Why not compare Illinois in 1900 with Illinois in 2000. Well, the year 2000 still has most of its course to run, but the real reason is that 1899 was the year the Illinois State Historical Society came to active life. What follows compares Illinois in that year with Illinois in 1999, or, practically speaking, the present.
There were about 4.7 million people in Illinois in 1899; in 1999 we were approaching 12 million. Then our population was made almost entirely of European immigrants and the descendants of European immigrants; in 1999 successive waves of migration had brought over a million African Americans to the state, and hundreds of thousands of people from the Spanish-speaking Americas and from Asia. About a third of those 4.7 million lived in, or close to Chicago. In 1999 the proportion had grown to over three-fifths. But more than half of Chicagoland was outside the city limits of Chicago, spreading into the "collar counties" of Lake, McHenry, DuPage, and Will. Chicago itself has actually been losing population since 1950, while its metropolitan area has continued to grow. Most of the counties of central and southern Illinois have also been losing population in the twentieth century, as agriculture has become more and more efficient. In 1899 half the people of Illinois still lived on farms, or in rural villages where one kept livestock and grew gardens. The rural population in 1999 had dwindled below five percent. In 1899 only two states, New York and Pennsylvania, had more inhabitants than Illinois. By 1899 three large sun-belt states had surpassed us: California, Texas, and Florida.
In 1899 farm families still produced most of their own food, then sold their surplus. The state was then a leading producer of wheat, beef cattle, dairy cattle, corn, hogs, and horses - still essential to the farmer and to short-distance hauling in towns and cities. By 1999 field corn and soy beans had come to dominate agriculture, and new techniques made it possible to run giant machines over the soil just twice a year. Horses barely survive, for sport and entertainment. Southern Illinois, less amenable to prairie agriculture, has expanded its production of truck crops, fruits, and wine grapes; agriculturally speaking it remains the least profitable and most interesting part of the state.
Two leading occupations of 1899 have either disappeared or have been transformed by technical changes. The meat-packing houses, initially so famous in establishing Chicago as a major city, and later so notorious because of Upton Sinclair's novel of protest, The Jungle, have long since departed. They were still expanding production in 1899. And coal mining was a major occupation in almost every part of the state, equally famous for conflicts between labor and management and, every few years, disastrous accidents.
The "soft" or bituminous coal of Illinois is currently out of fashion because of its high sulfur content. It remains, however, a great reservoir of fossil fuel if the nation ever gets desperate.
Illinois in 1899 was among the nation's leaders in the manufacture of ready-made clothing, furniture, musical instruments, and books, as well as in the brewing of beer and the distilling of whiskey These industries too have either left altogether or are much curtailed. The case (so to speak) of beer is particularly interesting: the huge breweries of Chicago closed down one by one until none remained; then the so-called micro-breweries, with their more elegant products, and higher prices began appearing at the end of the century Patriotic citizens of Illinois ponder the question: why do we import our beer from Wisconsin and our whiskey from Kentucky?
In 1899 Chicago had already been the rail center of the United States for some thirty years. This brought millions of transients through the city, and provided tens of thousands of jobs operating and maintaining the railroads and manufacturing everything from boxcars to George Pullman's "Palace Cars," whose luxurious appointments proved the appellation merely descriptive, not hyperbolic. Nor was Chicago the only city employed in work for the railroads: Aurora, Danville, Moline, and Decatur and many others had important shops. By 1899 a new invention was revolutionizing urban transportation: the electrically powered trolley car, ideal for stop-and-go city traffic, and, when placed on elevated tracks, also capable of rapid transit. Chicago of course had the greatest need for such transportation, but the smaller cities of Illinois made good use of electric streetcars too, and many of our cities would soon be connected by electric interurban trains. Streetcars have now been replaced by motor buses in most cities, and far more Illinoisans take themselves to work in private automobiles than by public transportation. The selling, servicing, and operating of all these vehicles has in turn provided hundreds of thousands of citizens with jobs, along with the roadside businesses that cater to the long-distance traveler on wheels. In 1899 there were few enough paved streets even in Chicago, and no paved highways connecting the cities of Illinois. Since the 1920s however, Illinois has been among the nation's leaders in designing and building modern highways. 1999 was notable for a new emphasis on the improvement of our much and sometimes over-used network of highways. The ubiquitous automobile, even more than the streetcar, has made possible a more decentralized urban life, by habit still called "suburban," but actually the modern form of urbanism.
In 1899 many highly educated people still believed flying machines could not possibly work, and no one had proved them wrong, as David Wendell's article reminds us. By mid-century Chicago had become the nation's center for air transport as it had long been for railroads. In 1999 political leaders were continuing a debate about whether Chicago should have a third major airport to relieve the congestion at O'Hare and Midway airports. By 1999 one could reach any part of the state by scheduled airlines.
Paralleling the movement from farm to city has been the rise of education, and especially of tax-supported education. By 1899 Illinois had passed legislation supporting schooling through 12 grades, though many rural areas still were served by one-room schoolhouses and no high school at all. By 1999 education through high school had become virtually compulsory, if only because prospective employers take the high-school diploma as a basic qualification for any sort of paid work. But the greatest change in this century has been the expansion of higher education.
Many of our most important colleges and universities were created in the 19th century, among them Illinois College, Knox College, Northwestern, Wheaton, Illinois State University, the University of Illinois, Southern, Northern, Eastern, Loyola, DePaul, and the University of Chicago. But fine as these institutions were, they typically had only a few hundred students and a few dozen faculty members. It was still unusual for women to attend college, and still more unusual for women to serve as professors. By 1999 most of our private institutions had expanded in every sense, and our public ones had expanded enormously A college degree had become at least as normal by 1999 as a high school diploma had been in 1899. Best of all, the statewide system of community colleges created in 1965 has proved to be a great success. Higher education is now universally available.
In 1899 the people of Illinois were overwhelmingly literate and eager to learn. Their local schools, churches, libraries, and voluntary societies provided an endless variety of subjects to study and projects to pursue, with women participating at least as much as men. But there was then no radio, no television, and only very primitive forms of motion pictures and phonograph recordings. The chief means of spreading knowledge then were books, magazines, and newspapers, some of which maintained a remarkably high level of quality. In 1999 we have personal computers and cell phones as, increasingly, the foremost vehicles for exchanging information, with movies, television, radio, and many kinds of sight and sound recordings to instruct and entertain. Newspapers, magazines, and books have managed to adapt and survive, but occupy fewer hours of attention from the average citizen than television alone.
In 1899 perhaps three people out of a hundred in Illinois earned their living working for government at any level. Today the figure is closer to one out of seven. This has meant a huge increase in taxes, but from 1899 to 1999 the average income has increased even more than the average tax burden, so most citizens have more, not less disposable income than a century ago. And while one can cite cases of waste and inefficiency in public agencies, almost all of us depend on government for our education, for the maintenance of essential public services and installations such as roads, schools, parks, police, courts, and fire protection.
In 1899 Chicago was undergoing one of its periodic spells of political reform, while the state government was progressive enough by 19th century standards, but not nearly enough for the increasingly reform-minded educated classes. The Republican party was still the party which had elected Lincoln and Grant, and had sponsored the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments; it therefore had the full if not always enthusiastic support of the few African Americans who lived in Illinois. The Democratic Party in Illinois was divided between the traditional Jacksonians, who favored a minimal government, low tariffs, and opposition to monopolies, and a new working-class democracy advocating reforms such as the eight-hour day and protection for unions. By contrast the Democratic Party of 1999 has the overwhelming support of African Americans, most of whom live in Chicagoland, but the largest union in the state (characteristically, school teachers rather than factory workers or miners) supported the veteran Republican George Ryan for governor in 1998. In Illinois, at least, it is difficult to find issues on which the leaders of the two political parties consistently disagree.
In 1899 our most determined progressives were trying to win the vote for women, prevent graft and other dishonest practices in government, protect children and widowed mothers, make workplaces reasonably safe, and prohibit the consumption of alcohol.
In most of those they succeeded, and the public has been well satisfied that they did. The success of Prohibition, on the other hand, produced unrest in Illinois, often at spectacular levels. The operations of Al Capone and other bootleggers did indeed contribute to a rich tradition commemorated in books, movies, TV shows, and historic tours. But whereas the people of Illinois advocated prohibition in 1899, those of 1999 now try to use adult beverages moderately and safely, and teach others to do so.
In 1899 there were plenty of bookmakers and places where one could play cards for stakes, and they were by no means limited to the First Ward of Chicago. But gambling establishments were strictly illegal, and subject to police raids whenever they became a public nuisance. By 1999 Illinois, along with at least 36 other states, had a state lottery offering tickets through thousands of retail outlets. Furthermore the state sponsored off-track betting parlors, and licensed a few gambling casinos, with the odd provision that they had to be floating on water. With liquor universally available (and very heavily taxed) and gambling a state industry, our politicians have nevertheless proved they have some remnant of old-fashioned morality by attacking the tobacco companies, and demanding that smokers now shiver outdoors in the cold and pay outrageous taxes for the privilege of endangering their health.
In 1899 the National Baseball League was almost thirty years old, and the Chicago White Stockings one of its most successful franchises. In 1999 the White Stockings had been the Cubs for almost a century, while the White Sox had been representing the "junior circuit" known as the American League. The Black Sox scandal of 1919 was still provoking arguments ("Should Shoeless Joe Jackson be in baseball's Hall of Fame?") and seems, unfairly, to have caused some long-term jinx on the fortunes of both teams. But now professional football, basketball, hockey, and even golf and tennis compete with baseball for the fans' money and attention. And as if that were not enough excitement, the people of Illinois also turn out by the millions every year to watch high school and college sports, with season-climaxing tournaments packing the largest stadiums and enclosed arenas in the state.
In 1899 the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (then called, simply, the Chicago Orchestra) was still performing in Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler's Auditorium under its founding conductor, Theodore Thomas. The world's foremost soloists and composers were frequent guests, and endorsed what musically astute Chicagoans already knew, that this was the equal of the best orchestras in the United States and Europe. In 1999 the Symphony thoroughly remodelled and expanded Orchestra Hall, originally designed by Daniel H. Burnham in continuous consultation with Maestro Thomas. The Lyric Opera is within five years of its 50th anniversary, comfortably housed in a facility contributed by Samuel Insull just before the onset of the great depression and the collapse of his electrical utilities empire. Our world famous Art Institute was already well established by 1899, and is much expanded in facilities and collections a century later. Throughout Chicagoland and the rest of the state there are more orchestras, opera companies, theater groups, folk and jazz artists, historical and scientific museums, and seasonal festivals than any ten citizens can keep track of.
If this were a survey of the entire century, rather than a comparison of two relatively peaceful and prosperous years, it would be necessary to mention world wars, famous criminals, labor and race riots, various political scandals, and, on the pleasant side, the achievements of great stand-above-the-crowd individuals as well as high-achieving collectives. But telling that story is our open-ended job in this and our other publications. Enough to conclude here that Illinois was a great state in 1899 and a much greater one in 1999.…