Monday, April 25, 2022

The History of the Western Electric Plant, Hawthorne Works, Cicero, Illinois.

The Hawthorne Works was a large Western Electric Company factory complex in Cicero, Illinois. 

Cicero began as separate settlements that gradually expanded into one community. On June 23, 1857, a local government was organized for the district named "The Town of Cicero." Railroads, immigration, and the Civil War contributed to economic growth in the new township, which by 1867 incorporated the municipality and the Town of Cicero.

By 1889, Chicago had annexed more than half of the original Town. An 1899 referendum ceded the Austin neighborhood to Chicago, and in the following year, land containing a race track was transferred to Stickney Township. The Town of Cicero retained less than six of the 36 square miles carved out in 1849.

Cicero comprises eight neighborhoods, each with its own district names and characteristics. Two were named for businesses: Hawthorne for an 1850s quarry, the first industry in what later became Cicero, and Grant Works after an 1890 locomotive factory. The other six are Boulevard Manor, Clyde, Drezel, Morton Park, Parkholme, and Warren Park.
The grazing cow in the foreground is apparently undisturbed by the rapid expansion of Hawthorn Works nearby. This 1907 view from Cermak Road shows the first Telephone Apparatuses buildings shortly after completion, and the corner building with its distinctive water tower did not start until 1912.

The Hawthorne Works complex was built at Cicero Avenue and Cermak Road. The facility consisted of several buildings and contained a private railroad, "Manufacturers Junction Railroad," to move shipments through the plant to the nearby Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad freight depot. In the first decades, the factory complex was significantly expanded.

Charles M. Prchal was born in 1896 in Golcuv Jenikov, a small town southeast of Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in the Czech Republic. In August 1911, he journeyed alone to America and settled in Chicago, furthers his education at night school, finds employment at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, and builds a lifelong career there. It’s a scenario repeated thousands of times at General Electric's Hawthorne Works, but it’s backed by fact, not legend. 
Charles M. Prchal
Prchal joined Western Electric in 1918, just as the Hawthorne Works launched another of its frequent expansion projects. He worked days while studying architectural drafting and structural engineering at night school. 

His first big assignment was the design of the seven-story tower at the northwest corner of the Works complex. The 183-foot-tall red-brick spire housed the elegant executive offices on its top floor. At its dedication in 1919, Western Electric president Charles DuBois proclaimed the structure the symbol of Hawthorne’s past and future, created by “hard work of hand and brain, and square dealing with everyone.” At the Works Silver Jubilee in 1978, Prchal agreed that the tower had “always been a symbol of the promise of sixty years ago—the promise of a great manufacturing plant and its thousands of employees producing important equipment.”

Later in his career, Prchal designed the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove and the domed mausoleum at Chicago’s Bohemian National Cemetery. He also served for thirty-two years as the president of the American Sokol, an organization dedicated to preserving Bohemian culture and providing guidance to youth through social and athletic programs. After a forty-three-year career, Prchal retired from Western Electric but remained active as a lecturer, author, and member of many social and fraternal societies until he died in 1980.

Although his most impressive design has been gone since 1987, the image of Mr. Prchal’s tower still represents the Hawthorne Works to everyone who recalls its glory days. And his life story illustrates the accomplishments of the many humbly-born immigrants who found an outlet for their potential during America’s industrial golden age.

In 1915, Western Electric was associated with one of the worst accidents in Chicago's history. The SS Eastland, a boat filled with Hawthorne Works employees and family members attending the company's annual outing, capsized at its dock in the Chicago River, killing over 800 people.
A view of the hospital and gas plant in a garden setting.

Researchers at the Hawthorne Works pioneered new technologies such as the high-vacuum tube, the condenser microphone, and airplane radio systems during the 1910s.

By 1917, the Hawthorne Works facility employed 25,000 people, many Cicero residents of Czech and Polish descent, who produced telephone, cable, and every major telephone switching system in the country. In 1900, 676,733 Bell Telephone stations were owned and connected in the country. By 1910, three years after Hawthorne Works opened, these 25,000 employees produced 5,142,699 telephones, and by 1920, 11,795,747 Bell telephones. Over 14,000 different types of apparatus were manufactured at the plant to provide the telecommunications infrastructure for this exponential growth. During the plant's early years into the 1920s, Western Electric was also a major producer of household appliances.

During the Great Depression (1929-1933), the company laid off thousands of workers, but business recovered during World War II. During the war years, when it was subject to federal rules for government contracts, the company began to employ negroes for the first time.

On the eve of World War II (1939-1942), roughly 90% of demand for Western Electric's products came from one customer, the Bell System. By mid-1941, 85% of the demand for products came from the federal government, for which the company provided more than 30% of all electronic gear for war, including radar equipment.

When World War II (1939-1942) started, the U.S. government called on Hawthorne Works to engineer and manufacture mass quantities of the most modern and capable communications and radar equipment.
The area where lead sheaths were placed around the cord.

Employees rolling the telephone wires.

The Hawthorne Works produced a large output of telephone equipment. In addition, Western Electric produced various consumer products and electrical equipment, including refrigerators and electric fans. 

The works employed up to 45,000 employees at the height of operations in WW II. Workers regularly used bicycles for transit within the plant.

Hawthorne Works benefited greatly by keeping workers happy. There were company-owned, not-for-profit restaurants and cafeterias within the complex. Employees of all statures could have quality hot breakfasts and lunches at drastically reduced prices. 

Other perks included a hospital and numerous "first-aid" rooms spread around the complex; a shoe store; eye care, glasses, and repairs; a store that carried items like men's ties, greeting cards, sundries, snacks, and even women's nylons.

Hawthorne recognized individual milestones in employment with service pins and a dinner. Retirement celebrations were quite elaborate. The entire department would be invited to a fancy dinner, a boutonnière for the retiree, and a corsage and beautiful flower arrangement for the retiree's wife.

    • Club Evening School offered over 60 subjects, i.e., English, Languages, First Aid, Drafting, Accounting, Telephony, and more.
    • Health Appearance Personality course, free of charge for women only.
    • Hawthorne Club Library est. 1940.
    • Athletic Activities: Baseball, Basketball, the Albright Gymnasium, Tennis, Golf for Men and Women, Bowling for Men and Women, Horseshoe Courts, and the Rifle Club.
    • The Club's services included a Notary Service, Classified Ads, Young Men's Activities, Theater Bureau, and a Travel Bureau.
As a means of providing outlets for the many Hawthorne Works employees who have interests or hobbies in common, a number of associated clubs have been formed; the Boot and Saddle Club, Camera Club, Chess and Checker Club, Coin Club, Excursion Club, Flower and Garden Club, The Forum, Players Club, Hunting Club, Fishing Club, Male Chorus, Mixed Chorus, Science Club, Stamp Club, and the Flying Club.

BOOKLET: The Hawthorne Club was founded for Fellowship. 

Western Electric Hawthorne Works Albright Gymnasium and outdoor track at Cermak & 52nd Avenue. (1930s)

But the pièce de résistance was the yearly "Hello Charley Girl" contest.

The Origin of 'Hello Charley.'
Newcomers were often confused during the Merrimack Valley Works, North Andover, Massachusetts (opened 1953), "WE Valley Girl" Contest by long term employees referring to the Queen as the "Hello Charley Girl."

Originally a vacation queen contest. The winner took the name of the greeting that Western Electric employees used when discovering a fellow "Westerner" on vacation. 

Why "Hello Charley" and not Phillip? 
The greeting grew from an incident involving Charley Drucker, a benefits serviceman in the old days of the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. A pensioner whom he had visited wrote him a letter addressed "Charley, Western Electric." Since the retiree had not remembered Charley's last name, the letter made the rounds until finding the right Charley. 

Since this letter people began addressing each other as "Charley Western." Soon the greeting spread throughout the company. Every location nationwide has its vacation queen.
The "Hello Charley Girl" being crowned the winner in 1948, posing for a formal portrait.
The Hawthorne Works announced its closing in 1983 because most of its operations had been distributed to more modern facilities around the country. In 1986, the shutdown was completed. The Foundry and most Telephone Apparatus buildings were demolished between 1975 and 1983. The remaining Telephone Apparatus buildings and the Executive Tower were razed in 1986 and 1987. The rest of the Hawthorne Works was demolished in 1994.

The only survivors are the Water Tower and the Cable building at 4545 West Cermak Road.

The property was purchased in the mid-1980s by the late Donald L. Shoemaker and replaced with a shopping center.

Due to Hawthorne's significance in industrial manufacturing in the United States, the Hawthorne Works was the site of well-known industrial studies.

The Hawthorne effect is named for the Hawthorne Works. North American Quality pioneer Joseph Juran referred to the Hawthorne Works as "the seedbed of the Quality Revolution." The career arcs of other notable quality professionals, such as Walter Shewhart and Edwards Deming, also intersected at the Hawthorne Works.

The term "Hawthorne effect" refers to reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed. The industrial psychology series of experiments began in 1924. It was first observed in data from the Hawthorne Works collected by psychologist Elton Mayo and later reinterpreted by Henry A. Landsberger, who coined the term in 1958.

This well-known and remarkable effect was discovered in research conducted at the Western Electric Hawthorne Works plant. However, some scholars feel the descriptions are apocryphal (of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as accurate).

The original research involved workers who made electrical relays at the Hawthorne Works. Between 1924 and 1927, a famous lighting study was conducted. Workers experienced a series of lighting changes in which productivity was said to increase with almost any change in the lighting. This turned out not to be true. In the study associated with Elton Mayo, which ran from 1928 to 1932, five women implemented work structure changes (i.e., rest periods). However, this methodologically poor, uncontrolled study did not permit any firm conclusions.

One of the later interpretations by Landsberger suggested that the novelty of being research subjects and the increased attention from such could lead to temporary increases in workers' productivity. This interpretation was dubbed "the Hawthorne effect."

In one of the studies, researchers chose two women as test subjects and asked them to choose four other workers to join the test group. The women assembled telephone relays in a separate room for over five years (1927-1932).

Output was measured mechanically by counting how many finished relays each worker dropped down a chute. This measuring began in secret two weeks before moving the women to an experiment room and continued throughout the study. In the experiment room, they had a supervisor who discussed changes in their productivity. Some of the variables were:
  • Given two 5-minute breaks (after discussing the best length of time), then changed to two 10-minute breaks (not their preference). Productivity increased, but they disliked it and reduced output when they received six 5-minute rests.
  • Providing food during the breaks.
  • Shortening the day by 30 minutes (output went up); trimming it more (output per hour went up, but overall production decreased); returning to the first condition (where output peaked).
Changing a variable usually increases productivity, even if the variable was just a change to the original condition. However, it is said that this is the natural process of the human being adapting to the environment without knowing the objective of the experiment. Researchers concluded that the workers worked harder because they thought they were being monitored individually.

Researchers hypothesized that choosing one's coworkers, working as a group, being treated as unique (as evidenced by working in a separate room), and having a sympathetic supervisor were the real reasons for the productivity increase. One interpretation, mainly due to Elton Mayo, was that "the six individuals became a team, and the team gave itself wholeheartedly and spontaneously to cooperation in the experiment." (There was a second relay assembly test room study with less significant results than the first experiment.)

The purpose of the following study was to find out how payment incentives would affect productivity. The surprising result was that productivity decreased, and workers apparently had become suspicious that their productivity may have been boosted to justify firing some workers later. 

The study was conducted by Elton Mayo and W. Lloyd Warner between 1931 and 1932 on a group of fourteen men who put together telephone switching equipment. The researchers found that although the workers were paid according to individual productivity, productivity decreased because the men feared the company would lower the base rate.

Detailed observation of the men revealed the existence of informal groups or "cliques" within the formal groups. These cliques developed relaxed rules of behavior and mechanisms to enforce them. The cliques served to control group members and manage bosses. Clique members gave the same responses when bosses asked questions, even if they were untrue. These results show that workers were more responsive to the social force of their peer groups than to the control and incentives of management.

Possible explanations for the Hawthorne effect include the impact of feedback and motivation toward the experimenter. Receiving feedback on their performance may improve their skills when an experiment provides this feedback for the first time. Research on the demand effect also suggests that people may be motivated to please the experimenter if it does not conflict with any other motive. They may also be suspicious of the purpose of the experimenter. Therefore, the Hawthorne effect may only occur when there is useable feedback or a change in motivation.

Elton Mayo contended that the effect was due to the workers reacting to the sympathy and interest of the observers. He did discuss the study as demonstrating an experimenter effect but as a management effect: how management can make workers perform differently because they feel differently. He suggested that much of the Hawthorne effect concerned the workers feeling free and in control as a group rather than as being supervised. The experimental manipulations were influential in convincing the workers to feel this way, that conditions in the particular five-person workgroup were really different from the conditions on the shop floor. 

Harry Braverman pointed out that the Hawthorne tests were based on industrial psychology, and the researchers involved were investigating whether workers' performance could be predicted by pre-hire testing. The Hawthorne study showed "that workers' performance had little relation to their ability and, in fact, often bore an inverse relation to test scores." Braverman argued that the studies showed that the workplace was not "a system of a formal bureaucratic organization on the Weberian model, nor a system of informal group relations, as in the interpretation of Elton Mayo and his followers, but rather a system of power and antagonisms." This discovery was a blow to those hoping to apply the behavioral sciences to manipulate workers in management's interest.

Greenwood, Bolton, and Greenwood (1983) interviewed some of the employees in the experiments and found that the participants were paid significantly better.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. In either a psychology or sociology class I took a number of years ago Western Electric was used an example of a company that took excellent care of their employees. In return the company received dedicated and loyal employees.

    1. My father worked there for over 50 years

    2. They had a Clinic for the Employees at no charge.

  2. I worked there for 2 years, they started to lay off people in the 70's. Met people from different part of the world, they used to said the United Nations work at Western Electric, love to work there. I used to wire the frame for the telephones.

  3. Another great historical story! My father worked at the Western Electric plant in West Chicago for 40 years as a wirer. We have a distant relative who died in the SS Eastland disaster. There was a 100 year memorial event a few years ago.

  4. I worked there in the early 70's. I tested and repaired the A & B frames of the automatic intercept system that hooked up to the #2 ESS. Great job. After the AIS was completed they said they had to let me go as there was nothing else for me to do there. They told me of a new plant in Dublin California. I went there and was hired. Worked as a tester and promoted to Quality control. A few years later they shut that plant down.


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