“A Little Business, A Little Information, A Little Gossip, A Little Recreation”: Standard Oil Company of California’s Employee Magazine, “Among Ourselves,” April 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

By the 1920s, there was definitely a major movement afoot in American business to offer employees more benefits and perks, with much of this coming out of a period over decades in which the massive industrial and commercial development in the country led to great wealth for corporations and their owners and executives but little progress for most laborers. Unions sought to change the dynamic, not just with wages, but working hours and safety conditions, but the resulting battles with companies were often incredibly violent and destructive.

Another enormous problem, and a costly one for businesses, was rampant turnover and some savvy corporate leaders reasoned that providing benefits and perks was more likely to lead to a satisfied workforce, which meant higher productivity and longer retention, as well as higher profitability. There was also alarm as European governments ramped up benefits and there were calls for this to happen in the United States, so the specter of a “welfare state” and a heavily unionized labor pool led some companies to preempt these developments with what is sometimes called “welfare capitalism.”

The types of offering varied widely. Increasingly, especially by very large companies, there were pension, stock, insurance and health plans offered to employees (sometimes to a certain segment, and, other times, to all workers). The federal government assisted by establish tax breaks for firms that offered them. Some firms had educational courses, clubs of all kinds, sports teams, company bands, employee picnics, and more.

The boom in such offerings continued through the Roaring Twenties, but mostly were ended with the onset and worsening of the Great Depression, which was followed by the all-out mobilization and sacrifices of the Second World War. When, however, the postwar boom brought renewed prosperity on a major level as America emerged as the only major industrial economy in the world for a time, there was a revival of company perks and benefits.

Yet, with the recession and inflation years of the Seventies and a growing anti-union and pro-business sentiment in corporate America and in government, there was yet another retrenchment of the classic benefits and perks model. Pension plans, for example, dissipated and 401(K) and SIMPLE-IRA retirement plans, which put more of the role of savings onto the worker. The perks partially receded because employees chose to spend their leisure time completely away from work in addition to companies choosing cost-cutting measures. With the enormous rise in the tech sector, there was, in many cases, a refashioning of the perks element, including such elements as on-site recreation and entertainment, though this did not usually translate in more traditional sectors.

Now, with the so-called “Great Retirement,” and with businesses often desperate for workers, we’ll see what changes, beyond the obviously crucial matter of higher pay, in the perks and benefits department. Yet, it is clear that younger workers are also far less interested in staying with an employer for as long as their predecessors, which changes the calculus. Generally, of course, if the labor market is tight, companies are under more pressure to attract workers with better pay, benefits and parks, but if the situation is in the other direction, then the conditions change accordingly.

So, the featured artifact for this post is particularly notable because it represents another change in the employer-worker dynamic in the early 20th century. This second number of the first volume, from April 1921, of Among Ourselves, a magazine “published monthly for and by the employees of the Standard Oil Company (California),” is indicative of the rise of such publications for workers of large firms. This one stresses that the magazine consisted of “A Little Business, A Little Information, A Little Gossip, A Little Recreation,” concisely laying out the purposes for its establishment.

Not surprisingly, the main feature article, titled “Stockholders All!” concerned the fact that, by the time employees of Standard had the magazine in their hands, “all employees of the Company will have been informed of the plan which the Company has adopted to make it possible for employees to invest in stock in the corporation.” It was asserted that the project was some time in the making, but awaited approval from stockholders, which was secured by a unanimous vote at a special meeting on 10 March, as well as passage of a new law by the California legislature “which would permit corporations to offer stock to their employees.” This done, “we are ready for full-steam ahead on the plan which should result in every employee having shares of stock in the Company.”

Moreover, the piece went on, the idea was “to promote thrift and savings” in addition to giving workers a (small) piece in the form and there was also the benefit “of buying shares . . . on the installment plan, by having deductions made from our monthly pay.” Notably, it was pointed out that:

We all know how many of us have benefitted by our experience in buying Liberty Bonds on the installment plan, the Company attending to the financing of the buying. Company employees to the number of 12,000 purchased Liberty Bonds to the extent of between Three and Four Million Dollars. This stock plan is much better, for the Company will add to each dollar we invest the sum of Fifty Cents which will be applied to the purchase of stock.

The Liberty Bond concept (Walter P. Temple, whose Montebello-area ranch was leased out to extensive and often successful drilling by Standard, providing him a small fortune, invested nearly $130,000 in the program) was conceived as a way of funding the massive and quick mobilization of the American Expeditionary Force when the United States entered World War I and it was clearly stipulated that the model was one which the Company followed, and improved upon with its fifty cent match for each dollar invested by the employee, in its development of the stock plan. The piece ended with the proviso that a worker had to be with Standard for a year before being eligible to join the plan and that “what every agency and branch of the Company will strive for is a hundred per cent subscription of all employees.”

Another indication of the change in the employer-employee relationship manifested in this edition of Among Ourselves is an article titled “A Clearing House for Employees’ Problems” and which had to do with the recent establishment of the Department of Personnel. For some reason, the magazine determined that it had to define that last word as “the body of people that compose an organization” and added “we are correct, therefore, in assuming that the department of this name is devoted to the interests of the men and women of the Company.”

Furthermore, the piece continued, the department’s “sole function is to maintain the present good standard of conditions among the employees and through extensive study and research work to aid in making improvements when found necessary.” Crucial to the establishment of the department was securing R.H. Ivory as its head because of his nearly two decades of experience with the company, including being foreman, since 1917, of the Labor Department at Standard’s principal refinery in Richmond, north of Oakland. In fact, “it was in this capacity, no doubt, that he received a great part of the experience which he is now able to call upon in his new work.”

He then became assistant superintendent of the facility in 1919 an the following year moved to corporate headquarters in San Francisco for his current position, which involved working together with other department heads “and through them with the employees.” Ivory began by visiting managers which led to the “study [of] the personnel work of large concerns throughout the country,” while he established records that were reference material for his plans. The idea was to help managers throughout the firm “in carrying on matters which heretofore the individual officials were compelled to handle personally.” With this, there was “a centralized agency composed of experts devoting their time solely to study and investigation of problems” which others could not do.

Beyond this, it was explained that a major question was in hiring so that there was an efficient “organization for employment and the proper placement of the men and women selected.” Also important were “the matters of wages, working hours, working conditions, promotions, and transfers.” Finally, there were such issues as lunch rooms, housing and sanitation, so that “the department has a great field to cover and important problems to cope with.” Given this, the piece ended with the observation that “eventually everyone will come into contact with its management and through an understanding of its function will be to cooperate in its work.”

For a firm that was undoubtedly comprised largely of men, it is not surprising to see the Sports section, with reports on company baseball and bowling teams, as well as a rod and gun club for hunters. The sole local example was the reference to the “Long Beach, Cal., Substation Looking for Trouble,” involving seven gents from the Standard facility there playing in the Y.M.C.A. City League and eking out a 20-19 (yes, scores were routinely that low in those days!) against the United Presbyterians. It was also mentioned that there was a goal to establish a Standard league with teams from Anaheim, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Santa Ana and San Pedro, as well as from Long Beach.

In the “Happenings in Standardland” feature, there was short piece about the refinery at El Segundo (now owned by Chevron), the time signifying that it was the second established by the firm after the aforementioned facility in Richmond. In this case, there was a photo of a trio of young workers, who “entered the refinery when very young and through conscientious effort are close to the top of their chosen trades.” 20-year old Mike Durkos worked in the boiler shop, while Dick Materna, who was the same age, was “a very capable welder,” and the youngest, Harry Gross, whose age was not stated, was also to soon be a welder. The trio were lauded for being “optimistic and healthy youths whose activities are a credit to the refinery.”

In this same section, however, was news of an El Segundo minstrel show, which was sponsored by the company’s athletic association as well as the local American Legion post. It was added that “the program was a succession of surprises in the way of high class talent” to the extent that “the boys have been asked to repeat the show in nearby towns” with revenues to support the two sponsoring entities. A photo on a separate page headed by “Social Gatherings in Standardland,” though, showed the participants, including a few women, but also with several in blackface, representative of just how ingrained racism was at the time. It was also briefly noted that El Segundo celebrated its tenth birthday that month and that, in 1911, there was but one house, while now “a large and prosperous city has grown around our plant.”

In the “Sales Chatter” section was a note that in the Los Angeles field that “newest substation has recently been opened ay Hollywood” which “is known as the cinema capital of the world and, incidentally, our plant is within a block of one of the largest movie studios.” It was noted that nearest to the facility was “a swimming pool where the famous bathing girl scenes are taken” and, when the substation was being built, the gents hoped to get a fine view and had their opera glasses at the ready.

The magazine, however, noted that “but, alas, unkind Fate erected the Zerolene tanks directly in the line of vision!” Ogling (the feelings of the girls were not recorded) was to be secured as “this calamity has had the unexpected result of making the routine task of gauging the most sought-for favor within the gifts of the Special Agent—for from the dizzy heights a perfect view of the stage can be obtained.” Other local news included the quick thinking of tank wagon driver Conrad Stahlman, who noticed a fire caused by a piece of waste under his vehicle and promptly drove it to safety, averting what “no doubt, would have caused a disaster in a few more moments, and the formation of a jazz sextet at the station in Beaumont, west of Palm Springs.

Contents also included material on the agency and three of its stellar employees in Portland, Oregon; an image of the original company refinery at Alameda, which produced less than a tenth of the output generated at Richmond in 1921; substations at Sonoma and Eureka in northern California; news from the Richmond refinery; and the brief note about “two of our best known culinary experts,” these being Chinese cooks Joe Wong, a 17-year veteran for Standard, at a Kern County field camp and Chin Sing, who made lunch for department chiefs at Richmond—it was added that “these two artists should know each other.”

Finally, there was the sidebar “What Makes a Good Story,” which let employees know that, while “some contributions that come to us are not appropriate,” it was felt that “employees will not be discouraged or lose interest because we do not publish their work.” Local items of limited company-wide interest were rejected in favor of contributions penned “for the entire 19,000 fellow workers who will read the magazine.”

So, company workers were encouraged to see such examples as Stahlman’s heroics or other examples in this issue that definitely fit the bill, so employees were encouraged, “if you hear of something good, let the rest of us in on it” because “every department has a wealth of material—and we want it all.” Readers were reminded, “remember, what you possibly consider commonplace may be of absorbing interest to others.”

The Homestead has over twenty single and two years of bound volumes of Among Ourselves and we will definitely feature more of these in this blog because the fit nicely into the growing effort of large employers to provide more benefits and perks for their workers during the 1920s.

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