Illinois in 1899 Compared to Illinois in 1999

Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Illinois in 1899 Compared to Illinois in 1999


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. …

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