Nothing could have been more triumphant for Chicago and the nation than the spectacle of the world's fair as it sparkled all summer. And nothing could have been more tragic—and grimly ironic—than the economic depression that struck Chicago and the nation in those same months.
The depression's origins lay in Europe, which, after a long decline in agricultural prices, began to experience severe business contractions in 1889 and 1890. Meanwhile, agricultural prices had also been falling in the United States, triggering intense debate about monetary policy. Following the passage of the Silver Purchase Act in 1890, the nation's financial interests, borrowing heavily from banks, had speculated on whether the country would remain on the gold standard or switch to silver. In December 1892, as the economy continued its long-term trend of contraction, banks began calling in their loans and speculators began selling their stocks and bonds. A surge of bankruptcies began in February; the New York Stock Exchange crashed in May.1
The extent of the devastation was clear by the end of 1893. About six hundred banks and fifteen thousand businesses, with liabilities totaling $550 million, had failed, and one-fourth of the railway capital of the country had been placed in the hands of receivers. As a result, a great many workers were laid off—estimates ranged from one million to three million. In New York, the largest city in the United States, the unemployment rate in the fall of 1893 was thought to be 40 percent. Other workers kept their jobs but suffered massive cuts in their wages.2
In Chicago the impact was equally severe. One-third of the factories closed their doors, and many others laid off most of their employees; wage cuts were widespread. At the Pullman Factory in Pullman, a private community within Chicago's southern boundary, the normal industrial workforce of forty-five hundred was reduced between July and November to