Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You Are There: Chicago 1837-1920

Yesterday's Main Street, Kathy,
January 2, 2025, Creative Commons,
When I was a young child living in Chicago in the early 1950s, my parents brought me to the Museum of Science and Industry. I remember several visits, and each time I would gaze fixedly at one exhibit in particular: “Yesterday’s Main Street,”a representation of a cobblestoned Chicago street in 1910, with storefronts lining both sides.

Yesterday's Main Street, Dainaar,
April 2, 2010, Creative Commons,
 For some reason, I never got the chance to walk down the street and peer into the windows as I longed to do. Perhaps this was the beginning of my yearning to know what Chicago was like in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when my ancestors lived there.

When I began investigating my family background and found that the Irish Carney/Kearney family line lived in Chicago from 1860 on, I was even more passionate about learning about life in early Chicago. Following the Irish, my German, Greek and Czech ancestors came to make their home in this young city. I wanted to walk the streets my people walked, see the sights they saw every day, hear the sounds that might have soothed or tormented them, and even smell the scents that surrounded them.

Fortunately for me, I came across the book Challenging Chicago: Coping With Everyday Life, 1837-1920  by Perry Duis.

Used by permission of publisher, University
of Illinois Press

The author goes way beyond the surface of sights and sounds. He plunges the reader into the gritty but also glorious world that was Chicago in this time period.  From this book, I learned the risks and the obstacles that challenged my people, but I also learned about the opportunities.

Dr. Duis is a master at painting a picture with words of what it was like to live in Chicago in those early years. Although this is a scholarly work covering the history, social mores, technological advances, and much more of this period and place, it is as readable and engrossing as a historical novel. However be advised, I may be prejudiced as I love nineteenth century Chicago!

In the introduction, Duis tells his readers the purpose of this book: to explain the challenges of living in a new, fast growing city and how its denizens dealt with them:

“The millions of all social classes who flocked to American cities…needed to resort to survival strategies. Urban life was a new experience for most of them. Raised on farms and in small towns, both here and abroad, they were often unprepared for what lay ahead. Many found that cities were far more congested, crowded, dangerous, unpleasant, immoral, and unhealthy than they had anticipated.” p. xii Duis

First, Dr. Duis tells us what forces helped create Chicago and other cities. By the mid 1800s, the industrial revolution  was taking hold in the United States. Farm workers living in poverty in rural America and in Europe began seeking employment in the new factories that were springing up in cities like New York and Chicago and were hungry for workers. To give an idea of the astonishing rate of population growth in Chicago, Duis writes:

“A populace of 4,170 in 1837 became 29,963 in 1850 and 109,260 in 1860, and it was on its way to three times that figure by the time of the Great Fire in 1871.” p. 7 Duis

Here is a photograph of State Street c1893 which shows the congested conditions of Chicago living:

Traffic on State Street, Chicago, U.S.A., Washington, D.C. : 
J.F. Jarvis, publisher, c1893, LC-USZ62-101801, 
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
With such rapid growth, there wasn’t much time to pay attention to the environment – the land the people lived on and traversed. People, including the city fathers, were focused on business. But nature was not to be ignored.

From the time before the first Europeans came to the site of Chicago in the late 1600s, the area was plagued by mud much of the year. In their book Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade explain the cause of that mud:

(It)  “…was the result of ancient geologic forces. More than four hundred million years before, the site lay beneath a tropical sea ….Before the waters receded there was deposited on the sea bottom the material (limestone) that constitutes the bedrock of Chicago….Above the limestone, glaciers left layers of impermeable clay that prevented the draining off of surface waters and created a high water table.” p. 3 Duis

  # 69 State Street, South from Lake,
 Views of Chicago, Carbutt, Photographer,
Chicago History Museum, used by license.

It was this high water table that caused the omnipresent mud which challenged Chicagoans when they were attempting to get from place to place on foot. The mud also caused problems for workers as they labored to keep streets open when they sunk into the mud.  p. 5 Duis
But the mud was not the only environmental problem facing Chicagoans. The city leaders thought the cost of pipes and sewers too costly for the new city, so sanitation became a problem. Large numbers of new immigrants living in overcrowded tenements with no waste removal systems led, among other problems, to very dirty streets:

In 1837, the city declared that “No dung, dead animal or putrid meats and fish or decayed vegetables (were) to be deposited in any street, avenue, lane or public square.” p. 5 Duis

Just walking in the city was a nightmare:

“The lack of sidewalks forced pedestrians to walk on the sides of the road, where debris, garbage, stray animals, mud, standing water, and dust impeded daily travel.” p. 5 Duis

Ore docks, blast furnaces & steel mills, South Chicago, Ill.,
International Harvester Co., Chicago, Ill.,
Geo. R. Lawrence Co. , copyright claimant,
 c1907, C-USZ62-41402,  Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
So thanks to Dr. Duis, I have a good picture of what it was like for my ancestors to try to get to work each day through the mud and trash. I know also where they likely found employment: the new iron and steel mills, the stockyards and meat packing plants, the railroads, and garment making shops. But how did people find these and other jobs?

Birds-eye view of Union Stock yards, Chicago, Ill., U.S.A., 
Meadville, Pa.: Keystone View Company, c1897, 
LC-USZ62-45849, Library of Congress 
Prints and Photographs Division 
Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
Chapter 9, “Chicago is Work,” talks about the different ways jobs were advertised: employment agencies, saloon message boards, hiring halls, and word of mouth. In addition to a way of making a living, a Chicagoan had to have a place to go before and after work. Finding housing was yet another challenge.

A basic facet of life is shelter, and I have long wondered the kind of housing my Chicago ancestors had. Different pieces of evidence (including the sad finding that an infant of the Carney/Kearney family was buried in the pauper’s area of Calvary Cemetery, the fact that my people likely left Ireland in the famine years, and the family story that my great grandmother was in an orphanage) attest to the probability that the Carney/Kearney and Duffy families were poor. Perhaps part of the reason I have trouble locating them in the city directories and federal census records is because of their poverty. Duis tells us that many Chicago families moved every May 1st, but poor families moved even more often, sometimes to avoid back rent they couldn’t afford to pay or in the hope of securing cleaner, less crowded lodgings:

“For the very poor, eviction or the search for more sanitary and safe tenements often led to the transfer of their meager possessions every few months. Their stay in one place was often so brief that they used neighborhood saloons as permanent mailing addresses.” p. 85 Duis

Too bad the saloons didn’t keep ledgers filled with addresses of the neighborhood denizens!

Another challenge for Chicago’s workers was finding food. Due to crowds, increasing commuting distance from work, and unreliable public transportation, working people couldn’t get home for lunch.  Saloon owners saw a way to capitalize on their roles as post box and job message board. Why not serve lunch to bring in customers to eat and, of course, drink? Initially, saloons charged for these noon meals, but when a politician/saloon owner started handing out free oysters (p. 157- 158 Duis), the concept if free food to lure customers spread across the city. Thus, was born, as Dr. Duis tells us, a new concept – the free lunch.

Image from page 208 of “Blasts” from “The Ram's Horn” (1902), 
Chicago, The Ram's Horn Co., Internet Archive 
Book Images,
But that wasn’t the only thing Chicago gave America in the area of eating. When I was a little girl, my mother took me downtown to a cafeteria. I was mesmerized by all the food choices! This experience inspired the essay below from me in the third grade:

Written by Pat Spears, 1953
 school assignment, John M. Palmer
Elementary School, Chicago, IL
But I had no idea then that my city invented this restaurant phenomenon. In order to reduce the cost of lunch for working women, the Ogontz Club came up with the idea to do away with wait staff and instead, let patrons choose their food from large tables and carry their plates back to the seating area. p. 159

Thus was born our modern day cafeteria. A fellow blogger, Ms. Jan Whitaker, wrote a wonderful poem, “The Cafeteria,” which perfectly captures my fascination with this form of dining.

To conclude, we have taken just a quick visit to the wonderful world of nineteenth century Chicago, courtesy of Perry Duis. But there is more to explore in his historical tour guide, including how early Chicagoans sought to escape the problems of life and spend some moments enjoying what the city had to offer, covered in Part Four: Spare Moments.

One last note, in a press release of the book by the University of Illinois Press, James L. Swanson from a Chicago Tribune review was quoted: “…the illustrations and endnotes are worth the price of the book.” And the notes are indeed a treasure.

categories: genealogy tools

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