Whiting Williams—Author and White Collar Hobo from Shelby: 1920

People who study the history and development of industry in America—and particularly the evolution of relations between Management and Labor through the last 150 years—invariably come to focus on Whiting Williams, because, at a critical moment on the timeline, it was he who altered the course of how factories deal with their workers. 

And in trying to understand why Williams went to such great lengths of personal sacrifice in order to influence industrialists of the 1920s, the research inevitably leads back to Shelby, Ohio. 

That’s because Williams said it himself: growing up in Shelby is what ingrained into his character the sense that everybody is responsible for the well-being of everybody else.

No doubt, these values were first imprinted growing up in the Methodist Church on South Gamble Street.  All the Shelby people who knew him—not only in his church but in every neighborhood of town—assumed that the young man would grow up to be a minister: it was so evident that his nature was to stand up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. 

And they read him correctly: ultimately his life’s calling was to understand the needs of those who had no voice, and then communicate the essence of that message to the nation.

The Methodist church where Whiting Williams first had the opportunity to exercise his talent for compassion looked somewhat different in the 19th century than it does in the 21st century, though it is essentially the same building. His father, Benjamin Williams, was head of Shelby’s First National Bank for 40 years, and one of the initial organizers of the Shelby Seamless Steel Co.; his mother, nee Ida Whiting, gave him his name.

The First Education

After he graduated from Shelby High School in 1894, Williams had the transformative experience of meeting some of the most influential people of his generation who were engaged in transforming social consciousness: like attorney Clarence Darrow, the author Jack London, and America’s Nobel Prize-winning social pioneer Jane Addams.  All of these icons of social change spent time at Oberlin College when Whiting Williams was enrolled there.

It was there that he became absorbed in understanding a concept that was gaining a foothold in American theology at the time, known as the “Social Gospel;” which was a call for Christianity in Action—reforming society’s problems through humane legislation and broader cultural education.

This tremendous need of his to help motivate humane civilization forward in the 20th century was a source of great frustration to Williams for the first decade of his adult career.  He wanted more than anything to be useful in a big way.

His desire to spread well-being embraced the whole Earth, but he couldn’t see how his job at Shelby Tube was improving anything outside a small corner of Richland County.

So he decided he needed to see more of the world.

He used his savings to get to the coast, and then booked passage to England on a cattle boat—paying his way by shoveling manure.  Then he walked 200 miles to London.

It was in the steel mills of London where his education truly began.

These open-hearth furnace workmen in England include Whiting Williams.

The Greater Education

Without really realizing it at the time, Whiting Williams established the trademark skill in London that would ultimately make him influential in the history and development of Human Compassion: he applied for a job with no experience.

He found out first-hand what Industry thought of him, and what his fellow workers thought of their bosses.

A decade later, this experience would be key to his own Gospel of Service.  He was hired in Cleveland to work in the Personnel Department of a huge steel firm, and his assignment was to find a way to avoid a looming labor strike.

He asked permission to speak with the workers who were about to strike—not as a white collar negotiator, but rather, undercover as a regular clock-punching working man.

He changed his name, grew a mustache, put on the worn and patched clothes of someone down on his luck, and then walked in to apply for a job at his own company.

Williams spent six months working alongside the steel handlers, eating with them, living in their housing, and walking their walk.

His report afterwards was such a ground-breaking, insightful tool for resolving conflict that he was asked to speak before other corporations having labor troubles.  And then he wrote more articles, worked in more industries, and through it, forged a wholly unique and indelibly useful career.

So useful, in fact, that they talked about him for decades.  He became well-known in the media as the White Collar Hobo—a title commonly recognized across America in the 1920s and ’30s.   It is easy to track him through the years in headlines of newspapers of towns and cities all across the country where he spoke to civic groups, Union meetings, lecture circuits, and student councils dozens of times every year.

At the end of his life he was eulogized as a pioneer in Labor/Management relations.

His persona of the Anonymous Laborer was so popularly familiar that different men throughout the country would pretend to be him in order to get a job or a handout.

These two news photo portraits of Whiting Williams show him as author, and as his alternate identity, Charlie Heitman, looking for a job. His wife joked about leaving him at the train station dressed as a businessman, and meeting him there months later as a scruffy, threadbare bum.

The articles written by Whiting Williams appeared in so many popular magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, that reporters at the Mansfield News ranked him with Louis Bromfield as best-known Richland County authors in America.

This 1921 Collier’s Magazine shows the typical presentation of a Whiting Williams article: with his name featured on the cover, and his story clearly explaining both sides of a thorny labor issue. President Herbert Hoover was so impressed with Williams’ writing that he called him to the White House for a conversation that many thought was a prelude to a Cabinet seat.

Williams’ stories were distributed by news services to dozens of papers across the country–like this 1922 article that showed his picture in papers from Boston, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Sacramento to name a few.

Williams often explained his theories of Labor & Management not as Philosophy, but as the Science of Management—regarding workers as valuable natural resources.  He helped others to recognize that an organization’s relationship with workers is as critical as its relationship with customers.
His efforts to reduce complex labor issues to common logic took his writings to the reading public in every available outlet: including Popular Science magazine.

Whiting Williams took several trips around the world in his lifetime, always in his mustache as a working man. In 1933, when the Great Depression was world-wide, these travels took him to the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany, where he witnessed the massive Nazi Rally at Nuremberg.

A Legacy of Validation

Whiting Williams contributed to the American culture of his time the understanding that what is most important about a job is the way workers feel about themselves.

He became, essentially, a journalist because his goal was effective education. Conflict, he said, is inevitable, but solutions for resolving conflict require dignity for both sides.

To this end he wrote what were known as “Inside Stories” for Collier’s Magazine: stories from BOTH SIDES.  He went to work as a scab in a Pennsylvania RR strike, then the next month walked the picket line at West Virginia coal mines.

Today it is known as “embedding” a journalist into difficult situations.  In the 1920s, it was called “participant/observer” journalism, when it was a cultural art created by Whiting Williams.

Whiting Williams (1878-1975) published four well-known books during the 1920s, and a number of smaller tracts directed at specific issues like the New Deal in the 1930s, and the Great Society policies in the 1960s.

By the time that Whiting Williams began his career, American Industry had been maturing for half a century and growing exponentially, which created new challenges that had never been addressed—not labor questions exactly, but quality of life issues dealing with ever-increasing depersonalization.  He went into the field to make sure real people were part of the equation.
During early years of the Great Depression he went back into hobo clothes again to stand in unemployment lines so he could report first-hand on how effectively National Recovery Act programs were advancing the well-being of working people.

Thank You!

Images in this article were provided by the Shelby Museum of History, Jay Herbert, and Will Harmon.

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