The Hawthorne Works Museum at Morton College has been drawing lots of visitors ever since its grand opening last month. Some are old-timers who once worked in the vast telephone-manufacturing plant that was razed in the 1980s. But many others who are also finding the collection fascinating are too young to have ever even used a rotary phone or placed a call from a phone booth.
In 1902, Western Electric purchased a vast tract of empty prairie in an area known as “Hawthorne” that would eventually become part of the Town of Cicero. This property was developed as the Hawthorne Works, the massive manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone System. For most of the 20th century over 40,000 employees spread across the giant 100-acre facility located at 22nd Street and Cicero Avenue.
In the early days so many young Czechs worked there, producing 140 million telephones each year, that the plant was often dubbed “Bohemian University.” For decades everyone except management was paid weekly and in cash, in individual envelopes containing the appropriate bills and change.
The era ended in the mid-1980s when “Ma Bell” (AT&T) was broken up. But for nine decades, the huge plant had been a virtual self-sufficient city within a city, complete with a hospital that had trained nurses who made house calls, a fire department, a running track and gym, a laundry, a greenhouse, a brass band, a railroad and its own annual beauty pageant. The massive, seven-story tall structure had a corner tower that reminded people of a castle or a medieval cathedral.
The factory that once provided many thousands of secure, high-paying jobs had become so outdated it was closed down and demolished. Some 85 years of history fell in less than 10 seconds with the demolition by implosion of the grand Western Electric tower on the corner of Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road. After the entire plant was destroyed and cleared away, a shopping center was erected on the site.
Western Electric played a huge role in the history of telecommunications in America. The plant developed technology considered cutting edge in its day. The museum contains scores of dramatically lighted glass shelves that display hundreds of artifacts, such as “candlestick” telephones of the 1915 period, 1950s pastel rotary phones, and a microphone used by World War II pilots.
There are vintage loudspeakers, public address systems and late 1920s “talkie” movie microphones. Much of the exhibit chronologically documents 20th-century American life and culture.
The many generations who worked at Western Electric literally changed the ways people lived. The sleekly designed displays are so eye-catching they draw you in.
“Many different individuals generously donated the different artifacts to the collection,” explains Promilla Bansal, coordinator of the Hawthorne Museum, as she points out a variety of early telephone switchboards. “Some of the items had been kept by families for generations. Now there are also many private collectors who track down Western Electric equipment and various parts for themselves, especially if their family was connected with the plant years ago. Some families would have several members working at the Hawthorne Works.”
The museum also features household appliances from other local industrial plants like Hotpoint. Reynolds Metal, for instance, manufactured the aluminum skin for World War II airplanes.
Western Electric is also associated with Chicago’s worst disaster, when the S.S. Eastland tipped over in the Chicago River at the Clark Street Bridge in 1915, killing 844 employees and their family members. The capsizing of the boat, which was heading out to Michigan City on a company picnic trip, is also depicted in a number of dramatic news photos in the exhibit.
It seems that after the sinking of the Titanic three years earlier, new safety codes required the Eastland’s upper deck to be equipped with tons more lifeboats that actually made the steamship unstable and top-heavy.
Another fascinating side trip of the Western Electric story is what is now known as the Hawthorne Studies, conducted by Harvard Business School between 1924 and 1936. The intense 12-year study brought about an understanding of the effects of job conditions on worker productivity. The results, contrary to the prevailing business theories of the era, were key in implementing motivational factors for workers and are credited with helping usher in the Human Relations Movement in modern management thinking.
The high-tech revolution the world has experienced since the advent of the computer age had its roots in the inventions manufactured at Western Electric. The exciting collection and displays celebrates these developments and their intense impact.
The Hawthorne Museum is located on the second floor of Morton College’s main building, just off the library, 3801 S. Central Ave. in Cicero. It is open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Evenings, weekends, and other times by appointment (656-8000, ext. 322.) The museum is free to the public.