Thursday, December 6, 2012

Stepping back to Nineteenth Century Chicago

You’re invited on a trip back to nineteenth century Chicago. We’ll drop in on the Near West Side around Halsted and Maxwell Streets. Your ticket for this adventure is an almost forgotten nineteenth century novel, Just Folks by Clara Elizabeth Laughlin, first published in 1907.
Inside cover of Just Folks, available through InterLibrary Loan

I was introduced to Just Folks when I was preparing for my research trip to Chicago in September of 2012. I was googling sources about life in the 1870s in the Near West Side, the neighborhood where my Carney/Kearney family lived. I happened upon the website for the Northern Illinois University Libraries’ Illinois Periodicals Online(IPO) project. The goal of IPO is to digitize Illinois-based magazines so that the public will have easy access. 

When I googled for “life in 19th century Chicago,” one of the hits was an article by Robert Bray, “The Chicago Novel, 1890-1915.”  Mr. Bray mentioned two novels that I was quite familiar with from high school and college: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser and The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. But Mr. Bray also discussed several novels about life in late 1800s Chicago written by women, one of which was Just Folks. Although the book is hard to find, the complete text of  Just Folks is available on-line.

The main character in the novel is Beth Tully, a young woman who has just arrived in Chicago from a small Illinois town to be a juvenile probation officer on the Near West Side, which is shown in the map below:
1876 map of Chicago from, wikimedia

Laughlin’s opening lines plunge the reader into the environs of the Near West Side, mentioning two neighborhood streets, a government building, and America’s first settlement house, Hull House:

“On her way over from the Juvenile Court building, on Ewing Street east of Halsted, Beth Tully stopped at the arched entrance to Hull House….” (p. 1)

This building at 771 West Ewing Street  has the distinction of being the first juvenile court building in the world. Later in this posting, we'll see why this court devoted to juveniles was placed on the Near West Side.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Near West Side was one of the most crowded, poverty-filled areas in Chicago. The Chicago Fire of 1871 was a large contributing factor to the gross overcrowding as people who lost their homes to the flames fled to the Near West Side. Also, before and after the fire, a continuing stream of new immigrants came to this part of town because of the proximity to factory jobs and the availability of low rent housing. 

The housing stock in the Near West Side may have been cheap and plentiful, but there was a downside – people were packed into flimsy tenement buildings that were dark, had no running water, had few privies for the number of tenants, and were prone to fires.
Photo Courtesy Chicago History Museum Archive, Slums Exteriors

Laughlin does a good job of describing the interior of a tenement: 

“The house was of a familiar type, two tenants on each floor and four rooms constituting each tenement. The kitchens were in the middle of the house and off each kitchen was a tiny bedroom. The ‘front room’ of the rear dwellers overlooked the back yard, the alley, and the backs of houses on the next street; and off it was a small bedroom. The front room of the other tenants on each floor …overlooked Maxwell Street; and off it was a small bedroom.” (p.8)

Laughlin captures the overwhelming presence of poverty that permeated every square inch of the Near West Side:

“Beth followed the woman through the ‘front room’…into the kitchen, which was stifling with heat and damp and that peculiar acrid odor – compounded of mustiness and personal uncleanness and stale odors of strong cooking – which every visitor to the homes of the poor knows as ‘the poverty smell.’”  (p. 27)

Now that we are familiar with the scent of poverty in 19th century Chicago’s Near West Side, we are treated to a word picture by Laughlin of some of the busiest streets in that area:

“(from Henry Street)They went over to Halsted…and walked slowly up to Madison on the east side of the street where, for some occult reason, the five-cent theatre does not flourish. From this comparatively sedate side, they looked over to the gaudy other side where penny arcades and saloons with free vaudeville, and nickelodeons, and gaudy Greek candy parlors, vie with the groggeries (saloons) and the pawnshops in number.” (p. 95)

Following  Laughlin’s verbal description of Madison Street, here is a photograph of Maxwell Street, that is mentioned often in Just Folks, to give you a visual impression of the area:
(Credit: Photo Courtesy of Barnes Crosby and Chicago Historical Society; found on

Laughlin not only gives us a geographic grounding in the Near West Side, she also gives us a glimpse of the basic institutions in the people’s lives. Just Folks began with the Juvenile Courthouse which played a big part in the day-to-day life of the people because poverty can spawn hopelessness, and without hope the young can turn to crime as a way out.

One institution that worked to bring hope to its neighbors on the Near West Side was Hull House.

Hull House, Smith Hall, view north on South Halsted, 1910, wikimedia, from
The American Memory Collections, Library of Congress
Jane Adams established Hull House in 1889 because she wanted to provide help to the very poor in this area. In Laughlin’s book, Beth Tully thought that she could learn how to help the people by living amidst them rather than on the grounds of Hull House. Through the sentiments of Tully (p.4), Laughlin presents the mission of Hull House from the viewpoint of the people it served: rather than asking what the people wanted, those in charge of the House gave what they thought was needed. And sometimes these were the same and other times they were not.

Another institution that brought hope to its members on the Near West Side was the Catholic Church. In his book The Irish Americans: A History pgs 111-115, which can be found on, Jay P. Dolan discusses the community, educational, and spiritual roles that the church played in the daily lives of its members. And it was the church that helped lift the second generation of Irish children out of poverty by teaching them the mores of America and by giving them the skills they needed to get better jobs in the parish schools, such as at Holy Family Catholic Church: 

Holy Family Church (1857) and St. Ignatius College Prep High School, (not pictured), 1869, Chicago IL, wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Catholic Church was there at the beginning of a person’s life to administer baptism, as Laughlin describes: 

“He was to be christened on Tuesday…in the Holy Family Church.” (p. 215)

Due to the unsanitary conditions, the lack of medical treatment and poor nutrition because of poverty, many young children died very early on the Near West Side. My great, great grandparents, John Kearney and Mary Duffy, faced this tragedy when their son, Patrick William Kearney, died at age two in 1879. The Catholic Church was also present at the end of life when people were given the last rites and buried in a Catholic cemetery, as Laughlin describes:

“…in two days after he was christened, wee Patsy was dead….They owned a single grave in Calvary (Cemetery); in it were the two children that were dead these many years….”  (p. 216-217)

In Laughlin’s book, we have seen where and how people lived on the Near West Side, where they were baptized, worshipped, went to school, and were buried (the Catholics, that is.)

One last aspect of life that was still in existence when I was growing up in Chicago in the 1950s was where they played – the amusement park of Riverview.  The Park didn’t actually open until 1904 as Riverview. Before that in the late 1800s it was called German Sharpshooter Park with picnic grounds and swings. Below is the front entrance to Riverview:

Postcard photo of the entrance of Riverview Park, Chicago circa 1908.

One of my favorite rides at Riverview was Shoot the Chutes
Postcard photo of the Chutes ride at Riverview Park, Chicago, wikimedia.
where you were carried up a tower in a small boat (kind of like an elevator.) At the top of the tower, the boat came out onto a large slide. And you shot down the “chute.”
Postcard photo of the Chutes at Riverview Park, Chicago, wikimedia

It looks like the characters in Just Folks also enjoyed riding the chutes:

“…an’ be taking’ ye t’ shoot th’ chutes.” (p. 142)

We have come to the end of our visit to the Near West Side of Chicago in the 19th century. A branch of my family started their life in Chicago right there, but fortunately the next generation was able to move out from the deep poverty. It was only a move of a few miles north to Chestnut and Wells for them, but it was a huge step in improving their quality of life.

Categories: genealogy tools


  1. 19th century Chicago is what I am after, and having Googled numerous sites about Chicago settlement houses, late 19th/early 20th century female architects, and other entries that led me down the wrong trail - I found you. In order to report to the NY Times editor of the OVERLOOKED obits (women who blazed trails up through the early 21st century but were overlooked by the obits section) I seek the story I read in a non-fiction book 50 years ago - it was a library copy that so excited me that I planned to buy a copy but, yeah, never did. I regret. My thought is you may know what book I am trying to find. The topic is female architects or possibly female designers of some sort who designed a communal kitchen in a Chicago settlement house. Or perhaps the kitchen was already intact and they fostered an idea that came to fruition. It was this: women from the tenements who worked all day in the sweatshops or similar would rotate taking turns cooking - at dawn? - so that, after work, other women could pick up a pail of stew, take it home and heat it up rather than cook from scratch. The experiment began and the permanently exhausted women were enthralled. This did not last. Men would not tolerate food that had not been cooked by "their" women but another man's wife. I know this book exists. I know it concerns early women architects and/or designers who were advocates for women. Do you have a clue about what book I have in mind? Googling got me nowhere. Oh why didn't I buy it 50 years ago when I knew the title and the names of the author(s). Thank you for any info you can provide. Paula in Boston

    1. Hi Paula, Wow, this is tantalizing! I would love to locate this book also. I was thinking of contacting the Newberry Library, the University of Chicago history dept, and Hull House, for starters.