Chicago is situated on the south-western tip of Lake Michigan in the state of Illinois. The narrow Chicago River extends one mile inland and splits the city into North, West and South sides. Jacques Marquette and Luis Joliet explored the area in 1673 but it was another hundred years before a trading post was established.

The present city was laid out in 1830. Its importance grew with the growth of the railways and by 1850 became the main transport centre for livestock and grain from the Midwest. Chicago was also recognised as having the largest slaughtering and meat packing business in the world.

On 8th October, 1871, a fire started in Patrick O'Leary's cow barn. In just over 24 hours it destroyed 17,000 buildings valued at $200,000,000, killed over 300 people and left 100,000 people homeless.

Chicago attracted a large number of immigrants from Europe including people from Germany, Italy, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, Russia, Norway, Austro-Hungary, Greece, Holland, Bulgaria, Portugal, Scotland, Wales and Finland. In 1890 an estimated 41% of the city's population had been born outside the United States and included large numbers from Germany (161,000), Ireland (70,000), Sweden (43,000), England (28,000) and Austria-Hungary (7,000).

In 1915 William Thompson was elected major of Chicago. The city was under the control of gangsters and Thompson was suspected of being on the payroll of Al Capone. His critics claimed this is why the police were unable to gain control of the city. During the First World War Thompson was staunchly pro-German and even organised public book-burning of British books taken from the city's public schools. In 1923 Thompson was investigated for fraud and he decided not to stand as mayor. He returned in 1927 when once again he was elected. Once again Thompson made little attempt to control gangsters in Chicago.

In 1931 Thompson was challenged by Anton Cermakwho accused Thompson of being under the control of Al Capone and other gangsters in the city. Cermak campaigned for social reform and an end to prohibition. On 7th April, 1931, Cermak defeated Thompson, by 200,000 votes. However, on 15th February, 1933, Cermak was assassinated by Guiseppe Zangara.

In the 19th century and for most of the 20th century Chicago was the second largest city in the United States. It was relegated to third place behind New York and Los Angeles in 1982. The city area covers 228 square miles (591 square km) and has a population of over 2,900,000 people.

Primary Sources

(1) Charles Joseph Latrobe wrote about Chicago in 1833 in his book The Rambler in North America (1836)

We spent a week at Chicago. This little mushroom town is situated upon the verge of a perfectly level tract of country, for the great part consisting of a open prairie lands, at a point where a small river whose sources interlock in the wet season with those of the Illinois, enters Lake Michigan.

The Pottawattomies were encamped on all sides - on the wide level prairie beyond the scattered village, beneath the shelter of the low woods which checkered them, on the side of the small river, or to leeward of the sand hills near the beach of the lake. They consisted of three principal tribes with certain adjuncts from smaller tribes.

(2) In his autobiography, A Pioneer in Northwest America: 1841-1858, Gustaf Unonius described visiting Chicago for the first time in 1845.

The principal site of the city is low and swampy, almost at the same level as Lake Michigan, and most of the buildings were at that time erected close to the lakeshore or on the miry, alluvial soil which time and again was flooded by the river flowing right through the city. Certain other parts consisted of waste expanses of sand without a blade of grass, and from them a floury dust was carried in blinding clouds over the clayey streets, sifting into the houses, making them as dusty inside as the outdoors was muddy and unpleasant. During the rainy season, and sometimes far into summer, the streets were almost impassable for driving as well as for walking. To be sure they were supplied with board sidewalks, but crossing from one side of the street to the the other entailed decided difficulties.

(3) Gustaf Unonius was shocked when he revisited Chicago in 1857.

Twelve years have passed, and what a change in its appearance as well as in its population, which is now 120,000. The formerly low, swampy streets have been raised several feet and paved with planks or stone. The river has been dredged and widened; its shores have been supported with piles, evened off, raised well above the water level, and are now occupied by loading piers or used as foundations for gigantic warehouses or factories. It is now a city in which private and public buildings have been erected that compare favorably both in size and style with the most splendid structures in the capitals of Europe. In a single summer, in 1855, 2,700 new houses were built, many of which would be a source of pride to any city.

(4) Nelson Miles, Personal Recollections and Observations (1896)

I found my station at Chicago most agreeable. Of all our great commercial centers, there is not one that surpasses it in business enterprise, in public spirit, or in universal interest in everything that pertains to the welfare of that great metropolis, and whose people have more confidence in the future of their city. Water communications have built up great marts of commerce in other parts of the world, but Chicago has the advantage of the Great Lakes and a system of railways that have become the great avenues of commerce, reaching to every section of our country. The hospitality of its people is in marked contrast to the rigor and severity of its climate.

(5) Mary Livermore moved to Chicago with her family in 1857. She wrote about her first impressions in her autobiography The Story of My Life: The Sunshine and Shadow of Seventy Years (1897)

Chicago was then without a system of sewerage. In lieu of sewers, deep ditches were cut on both sides of a street, its whole length, and these were bridged by planks in front of the houses. In wet weather the streets were rivers of

mud; in the dry season they were veritable Saharas of dust. The prairie breeze not only kept the dust in perpetual motion, but caught up the litter and debris strewn about the streets, and sent that whirling through the air in clouds that

blinded the eyes, and choked the throat and nostrils. People bore these inflictions with much good nature, because

they were optimistic and expected better things in the future. They even joked over their discomforts. An omnibus was stuck fast in the mud in the middle of dark street, and remained there until it was frozen in ; and all through the winter it upheld a signboard bearing the prohibition, " Keep off the grass!"

The streets were even then overcrowded, in spite of their unusual width; and, as everybody walked at a furious pace, as if bent on some errand of life or death, there was inevitable colliding and jostling, which sometimes resulted in a tumble of one or both of the parties into the open sewer. How to keep clean was the appalling problem that confronted us in those early days. The mud, when removed from one's person or clothes, left a stain that neither soap nor hot water would entirely efface. It seemed almost useless to undertake any form of personal ablution, for in less than an hour, one presented as begrimed and sooty an appearance as if soap and water had never been tested.

(6) Carl Schurz first visited Chicago in 1856. He described the city in his autobiography published in 1906.

Chicago was then a city of about 65,000 inhabitants. The blockhouse of old Fort Dearborn was still standing and remained so for several years. Excepting the principal public edifices, hotels, and business houses, and a few private residences, the town was built of wood. The partly unpaved and partly ill-paved streets were extremely dusty in dry, and extremely muddy in wet weather. I noticed remarkably few attempts to give dwelling houses an attractive appearance.

Chicago had at that time sidewalks made of wooden planks, under which, it appeared, rats in incalculable numbers had made their nests. Troops of them I saw moving about in the gaslight. as I was sitting still, they playfully scampered over my feet. Efforts to scare them away proved unavailing. I sought another curbstone, but the rats were there too.

(7) William H. Russell, a journalist working for The Times, travelled to Chicago by railroad in 1861.

The scene now began to change gradually as we approached Chicago, the prairie subsided into swampy land, and thick belts of trees fringed the horizon; on our right glimpses of the sea could be caught through openings in the wood - the inland sea on which stands the Queen of the Lakes. Michigan looks broad and blue as the Mediterranean. Large farmhouses stud the country, and houses which must be the retreat of merchants and citizens of means; and when the train, leaving the land altogether, dashes out on a pier and causeway built along the borders of the lake, we see lines of noble houses, a fine boulevard, a forest of masts, huge isolated piles of masonry, the famed gain elevators by which so many have been hoisted to fortune, churches and public edifices, and the apparatus of a great city.

(8) Sara Clarke Lippincott, New Life in New Lands (1871)

I suppose I need hardly say that I like Chicago - like it in spite of lake-wind sharpness and prairie flatness, damp tunnels, swinging bridges, hard water, and easy divorces. With all the distinctive characteristics of a great city, it has preserved in a wonderful degree the provincial virtues of generous hospitality, cordiality and neighborly kindness.

(9) On 8th October, 1871, a fire started in Patrick O'Leary's cow barn. In just over 24 hours it destroyed 17,000 buildings valued at $200,000,000, killed over 300 people and left 100,000 people homeless. Aurelia R. King wrote about the fire in a letter to friends on 21st October, 1871.

At one o'clock we were wakened by shouts of people in the streets declaring the city was on fire - but then the fire was far away on the south side of the river. Mr. King went quite leisurely over town, but soon hurried back with the news that the court-house, Sherman House, post office, Tremont House, and all the rest of the business portion of the city was in flames, and thought he would go back and keep his eye on the store. He had scarcely been gone fifteen minutes when I saw him rushing back with his porters, bringing the books and papers from the store, with news that everything was burning, that the bridges were on fire, and the North Side was in danger. From that moment the flames ran in our direction, coming faster than a man could run. The rapidity was almost incredible, the wind blew a hurricane, the air was full of burning boards and shingles flying in every direction, and falling everywhere around us.

(10) In her book, Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams described Chicago when she first arrived in the city in 1889.

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.

(11) Edith Abbott became a resident of Hull House in Chicago in 1908. She later wrote about her impressions of the city in the Social Service Review (September, 1950)

Hull House and the old West side were full of newly arrived immigrants when Grace and I went to live there in 1908; we seemed to be surrounded by great tenement areas which have now given way to the factories and stores that have come with the business invasion. Chicago at that time was the rushing, growing metropolis of the West, but the crowded streets about Hull House with their strange foreign signs and foreign-looking shops that were often very shabby and untidy seemed strangely unrelated to the great, prosperous city that was called the 'Queen of the West'.

The foreign colonies were well established, and there were Italians in front of us and to the right of us; and to the left a large Greek colony. There was a Bulgarian colony a few blocks west of Halsted Street and along to the north that had almost no women; but large numbers of fine Bulgarian men seemed to have emigrated - and they were pitiful when they were unemployed.

Then you came to the old Ghetto as you followed Hull House a few blocks to the south, where the Maxwell Street Market with its competing pushcarts heaped with shoes, stockings, potatoes, onions, old clothes, new clothes, dishes, pots and pans, and food for the Sunday trade was as picturesque as it was insanitary.

The Greeks were our nearest neighbors, and many of them came to Hull House for classes and clubs. The Greek immigrants at that time were mostly young men working for money to bring over their relatives. The Hull House residents and club leaders organized Greek clubs of various kinds and Greek dances, when there were so few Greek women that the women residents, young and old, were called in to "help the Greeks dance."

Lewis Hine, tok this photograph of a Chicago tenement in about 1910.
Lewis Hine, tok this photograph of a Chicago tenement in about 1910.

(12) Walter Lippmann, A Preface to Politics (1913)

Miss Addams has not only made Hull House a beautiful place; she has stocked it with curious and interesting objects. It is no accident that Hull House is the most successful settlement in America. Yet who does not feel its isolation in that brutal city. A little Athens in a vast barbarism - you wonder how much of Chicago Hull House can civilize. Hull House cannot remake Chicago. A few hundred lives can be changed, and for the rest it is a guide to the imagination. Like all utopias, it cannot succeed, but it may point the way to success. If Hull House is unable to civilize Chicago, it at least shows Chicago and America what a civilization might be like.

(13) Edmund Wilson visited Chicago and the Hull House Settlement in 1932.

Chicago is one of the darkest of great cities. In the morning, the winter sun does not seem to give any light: it leaves the streets dull. It is more like a forge which has just been started up, with its fires just burning red, an an atmosphere darkened by coal-fumes. All the world seems made of gray fog - gray fog and white smoke - the great square white-and-gray buildings seem to have been pressed out of the saturated atmosphere. The smooth asphalt of the lake-side road seems solidified polished smoke. The lake itself, in the dawn, is of a strange stagnant substance like pearl that is becoming faintly liquid and luminous.

The Chicago River, dull green, itself a work of engineering, runs backward along its original course, buckled with black iron bridges, which unclose, one after the other, each in two short fragments, as a tug drags car-barges under them, like the peristaltic movement of the stomach pushing a tough piece of food along. The sun for a time half-reveals these scenes, but its energies are only brief. The afternoon has scarcely established itself as an identifiable phenomenon when light succumbs to dullness, and the day lapses back into dark. The buildings seem mounds of soft darkness caked and carved out of swamp-mud and rubber-stamped here and there with neon signs.