“Chicago rebuilt quickly after the great fire of Oct. 8, 1871. The fire proved to be the catalyst that jolted the city forward from the status of raw and rugged frontier village into a Gilded Age metropolis within the span of one generation.” So began historian and author Rich Lindberg’s virtual Levy Lecture, Chicago by Gaslight: A History of Chicago’s Netherworld, 1880-1920.
The May 10 presentation, based on research compiled for his book of the same name, focused on Chicago history from 1880 through 1905, a time known as the Gilded Age. He referred to Chicago as “the fastest-growing city in the world between 1840 and 1890.”
The city occupied a key location between the commercial centers of the Eastern states and the expansion into the West. The ability to transport goods by rail and water, via the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River, helped Chicago play a major role in the development and expansion of the country. Manufacturers built warehouses in Chicago and filled them with lumber, grain and finished goods, all of which were needed and purchased by Western settlers.
The term “Gilded Age” originated with a satirical novel written in 1873 by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner titled The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. The novel satirizes a society dominated by political corruption and greed and the pretensions of the newly rich. Twain and Warner borrowed the term from Shakespeare’s 1595 play King John which includes this line: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily … is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
One aftereffect of the Chicago fire was a set of new laws “requiring new buildings to be constructed with fireproof materials, such as brick stone, marble and limestone,” Lindberg said. These requirements, he said, fueled a burst of creativity and gave rise to the Chicago School of architecture and a stream of imaginative young architects, including Daniel Burnham and William Luberon Jenny, designer of the nation’s first skyscraper in Chicago.
Another significant event in Chicago’s history was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Lindberg described it as a “coming-out party” for the city, a way of announcing Chicago had recovered from the calamitous fire 22 years earlier.
President Grover Cleveland presided over the opening day ceremonies. The fair was also the debut of the first Ferris wheel, designed and constructed by George Ferris, a civil engineer and bridge builder from Pittsburgh.
The Gilded Age was known for unbridled accumulation of massive wealth by a few industrialists. Lindberg highlighted several of Chicago’s titans, including Potter Palmer (dry goods, hotels), Marshall Field (dry goods), Frederick Danforth Armour (meatpacking, refrigerated rail cars) and Cyrus McCormick (harvesting machines). After the McCormick passed, his grandson, Cyrus McCormick III, ran the company and was notorious for underpaying his workers, Lindberg said. These practices led to labor unrest, a strike and ultimately the Haymarket Riot of 1886, he said.
Unfair labor practices was only one of the social ills affecting Chicagoans who were not part of the monied class. After the Chicago fire of 1871, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society unwittingly contributed to a situation that led to racial and ethnic segregation that still exists today. “Hundreds of displaced people were housed in long rows of wooden tenements and cottages that circle downtown to the south and west after the fire,” Lindberg said. “These ramshackle structures were intended to serve only as temporary housing in the belief that its inhabitants would climb the economic ladder and eventually move onward and upward.” But that did not happen; a poor underclass took root.
As wealthy families moved farther north, parts of the south and west of the city became entrenched with political corruption and unsavory businesses, Lindberg said. Known as “the Levee District,” the red-light area of Chicago was in the South Loop and flourished from the 1900s to about 1912. Its streets were packed with hundreds of brothels, pawnbrokers, saloons and dance halls, each of which had to pay protection money to the Chicago Outfit and two corrupt aldermen, Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and John “Bathhouse” Coughlin.
The May 10 Levy Lecture listeners were entertained with Lindberg’s stories of Ada and Minna Everleigh, proprietors of the Everleigh Club, a high-end brothel that catered to an international clientele and many of the city’s elite. Potential clients needed a letter of recommendation to be admitted.
Unfair labor practices, rampant prostitution and endemic political corruption drew the attention of a group of ambitious and energetic social reformers, Lindberg said. Jane Addams, known for championing the settlement house movement in the United States, assisted the poor and immigrants with job training and language instruction. Other reformers, including Ida B. Wells, Lucy Flower, Julia Lathrop and Frances Willard, served as a counterbalance of sorts to Gilded Age excesses and the rampant industrialization that dominated life in Chicago.
Lindberg is a well-known authority on Chicago history, Chicago crime and Chicago sports and has written multiple books on each. History buffs tend to be drawn to his books and lectures, and this topic was no different. One audience member described him as “a fine storyteller who is passionate about his topic.”
The webinar Chicago by Gaslight is available on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.