"Store Pay Is Our Ruin": The Tyranny of the Company Store
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“Store Pay Is Our Ruin”: The Tyranny of the Company Store

Starting in the mid-19th century, industrial methods of producing goods began to overtake the small-scale methods of artisans and apprentices. The artisanal ideal of independence was eroded by the replacement of craft work by machine work, strict new work rules, and the growth of child labor. For miners and some other workers, the prevalence of store pay (wages paid only as credit), scrip wages (money redeemable only by the company), and company stores intensified their dependence on employers. If company stores lacked the items that miners wanted, they had no alternative but to do without. In these three excerpts from the Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics First Annual Report in 1878, miners complained about the stranglehold that company-owned stores, scrip wages, and store pay had on the welfare and independence of coal and iron ore workers in the Buckeye State.

Athens County Correspondent:

When a man’s work is done, it is moneythat is due him, yet he must take just what he can get or do without. If he sues for it a stay is taken, and his family can starve. There should be no stay on the wages of labor, and the man or company should be compelled under penalty to pay wages every two weeks in currency. The plea is that they cannot have the books made up—it is too much trouble. I ask, is it any more trouble to see what is due a man in money than in scribs or checks. . . . We cannot exchange. . . (the checks) with farmers or others. A farmer comes to my door. He has produce, just what I need. He sells for thirty cents. He also wants something out of the store and would willingly give me the produce and take the “check” on the store but the store will not receive the check from him so he is obliged to sell his produce to the store, and I am forced to pay the store forty cents for the article I could have bought for thirty cents. . . .

Lucas County (Sylvania) correspondent:

Store pay is our ruin. . . The store keeps no meat, no potatoes, no lard, and the most of the time this summer no flour, no butter, no eggs; but we can get hominy at 5 cents per pound, crackers at 10 cents per pound, and rice at 10 cents per pound. Now, it must be evident, that if I work for store-pay, and the store has no meat, I must go without it, and if they have no flour I must buy crackers. If we were paid in cash, we could go to Toledo, and save, at least, 40 per cent. . . How can a man be a moral, liberty loving citizen, when he can not send his children to school for want of clothes, or take his wife to church in decent attire?

Perry County (New Straitsville) correspondent:

Competition is not lawful in the eyes of God when it results to the destruction of our country and the rights of our fellow-man. The State is bound to prevent the unlawful reduction of wages, as much as it is bound to prevent the burning of property. To enslave and starve a man, or to drive him to desperation by actions the most uncharitable and unjust, is just as bad as to destroy property; both should be prevented. To my mind, the blasting a man’s social happiness, by forcing him to wander from his wife and children in quest of employment is a thousand times worse than to injure property, when no lives are in peril. One family of poor should be worth more than the world could purchase. . . .

Source: Ohio Bureau of Labor Statistics, First Annual Report (Columbus, Ohio: 1878), 156–192.