- Company Towns in the Americas: Landscape, Power, and Working-Class Communities
Company Towns in the Americas is a welcome contribution to pan-American industrial history. Oliver J. Dinius and Angela Vergara have assembled a group of contributors [End Page 155] who collectively narrate the role of company towns in the spread of industrial capitalism from Canada to Argentina. The case studies draw our attention to the struggles of workers who sought to improve their social and material conditions, with several chapters exploring a particular construction such as race or gender. This book’s transnational perspective, interdisciplinary approach, and careful editing culminate in an eminently readable volume that should interest scholars in a variety of subfields of history and geography as well as allied disciplines.
In their introductory chapter the editors avoid a rigid definition of “company town” and instead note that “Key is the combination of a single dominant industry with extensive company control over the daily life of a town” (p. 7). In other words, company towns need not be remote or planned communities: what matters are the power relations between industry and the working class. In the next chapter Andrew Herod provides a theoretical framework for the subsequent case studies. He views company towns as “spatially engineered” landscapes intended to shape social relations between workers and management. Herod contextualizes this volume as a contribution to “labor geography.” Labor geography draws upon the work of (neo)Marxist geographers of the 1970s and 1980s such as David Harvey who, following French theoretician Henri Lefebvre, posited that capitalism built the material structures necessary for production and consumption. Labor geography extends this capital-centric analysis to grant more agency to workers as they attempt to manipulate their geographies to achieve certain political and social goals. Social and spatial concerns, then, are mutually constitutive as workers collectively assert their agency. Consequently, there exists a constant struggle between industry and workers as the latter “start to subvert their spatialities by developing alternate geographies of social life” (p. 38). Although potentially daunting, Herod’s clarity of expression means little background knowledge is required to appreciate his theoretical arguments.
Company Towns in the Americas succeeds in two important ways. First, it adds much-needed nuance to our understanding of how company towns varied in form and function across national and cultural boundaries. For example, not all employees in a company town received their wages in scrip. Aurora Gómez-Galvarriato’s chapter on textile mill towns in Mexico’s Orizaba Valley reveals that workers there received wages in silver coins. She also details how the region’s company stores were created for the convenience of the workers rather than their exploitation. Nor were all company towns isolated or planned, as Fernando Teixeira da Silva shows in his study of the port city of Santos, Brazil. Here, the Santos Dock Company was the principal employer, at one point employing 45 percent of all the city’s workers. He observes that although Santos did not develop as a classic company town it nonetheless “constitutes an extreme form of an urbanity where the economic power relations between a dominant company and its workers shape social life” (p. 69).
The second way in which this book succeeds is by underscoring the agency with which working-class people in company towns gained some control over their living conditions. A fascinating example of this process comes from Christopher W. Post’s study [End Page 156] of Sunflower Village, Kansas, a federally owned town that produced munitions during the mid-twentieth century. Living conditions in this public company town were generally much better than in private company towns where worker agency constantly met resistance from the power structures intent on producing surplus value. The freedoms and amenities residents enjoyed in Sunflower Village—including town newspapers, commercial buildings, schools, and even a town council—contributed to and reflected the workers’ ability to create for themselves a landscape imbued with personal meaning.
Company Towns in the Americas offers intriguing illustrations of...