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The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare, 1890-1930

With the dawn of the twentieth century came the era of "big business," with enormous industrial expansion across America and the full development of the modern corporation. Seeking ways to improve both efficiency and productivity in America's factories, management theorists created new approaches to labor and management relations. In direct response to the violence and constant strikes that characterized the previous century, new theories focused on how to best develop loyal and productive workers by providing incentive programs. In a new book, Nikki Mandel examines how these welfare work programs actually worked. In her research, Mandel sought out the Plymouth Cordage Collection held at Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

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Tennis Courts, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.

In a new book, Nikki Mandel examines the inner workings for corporate welfare work. In her research, Mandel sought out the Plymouth Cordage Collection held at Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

By the early 1920s, two-thirds of the employees at the Plymouth Cordage Company were active in one or another of that firm's welfare activities. About 500, mostly single men, dined in the company lunchroom each day; scores of families sent their youngsters to the company kindergarten; and close to 1000 employees and their older children enrolled in classes ranging from sewing, to physical culture, to the use of simple tools.  29 While it is likely that some employees participated in more than one welfare activity and others in none, companies clearly designed their programs to target different groups of workers: single men used the lunchroom, young women attended cooking classes, and older employees enrolled their children in the kindergarten classes.

The Corporation as FamilyEmployers and welfare workers offered prizes, time off work, and a multitude of activities because they believed that their carefully designed programs would transform their employees into cooperative business partners. Were they correct? Did those who became involved in welfare work adopt the middle-class work ethic and become more loyal and productive employees? Did labor-management relations become more peaceful as a result of welfare work? The record is somewhat ambiguous. Understandably, because they were the ones who created the system, employers and welfare workers expressed much more satisfaction than their workers. The fact that so many companies invested thousands of dollars in their welfare programs, year after year for over two decades, suggests that they considered these neither a passing craze nor a failed experiment. Although some employers expressed frustration at their workers' ingratitude, many more went on record to praise the effects of their welfare programs. The conclusion of an officer of the Acme White Lead and Color Works was fairly representative: "We think the first feeling of `uncertainty' among our employes, due to the radical feature of the new policy, has been largely overcome, and we are feeling the benefit of co-operative work all along the line."  30

Even those who saw no change in their employees, like the manager who felt his employees would leave for slightly higher wages elsewhere, expressed their determination to continue their welfare programs. They believed that their employees, like those at Acme White Lead, would eventually be brought into the fold. As welfare advocates studied the effects of welfare work, they found much evidence to support these expectations. A National Civic Federation investigator found that Filene Department Store employees who participated the most in welfare activities were also the most enthusiastic and interested. They had, she concluded, been "educated up to it." The welfare manager at the Plymouth Cordage Company was similarly encouraged when an internal investigation revealed that the employees who were least likely to participate in welfare activities were also the most recently hired. He noted with satisfaction that even this generally reluctant group, primarily recent Portuguese immigrants, was beginning to send its children to the company kindergarten.  31

Welfare advocates found ample evidence to confirm their expectations that welfare work would foster more genteel personal habits and more industrious work habits. From the working girls who began wearing nightdresses to bed to the workmen who graduated from oilcloth to linen tablecloths in their dining rooms, it appeared that working people were learning their lessons well. In addition, many firms noted with satisfaction that turnover and absenteeism rates declined after they established their welfare programs. Perhaps more importantly, employers believed that workers were less inclined to join unions or to go on strike.

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Field Day, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.

Despite these positive signs, employees saw the picture very differently. Certainly welfare work introduced millions of wage-earners to the comforts and habits of middle-class life. Some most certainly strove to apply those lessons to their daily lives. Yet even if some workers were earnest converts, not simply affecting interest for their own reasons, they did not necessarily become more cooperative and loyal on the job.

Whiting Williams's conversations with workmen during his months as an undercover workingman offer some insight into the ambiguous impact of welfare work. During the course of his investigation, Williams worked at firms that offered welfare amenities and at firms that did not. He noted a marked difference between the employees at the two types of companies. He concluded that employee attitudes were generally much better at firms where welfare programs existed. At a rolling mill where welfare work included clean drinking water, an employee restaurant, well-swept floors, and landscaped grounds, the workmen agreed that company pay, hours, and plant conditions were generally satisfactory. A number of his fellow workers had enrolled in the company stock plan, and Williams frequently heard them asking one another "How is she [the stock price] to-day?"  32 Workingmen showed little interest in unions, and Williams felt that few unions could offer better conditions.

Nevertheless, the welfare firms where Williams worked had entirely failed to convince employees that they were partners in a cooperative enterprise. The average workman did not develop a sense of "mutual respect and confidence" in his employer because the employer (or his representatives) made little effort to find out "what the other fellow's got in his head and heart." Contact with the employer was limited to daily interaction with foremen, who were notoriously unsympathetic when workmen did state their mind by lodging a grievance. Further, the nature of the work itself, increasingly unskilled or low-skilled, offered no "opportunity to find a satisfactory sense of manliness."  33

Not surprisingly, the failure to address the wage issue seems to have been the greatest barrier to welfare partnership. Discontent over wages emerged on a number of fronts. At the rolling mill where Williams worked as a helper, employees enjoyed a wide range of amenities. Yet piece rates and other wage practices militated against full cooperation, pitting workers not only against their employer, but against each other as well. Helpers, for example, earned a straight hourly wage, whereas the roller bosses earned piece rates. The faster the crew completed the day's jobs, the more the roller boss made, and the less the helper made. Wage problems similarly prevented welfare work from building partnership at a coal mine where Williams worked. One fifteen-year veteran, while admitting that the firm provided a range of benefits (including company housing, a baseball team, and a company band), evidenced no respect or loyalty toward his employer. Instead, he expressed deep-seated distrust, accusing the company of endemic dishonesty in weighing the coal. Even where the size of the pay envelope was not an issue, workmen took offense at their employer's attitude about paying wages at all. Many firms instituted pay rules that seemed designed primarily to prevent the workman from receiving his due. Paymasters were famous for their nasty temperaments and tough enforcement of these petty rules. "The effect of a lot of nice welfare near-luxuries," commented Williams, "can be canceled in an instant by one growly paymaster; for he hands out the necessity of life."  34 Failure to address what one welfare advocate referred to as the "supreme economic question" in the workman's life, made it virtually impossible to convince workers that they were family partners.

While some employers enjoyed peaceful labor relations, others did not. Strikes and union organizing, the most obvious signs of disloyalty, shook many companies with well-established welfare programs (including the National Cash Register Company, International Harvester, Bancroft and Sons, the Plymouth Cordage Company, and Filene's Department Store). Many workers, like those at the Endicott Johnson Company, rarely struck, but engaged in a continuous series of strike threats, slowdowns, and open confrontations with foremen and company officers. A Cleveland merchant summed up the experience of many when he noted that his firm's elaborate welfare program had not lessened labor conflict.  35

While a number of scholars attribute declining strike activity in the 1920s to the effects of welfare work, the evidence is less than conclusive: Considering the fact that welfare work was fairly widespread by 1910, measurement of its effects on union organizing and strike activity should not be limited to the post-World War I era. In addition to welfare work, a number of other factors contributed to the decline in strikes in 1920s, including a general rise in wages and a tighter job market. Further, none of these accounts consider the many impediments to union organizing or strike activity among female workers, who made up a large proportion of those subject to welfare work.

Employers and welfare workers offered prizes, time off work, and a multitude of activities because they believed that their carefully designed programs would transform their employees into cooperative business partners. Were they correct?
— Nikki Mandell

The reasons for continued conflict seem fairly clear. Despite improvements in workplace safety and comfort and an array of special educational, social, and financial programs, American businessmen had failed to address the real sources of conflict. They ignored welfare workers who advised that real partnership must include better wages, shorter hours, and stable employment. Further aggravating the situation, most were only half-hearted in their efforts to control autocratic foremen, and some continued to antagonize their workers with onerous labor policies, ranging from indiscriminate fining to repressive anti-unionism. In fact, employers had constructed a version of corporate fatherhood that perpetuated existing inequalities. Under these circumstances, working people were not inclined to consider themselves partners in a common enterprise.

Instead of developing a proprietary interest in the economic fortunes of their employers, working people seem to have developed a proprietary interest in welfare work itself. Although this had not been their intention, employers and welfare workers actually helped to foster this more limited focus. In the name of corporate partnership, employers openly declared their obligation to care for their employees in new ways. While working people cared little for many aspects of the welfare system; they happily allowed themselves to be "educated up" to those aspects that brought improvements in workplace safety and comforts. Gertrude Beeks acknowledged this development a decade after entering welfare work. "The American workman won't get down upon his knees to thank an employer for decent surroundings, but he appreciates them none the less. And he is now developed to the point where he demands them."  36

Beeks had experienced this firsthand as early as 1903, when workers at International Harvester's newly merged Deering Plant demanded factory improvements, including clean drinking water, as part of a strike settlement. By the second decade of the century, the employer's responsibility for providing decent surroundings had become so institutionalized that architects included better lighting, ventilation, clean drinking water, locker and toilet rooms, lunchrooms, and emergency medical facilities as standard features in factory design.  37

In some cases, working people expected welfare programs to provide more than improvements in workplace safety and comfort. In an effort to foster employee interest and a sense of proprietorship, welfare workers encouraged employees to ask for new benefits. They interpreted such requests as signs that employees were becoming "educated up" to both middle-class habits and to the corporate partnership. From the workmen who wanted an on-site savings bank because they could not go to town during business hours, to those who demanded a shelter to protect them while waiting for the streetcars, to those who looked to company sponsorship as a way to finance new baseball uniforms, workers demonstrated a willingness to take them up on the offer. Some even leveraged their employers' talk of a corporate partnership to demand reforms in shop-floor management and wages policies. Workmen at Bancroft and Sons, for example, regularly appealed to Elizabeth Briscoe to overturn foremen's decisions, while those at Endicott-Johnson traded on their employers' claims of compassion to demand higher wages.

By creating a new set of expectations on the part of workers, the welfare system did alter the relationship between labor and management. However, this was not the kind of transformation that welfare advocates had envisioned. Welfare work was internally flawed as a labor relations system. The model of the Victorian family on which it was based presumed that deference and loyalty were a fair and necessary exchange for economic security. Welfare workers could not persuade either workers or their employers to act on such an assumption. The familial roles prescribed to employers, welfare workers, and wage-earners proved impossible to duplicate within the modern corporation. To the extent that people tried, they often found themselves at odds with one another. Employers could not reconcile their obligations under the welfare system with a competitive ideology that valued lowest-cost production. Instead, they offered a kind of education and protection to which their employees were largely indifferent and, at times, hostile. Welfare workers pursued their maternal duties with a rigor and authority that their employers refused to honor. Wage-earners found the entire concept of the corporate family alien and asserted their independence at every opportunity. As it turned out, it was easier to build the institutional skeleton of the corporate family than it was to breathe life into it.

While the welfare system struggled unsuccessfully to recast the American corporation in the image of the Victorian family, broader social and economic developments began to challenge the Victorian ideal itself. By World War I, it had passed out of favor, replaced by ideas of family that had no relevance in the business world. Over the course of the next fifteen years, employers and a new group of labor relations experts began to experiment with alternative systems for managing labor relations-systems that retained the institutional forms of welfare work, but which invested them with meanings and purposes that reflected the altered social and economic environment.

From The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare, 1890-1930 by Nikki Mandell. Copyright (c) 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. The book is available both in cloth and paperback editions.

All photos are from the Plymouth Cordage Company Collection, Baker Library, Harvard Business School. Copyright 2002, President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Welfare work

'Welfare work' included a wide array of educational, recreational and social programs in conjunction with financial programs as health insurance and pensions laying the groundwork for today's corporate human relations departments. The Plymouth Cordage Company Records at Baker Library was among the many collections Nikki Mandel used for her work The Corporation as Family: The Gendering of Corporate Welfare 1890-1930. Included in the collection are the records of Plymouth Cordage's industrial relations department, which conducted one of the oldest and most elaborate company welfare systems in the country.

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Sloyd School, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.


26. "Stenographer's Notes of Lectures by Miss Elizabeth E Briscoe ... April 21, 1913," 4, Subject Files: Lectures, Box 84, NCF.

27. Beeks, "Report of 1901 Factory Tour," 12, Subject File 3B, Box 27, NFM.

28. National Civic Federation, Conference on Welfare Work, 185-97.

29. "Summary: History and Present Status of Welfare Work," Folder: Welfare—Mr. Marshall's Reports, early 1920s, Case 47, PCC.

30. Quoted in Shuey, Factory People and Their Employers, 197.

31. "Report by Miss Van deCarr," ca. 1905, Box 78, NCF; "Summary: History and Present Status of Welfare Work," Folder: Welfare-Mr. Marshall's Reports, early 1920s, Case 47, PCC.

32. Williams, What's on the Worker's Mind, 66.

33. Ibid., 68-69, 117.

34. Ibid., 145.

35. Cleveland Hardware Company to Ralph Easley, April 17, 1901, Box 72, NCF. See Brandes, American Welfare Capitalism, 138, for a list of other welfare companies that experienced strikes.

36. "Welfare Work May Conquer Great Labor Problems," New York Times, November 17, 1912. Emphasis added.

37. Nelson, Managers and Workers, ch 2. Nelson notes that building techonlogy allowed for improvements such as better ventilation and more window space long before they became a standard part of new building design in the 1920s. Although he attributes these developments to both technological capabilities and managerial initiative, he does so without giving credit to the welfare ideal that lay behind those managerial initiatives.

Tennis Courts, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.
Plymouth Cordage Company Collection. Baker Library, Harvard Business School
Copyright 2002, President and Fellows of Harvard College

Sloyd School, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.
Plymouth Cordage Company Collection. Baker Library, Harvard Business School
Copyright 2002, President and Fellows of Harvard College

Field Day, Welland Plant, ca. 1915.
Plymouth Cordage Company Collection. Baker Library, Harvard Business School
Copyright 2002, President and Fellows of Harvard College