Facebook, Amazon, and Google are reviving the ill-fated “company towns” of the Gilded Age

Julianne Tveten

Still, Pullman’s fiasco didn’t discourage other magnates. In 1900, chocolatier Milton Hershey began construction on a factory complex near a collection of dairy farms in rural Pennsylvania, where he declared there’d be “no poverty, no nuisances, no evil”—a Delphic precursor to Google’s now infamous and defunct slogan, “Don’t be evil.” To attract workers, Hershey reclaimed many of Pullman’s gilded comforts: indoor plumbing, pristine lawns, central heating, garbage pickup, and eventually, the theaters and sports venues any company town worth its salt would host.

What was designed as a wholesome advertisement for the company quickly morphed into a miserly surveillance state. Hershey, who served as the town’s mayor, constable, and fire chief, patrolled neighborhoods to survey the maintenance of houses and hired private detectives to monitor employees’ after-hours alcohol consumption. While the town managed to stage a sort of idyllic capitalist performance for onlookers, by the 1930s its employees resented their binding environs and the Depression-era layoffs they endured from a company earning ten times its annual payroll in after-tax profits. A crippled attempt to unionize with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) bred a 1937 sit-down strike; days later, farmers and company cheerleaders armed with rocks and pitchforks bloodied and ejected the dissidents, destabilizing for good another corporate-civic lark. Hershey’s vast estate, however, remains unscathed to this day.