Company Scrip: The Tainted Lifeblood of 19th-century Remote Industrial Towns
Posted on 12/17/2019
In the late 19th century, the U.S. and several other countries around the world went through a rapid phase of industrialization known as the Second Industrial Revolution or the Technological Revolution. Inventions like the telegraph, the lightbulb and the compressed-air brake greatly changed how people worked. Wages increased overall and so did the quality of life for many people.
However, the Technological Revolution also brought on new and dangerous working conditions and a continuation of unfair labor practices, holdovers from previous ages. Tycoons and magnates of the Industrial Revolution not only developed new methods of manufacturing but also sought new ways to control their labor force. One method was to issue company scrip.
|Image 1: A 10-cent note for "Dry Goods & Groceries" at the company store for the Indiana Iron Works.
Click image to enlarge.
Company scrip consists of promissory notes issued by a business as wages to its employees. Unlike government-backed notes, company scrip can only be redeemed for company goods or company services. The scrip was usually printed as sheets on rice paper. Often, the vignettes were pulled from catalogs and the originality and complexity of the notes depended on budget and whether anti-counterfeiting measures were deemed necessary. At its peak, scrip was accepted by some 20,000 company stores across North America. Companies distributed scrip for a number of reasons.
For one, it meant that employees gave a large portion, if not all, of their paycheck right back to their employer. A company could mark up prices on goods because employees had no other alternative — they couldn’t take their scrip notes to any other stores. Company scrip also made it harder for employees to move, allowing the company to retain a workforce without raising wages or improving working conditions.
Company scrip wasn’t all bad. It also allowed for the growth of industries in areas that were cash-poor and otherwise would not have had the chance to develop. It was given to workers who otherwise would have had no access to credit in cash-strapped regions and allowed companies to survive or even grow during economic slumps.
Company stores, by necessity, often became the social and economic epicenter of many mining and lumber towns. Because these industries were often in remote areas, cash was short and competition for supplies, and entertainment, were lacking. The goods you could buy at your company store ran the gamut from miners' lamps and safety shoes to bubble gum, candy and pop. Company stores also might include the town’s barbershop, blacksmith and post office.
|Image 2: An uncut sheet of various denominations. Notice that the sheet was issued in 1863, after the Cambria Iron Co. was purchased by Wood, Morrell & Co., which is why both company names appear on the note.
Click image to enlarge.
One of the most common types of company scrip we have seen here at PMG comes from mining companies (See Image 1). This is because mining is an industry done in remote regions where, during the 1800s, government-backed cash was hard to come by. One example of mining scrip we’ve seen is from the Cambria Iron Co. Located in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the mining company was founded in 1852. It produced iron and steel, most of which was used by railroads. After only three years of operations, the company suffered financially because the price of iron fell. Luckily, the company was saved by several creditors, led by a man named Daniel Morrell, who formed a corporation, Wood, Morrell, & Co (See Image 2). The corporation bought the ironworks and leased it back to Cambria Iron Mining Works.
|Image 3: On May 31, 1889, a damn failed and just upstream of Johnstown, causing a catastrophic flood that killed more than 2,200 people.
Click image to enlarge.
In 1889, the Cambria Iron Mining Co. suffered another major setback. After several weeks of heavy rainfall, on May 31, 1889, 14.55 million cubic meters of water broke through the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River just upstream of Johnstown. The catastrophic flood, now known as the Johnstown Flood or the Great Flood of 1889, devastated the area. It resulted in more than 2,200 deaths and caused about $17 million in damage, or about $475 million in today’s money (See Image 3). Relief efforts were led by Clara Barton and the American Red Cross that she had founded only eight years earlier. Despite the widespread destruction, the Cambria Iron Co. was able to rebuild and remained active in mining until 1992.
Company scrip helped companies and, to a lesser degree, their employees. But it also gave companies control over their employees, allowing employers to limit their workers’ wages and to restrict their rights. Today, these notes are interesting fragments of history, each telling the stories of a bygone society’s companies and their workers.
Brown, S. (1989). Cambria Iron Company. United States Department of Interior.
Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey (1988). Iron-mining store scrip in Pennsylvania [pdf]. Pennsylvania Geology, 19(3). Retrieved from http://docs.dcnr.pa.gov/cs/groups/public/documents/document/DCNR_20027663.pdf on 12/4/2019
Mokyr, J. (1999). The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870-1914. Rome: Laterza Publishing. Pp. 219-245.
National Park Service (2016). Scrip — A Coal Miner's Credit Card. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/biso/learn/historyculture/scrip.htm on 12/4/2019
Want news like this delivered to your inbox once a month? Subscribe to the free PMG eNewsletter today!