Chicago in the Nineteenth Century

By Keating, Ann Durkin | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Chicago in the Nineteenth Century


Keating, Ann Durkin, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Chicago in the Nineteenth Century From Cottage to Bungalow: Houses and the Working Class in Metropolitan Chicago, 1869-1929. By Joseph C. Bigott. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 261, bib., illus., index. Cloth, $45.00).

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. By William Cronon. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992. Pp. xxiii, 530, illus., maps, plates. Paper, $19.95).

City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919. By Margaret Garb. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. xv, 256, illus., maps. Cloth, $40.00).

Encyclopedia of Chicago. Edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xxix 1,152, maps. Cloth, $65.00).

Chicagoland: City and Suburbs of the Railroad Age. By Ann Durkin Keating. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. x, 296, illus., maps. Paper, $25.00).

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. By Donald L. Miller. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997. Pp. 704, illus., maps. Paper, $18.00).

As Others See Chicago: Impressions of Visitors 1673-1933. Edited by Bessie Louise Pierce. New Foreword by Perry R. Duis (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xxxi, 548. Paper, $19.00).

Black Chicago's First Century, Volume 1, 1833-1900. By Christopher Robert Reed. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005. Pp. 582, illus., maps. Cloth, $49.95).

The Iron Horse and the Windy City: How Railroads Shaped Chicago. By David M. Young. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. Pp. ix, 280, illus., maps. Cloth, $39.95).

Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871-1919. By Timothy P. Spears. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005. Pp. 296. Paper, $20.00).

Two books published in the 1990s are crucial to our understanding of Chicago in the nineteenth century: William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (1991) and Donald L. Miller's City of the Century (1996). Both are big books with a wide view of Chicago's growth and influence. They help us to identify the key components of the region's nineteenth-century explosive growth, as Chicago grew from a small military outpost of only a few hundred in 1830 to a metropolitan region of more than a million in 1900.

Building from these works, the critical role of railroads to nineteenth-century Chicago is clear. Railroads were important to Chicago's rise as a regional center and a national transportation hub. Cronon argues "that no city played a more important role in shaping the landscape and economy of the midcontinent during the second half of the nineteenth century than Chicago. Conversely, one cannot understand the growth of Chicago without understanding its special relationship to the vast region lying to its west." (xiii) Cronon explains that railroads were the conduit of this relationship between Chicago and its hinterland. Railroads "made Chicago the most important meeting place between East and West." (93)

Railroads also spurred industrial development. In fact, Miller describes Chicago as the archetypal American city in the industrial age. Thousands upon thousands of European immigrants and rural migrants arrived in nineteenth-century Chicago each year in search of better jobs and opportunities. While many took up jobs in railroads and factories, others of these new arrivals built the city, from housing to schools to streets. In Chicago, Miller found winners and losers in the modernization process, leading him to argue that the "great theme of Chicago's nineteenth-century history is the battle between growth and control, restraint and opportunity, privatism and the public good." (19)

These themes are more recently taken up by the authors in the Encyclopedia of Chicago (2004). Special pages devoted to 1848, 1871, and 1894 highlight the arrival of the railroad, the city building efforts both before and after the Chicago Fire, and the intersection of railroads and labor unrest in the 1894 Pullman strike. …

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