For Kin and Company: The Rhetoric of Family in Large Firms – Source of the Month (July 2023)

By the start of the twentieth century, large firms were employing rhetoric centred around the concept of ‘family’ to foster a sense of unity, loyalty, and mutual support among their employees. This is the first of two blog posts that will explore the use of this rhetoric.

This month, we look at the early publications of the Industrial Welfare Society, an association for managers that promoted welfare programmes in their companies. These sources reveal the motivations behind the use of the language of the family. August’s blog post will turn its attention to the early magazines of Lever Brothers (the predecessor to Unilever) to see the deployment of this rhetoric in practice. From the later nineteenth, there was a rapid growth in the size and geographical extent of businesses. Alongside this, a corporate structure replaced the old personal system of proprietorship that was considered by some observers to have created a growing disconnect between employers and employees. The Industrial Welfare Society commented on this in a publication from about 1919, entitled Esprit de Firm:

The Purpose of Welfare Work

In the good old days, when businesses were small, and employers were, as often as not, to be found working side by side with their journeymen and apprentices, there was a friendly, even a family feeling prevalent throughout industry, which went far to promote the happiness and prosperity of all engaged in it. With the growth of businesses, however, their frequent amalgamation for greater convenience of management, and, last but not least, the substitution of the Company for the old personal system of proprietorship, the employer and the employee have gradually drifted apart, as it were, till by now they have nearly, if not quite, lost touch with one another. The evil effects of this tendency to estrangement are too apparent to need dwelling on here. What our present purpose is, is to show by what means it can be checked. That means will be best found in Welfare Work.

Taken from Esprit de Firm (Industrial Welfare Society, c.1919), p. 3. Pamphlet held by the library of the London School of Economics, HD7/D464.

The extract highlights a perceived estrangement, believed to have had a detrimental effect on workplace happiness and prosperity. Certain managers employed welfare programmes in their firms. Company magazines were used to communicate the programmes to employees, presented as being a means to restore a lost sense of familial camaraderie.

Communicating with employees with the language of family served four main purposes. Firstly, it created a sense of community, which it was hoped would boost morale and productivity. Secondly, it encouraged a sense of having a home, which could support staff retention at a time when companies were increasingly looking for ‘employees’ rather than hiring workmen for individual projects. Thirdly, it conveyed a sense of cohesion, emphasising common goals across large, disparate organisations. And fourthly, it encouraged staff to act as ‘brand ambassadors’, taking pride in the products produced by their workplace family.

The welfare workers overseeing these programmes were often women. The First World War accelerated both company welfare programmes but also the presence of women in employment more generally. The increased presence of women raised questions over how they should be integrated into the workforce. An issue of the Industrial Welfare Society’s magazine from June 1919 talks of split sentiments. There were those who believed female employees should be ‘dealt with apart from them [men], under the more expert supervision of their own sex’. Others saw their rise in the workforce as an opportunity to promote a ‘happy family feeling’ within their works. This discussion suggests that a dialogue of family was a way of integrating the traditional roles of women with their new workplace activities.

Taken from Esprit de Firm, p. 11.

Firms sought to create family-like environments through various welfare initiatives. Many workplaces provided sports facilities for their employees. Training together and competing against other such teams sought, in part, to instil a sense of ‘esprit de corps’, a term used at the time to mean a feeling of togetherness. Canteens were another important aspect of these workplace. Having meals together was another way in which a sense of being a family could be fostered within a workforce.

All of these endeavours were reinforced through the company magazine, the foremost channel of internal communication at the time. In July 1920 and August 1921, the Industrial Welfare Society reviewed the Smithes Dock Monthly. Commenting of how it created a sense of community through showcasing the work, play, and social amenities, it described it as ‘to a very large degree, “a family journal”’. As well as acting as a unifying force in their own right, company magazines spread awareness of the other familial activities of the firm. Many of the pages were filled with news of sport, entertainment, recreational activities, and the all-important works canteens.

The rhetoric of family provided a model for the structure of the employees. Through ‘looking after’ their employees with welfare programmes, heads of companies created an image of a father-like figures. In fact, critics of these programmes referred to their agendas as ‘paternalism’, derived from the Latin work pater meaning family.

Taken from Esprit de Firm, p. 13.

Equally, apprentices and young employees were sometimes described as children. By 1919, the Industrial Welfare Society was running seaside camps for London Working Boys. The organization went as far as to describe the activity as a ‘holiday’. The camps sought to instil positive relations and instil a sense of collective wellbeing between the participants. The May 1919 issue of the Industrial Welfare Society’s magazine stated:

The writer ventures to think that the success which has crowned the efforts of the Committee is due to the lines upon which the Camp is run. They are, briefly, those of a well-ordered family life. The underlying principle, which is carefully explained to each batch of new comers, is; that the best way to ensure the enjoyment of one’s own holiday, is to take care that others in the Camp enjoy theirs, — in a word, “unselfishness.”

In the early twentieth century, large firms adopted the rhetoric of ‘family’ as a means to combat the growing estrangement between employers and employees. Through welfare initiatives, works magazines, and the promotion of collective well-being, these companies aimed to foster a sense of unity, loyalty, and mutual support among their workforce. While these efforts were not without criticism, they marked an important shift in corporate culture, shaping workplace dynamics for years to come. In August’s Source of the Month’, we will look at this rhetoric of family in play in the internal communication of Lever Brothers at the turn of the twentieth century.

References

Heller, Michael, and Michael Rowlinson, ‘Imagined Corporate Communities: Historical Sources and Discourses’, British Journal of Management, 31 (2020), pp. 752-68.

Heller, Michael, ‘Sport, Bureaucracies and London Clerks, 1880-1939’, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 25 (2008), pp. 579-614.

Esprit de Firm (Industrial Welfare Society, c.1919). Pamphlet held by the library of the London School of Economics, HD7/D464.

‘The Boys’ Welfare Journal and Industrial Welfare Journal’, vol. i no. 7 (May 1919), p. 102. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/1.

‘The Boys’ Welfare Journal and Industrial Welfare Journal’, vol. i no. 8 (Jun 1919), p. 114. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/1.

‘The Journal of Industrial Welfare’, vol. 2 no. 7 (Jul 1920), p. 238. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/2. ‘The Journal of Industrial Welfare’, vol. 3 no. 8 (Aug 1921), p. 345. Held at Warwick Modern Records Centre, MSS.303/B19/1/3.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *