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Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest

Author(s):Carlson, Linda
Reviewer(s):Boyd, Lawrence W.

Published by EH.NET (September 2004)

Linda Carlson, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. viii + 288 pp. $22.50 (paperback), ISBN: 0-295-98332-9.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence W. Boyd, Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii.

Linda Carlson has written an interesting contribution to social history, and perhaps economic history, in this carefully researched work on company towns in the Pacific Northwest. The most significant aspect of this work, perhaps, is that it extends an analysis of an institution to the Pacific Northwest that had primarily been confined to the Appalachian coalfields. To give one example of the extent of her research she includes one hundred ten towns in Oregon, Washington and Idaho in a Gazetteer at the end of her book. Included is a thumbnail sketch of each town with some population numbers and other information. Whether this list is exhaustive, or not, it goes beyond anything that exists in terms of coal company towns in the East.

As she points out, company towns existed not only in the Pacific Northwest coal industry, but also in other industries, such as copper, salmon canning, lumber, and various war industries. Further, these towns also existed over relatively long periods of time. Company towns were established in the Northwest in the middle of the nineteenth century and continued to exist into the late twentieth century. Given the role these industries have played in the development of this region one actually wonders why so little has been said about the development of company towns as part of the economic growth of the region.

Carlson’s work is one of social history and is thus qualitative rather than quantitative in scope. The questions she asks and answers relate to residents’ lives in these towns. “How did these people shop, pray, and play?” she asks. And how similar was life in these towns to life in to other small western towns? In answering these questions she uses newspaper accounts, oral histories, archival sources and various secondary sources.

Using a qualitative approach she addresses the demographic makeup of these towns; living arrangements; education; religion; sports and social life; “The Importance of the Company Store;” management; health care; news; and some specific periods such as wars and depressions. As a qualitative history it also clearly highlights some of the thornier problems that management of company towns faced. Specifically a tension existed between management decisions in these towns that would normally be the provenance of households in another setting.

Carlson, for example, writes about how religion was provided in company towns. How does one choose a “minister” or church for residents of a company town? One is tempted to say “carefully.” The owner of the town, or management, would be placed in the position of choosing a religious denomination for a town and this, in turn, could be a source of friction between residents and the firm. Think of the Catholic-Protestant divide among immigrants. In practice some owners chose the denomination, others built a church and allowed residents to choose a pastor, still others, especially minorities, were served by “missionaries.” Carlson observes that town owners had a general motive in encouraging religious observance in that it discouraged “carousing.” Thus they felt that it increased productivity, and were pragmatic in terms of the forms of worship. Carlson observes a similar response in regards to alcohol. Productivity concerns led many (or most?) owners of these towns to ban alcohol sales.

Not surprisingly, in a chapter entitled “The Paternalistic Company Town Boss,” she documents many different aspects of residents’ lives that could be controlled by management. This ranged from planting shrubs, to home upkeep and activism, especially union activism. Of course, the mobility of labor and the proper functioning of the labor market could modify these behaviors.

In another chapter (titled “Forty Miles from Nowhere”) she discusses how isolated these towns often were. Some were so isolated, for example, that when a resident left the town, that person’s “going out” was often listed in town newspapers or company newsletters. She notes that people went “in and seldom left for months and even years.” This raises some interesting questions about western labor markets and how well they functioned.

As a qualitative social history, Carlson, doesn’t really ask, nor answer, quantitative questions. For instance, were prices higher in company stores? She presents some anecdotal evidence but nothing conclusive. Or another question — whether there were wage differentials between residents in company towns and others. These are questions that are outside the scope of this book. Criticizing the author for not addressing these particular issues would be tantamount to asking her to have written a different book and one that might not have had the strengths of the current one.

On the whole Carlson found town residents recalled their tenure in these towns fondly. At the same time the organization of this book is essentially a series of anecdotes built around a series of topics. With the exception of a chapter on the World Wars and the Depression these stories seem to exist somewhat outside of time and thus there is no sense that changes occurred, either within these towns, or within the companies that owned them.

Here perhaps a somewhat wider perspective would have helped. For instance there was a whole period during the 1920s when many corporations adopted the tenets of “welfare capitalism.” This seems to fit in with some of her descriptions of management practices. In general any real union activity also seems to be missing. This seems strange given the role that the Industrial Workers of the World played in the Northwest, as well as the Western Federation of Miners. Notable too is the absence of the sort of private security guards that frequently maintained order and enforced company rules in other company towns. No equivalents to the Pinkertons, or the Coal and Iron Police, are found in these pages. Or were these towns so idyllic as to be free of both crime and unions? It would have been interesting if she had included some aspects of the justice system in these pages, since bootlegging, gambling and prostitution are at least mentioned. On the whole this work represents a useful look at this topic and one that can be further exploited by those interested in the development of historic labor markets.

Lawrence W. Boyd is the author of “The Company Town” in EH.NET’s Encyclopedia at

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII