History of Chicago

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Before 1900

Chicago's locational advantage is the link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system. Its first permanent resident, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Frenchman of West Indian and African descent, and operated an fur-trading 1780–1800. The U.S. government erected Fort Dearborn in 1803 three years later. In the War of 1812 it was captured by Indians and the residents were massacred. After 1830 the rich farmlands of Northern Illinois attracted Yankee settlers. Yankee real estate operators crated a city overnight in the 1830s. Hundreds of wagons a day of farm produce arrived, so the entrepreneurs built grain elevators and docks to load ships bound for points east. By the 1850s the railroads made Chicago a major hub with over 30 lines. The main lines from the East ended in Chicago, and those oriented to the West began in Chicago, so the city became the nation's trans-shipment and warehousing center by 1860. Factories were created, most famously the harvester factory opened in 1847 by Cyrus Hall McCormick. The Wisconsin forests supported the mill-work and lumber business; the Illinois hinterland provided the wheat, as well as hogs and cattle that were slaughtered, preserved in salt and shipped east; by 1870 refrigerated cars allowed fresh meat to be shipped. As the city grew large numbers of Irish Catholics and Germans arrived. Their saloons became the focus of attacks by the Know-Nothing Party, which was anti-immigration and anti-liquor, and called for the purification of politics by reducing the power of the saloon-keepers. In 1855, the new party elected Levi Boone mayor and he banned Sunday sales of liquor and beer, angering the Germans who frequented beer gardens, and Irish who frequented saloons. Law enforcement resulted in the Lager Beer Riot of April 1855, which erupted outside a courthouse where eight Germans were being tried for liquor ordinance violations. After the Civil War, saloons became community centers only for local ethnic men, as reformers saw them as places that incited riotous behavior and moral decay.


Late-19th century big city newspapers such as the Chicago Daily News - founded in 1875 by Melville E. Stone - ushered in an era of news reporting that was, unlike earlier periods, in tune with the particulars of community life in specific cities. Vigorous competition between older and newer-style city papers soon broke out, centered on civic activism and sensationalist reporting of urban political issues and the numerous problems associated with rapid urban growth. In Chicago competition was especially fierce between the Chicago Times (Democratic), the Chicago Tribune, (Republican) and the Daily News (independent), with the latter becoming the city's most popular paper by the 1880s.[1]



Samuel Insull (1859 – 1938), born poor in England, built a great electrical empire in the city (notably "Commonwealth Edison", a giant utility formed in 1907[2]) and electrified much of the Midwest, 1910–1929. His empire collapsed in the Great Depression, for which he was blamed and put on trial by the U.S. Government, but was acquitted.

Chicago, along with New York, was the center of the nation's advertising industry. Albert Lasker (1880-1952), known as the "father of modern advertising" made Chicago his base 1898–1942. As head of Lord and Thomas, Lasker devised a copywriting technique that appealed directly to the psychology of the consumer. Women seldom smoked cigarettes; he told them if they smoked Lucky Strikes they could stay slender. Lasker's use of radio, particularly with his campaigns for Palmolive soap, Pepsodent toothpaste, Kotex products, and Lucky Strike cigarettes, not only revolutionized the advertising industry but also significantly changed popular culture.


After 1900 Chicago was a heavily unionized city, apart from the factories (which were non-union until the 1930s). The unionized teamsters in Chicago enjoyed an unusually strong bargaining position when they contended with employers around the city. Their wagons could easily be positioned to disrupt streetcars and block traffic. In addition, their families and neighborhood supporters often surrounded the wagons of nonunion teamsters and made strikebreaking a very unpleasant endeavor. When the teamsters used their clout to engage in sympathy strikes, employers decided to coordinate their anti-union efforts, claiming that the teamsters held tyrannical power over commerce in their control of the streets. The teamsters' strike in 1905 represented a clash both over labor issues and the public nature of the streets. To the employers the streets were arteries for commerce, while to the teamsters they remained public spaces integral to their neighborhoods.[3]


The great Chicago Fire, October, 1871.

The Great Chicago Fire occurred in October 1871.

On December 7, 1903, the "absolutely fireproof," five-week-old Iroquois Theater was destroyed by fire in Chicago. The fire lasted less than thirty minutes; however, 602 people died as a result of being burned, asphyxiated, or trampled.[4]

The cruise ship Eastland capsized at its pier on a calm day, July 24, 1915, killing over 800 passengers. It was top-heavy because of new federal laws (passed in response to the Titanic) requiring lifeboats.[5]

Our Lady of the Angels School fire occurred on December 1, 1958. There occurred 95 deaths, mostly of children.

A major environmental disaster came in July 1995, with 739 heat-related deaths after one week of record high heat and humidity.[6]


By 1900, Progressive Era political and legal reformers initiated far-ranging changes in the American criminal justice system, with Chicago taking the lead. Violent crime rates were high yet law enforcers rarely convicted killers, more than three-fourths of whom went unpunished. Even in homicide cases in which the identity of killers was certain and the police made arrests, jurors typically exonerated or acquitted killers. A blend of gender-, race-, and class-based notions of justice trumped the rule of law, producing low homicide conviction rates during a period of soaring violence.[7]

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rates of domestic murder tripled in Chicago. Domestic homicide was often a manifestation of strains in gender relations induced by urban and industrial change. At the core of such family murders were male attempts to preserve masculine authority. Yet, there were nuances in the motives for the murder of family members, and study of the patterns of domestic homicide among ethnic groups reveals basic cultural differences. German immigrants tended to murder over declining status and the failure to achieve economic prosperity. In addition, they were likely to kill all members of the family and then commit suicide in the ultimate attempt at maintaining control. Italian men killed family members to save a gender-based ideal of respectability that entailed patriarchal control over women and family reputation. African Americans, like the Germans, often murdered in response to economic conditions but not over desperation about the future. Like the Italians, the killers tended to be young, but family honor was not usually at stake. Instead, black men murdered to regain control of wives and lovers who resisted their patriarchal "rights."[8]

Progressive reformers in the business community created the Chicago Crime Commission (CCC) in 1919 after an investigation into the robbery at a factory showed the city's criminal justice system was deficient. The CCC initially served as a watchdog of the justice system. However, after a suggestion that the justice system begin collecting criminal records was rejected, the CCC assumed a more active role in fighting crime. The commission's role expanded even further after Frank J. Loesch became president in 1928. Loesch recognized the need to eliminate the glamour that Chicago's media typically attributed to criminals. Determined to expose the horrors and violence of the crime world, Loesch drafted a list of public enemies and turned Al Capone into a scapegoat for society's evils.[9]

Black migration

Chicago's black population swelled dramatically during World War I as immigration from Europe was impossible and factories demanded more and more war workers. Whites got the factory jobs, but many opportunities opened for black men and women. Economic conditions for the city's blacks during the 1920s were much better than in the South, but were also characterized by chronic unemployment and low wage rates. Many families living below the poverty line. These conditions were caused primarily by employers' discriminatory hiring and promotion policies, a surplus of labor at a time of continued black migration from the South, and residential segregation in the African American neighborhoods of Chicago. Consequently, the economic conditions that brought about political radicalization and realignment of African Americans during the 1930s, and which are associated primarily with the Great Depression, were in evidence throughout much of the 1920s. Accordingly, the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s, rather than being seen largely as a phenomenon associated with World War I, takes on greater significance in terms of its economic and political repercussions in black Chicago in the years before the depression.[10]


Chicago's Polonia sustained diverse political cultures, each with its own newspaper. In 1920 the community had a choice of five daily papers - from the Socialist Dziennik Ludowy [People's daily] (1907–25) to the Polish Roman Catholic Union's Dziennik Zjednoczenia [Union daily] (1921–39) - all of which supported workers' struggles for better working conditions and were part of a broader program of cultural and educational activities. The decision to subscribe to a particular paper reaffirmed a particular ideology or institutional network based on ethnicity and class, which lent itself to different alliances and different strategies.[11]

Great Depression

Since 1940


Many recent mayors of Chicago belonged to the Democratic Party. The current mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel. Before him, Richard M. Daley (b. 1942), who was elected in 1989, was mayor until 2011. His father, Richard J. Daley (1902-1976), was mayor from 1955–1976, and controlled the powerful Cook County Democratic organization, called "the machine." [12] Current President Barack Obama spent his politically formative years as a city planner "foot soldier" for the Democratic machine, an experience that deeply affected his political methods and radical beliefs later in life.

The city hosted the 1968 Democratic National Convention when Richard J. Daley was mayor. The convention was disrupted by radicals such as Abbie Hoffman.

Holli (1999) argues that the political regime of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley during 1955-76 was unusually stable during an era of national instability because Daley kept firm control of the governmental machinery, which slowed change to a manageable pace and had a deep and profound appeal to Chicagoans. Ethnic and racial squabbling erupted after Daley's death in 1976 and continued through the tenures of four mayors, even as the rest of the nation entered a period of greater political stability. After the transitory tenure of interim mayor Eugene Sawyer, the years of political instability ended with the 1989 election of the former boss's son, Richard M. Daley. Young Daley's election marked a return to political calm seen, in the light of equilibrium theory, as inevitable after the tumultuous years that preceded it.[13]

Public housing

The Robert Taylor Homes (RTH), part of Chicago's public housing projects financed by the federal government, opened in 1962. As the largest US public housing project, RTH consisted of 28 high-rises of 16 floors each, providing homes for 27,000 people. By 1965, RTH was already substandard and crime-ridden. Through the 1970s, RTH became predominantly single-mother welfare households. During site selection, the size of the project kept increasing. Federal cost worries forced the use of the high-rise design. Minors so outnumbered adults at RTH from the beginning that gangs, vandalism, and other crimes quickly became endemic. RTH was too large to administer effectively. Substandard systems, including elevators, plumbing, and heating, insufficient police protection, and the demographic burden on local schools were instrumental in RTH's failure.[14] Since then, the Robert Taylor Homes have been demolished.


In 1942-43 60,000 Nisei (born in U.S. of Japanese parents) were removed from the West Coast relocation camps and resettled in distant cities. 20,000 came to Chicago. In contrast to their self-contained, West-coast lifestyle, the Nisei in Chicago attempted to more fully integrate themselves in the community. This permitted many to take advantage of their racial "inbetweenness" to fill labor shortages caused by the war. Nisei used this "twilight zone" status between blacks and whites to distance themselves from blacks, frequently adopting the language of racial prejudice to heighten distinctions. Most Nisei successfully shed their ethnic identity in Chicago, amalgamated into the white community and stayed in the city.[15]

Hispanic immigrants

Fernandez (2005) documents the history of Mexican and Puerto Rican immigration and community formation in Chicago after World War II. Beginning with World War II, Mexican and Puerto Rican workers traveled to the Midwest through varying migrant streams to perform unskilled labor. They settled in separate areas of Chicago. These parallel migrations created historically unique communities where both groups encountered one another in the mid-twentieth century. By the 1950s and 1960s, both groups experienced repeated displacements and dislocations from the Near West Side, the Near North Side and the Lincoln Park neighborhood. At the macro level, Mexican and Puerto Rican workers' life chances were shaped by federal policies regarding immigration, labor, and citizenship. At the local level, they felt the impact of municipal government policies, which had specific racial dimensions. As these populations relocated from one neighborhood to the next, they made efforts to shape their own communities and their futures. During the period of the Civil Rights Movement, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans engaged in social struggles, both in coalition with one another but also as separate, distinct, national minorities. They created organizations and institutions such as Casa Aztlán, the Young Lords Organization, Mujeres Latinas en Acción, the Latin American Defense Organization, and El Centro de la Causa. These organizations drew upon differing strategies based on notions of nation, gender, and class, and at times produced inter-ethnic and inter-racial coalitions.[16]


Benjamin C. Willis was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools (1953 - 1966). During his tenure, the public schools in Chicago, as in many large cities, declined in terms of both the quality of the education they provided and the quantity of resources they received. Willis saw educational leadership as the work of professionals, not of community activists or political leaders. This outlook isolated his administration and undermined his influence. In the 1970s, efforts to desegregate schools through busing led to an exodus of whites from the city.[17]

Chicago River, Saint Patricks Day.

As a politician and as Chicago's black mayor (1983–87), Harold Washington maintained a distinctive strategy toward reform of public schools.[18] Rather than focus on integration (bringing whites and minorities into the same schools), Washington favored measures to strengthen local schools, especially in minority neighborhoods. He called for more state support to urban schools in place of property taxes and more power to local groups to influence curriculum and the quality of teaching. In 1987 the teacher strike transformed educational problems into a crisis. Washington created the Parent Community Council from local groups and arranged for a summit with their representatives and those of business, school administration, and teachers. His death in 1987 unraveled the deliberations for change that had been taking place. The schools were so beset by violence, teacher shortages, and inadequate financing that few disagreed with the brutal verdict of U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett in 1987, "Chicago's public schools are the worst in the nation." In the late 1990s, the realization that busing had become unrealistic caused Chicago's political leaders and community activists to join together in focusing attention and resources on improving neighborhood schools. Mayor Richard M. Daley seized control of the school system in 1995 and promised drastic reforms. However, the legislature largely left in place elected councils made up of parents and community members at each of the district's nearly 600 schools. At struggling schools on probation, Daley has stripped councils of power, but at others the councils hire principals and oversee a significant portion of each school's budget. Paul G. Vallas, a blunt-talking, bottom-line-driven manager led the system from 1995 to 2001. Vallas presided over a $3 billion construction effort that built 71 schools and renovated 500. He cut 2,000 non-teaching positions and stabilized the district's finances. Given broad executive authority, Vallas ended automatic promotion from grade to grade and greatly expanded summer school, policies that have been copied across the country. Math and reading scores improved, with about 40% of students at grade level in 2001, up from 30% in 1995.[19] In 2001 Daley appointed Arne Duncan, 36, to preside over a school system with 435,000 students, 45,900 employees and a $3.5-billion annual budget. In 2009 Duncan, hailed for his work in Chicago, became Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration.


  1. David Paul Nord, "Read All about It"" Chicago History 2002 31(1): 26-57. Issn: 0272-8540
  2. It is now part of Exelon Corporation, and serves 3.8 million customers in Chicago and northern Illinois.
  3. David Witwer, "Unionized Teamsters and the Struggle over the Streets of the Early-Twentieth-century City." Social Science History 2000 24(1): 183-222. Issn: 0145-5532 Fulltext: Project Muse
  4. Anthony P. Hatch, "Inferno at the Iroquois." Chicago History 2003 32(2): 4-31. Issn: 0272-8540
  5. George W. Hilton, Eastland: Legacy of the Titanic. (1995).
  6. Christopher R. Browning; Wallace, Danielle; Feinberg, Seth L.; and Cagney, Kathleen A.; Klinenberg, Eric (Reply). "Neighborhood Social Processes, Physical Conditions, and Disaster-related Mortality: the Case of the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave." American Sociological Review 2006 71(4): 661-678. Issn: 0003-1224
  7. Jeffrey S. Adler, "'It Is His First Offense. We Might as Well Let Him Go': Homicide and Criminal Justice in Chicago, 1875-1920." Journal of Social History 2006 40(1): 5-24. Issn: 0022-4529 Fulltext: History Cooperative and Project Muse
  8. Adler, "'We've Got a Right to Fight; We're Married': Domestic Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920." 2003
  9. Bill Barnhart, "Public Enemies: Chicago Origins of Personalized Anticrime Campaigns." Journal of Illinois History 2001 4(4): 258-270. Issn: 1522-0532
  10. Gareth Canaan, "'Part of the Loaf': Economic Conditions of Chicago's African-American Working Class During the 1920's." Journal of Social History 2001 35(1): 147-174. Issn: 0022-4529 Fulltext: Project Muse
  11. Jon Bekken, "Negotiating Class and Ethnicity: the Polish-language Press in Chicago." Polish American Studies 2000 57(2): 5-29. Issn: 0032-2806
  12. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/Chicago7/Daley2.html
  13. Melvin G. Holli, "Political Equilibrium and the Daley Eras in Chicago." Continuity 1999 (23): 83-96. Issn: 0277-1446
  14. D. Bradford Hunt, "What Went Wrong with Public Housing in Chicago? A History of the Robert Taylor Homes." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 2001 94(1): 96-123. Issn: 1522-1067; Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto, (2002).
  15. Charlotte Brooks, "In the Twilight Zone Between Black and White: Japanese American Resettlement and Community in Chicago, 1942-1945." Journal of American History 2000 86(4): 1655-1687. Issn: 0021-8723 Fulltext: History Cooperative and Jstor
  16. Lilia Fernández, "Latina/o Migration and Community Formation in Postwar Chicago: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Gender, and Politics, 1945-1975." PhD dissertation U. of California, San Diego 2005. 302 pp. DAI 2006 66(10): 3779-A. DA3191767 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses. See also Mérida M. Rúa, "Claims to `the City': Puerto Rican Latinidad amid Labors of Identity, Community, and Belonging in Chicago." PhD dissertation U. of Michigan 2004. 219 pp. DAI 2005 65(10): 3877-A. DA3150079 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  17. John L. Rury, "Race, Space, and the Politics of Chicago's Public Schools: Benjamin Willis and the Tragedy of Urban Education." History of Education Quarterly 1999 39(2): 117-142. Issn: 0018-2680 Fulltext: in Jstor
  18. Jim Carl, "Harold Washington and Chicago's Schools Between Civil Rights and the Decline of the New Deal Consensus, 1955-1987." History of Education Quarterly 2001 41(3): 311-343. Issn: 0018-2680 Fulltext: in Jstor
  19. See Jodi Wilgoren, "Chief Executive of Chicago Schools Resigns," New York Times June 7, 2001