Skip Navigation

ILLINOIS STATE ARCHIVES


From the Ashes, 1872-1900

A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives


Introduction  |  Objectives  |  Use of Documents  |  Historical Background  |  Suggestions for Further Reading  |  Documents 1–50

Introduction

The use of local events to enhance the study of American history in the classroom has received considerable attention for the past several years. Teachers have recognized that their students often are not excited by traditional instruction in American history. Chief criticisms have been that textbook treatments consist of dry narratives of impersonal facts which have little relevance to students’ immediate lives. And this has been the case despite the fact that one of the principal purposes of the discipline of history is to provide its students with a sense of continuity and perspective. The fifty document images provided in this teaching package are intended to provide direct glimpses of events occurring in Chicago over the years 1872-1900. Each offers a picture of a particular circumstance at a particular time. And each picture asks provoking questions. All of the events described by these documents occurred in Chicago and should be of interest to those who now live there as well as those whose lives are largely affected by what happens there.

Back to Top

Objectives

The primary objective of this teaching package is to introduce students to local history in a meaningful manner and thereby increase interest in history in general. Taken together, the fifty document reproductions offer a kaleidoscopic picture of Chicago history for the years 1872-1900. Individual documents describe very real historical occurrences, but each leaves unanswered questions which can be pursued by studying related documents in the packet, Chicago history in particular, and American history in general.

Subordinate objectives include teaching students how to read historical documents and exposing them to historical reasoning. Besides understanding the texts of documents, students should learn how to identify significant information. Such information will enable them to make specific statements about particular circumstances at particular times. By themselves such events may have little significance. By studying additional sources broader images can be produced and generalized statements can be made to explain isolated events. This process is designed to give meaning to historical interpretation and to broaden textbook narratives of consensus history.

Local history offers an excellent opportunity to make the study of history in general more meaningful. A focus on a specific locality with which students associate will heighten their interest. It also offers them a sense of how the community has evolved over time and thus gives historical perspective. But students of local history soon realize that the history of a locality cannot be treated as a separate entity because regional, national, and world events were of constant influence. It is hoped that this packet will not only supplement the study of American history but also invigorate it. As well as providing information, primary source documents afford the opportunity to experience history on an emotive level because those documents were produced by the actual participants in history and describe events as those persons actually saw them at the time.

Back to Top

Use of Documents

The fifty documents in this packet were selected from over 100,000 files of the Chicago City Council for the years 1872-1900. The bulk of these files includes petitions, resolutions, ordinances, committee reports, claims, plans and specifications, remonstrances, election returns, oaths, and bonds, concerning the public business of the city: fire and police protection, sanitation, public utilities, streets and sidewalks, public works, licensing, taxation and finance, schools, and elected and appointed officials. In selecting documents from this collection for reproduction, care was taken to choose those which reflected the overall economic, political, and social conditions of the period.

Each document has an immediate relationship to one or more other documents. For example, Document 6 (Petition of the Baptist Union Mission to Use Council Chambers Sunday Evenings) relates to Document 17 (Ordinance Concerning Child Labor), Document 31 (Communication from the Trade and Labor Assembly Concerning Compulsory Education), and Document 33 (Communication from the Illinois Woman's Alliance Concerning Child Labor). The instructor's manual provides suggested combinations of documents through which a student or students can produce syntheses. However, each document also stands alone as a statement of a particular circumstance in time. Research with additional sources, such as those found in the Suggestions for Further Reading portion of this manual, often will help clarify a document and place it in perspective. In fact, most of the documents were intentionally selected because they create questions which cannot be answered from the internal content alone.

Any Illinois educational institution can obtain a complimentary hard copy edition of From the Ashes, 1872-1900 teaching package by requesting the same on letterhead stationery. Please send requests: Illinois State Archives, Publications Unit, Margaret Cross Norton Building, Capitol Complex, Springfield, IL 62756.

Back to Top

Historical Background

Over the period 1872-1900 Chicago reclaimed itself from the ashes of the Great Fire, achieved spectacular growth while weathering severe economic depressions, experienced numerous confrontations between organized labor and management, endured erratic governmental leadership and political malfeasance, and gradually evolved public means by which to address social needs.

The Great Fire of October 8 and 9 in 1871 killed 250 people, consumed over 17,000 buildings, left over 98,000 people homeless, and destroyed approximately $196,000,000 in property. Although it started west of the river most of the damage was done in the south and north divisions. The city was busily rebuilding the year following this calamity. Debris was cleared from the burned zone and temporary structures were thrown up. These were soon replaced by substantial new buildings. The rubble removed was used as fill in the area between the lake's breakwater and Michigan Avenue, ground currently occupied by Grant Park.

The financial capital required for this rebirth came from several sources. Other American cities and several foreign countries sent donations valued at over $5,000,000 to address the immediate needs of the city's distressed population. Cloaking its appropriation as payment for improvements the city had made years earlier on the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the state legislature authorized $3,000,000. This sum was to be used to replace bridges and other public works, pay interest on debt, and meet fire and police department payrolls. Although insurance covered approximately $88,000,000 of the value of property destroyed, only about half of this amount was paid out in claims. This was because the volume of claims was so large that many insurance companies simply failed. Some businesses and individuals had cash reserves but the largest infusion of capital came from eastern sources. Many of these were anxious to recoup investments made earlier in Chicago businesses but lost in the fire. While many commercial enterprises and individuals forged remarkable comebacks in the post-fire years and in some instances achieved greater prosperity than ever, unknown numbers of others never recovered.

A local census taken in 1872 placed the city's population at 367,396, up 33,126 over the previous year. By 1880 it had passed the half million point. It stood at 1,098,570 in 1890 and this pushed it ahead of Philadelphia and made Chicago the nation's second largest city behind only New York. By the turn of the century another 600,000 inhabitants had been added. The 1900 United States census enumerated 3,437,202 residents in New York City; 1,698,575 in Chicago; and 1,293,697 in Philadelphia. The seven remaining leading cities were: St. Louis 575,238; Boston 560,892; Baltimore 508,957; Cleveland 381,768; Buffalo 352,387; San Francisco 342,782; and Pittsburgh 321,616.

From 1872 to 1900 Chicago experienced nearly a five-fold population increase. Dynamic urban growth at this time was not merely a Chicago phenomenon. Cities everywhere in this country as well as in Great Britain and Western Europe were growing rapidly. But Chicago's progression was a subject of international marvel. In 1833 when it had been incorporated as a town it housed approximately three hundred people. In contemporaries' lifetimes Chicago had risen from a backwater village to a world-class city. Foreign writers visiting Chicago during this period commented almost uniformly on the hectic, near frantic, pace of city life. Some viewed the scene as dirty and depressing while others saw splendid chaos. A common theme was the contradictions found. There were cutthroat competition and private charity, public spiritedness and municipal boodle, rough and ill-kept slums and pleasing neighborhoods with fine homes attractively landscaped. This characterization was appropriate. Chicago was a complex economic, political and social setting in which benevolent, malevolent and complacent forces were in constant play.

The city's location at the junction of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan had been the cause of its existence. The river itself served as a safe harbor at the lake's southwest edge. Between Chicago and New York City goods and people could be shipped economically by water across the Great Lakes, through the Erie Canal and along the Hudson River. When the Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened in 1848 Chicago had yet another water route. With the canal connecting the Chicago River to the Illinois River which in turn flowed into the Mississippi, Chicago had an outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. As the hub of this waterway network Chicago stood at the very gateway to the expanding West. In the fifties the city emerged as a railroad center as well. Overland transportation gravitated naturally to Chicago's strategic lakeside location. It was the terminus for ten trunk line railroads in 1856 and by 1892 that number had increased to twenty-one. From Chicago, railroad tracks reached out like tentacles to all parts of the country. On the lakes the great sail ships had given way to less esthetic but more efficient steam-powered, propeller-driven, metal-hulled craft. Working in tandem the railroad and waterways systems were the driving forces behind Chicago's growth. Leading industries after the fire as before continued to be grain, lumber, livestock, meatpacking and merchandising. Additionally, the city was establishing itself as more than a simple jobber as manufacturing industries rose in importance.

Chicago was the nation's chief transport market for grain. Of the ten principal markets for this product in 1890, Chicago received forty-one percent of all shipments. With St. Louis its closest competitor in terms of volume, Chicago transported two and a half times as much as its southern neighbor. Chicago elevators in 1893 held a total capacity of 32,810,00 bushels. After sale on the Board of Trade this staple was transported to markets in eastern cities as well as to those in Great Britain, Ireland and Europe. Farmers who produced grain often were resentful of the middlemen who took profits in the transportation, storage, sale and processing of harvests. But outside of some Granger laws enacted in the seventies and Populist-inspired legislation passed in the nineties, there was little the producer could do about an increasingly complex market. When the Board of Trade first was established in 1848 it had offered free lunches to attract brokers. By 1882 memberships were selling for $10,000 each and three years later the board opened an opulent new headquarters at Jackson and La Salle Streets.

Situated in the heart of the Corn Belt, Chicago was an excellent location to which livestock could be shipped for fattening before being transshipped to eastern markets. The railroads brought hogs in from the Midwest and cattle from Texas and the further western range. The meatpacking industry naturally established itself close to concentrations of livestock. At first pork and beef were packed in brine in barrels. Beginning in 1868 a compressed product was sealed in cans. Fresh meat was the preferred product however, and this had to be shipped in the form of live animals. When refrigerated railroad cars became used commonly by packers in the mid-eighties the industry was revolutionized. Fresh dressed meat then could be shipped to eastern cities more economically than carloads of live animals. The value of meat packed in Chicago in 1870 was $19,153,851. Twenty years later the figure had risen to $194,337,838.

Since the mid-fifties Chicago had been the world's largest lumber market. Forests along the coast of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were felled and the lumber sent to Chicago by way of the Great Lakes. As coasts were depleted more was brought in by rail but until the twentieth century lake transport dominated. Although much of the arriving lumber had a ready local market, most was transshipped to eastern cities and communities on the western prairie. Many of the railroad cars which brought grain and livestock into Chicago returned with loads of lumber.

Before the fire Chicago was manufacturing various goods for western markets but in the later part of the century this industry truly established itself. Chicago's production of finished goods lagged behind only Philadelphia and New York City in 1880. By 1900 it was producing more than any other American city except New York. A few of the thousands of items manufactured included furniture, musical instruments, lead pencils, shoes, ready-to-wear clothing, plumbing fixtures, candy, soda water and baseball bats. Distilleries, breweries and agricultural implement manufacturing continued to be important industries. Printing emerged as an important business with hundreds of thousands of books and periodicals being manufactured in Chicago annually. Of particular note was the iron and steel industry. Rich Minnesota iron ore came to the city by lake transport. Coal and coke used to fuel the ore's processing was shipped by rail from Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Chicago's iron and steel production in the late eighties was second in the nation only to Pittsburgh. Principal products were railroad rails, wheels and cars. Some of the other goods produced included farm equipment parts and supporting beams for the new skyscrapers.

In marketing manufactured goods Chicago became a merchandising Goliath. The department store evolved from the old general dry goods establishment to offer a new and widely varied selection of merchandise. Some of these stores even offered installment payments for those who chose not to defer gratification. Chicago wholesalers had been supplying western retail merchants with goods for years. An innovation was introduced to this trade in 1872 when some businessmen initiated mail-order sales. In selling directly to farmers and small town dwellers these Chicago merchants were severely criticized for upsetting the established order. But by the turn of the century this previously unorthodox method was established firmly.

Nationally as well as locally the years 1872-1900 were marked by alternate periods of economic depression and recovery. Major panics occurred in 1873 and 1893 and each was followed by more than four years of severe depression during which time industrial production decreased dramatically. This in turn created unemployment and deflated the currency. These hard times were as bad as any this country ever has experienced. Urban industrialization was an extremely dynamic force but one subject to sharp adjustments. Contemporary laissez faire theory viewed the economy as a natural order which was not to be interfered with. Unfortunately the natural order could wreak havoc on countless individual lives. In reaction to their vulnerable dependence on impersonal corporate employers, workers began to organize themselves to collectively protect their own interests. These efforts were met often with strong opposition from management which accused the unions of upsetting the free forces at work in the market. But this took place while industry itself had organized in horizontal and vertical combinations designed to circumvent the theorized natural order.

The Panic of 1873 slowed post-fire rebuilding in Chicago. Major declines were registered in industry, employment, wages and land values. Nationally as well as locally the climax of these lean years came in July of 1877. That month major railroads acting in collaboration cut employees' wages. In Chicago and across the country outraged workers walked off their jobs. The nation seemed on the verge of revolution as thousands of strikers joined by various sympathizers set railroad property on fire and battled police and military troops who were attempting to restore order. But due to a lack of leadership the outbreaks defused as quickly as they had occurred. Although the Great Strike of 1877 generally was unsuccessful, it demonstrated that concerted efforts on the part of labor were forces to be reckoned with.

Founded as a trade union of garment workers in Philadelphia in the 1860s the Knights of Labor emerged as a central force in organized labor after the upheaval of 1877. By 1879 it was open to both unskilled and skilled workers and it had enrolled over 9,000 members. In 1882 it had grown to over 42,000 and by 1885 to over 110,000. The organization's national leaders professed such utopian goals as labor's ownership of industry. And often they were bombastic in their rhetoric concerning the relationship between capital and labor. They were not militant, however, in that they opposed strikes and even collective bargaining as means of obtaining objectives. And they found violence abhorrent. But local organizations and leaders frequently outstripped the national in their willingness to engage management in situations of confrontation.

This was the case when employees of the Missouri Pacific Railroad went out on strike in March of 1885 in reaction to a pay decrease. The action spread quickly to the entire Southwestern system which was dominated by the powerful Jay Gould. Although this effort soon failed another walkout occurred that summer. No major concessions were granted in this instance either but Gould did agree to recognize the union and not retaliate against returning workers. Many however perceived these few gains as a major victory in which the mighty Gould had been brought to heel. From the middle of 1885 to mid-1886 the Knights' membership grew to over 700,000. This very significant increase reflected a mass discontent among workers. Labor resented marginal living standards, long hours under oftentimes dirty and dangerous conditions, and a general lack of job security.

Two events dealt fatal setbacks to the Knights of Labor on May 4, 1886. In March they again had struck Gould's Southwestern line. This time the financier was adamant in refusing any concessions and he held firm until the union formally capitulated on May 4. That very evening in Chicago the disastrous Haymarket Riot took place. A meeting of around 1,200 assembled in the Haymarket Square to protest police actions in a melee which had occurred the day before between strikers and replacement workers at the McCormick Harvester Plant. Although the Knights had not been part of that incident numbers of their members attended the rally. As the relatively small crowd was about to disband due to indifference and the onset of a rain shower a group of policemen appeared and ordered the assembly to disperse. At that point someone threw a bomb into the officers' ranks. Chaos ensued during which the police drove the workingmen out of the square. Numbers of police officers and workers were killed or wounded. Although the Knights were quick to denounce the actions of those who instigated the bloodshed they became associated closely with the outrage in the public mind. The two incidents of May 4, combined with the union's inability to field strong leaders, largely contributed to the Knights' decline over the next few years.

Formally organized on December 8, 1886, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) was to take the lead in organized labor for the next several decades. In the tradition of the trade union movement it was composed chiefly of skilled workers. The Federation was the national umbrella organization under which autonomous state and local unions affiliated. Pragmatic in approach, it avoided ideology and concentrated on collective bargaining and the use of the strike to achieve concrete gains for its members who by 1900 numbered over 548,000.

The next major conflict between management and labor came in 1892 in Pennsylvania. Workers affiliated with the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers walked off the job on July 1 at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead Steel Mill in the Monongahela Valley. Central grievances included the company's refusal to renegotiate with the union and its plan to reduce wages. When Pinkerton detectives arrived to protect plant property they were set upon by an angry crowd. More than twenty people were killed and hundreds injured. State troops then were sent to restore order and by mid-July the plant was functioning again with replacement workers. In Chicago the Tribune was highly critical of the totally uncompromising stance the company had taken against its workers. The strike was officially called off in November by which time the union had been defeated soundly. Few strikers were rehired. An aftermath of management's demonstration of autocratic authority was that public sympathy across the country swayed to labor.

The immediate impact of the Panic of 1893 was softened somewhat in Chicago by the World's Columbian Exposition which had opened officially on May 1 of that year. The "Great White City" attracted millions of visitors who came to view displays of man's finest achievements in virtually all forms of human endeavor. Almost symbolically, nearly all of the exposition's buildings were destroyed by fire on January 8, 1894, ten weeks after the fair had ended. It was believed to have been caused by vagrants who were living in the empty structures and who had built small fires for warmth.

Members of the American Railway Union struck the Pullman Palace Car Company at Chicago on May 11, 1894. The depressed times had caused management to reduce production and thus the workforce. Wages were lowered as well. This final act caused workers to stage a strike. As the days dragged on and the company refused to negotiate the union called a general strike of all its members nationwide on June 26. This elevated a local dispute into an event of national significance because it disrupted the country's vital railroad system. Over the objections of the state's governor and the city's mayor, President Cleveland ordered federal troops to Chicago on July 3 to restore traffic. This action effectively crushed the strike. Labor again suffered defeat but more and more people were understanding its plight and its cause.

The final major labor dispute of the nineteenth century took place in the coal mining regions of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. There a strike of United Mine Workers, an industrial union affiliated with the AF of L, began on July 4, 1897. In all nearly 75,000 men refused to work until their grievances were addressed. Twenty men were killed on September 11 during clashes between strikers and deputy sheriffs in Hazleton and Latimer, Pennsylvania. By the end of September management gave in. In an unprecedented victory the union won recognition, higher wages, the eight-hour workday and abolition of the company store system.

Chicago was a center of organized labor activity during the final three decades of the nineteenth century. Workers there took an active part in the 1877 railroad strike and Chicago was the site of both the 1886 Haymarket Riot and the 1894 Pullman Strike. Each of these nationally significant events was marked by civil disorder. Generally, however, the labor movement in Chicago and the nation as a whole was not particularly radical or militant. Rather than attempting to overthrow the democratic capitalistic system, labor in most instances was simply trying to obtain a larger and more equitable share of the system's rewards. On a daily basis unions were working within the established order to benefit the lives of their members. Strikes were a fairly common occurrence but most were not marred by significant violence. And strikes themselves were not inherently undemocratic. Unions were gaining social acceptance increasingly over the period as a majority of Americans came to recognize that honest workers were entitled to a decent living standard.

National politics during these years were dominated by the issues of protective tariffs and the integrity of the currency. Those wishing to avoid foreign competition favored high tariffs while those wishing to obtain goods at the lowest prices available supported low ones. Those who had borrowed money wanted to repay it with inflated currency while those who had loaned money desired to be repaid with deflated dollars. Non-issues were equally important and they included waving the "bloody shirt" and the personal characteristics of the various candidates. Presidents Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and McKinley were by and large undistinguished in their administrations. None were elected with agendas they worked to enact. And they largely viewed the function of their office to be that of caretaker. Congress took the lead in formulating legislation which was generally favorable to the business community. The two most important pieces of reform legislation passed during these years were the Interstate Commerce Act (1887) and the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890). Although reform in character each was thoroughly conservative in intent. Both acts were designed to restore free competition so that a self-regulating economy could work itself out in its natural order.

From the Civil War up to the final years of the nineteenth century Lincoln's party dominated Illinois state government. Such independent groups as the Grangers and the Greenbackers provided the greatest opposition. Republicans were able to defuse the Grangers by enacting legislation which regulated the railroad and warehousing industries. And the Greenbackers and later the Silverites were allowed to play themselves out as strong currency advocates prevailed nationally. The only true aberration to Republican rule came in 1892 when John Peter Altgeld was elected governor with backing from socialists, Populists and Democrats. During his administration he was responsible for laws forbidding child labor, protecting women in the work place, establishing a state labor arbitration board, preventing price fixing and railroad rebates, increasing corporation taxes, and regulating civil service practices in cities. Altgeld's well-reasoned pardon of three convicted Haymarket anarchists, as he knew it would, caused his political ruin. But although he served but one term he was responsible for the enactment of more reform legislation than any other Midwestern governor before 1900.

Chicago city government was uneven in the nineteenth century's final three decades. It was alternately governed by reformers, boodlers, and machine politicians dedicated to municipal efficiency. Joseph Medill, a Republican and former editor of the Tribune, was elected mayor in 1871 following the Great Fire. He had run on a nonpartisan Union-Fireproof ticket with a platform calling for effective government to deal with the disaster and new regulations to prevent a similar occurrence. In the latter endeavor he faced overwhelming opposition when he attempted to extend the established limits in which structures had to be made of fireproof materials. Neither builders nor renters were willing to bear the high costs of construction with nonflammable substances. Forced to retreat on this issue Medill encountered still greater opposition when he tried to enforce laws which required saloons to be closed on Sundays. The foreign-born population in particular regarded Sunday closings as an offense to their civil liberties. This group coalesced behind Harvey D. Colvin of the "People's Party" and he was elected mayor in 1873. Overall his term was marked by petty corruption. But it also included a major reform measure, though not of his doing. Insurance underwriters in 1874 announced that they would renew no more policies unless the fire limits were extended. Under intense pressure from the city's business community the council responded by making those limits contiguous with those of the city itself. Thereafter cheaply constructed tenement houses were built in a belt-like area which arched around the city's boundaries. Through a quirk in the city's new charter which the voters had approved on April 23, 1875, Colvin was able to maintain his office without reelection until April 1877.

Republican Monroe Heath succeeded him at that time and this reform mayor proceeded to return integrity to the chief executive's office by reducing waste and cutting taxes. In 1879 Carter Harrison, an exceedingly personable candidate, was elected as the city's first Democratic mayor in sixteen years. Heath had chosen not to seek reelection and his party's candidate, Albert M. Wright, had suffered badly from his association with the temperance movement. Harrison appointed able men to key positions and thus oversaw a capable administration. But he also was careful to entrench his administration and he therefore employed patronage workers freely in less important city jobs. His machine too was willing to resort to fraud to ensure his reelection and this it did in 1881, 1883 and 1885. Irregularities became the norm in voter registration, ballot counting and canvassing final returns. Harrison enjoyed tremendous personal popularity and even many of his political opponents admired Harrison as a private individual. Although he had achieved a standard of wealth through real estate investments, the less affluent largely composed his constituency.

When Harrison chose not to run in 1887, John A. Roche, a Republican, was elected to replace him. Roche had capitalized on the climate of fear created by the Haymarket Riot and resentments Harrison's opponents had fostered over his four terms. Once in office Roche gained reputations for allowing vice to flourish, for favoring monopolies in the city's transportation concerns, and for being anti-Catholic. In a surprising development in 1889 the Democrats put forward Dewitt C. Creiger as an "Anti-Roche-Machine" candidate and Creiger was elected. Creiger had been a one-time Harrison loyalist but in gaining his party's nomination he had not received the ex-mayor's backing. And once in office he snubbed Harrison Democrats who sought patronage positions. The most noteworthy event of his administration came on June 29, 1889 when citizens in Hyde Park, Lake, Lakeview, Jefferson and part of Cicero voted to be annexed to Chicago. This gave the city an additional 120 square miles and over 200,000 new residents.

Harrison challenged his former ally in the 1891 general election as an Independent Democrat. This split the Democratic vote and allowed Hempstead Washburne, the Republican candidate, to be elected mayor. During his term the police department was made more efficient, powerful gambling interests were prosecuted, natural gas rates were reduced, and building standards were improved. He chose however not to seek reelection. In a popular comeback Harrison was selected in 1893 as the mayor to host the Columbian Exposition. In a spirited campaign he had defeated Republican Samuel W. Allerton by over 11,000 votes. Dewitt Creiger had run also, this time on a Union Citizens' ticket, but he managed to place only a poor third. Harrison's term ended abruptly on October 28, the final day of the fair, when he was assassinated by a dissatisfied office seeker. John P. Hopkins became the city's first Irish-Catholic mayor in a special election held in December 1893. During his tenure some of the worst grafting in Chicago history took place as public utility and transportation franchises were sold freely by boodling aldermen.

But by the end of the century the reformers had taken charge again. The Municipal Voters' League successfully backed George B. Swift for mayor in 1895. And he was followed in 1898 by Carter Harrison II who like his father before him served four consecutive terms. Both of these men were capable leaders who worked hard to restore efficient and effective executive leadership in Chicago. The legislative branch of city government improved significantly as well. Of the sixty-eight aldermen in office in 1895, fifty-eight were known boodlers. Their numbers decreased to seventeen in 1899 and the following year there were only seven. At its worst Chicago's government was made up of elected and appointed officials who used the system for personal profit and self-perpetuation. But at its best it was composed of individuals who were elected fairly or selected evenhandedly and whose purpose was to provide needed services with a minimum of waste.

Since this country's founding a principal topic of political debate has been to what extent government should involve itself in the structuring of society. Fundamentally government's role has included such functions as protecting property, punishing criminals and conducting foreign relations. But by degrees federal, state and local governments have inserted themselves into the social fabric by educating youth; caring for the poor; and regulating trade, industry and labor. The nineteenth century's closing three decades were pivotal in this process.

The years following the Civil War up to the early 1890s have been characterized as the Gilded Age. The Union had been saved and slavery had been abolished. But the idealism of the war had been shattered by the reality of the carnage of that event and by a disturbing period of reconstruction during which the freedmen found no easy place to occupy in society. The war had been a great catalyst in the nation's industrialization and this development continued with only temporary abatements beyond the century's end.

The dominant intellectual outlook of the Gilded Age was Social Darwinism. In this scheme of things the fittest survived and prospered and the unfit did not. Captains of industry were praised because through their ingenuity great businesses were created and they in turn provided employment and livelihoods to lesser mortals. Charity to the less fortunate was correctly a private impulse which when administered properly aided the worthy needy without fostering dependence and sloth. Laissez faire economic doctrine fit neatly with Social Darwinism and both were warmly embraced by industrialists and financiers. The middle class, which achieved respectable rewards from the existing order, also embraced the world views of the affluent.

The year 1893 has been cited as the beginning of the Progressive Era, a time of reform and renewed idealism which lasted until the early 1920s. The Populists of the 1880s, who among other things advocated an expansion of the money supply, public ownership of utilities and an income tax, were the Progressives' forefathers. Although these two reform groups would have appeared to have been natural allies this was not the case. While the Populists professed an alliance with labor they were principally agrarian in outlook and held strong prejudices against immigrants, blacks, Catholics and Jews. Progressivism was aimed mainly at American cities which by 1893 had become complex social settings plagued by interrelated ills. Some of these included poverty, unemployment, poor housing, political corruption, bad sanitation, crime and labor unrest. The Progressive movement was pragmatic in approach. Rather than accepting the social order as a given, it sought to analyze society's problems and then to address them by the most practical means available. In addressing society's needs it employed both private and public means.

Private charity during the 1870s and the 1880s was characterized best by the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. Chartered in 1857, this organization emerged after the Great Fire as the city's semi-official welfare organization. Applicants for assistance were screened carefully by investigators who visited and even searched homes to establish true need. Donations of food, clothing and fuel were monitored closely because the society's object was to prevent deaths due to want but at the same time to discourage indolence. Toward the end of the 1880s however, organizations were forming with the purpose of actually redressing societal injustices. Established in Chicago in 1888, the Illinois Woman's Alliance fought to obtain and then to enforce legislation designed to protect women and children. And Jane Addams established Hull House in 1889 at 800 South Halsted Street. As well as providing for the wants of the various ethnic peoples in its neighborhood, this pioneering settlement house sought to better their living conditions and to enrich their lives culturally.

Post-fire Chicago city government was entrenched neither in Social Darwinism nor Progressivism. It was a product of its time and consequently cautious when asked to intervene on behalf of individuals or groups. But as an elected body it was sensitive to constituents' needs and desires. And it gradually acceded to measures designed to meet social needs. Many of the documents in this packet highlight that evolution.

Back to Top

Suggestions for Further Reading

The most comprehensive bibliography available is Frank Jewell's Annotated Bibliography of Chicago History. It is divided into twenty-six subject categories and includes an author index and an index of important persons, organizations, and places, mentioned in the entries and their annotations. Bessie Louis Pierce's third volume of A History of Chicago offers a scholarly narrative of the city's development for most of the period considered. Alfred T. Andreas's third volume on History of Chicago, published in 1886, covers the years 1871-1885 in detail. Although not documented, this account is generally reliable and reprints many primary source materials. One Hundred Hears of Land Values in Chicago by Homer Hoyt gives an extremely detailed and insightful account of economic developments. A revised and expanded edition of Ethnic Chicago, edited by Melvin G. Holli and Peter d'A. Jones, was published in 1984. As its title suggests it examines the city's minority populations. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade offers both text and an abundance of illustrations which describe urban growth. Ernest L. Bogart and Charles J. Thompson's The Industrial State, 1870-1893 is the fourth volume of The Centennial History of Illinois. This 1920 publication places Chicago's development in the context of that of the state as a whole.

Back to Top