Given the size of this building, and its connection to Pittsburgh's steelmaking past, information on this store is surprisingly limited. But it was once the Pittsburgh Mercantile Company, the company store of steelmaker Jones & Laughlin. J&L's mighty Pittsburgh works once lined the Monongahela River on the opposite side of Carson Street. Now the store is almost all that remains, along with a massive corrugated metal warehouse a few blocks toward Josephine Street and the slopes.
You can still find traces of Pittsburgh Mercantile. An ad in the 1944 city directory, for example, boasts that it was "South Side's Largest Food and Department Store," one "known for the quality of merchandise that gives real satisfaction." (No word on the quality of merchandise that didn't give real satisfaction.) "Shopping at the Pittsburgh Mercantile Company rewards with worthwhile savings," the ad claimed, asserting that the store had been "established 86 years ago."
It must have been established elsewhere, however: As historians at the Pittsburgh History & Landmark Foundation note in a survey of the area, the Goodwill building's style marks it as a structure of the 1900s or 1910s. Insurance maps indicate that it was constructed in 1907.
Of course a "company store," as it exists in the popular imagination, shouldn't have to advertise. As immortalized in songs like Tennessee Ford's "16 Tons," the company store was the place you went when you had nowhere else to go -- because the company you worked for owned everything in sight.
I could find little record of whether the South Side store suffered from such a reputation, but another branch did appear to play a prominent role in the former J&L mill town of Aliquippa. The town, which was built by and for the steel company, was a perfect example of a community that was dominated by its employer. (In more recent years, of course, it's been dominated by that employer's absence.) For decades, J&L owned the mill and just about everything around it. And workers who stepped out of line stood to lose much more than their jobs.
Judging by the testimony gathered in Rade Vukmir's The Mill, Pittsburgh Mercantile's Aliquippa branch engenders mixed memories. One worker reminisces that the Mercantile was "the best store in Beaver County. It was all good stuff in there. ... We bought shoes, we bought hats, hunting stuff, everything. ... [T]here was no junk in that store."
Indeed, some have even sought to justify the company store as a boon to workers. In an unofficial J&L history on file at the Heinz History Center archives, writer Thomas E. Lloyd argues that "the company store came into existence" because of "economic conditions. ... The manufacturer could not always meet his payroll in cash." And since the company was paid on credit, it had no choice but to pay its workers in scrip.
Not everyone saw the matter so benignly. A company store was a way to profit not once but twice from a worker's labor: Once from his work in your mills, and a second time when you made a profit on the goods he bought from you. And another former Aliquippa employee, Joseph Periello, told Vukmir that behind a mask of corporate paternalism, the company store represented an employer's threatening power. The message workers got, he said, was "[Y]ou live here, you don't have to worry about the rent. You don't have to worry, we own the house, don't worry about the water, we got our own water company, don't worry about eating, you go to the company store. ... Just sign this paper and we can take it out of your pay." As Periello recounted, "You know, there were maybe thousands of people down there who never drew a dime of pay cash until 1950. ... [Y]ou took all your pay in scrip. Everything."
At any rate, the power of company stores waned over time. The South Side store building was taken over by Goodwill in the 1960s, and had apparently gone out of business some time before that. Workers by then were paid in cash, which they used to buy cars and escape to those bastions of liberty: the shopping malls.