – 2015 – ‎History

A preview is available at Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?isbn=1476620296

Chapter 12-Westinghouse’s Paternalism (begins on page 131)

 

“George Westinghouse: Gentle Genius”
by Quentin R. Skrabec

Book review from 2007 at

http://www.algora.com/136/book/details.html

 

 

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4 thoughts on “33-Muro Family in America: Wilmerding, a company town

  1. I was interested to read about Westinghouse’s town.
    There were a few such places in the UK too – Port Sunlight and Bourneville spring to mind. Thye weren’t allowed to pay workers in anything other than “coins of the Realm” though – it had been a big problem earlier in the 19th century and Parliament legislated against it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that info, Norma! I’ll look that up when I get the time. I’d never heard of paternalistic capitalism before. It had to have been a very widespread approach to the problem of hiring and keeping talented workers. It all sounds so good on paper and when applied by an enlightened soul like Westinghouse it took a good expression. Two to three generations of my maternal family were employed at WABCO or had side businesses that benefitted from the stability and middle class life of the town. This kind of system also had a potential to be a nightmare. It could turn out to be nothing but a different form of plantation with workers enslaved by low wages, isolation and no ready cash to enable mobility.

      If WWI hadn’t shattered the old structure I wonder if the government would have stepped in? The union movement here was growing so the confrontations could have accelerated.

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