Tom Plant, Industrial Capitalist

Tom Plant's family typified the intertwined stories of the French Canadian people and New England. Tom's ancestral families—his father's Plante line and his mother's Rodrigue line—had emigrated to Maine from Canada in the 1820s. They had children in Maine, then returned to Canada. They had greater opportunity and faced less discrimination than French Canadian emigrants to New England after the Civil War. They would pass back and forth across the United States-Canada border.

The story of the Plante and Rodrigue families illustrate the great social changes brought to New England by industrialism. The ethnic French of eastern Canada were a minority speaking a foreign language in a country taken by military conquest from France by England in the middle of the eighteenth century. Most French Canadians were rural and poor. Many of the migrants to New England came directly from farms. Living in the industrial towns was their first step toward better lives. For Tom Plant, too, the path of social mobility led through the factories and factory towns. Tom Plant eventually distinguished himself by the extent of his economic success. He rose from factory operative to factory owner. Then, in the great reorganization of American industrialism at the end of the nineteenth century, which historians refer to as the revolution of finance capitalism, Tom made a fortune.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the industrial mills of New England took into employment a new group of laborers from Quebec and eastern Canada. Yankee cities that had grown up around the textile and shoe factories incorporated French Canadian culture. Rooming houses, groceries, and restaurants, catering to the new immigrants, announced their services in French language signs—“Nous parlons française”. Congregations of the Roman Catholic churches swelled with new members. As some of the immigrant laborers rose to management and improved their wages, they moved their families into two and three story houses within walking distance of city centers and the mills. Those houses were vacated by mill owners and supervisors, who moved to the hills that surrounded the industrial valleys. So they created the familiar urban landscape and social life, which survives in New England today.

When the French Canadians arrived, factory towns along the Merrimack River in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, in the other red brick cities in eastern Massachusetts, and along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, and Connecticut, were already multi-ethnic in population. In the 1850s, Irish immigrants replaced the Yankee farm girls in the mills. After the Civil War, the Irish found increasing economic success. Many Irish left the mills and were replaced by Italian immigrants. Now it was the turn of the French Canadian immigrants to take their place in the succession of labor. By 1914, they, too, were leaving the mills, being replaced by laborers from Greece and Turkey.

Immigrant laborers found such economic security as nineteenth century industrialism enabled. Few laborers worked long in any particular factory. Most quit within a year. They moved from employment to employment, seeking steady work and higher wages. Most immigrant laboring families did not rise far on America's ladder of social and economic mobility; but their children would step up to a higher rung. The American dream was achieved, usually not rapidly, but across the generations.

The Plantes were a working class family in Bath, Maine, in 1859, when Tom Plant was born to Antoine Plante and Sophie Rodrigue. The father, Antoine, had been a seaman, as well as common laborer in town. He volunteered for duty in the Union Army in the Civil War. Thomas Gustave Plant grew up with a brother and two sisters. As with most boys of his station and background, labor rather than schooling called him toward the future. He worked at casual labor in Bath, a ropewalk and a boiler shop, among his places of employment. But he also played sports and was remembered for his spirited play. At fourteen, he moved to Lynn, Massachusetts, to work in a shoe factory. So began typically the job career of the factory hand.

At the end of the nineteenth century, most manufacturing companies were privately owned by individuals or a by partnership. They were closely held, as is said today in the financial world, rather than being owned by a large number of shareholders of publicly traded stock. Such companies were relics of forms of capitalism from the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century.

Tom found success in the traditional path of industrial manufacturing that had been pioneered by native-Anglo families of New England, New York, and the upper Midwest. He was an inventor, patenting several machines used in making shoes. He created his own manufacturing company, Queen Quality Shoe. He designed shoes for women, who were creating the new consumerism life style. He built a factory in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. The thirteen-acre grounds, if not the six-story building itself, were designed by the distinguished architectural firm of Frederick Law Olmsted of Brookline, Massachusetts. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), the nation's leading landscape architect, designed Central Park in New York City and the Fenway and other parks in Boston. He supervised the design of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. By commissioning Olmsted, Tom Plant announced his membership in the nation's capitalist elite. He had transcended his ethnic working class origins.

The revolution of finance capitalism began in the depression of the 1893 and culminated before 1914. Led by J. Pierpont Morgan, the great New York investment banker, financiers bought manufacturing industries and merged them into great holding companies. Morgan desired to stabilize American capitalism, to free it from the cycles of boom and bust caused by periodic overproduction. Stability came from monopoly or near-monopoly control of a market. The owners of the manufacturing mills seldom relinquished their ownership and power without a struggle. The most famous such conflict was between Andrew Carnegie, who with a few partners owned Carnegie Steel Company, the nation's large steel manufacturer, and Morgan, who controlled the railroads of New York. Morgan eventually bought Carnegie out, paying him with shares of the new holding company Morgan created for this purpose, United States Steel Corporation. Carnegie became the wealthiest man in the world.

Other great holding corporations, with names still familiar to Americans, were similarly created: General Electric, General Motors, General Mills, for instance. It was the holding company, United Shoe Machinery Company, that made Tom Plant a very wealthy man. United Shoe Machinery Company was established in 1899 to combine companies that manufactured the machinery for making shoes. The new company rapidly bought up other shoe machinery companies. Tom Plant brought United Shoe Machinery Company's machines into his own shoe factory. He chaffed within the machinery leasing contract. He invented his own machinery. He engaged in a business war with United Shoe Machinery Company. The shoe machinery war led to law suits. United Shoe Machinery Company sued Tom over his patented machinery. This was a typical tactic of financiers to force a factory owner to sell to them. The tactic might seem dirty pool, but in retrospect nearly everyone benefitted. Owners got wealthy, holding companies stabilitized industries, finance markets accumulated capital to invest in new industries, stockholders got regular dividends, consumers got cheaper products. The benefits to labor were less clear. Unions were usually defeated by the holding companies, but the labor market also stabilized. Even without unions, labor increased its share of revenues earned by companies.

Buyout enriched Tom Plant with $6 million. He retired in 1910. His marriage unraveled. He travelled abroad. He met Olive Dewey. She became his second wife. He built his retirement home, Lucknow, in Moultonborough, New Hampshire.


On Tom Plant's life, see the excellent and well-researched biography by Barry Hadfield Rodrigue, Tom Plant : the making of a Franco-American entrepreneur, 1859-1941 (New York : Garland Publishing, Inc., 1994). Most of the detail above on Plant's life is from the Rodrigue book.

I am grateful to correspondents who brought to my attention several sources about the life of Tom Plant. In response to their concerns about factual accuracy, I took these pages at off the internet in 2001, in order to rewrite them. Thank you especially to Tracy Coombs of Bath, Maine, who sent an article she wrote and Elizabeth Crawford Wilkin's paper, "The Castle and the Club—The First Twenty Years [of the Bald Peak Country Club];" and Dale Martin and Christine Dewey Martin, relations of Olive Dewey,Tom Plant's second wife, who provided numerous items of information in the course of email correspondence with me. I have utilized other materials and photographs they provided in the article on Tom Plant's retirement home.

I have summarized a professional historical literature about the historical context of Tom Plant's career. On the succession of labor in the New England mills, see Tamara K. Hareven, Family time and industrial time: The relationship between the family and work in a New England industrial community [Manchester, New Hampshire], reprint (Cambridge, Eng., New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982). For an in depth survey of the mill laborers in Lowell, Massachusetts, about 1908, see George F. Kenngott, The Record of A City: A Social Survey of Lowell, Massachusetts (New York: Macmillan, 1912). On labor class mobility, see Stephan Thernstrom, The Other Bostonians: Poverty and Progress in the American Metropolis, 1880-1970, reprint (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1973). On the revolution of finance capitalism, see Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916, reprint ([1988]Cambridge, Eng., New York: Cambridge University Press,1989), and William G. Roy, Socializing Capital: The Rise of the LargeIndustrial Corporation in America (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997). The standard biography of Andrew Carnegie is Joseph Frazier Wall, Andrew Carnegie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970).