The company store proliferated in coal mining, lumber, and textile company towns as the South industrialized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the industrial village it was the central, often the only, retail store available to residents. It was owned by the company, as were the houses, saloons, and other buildings. Modeled in part on the earlier British ‘‘truck system,’’ where laborers exchanged their labor for food, fuel, and clothing, company stores in the United States initially were justified as necessities since companies had to provide provisions to workers in the remote towns. Yet companies maintained and defended their control of stores well after an efficient transportation network had emerged.
In West Virginia the company store served as a commercial center, a community center, and a formative influence on coal town culture. In 1922, almost 80 percent of West Virginia miners lived in company houses and shopped in company stores, while only 10 percent of miners in Illinois did so. The company store was centrally located in the town, and the store building usually also included the post office and the payroll office. It served as a community center, and its architectural design, while functional, often revealed the cultural origins of its owner. The purpose of the store was profit and support of company policy. Although there is an ongoing debate over the exploitative policies of the company store, companies seldom closed stores even in economic slumps, and the store’s use of the private currency called scrip promoted the financial health and stability of the company.
Going to the store was a daily ritual in the life of company town dwellers. Residents converged on the store shortly before the arrival of the mail to chat about work, train schedules, daily events, or family matters. After work, miners often congregated on the store porch after ‘‘drawing scrip,’’ to review the day’s work or talk of company affairs. Men and women dreamed of acquiring material abundance as they daily viewed the store products while their children stared in wonder at the candy, toys, and sundry items on display in the glass cases.
As coal companies consolidated into larger and larger organizations by the 1920s, store policy became less coercive and more subtle and persuasive in trying to hold onto the business of coal town residents. Since companies could no longer prevent the delivery of goods from independent stores to company houses, company stores began to cater to the consumer desires of residents. Corporations reorganized their stores as separate corporations in order to take advantage of economies of scale and undercut competitors. This technical separation also permitted large companies to circumvent state laws regulating company stores. The company store declined after mid-century with the spread of automobile ownership and the mass marketing of consumer goods through mail order catalogs and chain stores.
Written by Lou Athey
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