The Industrial Revolution brought factories to the world, and production became much faster. In a lot of cases, factories had to be built far away from towns, which made it necessary for the factory owners to build houses for their employees to live in. In a few cases, these houses became full-on towns, and many of them even still exist to this day.
The very first company town was Lowell. Massachusetts. Built in the 1820s, a man named Francis Cabot Lowell toured factories in England and was mesmerized at their efficiency. He wanted to create something similar back in the United States. According to The Smithsonian, he actually stole some of the designs of their textile machines called “the power loom“. This was illegal, of course, but he got away with it and built up his own textile industry when he got back to Massachusetts.
He purchased a large piece of property near a waterfall, because it was necessary to power the large looms. He hired young single women from the surrounding rural areas of his new town, which he named Lowell, after his last name. These women lived together, and they woke up at 4:30 in the morning to eat breakfast, and they had to start their workday at 5 AM. This was the first time in US history that women had an opportunity to make money. They earned $2 a week. Back then, it was enough money to help pay off their family’s mortgages, or help take care of aging parents.
In 1820, there were only 200 people living in Lowell. Fifteen years later, the textile industry was so successful, the town grew to a population of 20,000. Today, the original factory has been turned into a park and a historic landmark that offers tours of the original facilities.
In the 1920s, Henry Ford was manufacturing cars, and there was a high demand for new vehicles. He realized that instead of importing the precious rubber he needed to make his tires, it would be faster and cheaper to build a factory in Brazil. He bought a huge 10,000 square KM (3,861 miles) plot of land that contained a rubber plantation. This was the beginning of “Fordlandia”, a town inhabited completely by Ford employees that were in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. He built houses, schools, a hospital, and a factory where 4,000 people became employed.
The town was open to the public, even if they didn’t work for Ford, they could still send their children to the school and daycare center or use the hospital whenever they needed it. For the people living there, it was like having an American suburb plopped in the middle of the jungle. Most people enjoyed and appreciated it, especially since his policy was to pay everyone a fair wage, so they could afford to buy the cars they were making in the factory. The one and only caveat to living in Ford’s town was that he was all about healthy food. He only sold healthy food like brown rice, whole wheat bread, and local fruit and vegetables in his grocery stores. This was probably a good thing, though, considering that it was close to the local Brazilian’s natural diet.
Fordlandia came crashing down when he realized that without hiring qualified botanists to help grow healthy rubber trees, they could not grow nearly enough to create the tires they needed for the two million vehicles he had orders for. Since he was paying workers the same amount of money that he did back in America, he wasn’t saving on that front, either. To make matters even worse for Ford, synthetic rubber had been invented back in America, which was cheaper and easier to produce than real rubber. In 1945, he realized that his plan had failed, and walked away. He sold the land back to the Brazilian government. They allowed the factory to fall to ruin, and it still stands there today. People still live in Fordlandia, passing their houses down to new generations.
In the year 1900, Milton Hershey sold a successful caramel company in order to focus on making milk chocolate. However, the only way he could manufacture milk chocolate would be to build a factory near land that could supply the milk from cows in a dairy farm. He grew up in rural Pennsylvania, so he bought a huge piece of land near his hometown to build a factory near a bunch of cows. Since the land was so far away from the nearest town, he decided it would be easier to build his own facilities for his employees. Hershey, Pennsylvania was born. In 1908, he completed an amusement park in order to attract tourists to come and try his chocolate. Today, the town is still called Hershey, and they are known mostly for the amusement park, which has grown into a much more complex entertainment space complete with modern rides and roller coasters.
In the year 1900, The U.S. Steel Company purchased 19,000 acres in the Kentucky wilderness in order to mine coal. Even though it had everyone people needed- houses, stores, and all. However, since it was done in a hurry, they had some issues with sanitation. The L&N Railroad Company thought the town would die quickly and become a ghost town like the old west, so they refused to extend the railroad tracks to Lynch. Of course, this made their survival more difficult, but they decided to take it upon themselves to build their own train tracks.
At its peak, the town had a population of 10,000 people, and it became the most thriving coal town in the United States. However, in 2012, the demand for coal went way down in favor of clean energy, and tons of people lost their jobs. By 2016, the population of the town had dwindled down to just 800 people, leaving thousands of vacant houses.
“Pullman” in Chicago, Illinois
Way back in 1880, a man named George Pullman was the CEO of a railroad car manufacturing plant called Pullman’s Palace Car Company. He built a town on marsh and prairie in Chicago named after himself, and he hired an architect to make upscale buildings, churches, and a factory. He thought that if people were impressed by the accommodations, it would entice them to work for his company and continue working there for years.
In 1894, there was a depression, and Pullman lowered his wages for his employees in order to keep the company afloat. Unfortunately, he never lowered the rent to match their new salary. This triggered a huge protest, and the cars were not getting made.
In the 1970s, the city of Chicago planned to tear down the Pullman buildings, because they wanted to make room for more factories. The citizens didn’t want to lose the history and architecture of the town, so they banned it together to make it into a historical landmark. Today, the houses and buildings have been restored to their former glory.
Roebling, New Jersey
Elevators, bridges, ski lifts, and skyscrapers are all modern marvels that we tend to take for granted on a day-to-day basis, but they all originated from the steel industry boom. Roebling, New Jersey was a town dedicated to creating steel. They provided steel suspension cables for The Eiffel Tower, The Golden Gate Bridge, and the cable cars in San Francisco.
John A. Roebling was born in Prussia and studied engineering. As an adult, he emigrated to the United States. He founded the John A. Roebling and Sons company in 1841, after inventing a design for steel ropes that could handle a far greater amount of weight compared to a traditional rope made of hemp. One of the achievements John Roebling is remembered for the most is the fact that he was the one who suggested building the Brooklyn Bridge, but he died before it was finished. His sons took over the company, and for decades, they continued to revolutionize the world with their father’s invention.
Steinway Village, Queens, New York
In the late 1800’s, the Steinway family purchased 400 acres of land in Astoria, New York. At that time, it was still just a forest near the river, so they were able to take down trees and use the lumber for their piano business. Their company, Steinway & Sons, quickly grew. By 1880, the family had built a large mansion on the property, and they had hired a huge staff to work in their factory.
The Steinway family started to build brick houses for the employees to live in, and they eventually donated part of their land back to the city so that the locals from the surrounding town could have a public school, post office, and firehouse. At the time, the Coney Island amusement park was seen as being a rough place filled with gypsies and sideshow performers. They built their own amusement park, called North Beach, which was supposed to be a much more wholesome alternative to New York families. At that time, while there was progress being made to allow transportation to get to Queens, New Yorkers called that area “Frog Town”, because it was built near a swamp where frogs made a lot of noise at night. The park closed down in 1921. In the 30’s, that space became what is now the La Guardia airport.
Forestville, AKA Scotia, California
The Pacific Lumber Company founded a town that they originally called “Forestville” in 1863, because it was a small village erected in the middle of the woods in California. Their employees were loggers who cut and transported trees to make lumber. In 1888, the name of the town was changed to Scotia, because it turns out that another town was already called “Forestville” long before the company came along. The company lasted for over 100 years but finally went bankrupt in 2008. Today, the main street of Scotia, California still looks almost identical to the original settlement from the 1800’s.
Bournville in Birmingham, England
Just about everyone has Cadbury eggs during Easter, but few Americans know that they originated in England. In 1824, a man named John Cadbury owned a general store in the center of Birmingham, England. He grinding tea, coffee, and chocolate powder for hot cocoa by hand with a mortar and pestle. People loved his hot cocoa, and there was such high demand, he knew he was on to something big. At that time, there was a tax on cocoa beans, so he was charging high prices. Only rich people could afford to drink hot chocolate. But in 1850, the price was able to drop, and it was perfect timing because everyone flocked to get more of his powder.
The brothers opened a factory in a rural area, because they wanted to be in the middle of nature. When it became necessary to start turning their factory into a town, they made sure to keep a lot of the surrounding nature and build beautiful houses that reflected a quintessential idea of English village life. The facility earned the nickname “Factory in the Garden”, because it was surrounded by rose bushes and greenery. They focused a lot on having beautiful gardens, parks, lakes, and outdoor spaces for people to enjoy. Today, the town is still there, and many of the factory employees still live in Bournville. The factory now has an area dedicated to tourists, called “Cadbury World”, which includes a 3D ride experience, tours of chocolatiers at work, and a gift shop.
Port Sunlight in Merseyside, England
Unilever is a massive corporation that produces some of the world’s most popular brands like Dove, Axe, Suave, and St. Ives. It even owns some food brands like Breyer’s ice cream, Lipton tea, Hellmann’s, and more.
The company was founded by the Lever brothers. In 1887, William Lever bought a huge piece of land and made a model village to make a beautiful town for the people to work in his soap factory in North-Western England, which he named Port Sunlight. The Levers were some of the first factory owners to realize that their employees needed to have a lot of enrichment in the arts, and they gave them high pay. The village was sold to a private investor in the 1980’s, so anyone can live there, even if they don’t work for Unilever. But the local village historical society is very strict about keeping the village exactly the same as it was in the 1800s, even down to the style of the gardens.
The town was doing so well, they built up extravagant places like the Corning Opera House. Credit: CorningNYHistory.com
Corning, New York
Unlike most of the other stories on this list, Corning Glass Works did not start the town of Corning, New York, but the company brought in much-needed jobs and income to the local residents. After the glass factory was established, new houses and facilities were built. The company is most famous for mass-producing light bulbs for Thomas Edison, and they eventually supplied lights all across the United States. In 1951, The Corning Glass Center was opened to put some of their most elaborate pieces on display. This became an attraction for tourists to visit the town, which brought in even more revenue. Today, it’s called the Corning Glass Museum, and it still remains a popular attraction for travelers. In 1972, a flood wiped out a huge portion of Corning, and it was up to the company to rebuild. Most of what stands there today came from the glass factory’s efforts.
For years, Corning thrived in the glass-making industry. Unlike so many other products that can be sourced overseas, glass is very fragile, and there is still a market for producing and selling it in the United States. There were other glass towns on the east coast, like Glassboro and Wheaton, which are both New Jersey towns, but neither of them were as successful and long-lasting as Corning. In 2001, the Corning corporation announced that one of their new business ventures had not gone as planned. Their stock shares plummeted, and they were over a billion dollars in debt because of it. However, they are still in production to this day, despite their setbacks.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:
America’s Company Towns, Then and Now. Michele Lent Hirsch. Smithsonian. 2015.
5 Famous Company Towns. Elizabeth Nix. History.com. 2014.
It Was The World’s Largest Company Coal Town. As It Turns 100, It Fights To Stay Alive. Bill Estep. Lexington Herald-Leader. 2017.
The Town That Glass Built Hits a Bump, and 1,000 Lose Their Jobs. Leslie Eaton. New York Times. 2001.
America: The Story of Us. The History Channel.
Made of Steel: How A New Jersey Town Rewired History. Laura Kiniry. BBC. 2018.
THE ROEBLING’S SONS CO. The Roebling Museum.
Fordlandia in the Amazon. Al Jazeera. 2009.
In Good Company: Company Towns Across The US. National Trust For Historic Preservation.
Steinway Village: A Company Town. The Smithsonian.
The Bournville Story- A Film of the Factory in the Garden. Documentary. 1953.