Courteous Capitalism: A Social and Political History of Monopoly Utilities in the Progressive Era

Daniel Robert

How did corporate utility monopolies in the US survive the political antagonism of the early twentieth century? How did electricity, gas, and telephone companies fend off public ownership and secure rate increases in the US, even as their European counterparts fell to public ownership? How did antimonopoly sentiment in the US decline? This paper answers these questions by following executives as they conceptualize a causal link between courteous customer service at the lowest levels of the corporation and political regulation at the highest levels of government. Monopoly utility executives compelled their clerks to exude “courtesy,” “patience” and “friendliness” whenever they interacted with customers. This strategy, which I call “courteous capitalism,” was not simply an obvious business strategy to gain customers, as at department stores, most utilities already had a monopoly. Rather, courteous capitalism was a political strategy, designed to improve public opinion, rein in regulation, and thwart public ownership. Mystery shoppers, customer feedback, and managerial supervision enforced the new courtesy requirements at the customer-clerk border. By the late-1920s, antimonopoly sentiment had declined but the cost to low-level employees was high. Their plastered smiles and scripted pleasantries represented a great loss of emotional autonomy and a new level of managerial control.