Route 66 news: Hawthorne Works Museum’s new book on famous Western Electric plant is out

A book signing next week Friday at Morton College will introduce a new book on the former Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works plant in Cicero, the southern end of which U.S. Route 66 cut through like a saw.  The Hawthorne Works wasn’t so much a factory as an entire 113-acre research and manufacturing campus that lasted for the better part of the 20th century and created numerous innovations for Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of the Bell Telephone System (the forerunner of AT&T).  The campus opened in 1905; at the height of its operations, the works employed about 45,000 employees.  The facility closed in 1983, just as the monolithic AT&T was being broken up into the Baby Bells.

The new book was written by Dennis Schlagheck and Catherine Lantz, two librarians from Morton College, and is being published by Arcadia Publishing.  The college also has a Hawthorne Works Museum that has an archive of photographs and historical material in addition to a large number of artifacts from the Hawthorne campus.  The reception will be on Feb. 28th, this coming Friday afternoon at 4pm, at Morton College Library, Building B, 3801 S. Central Avenue, Cicero, IL 60804.  Ask at the circulation desk to be directed to the exact room.

Hawthorne Works book cover (Arcadia) - blog

The works opened in the village of Hawthorne, which was then an unincorporated part of Cicero Township (now it’s part of the town itself).  Hawthorne Works was a self-sufficient city, with its own hospital, fire brigade, laundry, greenhouse, a brass band, running track, tennis courts, gymnasium, an annual beauty pageant, and a staff of trained nurses who made house calls.  The campus was so big that people regularly used bicycles to get around.  The plant also had its own railroad spur called the Manufacturer’s Junction Railway to move shipments through the plant to the nearby Burlington Northern Railroad freight depot.  The campus stretched from Cermak Road on the north past Ogden Avenue to about 31st Street on the south and from Cicero Avenue on the west about half a mile eastward to the rail line separating Cicero Township from the city of Chicago.

In 1900, the Bell System included 676,733 telephone stations throughout the country.  By 1910 (three years after the multi-building campus opened), these Western Electric employees produced more than 5.1 million telephones and by 1920, more than 11.7 million phones.  By 1917, the Hawthorne Works facility employed 25,000 people – many of them of Czech or Polish descent from Cicero, Berwyn and the Lawndale area of Chicago.

These workers and professionals made phones, cable and every major telephone switching system in the country.  Among the innovations developed at the Hawthorne Works were the high vacuum tube (1913), which ushered in the electronic age; the loudspeaker; public address systems; radar; sound for motion pictures; and most important, the transistor – for which Bell Labs researchers won the Nobel Prize.  Hawthorne was also the cradle of industrial psychology, with a series of experiments that began in 1924 and resulted in the so-called ‘Hawthorne effect,’ a phenomenon in which workers change or modify their behavior in response to the fact of change in their environment rather than in response to the nature of the change itself.

The Hawthorne Works water tower, which is visible from the shopping mall that now occupies the SE corner of Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road (22nd Street) is the only vestige left of the old 113-acre campus.  Photo copyright 2012, 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The Hawthorne Works water tower, which is visible from the shopping mall that now occupies the SE corner of Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road (22nd Street), is all that’s left of the old 113-acre Western Electric Co. campus.  Photo copyright 2012, 2014 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The company’s workers were also involved in the famous Eastland disaster, during which 844 people died (mostly drowned) when a ship bent on a holiday cruise capsized while still docked on the banks of the main stem of the Chicago River in downtown Chicago.  Many of the dead were mourned at funeral services at St. Mary of Częstochowa Catholic Church in Cicero.

The new book should be laden with all kinds of photos of the campus from the museum’s voluminous files.  The book will sell at the campus bookstore for $16.95 (you can get it through Amazon as well for $16.25 plus shipping).  All proceeds from the book will benefit Morton College’s scholarship programs.

Until next time,



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