The Rose Keeper, Day 7: Western Electric Company
In THE ROSE KEEPER, Clara’s neighbor Laurie gets a job at the local Western Electric manufacturing facility called the Hawthorne Works (the town of Cicero was originally named Hawthorne) or just “the Western.” Since the time period is World War II, she’s working on a government defense project that is “hush, hush.”
But for most of the twentieth century, the Western Electric Company was Cicero’s primary employer. It was the chief manufacturer of telephone equipment for the Bell Telephone System (later AT&T) and other consumer goods, such as electric fans and refrigerators. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Western Electric “pioneered new technologies such as the high-vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, and radio systems for airplanes.”
The sprawling Hawthorne Works was considered a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1905. At its peak, it employed 45,000 workers. It closed in 1984 with the dismantling of the Bell System. Today the property is the site of a shopping center, with only the water tower remaining from the original structure.
People who worked at Western Electric, including several members of my own extended family, tended to speak of it fondly of it. A 1932 company publication called “Hawthorne: A City Within a City” described it thusly:
“Physically, Hawthorne is a modern industrial plant with 86 buildings containing over 3,000,000 square feet of available floor space. One never suspects in viewing the exterior that behind these buildings is an inner court, beautifully landscaped. There are winding streets and sidewalks, and seas of green lawns dotted with floral islands. Hawthorne is, in fact, a city in itself. It has its own police staff, a fire department, a completely equipped hospital, cooperative stores, a laundry, a railroad, a power house, a gas works, restaurants, and even its own water supply. Each month enough electricity is used to illuminate 450,000 average homes—enough to take care of a city the size of Memphis, Tennessee. In the same period gas enough to supply a city as large as Dallas, Texas, is generated and consumed.”
The company provided many benefits to its employees, taking a paternalistic approach that some today call “welfare capitalism.” Perks included death and insurance benefits, home loans, social clubs, night classes, and sports teams. Even after the ill-fated picnic of 1915, the employee-run Hawthorne Club continued to organize social events like dances and trips to Riverview Park and Wrigley Field.
In 1925, Elton Mayo of Harvard University conducted well-known industrial studies at the Hawthorne Works. One lasting outcome of those studies was “the Hawthorne effect,” in which individuals adjust their behavior when they’re aware of being watched. Industrial scholars continue to debate and discuss the methodology and results of these studies.
Many artifacts and documents pertaining to the Western Electric Company can be viewed at the Hawthorne Museum operated by Morton College in Cicero, Illinois.