Row houses in Roebling Steel's company town in Burlington County, New
Jersey. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Row houses in Roebling Steel's company town in Burlington County, New Jersey. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

In February 2011, Facebook Inc. announced that it would move its headquarters to the former campus of Sun Microsystems Inc. in Menlo Park, California.

The site was first envisioned as providing work space for about 3,000 employees. Then, in August, Facebook said it would expand with Frank Gehry-designed office space for an additional 2,800 workers. The rebuilding is well under way, with 2,000 employees on site; merchants, from gourmet eateries to hair salons, have set up on-campus outlets intended for Facebook employees only. “It is the 21st century company town,” the Silicon Valley futurist Paul Saffo told the Los Angeles Times.

Facebook is now figuring out where the influx of employees will live. Some may be housed on the campus. Facebook has partnered with a developer to build about 250 housing units. According the San Mateo Daily Journal, however, the company may face pressure to help develop thousands more units in an area that has long neglected affordable housing.

The history of U.S. company towns shows that Facebook is up against an old problem. Consider the case of Roebling, New Jersey, which was constructed at the turn of the 20th century by the steelmaker John A. Roebling & Sons.

Brooklyn Bridge

The company produced the cables that were used in the construction of the Roebling-designed bridges across the Monongahela River, the Niagara River, the Ohio River and New York City’s East River (the Brooklyn Bridge).

By the turn of the 20th century, high prices for imported steel prompted the family to seek new steelmaking capacity, and they realized there was insufficient land near their existing works in Trenton, New Jersey, to meet their needs.

Instead, they chose a spot on the Delaware River that was close to the Camden & Amboy Railroad. It was called Kinkora, and later redubbed Roebling.

The area was devoid of housing, so the company decided to erect a model town for its workers. Washington A. Roebling wanted it known that the decision was a “plain business necessity.” The company’s owners, he said, weren’t “posing as idealists or reformers.”

In 1904, Roebling Steel bought 250 acres and set to work. The project proved more complex than first imagined. It required erecting buildings for a number of stores, constructing a water system, paving streets and laying on gas and electricity. There would also have to be a police force and a jail, along with public schools. The company’s share of the cost would run to $80,000. “The man who owns a town often wishes he had never been born,” Washington Roebling ruefully said.

Roebling contained 750 brick houses, equipped with gas and electric utilities that were provided at minimum cost. There were also two workingmen’s hotels.

In many company towns, liquor and saloons were barred, not to mention bawdy houses. Coal towns paid local sheriffs to keep an eye on any strangers -- and to rough up and evict any perceived “union organizers.”

The Roeblings avoided such watchfulness, and even installed a bar at the town’s inn. (“You can’t make a mollycoddle out of a mill man,” Charles Roebling said.) It was a dictum of the company that town residents “would be under no obligation to us nor we to them as far as life in the city is concerned.”

As with other company towns such as Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point, Maryland, Roebling had several classes of houses, all with appropriately varying rents.

Row Houses

In Roebling, hourly workers lived in row houses near the plant, skilled workers got semidetached houses closer to the town center and managers received larger houses facing the river. All buildings were maintained by the company, as were lawns and the park.

In all company-owned towns, Sparrows Point and Roebling included, workers who lost their jobs were evicted from company housing. (Roebling leases allowed eviction on one week’s notice if a man “got out of line.”) And at Roebling, as in the rest of the steel industry, working hours were 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, moving to a three-shift day in the 1920s.

Yet life in Roebling wasn’t all work. The small town featured a post office, a hospital, a bank, a library, an auditorium, a Boy Scout hut and a baseball field. Roebling Steel sponsored sports teams, including a football squad known as the Blue Centers (honoring a feature of the company’s wire rope), and basketball, bowling, tennis and quoits teams.

Roebling Steel became the world’s leading producer of wire rope. But in 1953, the family sold its stake to the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron, which continued operations in the town until 1974. The houses and commercial buildings had been sold by the Roeblings in 1947, with tenants and other employees getting right of first refusal.

So how should Facebook reinvent the company town for the 21st century? Its chairman and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, might want to have a look at the history of the experiments that came before.

(Hardy Green is the author of “The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this blog post: Hardy Green at hardygreen1@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.