A caption to a picture in a Hilton Head Coastal Discovery Museum publication states, “From the 1920s until the 1970s, several island families operated oyster factories. In the Hudson factory, over 250 gallons of oysters were shucked each day by the women working there. Workers were paid with Hudson money, which could only be used at the Hudson store.” I was struck by the fact that they were paid in scrip redeemable only at the company store.

Company stores, often associated with logging or mining operations, have served useful purposes. When workers are lodged in a remote place cut off from transportation that allows reasonable access to other commerce, a store provided by the company may be a necessity.

Payment in scrip redeemable at the company store can also make sense. Cash will not be easily flowing in and out of that remote logging camp, and the cash flow of the logging company might be restricted for long periods if logs are only sold at protracted intervals. Under such circumstances, regular payment in scrip might be fairer to the workers than irregular cash wages.

Company stores, while having a purpose, however, have mostly lived in infamy. First, they had high prices. Part of the reason for that came naturally from their remote locations. The transportation costs for the goods had to be higher than for goods in more normally-trafficked places. But prices were also high because company stores had a monopoly. Competition did not moderate what the company stores charged, and many company stores took advantage of their monopolies to gouge the workers

Company stores were also quick to extend credit. This might seem to be a good thing, but the companies did not do this out of a charitable impulse. Workers often found themselves in debt to the company store and that bound them to the job they were in until they could pay off the debt. The store often served the company’s purpose of helping to insure the availability of a generally low-wage workforce. People my age remember Sixteen Tons sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, a song about a coal miner. (You can check it out, I am sure, on YouTube.) The way I remember the lyrics: “You load sixteen tons and whadaya get/another day older and deeper in debt/St. Peter doncha call me cuz I can’t go/I owe my soul to the company store.”

The company store for the Hilton Head oyster factories may have made sense before the bridge to the mainland was built. The payment in scrip, however, seems more problematical. While it may not have been easy to regularly move goods onto the island before the bridge, ferries regularly went to Savannah and other mainland points. Cash could have easily come and gone from the island, and while logs may have only been moved once a year for sale, canned oysters were no doubt regularly move off the island and sold. The companies surely had regular infusions of cash.

Wages paid in scrip redeemable at the company store also served to bind  the worker to the company. Imagine a worker in the Hilton Head oyster factory who gets a letter from a cousin in Philadelphia encouraging her to move north for a good job. But how is she to pay for a trip north? Even if she scrimps and saves, she does not get paid with almighty dollars that can pay the bus fare north. No, that scrip-paid worker is bound to her job. Her work only allows her to buy things at the company store, not elsewhere. And if workers through scrip pay and company-store debt are bound to the job, the employer does not have to compete through wages for workers. Pay will be low.

The interplay between debt to the company store and payment in scrip is often characterized as a form of debt bondage or debt slavery. The worker can’t stop working for the company as long as there is the debt, and there is almost no way to pay it off. It is not really slavery, but it is not really freedom either, or that was my thought as the Hilton Head oyster factories were in my mind when I recently attended Matata and Jesse James: An American Tragedy, a play by Dan Friedman. In the drama, a slave couple had just been emancipated, and the wife asks, “Yes, but what does it mean to be free?” Her husband responds, “We can work for wages.” Later in the play when a storekeeper is reluctant to sell the black man seed, he replies that then he will go over to the next town and make the purchase. Getting paid wages, being able to choose where to shop are hallmarks of freedom, but for some on Hilton Head this freedom did not exist when affluent people were buying property and building houses. There was a divide on that island, but I am not sure that the people behind the gates were overly concerned about it. I doubt that they asked each other, “Do you have a friend who gets paid in scrip?”

These particular divided Hilton Head worlds did not overlap for long. The oyster factories closed shortly after the resort developments began. Part of the reason was overharvesting and foreign competition, but the developments themselves helped cause the demise. The marinas and the golf courses and the homes produced pollution that harmed the oyster beds, and the factories had to compete for labor with construction, resort, and retail jobs that the developments brought. Keeping workers bound to low-wage employment through scrip and a company store no longer worked.

 

Our country’s history has been filled with divisions. North and South. Rich and poor. Smokers and non. Churchgoers and the backsliders. And so on. There has never been just one question that would highlight all of America’s dividing lines. But if we are going to contemplate such questions, here is perhaps a meaningful one that Hilton Head history suggests, “Do you live in a gated community?”

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