The Nineteenth Ward was one of the poorest areas in Chicago. This was one of the main reasons why Jane Addams and Ellen Starr decided to establish its Hull House Settlement in this ward in 1889. This ensured that the area was one of the most documented areas in the United States.
By 1896 there were 48,280 people living in the Nineteenth Ward. A large number of the residents were recently arrived immigrants from Europe and contained sizable communities from Germany, Italy, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, Russia, Norway, Austro-Hungary and Finland. According to Ernest Moore, who carried out a survey of the area in 1897: "The largest foreign elements in the ward are the Irish, German, Italian, and Bohemian, stated in the order of relative numerical strength. Of those of foreign parentage, about one-half are American born."
Florence Kelley and Alzina Stevens, who carried out a survey into child labour in 1896, discovered that the ward contained a large number of factories employing young immigrants. In "one caramel works in this ward, where there are from one hundred and ten to two hundred little girls, four to twelve boys, and seventy to one hundred adults, according to the season of the year."
The ward was run by Johnny Powers, a member of the Irish community. The investigative journalist, Ray Stannard Baker, described Powers in an article that he wrote in 1898 as being "cool-headed, cunning and wholly unscrupulous". Baker added: "He is the feudal lord who governs his retainers with open-handed liberality or crushes them to poverty as it suits his nearest purpose."
The Nineteenth Ward of Chicago according to the school census of 1896 has a population of 48,280. It is a workingman's district, and the population is typical of unskilled labor in general. The largest foreign elements in the ward are the Irish, German, Italian, and Bohemian, stated in the order of relative numerical strength. Of those of foreign parentage, about one-half are American born. As to moral condition, neither the extremes of vice nor of virtue are reached, while the general moral tone is rather healthful.
The houses of the ward, for the most part wooden, were originally built for one family and are now occupied by several. They are after the type of the inconvenient frame cottages found in the poorer suburbs twenty years ago. Many of them were built where they now stand; others were brought thither on rollers, because their previous sites had been taken by factories. The fewer brick tenement buildings which are three or four stories high are comparatively new, and there are few large tenements. The little wooden houses have a temporary aspect, and for this reason, perhaps, the tenement-house legislation in Chicago is totally inadequate. Rear tenements flourish; many houses have no water supply save the faucet in the back yard, there are no fire escapes, the garbage and ashes are placed in wooden boxes which are fastened to the street pavements. One of the most discouraging features about the present system of tenement houses is that many are owned by sordid and ignorant immigrants. The theory that wealth brings responsibility, that possession entails at length education and refinement, in these cases fails utterly. The children of an Italian immigrant owner may "shine" shoes in the street, and his wife may pick rags from the street gutter, laboriously sorting them in a dingy court. Wealth may do something for her self-complacency and feeling of consequence; it certainly does nothing for her comfort or her children's improvement nor for the cleanliness of anyone concerned.
Another thing that prevents better houses in Chicago is the tentative attitude of the real estate men. Many unsavory conditions are allowed to continue which would be regarded with horror if they were considered permanent. Meanwhile, the wretched conditions persist until at least two generations of children have been born and reared in them.
Hull-House once stood in the suburbs, but the city has steadily grown up around it and its site now has corners on three or four foreign colonies. Between Halsted Street and the river live about ten thousand ItaliansNeapolitans, Sicilians, and Calabrians, with an occasional Lombard or Venetian. To the south on Twelfth Street are many Germans, and side streets are given over almost entirely to Polish and Russian Jews. Still farther south, these Jewish colonies merge into a huge Bohemian colony, so vast that Chicago ranks as the third Bohemian city in the world. To the northwest are many Canadian-French, clannish in spite of their long residence in America, and to the north are Irish and first-generation Americans. On the streets directly west and farther north are well-to-do English speaking families, many of whom own their own houses and have lived in the neighborhood for years; one man is still living in his old farmhouse.
The policy of the public authorities of never taking an initiative, and always waiting to be urged to do their duty, is obviously fatal in a neighborhood where there is little initiative among the citizens. The idea underlying our self- government breaks down in such a ward. The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets, and the stables foul beyond description. Hundreds of houses are unconnected with the street sewer. The older and richer inhabitants seem anxious to move away as rapidly as they can afford it. They make room for newly arrived immigrants who are densely ignorant of civic duties. This substitution of the older inhabitants is accomplished industrially also, in the south and east quarters of the ward. The Jews and Italians do the finishing for the great clothing manufacturers, formerly done by Americans, Irish, and Germans, who refused to submit to the extremely low prices to which the sweating system has reduced their successors. As the design of the sweating system is the elimination of rent from the manufacture of clothing, the "outside work" is begun after the clothing leaves the cutter. An unscrupulous contractor regards no basement as too dark, no stable loft too foul, no rear shanty too provisional, no tenement room too small for his workroom, as these conditions imply low rental. Hence these shops abound in the worst of the foreign districts where the sweater easily finds his cheap basement and his home finishers.
The Nineteenth Ward is fertile soil for growing a ward boss. Its population consists of Italians, Polish and Russian Jews, Irish of the poorest class, and the offscourings of a dozen other nationalities. They live huddled together in ill-smelling houses, and few of the older people, many of whom are day laborers, have any understanding of American institutions, or even of the English language. They are capable of being herded and driven by any one who is strong enough to wield the rod.
Johnny Powers has been the undisputed political boss for many years. Powers has been more than ordinarily successful as a ward boss. He is cool-headed, cunning, and wholly unscrupulous, and yet he possesses the effective gift known, for lack of a better name, as "good-fellowship" or good-heartedness". Among his constituents he appears in his kingly aspects of unlimited power and benevolence. He impresses them with the primitive generosity which has turkeys to give away by thousands at Christmas time, which elevates a faithful follower to a position on the city pay-roll in a single day, or discharges him with equal ease. He is the feudal lord who governs his retainers with open-handed liberality or crushes them to poverty as it suits his nearest purpose.
The streets and alleys of the ward were notoriously filthy, and the contractors habitually neglected them, not failing, however, to draw their regular payments from the city treasury. At last it fell to the women of Hull House to take the initiative. Miss Addams herself applied for the position of garbage inspector, and, to the astonishment of Johnny Powers and his retainers, received the appointment. Within two months the Nineteenth Ward was one of the cleanest in the city.
The Nineteenth Ward of Chicago is perhaps the best district in all Illinois for a detailed study of child labour, both because it contains many factories in which children are employed, and because it is the dwelling-place of wage-earning children engaged in all lines of activity.
The largest number of children to be found in any one factory in Chicago is in a caramel works in this ward, where there are from one hundred and ten to two hundred little girls, four to twelve boys, and seventy to one hundred adults, according to the season of the year. The building is a six-story brick, well-lighted, with good plumbing and fair ventilation. It has, however, no fire escape, and a single wooden stair leading from floor to floor. In case of fire the inevitable fate of the children working on the two upper floors is too horrible to contemplate.
© John Simkin, April 2013