The place was legendary. Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works was the world’s largest telephone equipment factory: Five million square feet of floor space on 200 acres in the Chicago suburb of Cicero and 40,000 employees in its heyday.
Western Electric was the manufacturing unit of AT&T and Hawthorne was its largest plant. When it opened in 1905, factories were works of architecture as well as utility. The main building was an industrial monument: six stories of red brick, three blocks on a side, topped with a tower that elevated the general manager’s office.
When I first walked through Hawthorne’s iron gate in 1973 I was impressed with the history and scale of the place, and never lost that sense of wonder during my three-year rotational assignment from Illinois Bell. This was more than a factory: It was a city, a community and a kind of extended family.
Hawthorne had its own electrical power plant, water system, fire station, police force and even its own railroad. There was a credit union, employee clubs and activities and a grassy park in the center of the complex. They even had a beauty contest in which the contestants rode into the coronation ceremony on a locomotive. (Women’s liberation was slow to reach Cicero.)
But first and foremost, Hawthorne was about manufacturing. Old photos of the Hawthorne works showed hundreds of people assembling telephones by hand at long tables. By the time I arrived machines occupied more space than people, ranging from a noisy foundry to a state-of-the-art “clean room” that produced computer chips.
Hawthorne no longer manufactured telephones at that point but made switching equipment and other components. A cable plant transformed raw copper into miles of telephone wire. There were rooms full of punch presses and even a carpenter shop. I expended a lot of shoe leather walking around the complex, occasionally with a reporter or TV crew in tow.
Like most factories, Hawthorne had a population of cats that kept the place rodent-free. One cat wandered into a boxcar loaded with reels of cable and was inadvertently shipped to a facility in Atlanta. A week later the boxcar returned to Hawthorne with empty cable reels… and the cat, supplied with food for the trip by the Atlanta crew.
Most of Hawthorne’s original employees were Eastern European immigrants who made Cicero a community of brick bungalows and Bohemian bakeries. Pay and benefits were good for those days and working “by the Western,” in Chicago parlance, was a status symbol. (My wife’s Lithuanian grandfather was impressed when I began working there.) Later generations brought Mexican-Americans and African-Americans but Hawthorne retained an old-neighborhood flavor. I met a surprising number of second- and third-generation Hawthorne employees, many of whom had relatives working there. And I got really good at spelling Czech and Polish surnames.
Hawthorne figured in one of the biggest disasters of the century when the SS Eastland capsized in the Chicago River in 1915 and killed hundreds of employees departing for an excursion on Lake Michigan. Another historical footnote: Al Capone’s headquarters, the Alton Hotel, was half a block away.
Part of Hawthorne’s history was the Hawthorne Studies, a pioneering series of experiments in the 1920s that helped launch the field of industrial psychology. The “Hawthorne effect” was discovered when experiments with lighting levels showed that employees responded to management attention more than environment. I found myself glancing up from my desk occasionally to see if they were changing the lights on me.
The company continued to value employee relations 50 years later. When it was time to re-paint the machines in the cable plant, managers let employees pick the colors instead of going with the usual industrial green. Peter Max colors were popular with young workers in the 1970s, and machines the size of garbage trucks blossomed in psychedelic shades of puce, chartreuse and fuchsia. The plant looked bizarre but productivity probably improved.
A Western Electric national strike in 1974, Hawthorne’s first in 70 years, was the friendliest strike I had ever seen. In contrast to the bitter telephone company strikes I had experienced, managers were never hassled and I rode my bicycle through the picket lines without incident. The general manager visited the picket line to chat with employees and nobody thought of taking a poke at him.
What made this employee engagement extraordinary was that Hawthorne was in steep decline. Changing technology had cut the workforce from 24,000 to 16,000 before I arrived, and only 11,000 remained when I left. The department where I worked was cut by half. Managers were reluctant to end the beauty contest because it had been a tradition for decades and was popular with employees (especially women in their 50s, oddly enough) but finally discontinued it after most of the young women were laid off. Layoffs are not unusual in manufacturing, and managers were candid with employees about the plant’s prospects.
So I was happy to rotate back to Illinois Bell in 1976. The Hawthorne Works finally closed in 1983. The water tower is still standing but the rest of the property is now a shopping center.