Company Stores

They became profit centers as glass factory owners took advantage of their captive employees.

by Vince Farinaccio

As was common in the 19th century glass industry, Whitall Tatum operated a company store that carried provisions for its workers at each of its two factories. But the motives behind such stores didn’t always have the workers’ best interests in mind.

According to the 1981-1982 South Jersey Magazine series “Millville’s First Glasshouse,” company stores “were a necessity for the location of the factories which were remote from business centers.” In order for a business to retain its employees, ”workers had to be supplied with the essentials of living, at first only the barest of stock – cotton, flannels, linseys, brown sugar, molasses, coffee, pork, etc.”

In his book Millville Glass: The Early Days, Virgil S. Johnson explains that “manufacturers soon discovered that with this forced trade and the absence of competition very handsome profits were to be realized. The stock was greatly enlarged and goods of better quality and higher prices [were] added to tempt the wives and daughters of the employees to increase their buying.”

Such circumstances led companies to assume what Todd R. Sciore calls, in his 2016 SoJourn article “Shinplasters: Economic Remnants of New Jersey’s Glass Industry,” “the more dubious role of monetary authority.” Workers were not paid in cash. Instead, Sciore notes, most, if not all, of their wages were paid in “shinplasters” or “funny money,” which “usually featured the company name and came in various denominations.”

Sciore explains that just as the differing shapes and sizes of tokens denote various values, “paper scrip denominations were printed in different colors so that workers with a limited ability to read English, or read at all, would be able to better differentiate them.”

The South Jersey Magazine series reports that, barring a worker who had a previous problem, “almost unlimited credit was extended” at the company store to employees. At the close of the year, “many men discovered they and their wives had overextended their buying. [The worker] may not have had any wages due him in cash, and he may have been further in debt to the store.”

Johnson explains the plight of the worker under such circumstances: “a man in debt at the store was a man in bonds; he might fume and struggle, but he was firmly held; he could get no money, but must go on working and find his wages consumed in his store account and in extinguishing a part of his indebtedness…If he refused to work longer and left to seek employment elsewhere, he found that he was on the blacklist and could not get work in any other factory.”

The company store reshaped the relationship of worker and employee. As Sciore notes in his article, “what started out as a convenience factor for the retention of employees became a profit center as owners took advantage of their newfound captive markets.”

The company store, however, wasn’t the only way a worker could find himself without an option. Sciore cites the lack of child labor laws as helping to create “a workforce who in due time would be highly talented in the art of blowing glass but may have had only elementary abilities in terms of reading and writing. With relatively low levels of education, opportunities for economic advancement were limited and employment changes for the average blower were primarily lateral moves from one ‘works’ to another for a little more pay per piece.”

In the early days of the local glass industry, company housing, which Johnson describes as “miserable affairs without convenience or comfort,” were rented to employees for roughly the same amount as larger facilities in better condition in the same neighborhood. Johnson also explains that the arrangement of rent payment was similar to that of purchases at the company store—“the employee received his pay in [the form of] house rent…”

Legislation eventually outlawed child labor and, as more glassblowers became property owners by the end of the 19th century, company housing as a means of control became less of a factor. But legal attempts to curb the methods employed by company stores had to ensure that, in winning economic freedom for workers, the closure of such facilities was circumvented.

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