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In the interests of noding my homework, I present to you, the everything public, the final paper I wrote for the class "American Landscapes: 1853-1903." The class wasn't the greatest, but I wrote a big ol' research paper for it. Without further ado, here it is.

This is figure 1:

Ward	Population	Wealth ($)	    Per Capita ($)
1	8103		126782506               15646.37
2	13449		83604221                6216.39
3	18096		35071842                1938.10
4	15582		26136800                1677.37
5	16114		18502600                1148.23
6	23602		16161200                684.74
7	16018		14043185                876.71
8	25961		9292334	                357.93
9	31373		11506408                366.76
10	16419		12713900                774.34
11	16991		10106408                594.81
12	16083		13862560                861.94
13	10438		10476250                1003.66
14	10077		6316290	                626.80
15	26443		7878900	                297.96
16	17062		6920600	                405.61
17	18814		6485900	                344.74
18	18803		6370800	                338.82
19	9237		5896200	                638.32
20	14522		7269400	                500.58

Victorian ideals and the backlash against them in late 19th century Chicago

At around the time of the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago was organized according to the prevailing ideas of Victorian America. Rationalization of movement and efficiency in city design were becoming increasingly important, while at the same time a more naturally oriented backlash against those movements shaped Chicago in a more eccentric direction. Specifically, the rich, those who had the means to live more or less wherever they please, would tend to choose properties along the lakefront of the city and tend to isolate their homes as much as possible. The working class would more than likely be forced into less highly demanded land, such as lots nearer railroads, mills, the river, and industry, as well as more tightly packed lots in relation to one another and homes that were much more uniformly designed and more likely to be constructed in urban-associated or mill-associated styles. The city as a whole would be redesigned with a keen eye for rationalization with regard to transportation: the easily navigable grid system would have gotten its start during this period, and both interstate and commuter travel would be expected to take precedence over most other facilities during this rebuilding phase, since the recent advances in technology made it much more advantageous to do so. In general, the city would have been redesigned and replanned according to the contrasting dominant ideals of the period, namely rationalization, standardization, and efficiency with regard to transportation and city design, love for both nature and the home’s function as a refuge for the family, and eclecticism with regard to home location, design, and environment.

The late nineteenth century saw impressive levels of rapid social change in America as well as corresponding changes in both public and elite opinion with regard to the desirability of certain kinds of landscape and buildings. The industrial revolution is one of the best examples of this large-scale change and was also one of the primary driving factors behind the changes in dominant public opinion. Artifice was regarded as being increasingly suspect during this period, and there was a movement, especially in home design, to reduce the visibility of human changes on the environment, both of the natural and social varieties. Most people's primary objection to the increasing prevalence of industry and artifice within the landscape was its tendency to destroy existing social and physical environments. Not only did the buildings obscure the natural environment on which they were built, but they also tore apart preexisting social institutions by attracting the young and able-bodied from tightly knit rural settlements to the urban industrial employment opportunities being made available. This not only disrupted the rural society by stealing its next generation of members but also disrupted urban society by introducing large foreign elements to an already relatively densely populated area, thereby also making the city's situation with regard to crowding that much worse. Crowding was also seen as an ill of the urban landscape in and of itself since it was associated with poverty, disease, and increased crime rates, and it was avoided wherever possible, especially by the wealthy who had not only the inclination but also the means to do so. Although most people found the buildings themselves and their effect on society to be objectionable, that did not stop them from enjoying the profits from them, both in terms of economic gains for the community and increased availability of mass-produced commodities. A compromise was thus informally reached by which an effort was made on the part of builders and social engineers to reduce the level of change apparent to the society as a whole while still allowing that society to reap the benefits of technological progress. By reducing the profile of change through the advantageous use of physical architecture and social programs, industry was allowed to progress more or less unimpeded primarily because the public felt the change to be mitigated by the increased visibility of nature and nature-associated ideas as expressed in both planning and building styles.

Simultaneous with the aforementioned anti-mechanistic, anti-industrial tendencies in American society, though, was the movement towards rationalization that in some senses, at least, sparked the backlash in the first place. With technological advancement, especially in the field of communication and the related field of transportation, came a new respect within American public opinion, especially among the elites, for regularity and convenience. These two ideas had a tendency to be associated with one another in public thought because of the fact that regularity and duplication, especially with regard to objects, places, and tasks to be accomplished with or within them, respectively, meant not only that less time would need to be spent dealing with differences and learning multiple forms of a given object but also that the regularized object would be more likely to be readily available. The ready availability associated with regularization had its roots in the fact that mass-produced objects, which were increasingly prevalent throughout the period, were generally less labor-intensive since they could be produced according to one simple design and thus were more readily available. Additionally, rationalization was especially helpful in the field of transportation since it meant that conditions in diverse places would be roughly the same. For instance, a wagon team or a man walking would need to prepare for only one sort of terrain to get across a city rather than needing to worry about what sorts of terrain and obstacles one might encounter in order to get where one is going. While large-scale rationalization had been advantageous all along since it provided convenience it was only with advances in transportation and resultant advances in communication that the coordination of these changes became possible and practical.

All of these ideas had very real consequences with regard to the organization of the city. Real natural surroundings were difficult to come by in a city of the magnitude and industrial advancement of Chicago, so other types of landscapes were used as stand-ins in place of genuinely sylvan surroundings. The most popular of these and most available was the lakefront. The lake itself was and is a vast bastion of nature that it seems man would never be able to conquer or totally despoil and as such has always been a popular place for the houses of those who desire natural surroundings within the city. This can be seen quite clearly in Edith Abbott's description of the houses of the wealthy and their distribution: "A history of the Great Fire pictures the well-to-do sections of the city as occupying the 'land all along the lake shore, from 1/4 to 3/8 of a mile wide, and 11 miles long,' which, it was said, included 'the more aristocratic residence portions of the city and its outlying suburbs...(1936, p.18).'" Her observation is given further credence by a series of maps found in the report on the fire published by the Chicago Relief and Aid Society (1874, p.4 and p.12). These maps list each city ward's total aggregate wealth, population density, and total population. By dividing total wealth by total population, we arrive at a series of figures (see figure one, way back up at the top of the writeup) that give us an approximation, albeit a somewhat distorted one, of the per capita wealth of each ward. A caveat is necessary before analyzing these figures, though: the wealth numbers are undifferentiated with regard to purpose of the wealth--i.e. whether it is personal, commercial, industrial, or city property--so some of the figures may be off a fair amount, especially in industrial areas. However, with comparison to contemporary accounts of the organization of the city, the figures still have interesting things to tell us. The first telling fact is that of the twenty wards of the city, the first five in terms of wealth per person are all along the lake. Of the other three lakefront wards, one (ward seventeen) extends inland so far that it encompasses mostly non-lakefront area, and all three border the second least wealthy ward in all of Chicago at the time (ward eighteen). Thus, the rich, in keeping with the values of the day, lived near the most visible natural symbol in Chicago before the fire and kept their lakefront property afterwards.

The poor, however, were unable to compete with the buying power of their more well to do neighbors and thus were relegated to less highly demanded properties along the river. The Chicago river has almost never been a symbol of natural splendor; according to Perry Duis, “The river had also become an open sewer. In 1860, Franc Wilkie, a local newspaper humorist, complained that the river ‘can not be crossed in small boats on account of its exhalations… a combination of sulphurated hydrogen, the odor of decaying rodents, and the stench of rotting brassica cabbage (1998, p. 11).” Abbott features an illustrated plate of the river from 1871 in which almost as much smoke is visible coming from boats and the factories near the river as there is visible water (1936, facing p.24). She also says that “The early manufacturing enterprises were located not so much after a radial method of expansion with the city as a center, but, on the contrary, along the river and with the heart of the West Division as the radius, with the bend of the river and its branches as a boundary line (1936, p.24).” This same area along the river was home to a large number of the city’s working class, as she says: “Along the river and the canals in a close semicircle were the factories and homes of the working people clustered closely from an early day (1936, p.24).” The 1871 figures again bear out what Abbott says. The most densely populated ward in all of Chicago, ward 9, sits exactly where Abbott says and has a per capita wealth rating that, while not the lowest in the city, certainly fits into the lowest grouping. Its neighboring wards, ten and eleven, are much higher on the scale, but it is very probable that much of their sums are taken up by the values of industrial equipment and factories with which the poor were made to share riverfront land. Just north of those wards is the poorest in the city, fifteen, which sits to the west of the river’s north branch. In fact, with the exception of wards six and seven to the south, which were obviously, from the map, modified with canals to attract industry and shipping, and those wards that border both the river and the lake, riverside wards played host to both the highest population densities and lowest wealth concentrations in the city.

Even this can be seen as an expression of prevailing ideals of the day, though. The river, although somewhat useful as a symbol of nature, was much more useful as a conduit for shipping. Industrial traffic took precedence over every other use for riverfront land, and the easiest way to move a shipment from the river to the factory was to build the factory next to the river in the first place. When the factories began to take up the majority of the riverbank space, the wealthy no longer wanted to live there and property values dropped, leaving a vacuum that the working class of the city had no choice but to fill. Of course, the relatively poor had other reasons than pure necessity for their housing choices. Transportation was a key concern even for those with little or no means, so living near one’s place of work, namely the factories, would have been quite desirable for them too. They may have also seen the river as a welcome intrusion of the natural world into their fairly bleak industrial urban landscape; however, the poor are notorious for not having the disposable time required to leave many written records, so speculation is all that is possible on this matter.

As has been mentioned in passing already, crowding was an ill avoided whenever possible by everyone who could. The wealthy built their homes as far from one another as was possible in the growing metropolis at the time. This much is obvious simply by looking at the aforementioned maps (C.R.A.S., 1874, p. 4 and p.12) again with an eye to population density, which is represented on them as gradations of lightness (less dense) or darkness (more dense), although unfortunately no information is given as to how densities were calculated. On the map, the darkest wards (nine through eleven, eighteen, and seventeen) correspond with the poorest areas mentioned before, while the richest wards (one through five) are disproportionately light for their concentrations of wealth. This is especially true in ward one, which has not only the highest wealth concentration by far but also has the lowest absolute population of any of the twenty wards. Additionally, the only ward not bordering the lake with a wealth per capita rate of more than one thousand (ward ten) is also the least densely populated ward on the entire map. On the other side of the spectrum lie the extremely densely populated wards (eight through eleven, seventeen and eighteen) that also played host to the lowest wealth concentrations in the city. Some of the lower class tenants in the great farming metropolis were not only forced to crowd together with people, but also with other sorts of animals, as a policeman found when he stepped into a home on the west side: “It was ten feet by sixteen, and contained, exclusive of furniture, one woman and five children, a dog with a litter of puppies, a cat and kittens, three pigs, a hen with a dozen chickens, and a calf six weeks old (quoted in Duis, p. 94).” On asking where the calf’s mother was, the policeman was told that she would be returning to the house shortly. In some senses, living with this many animals, which was probably fairly common at the time, may have been seen as another sort of natural incursion into the city. However, one must also take into account the fact that, especially in meatpacking Chicago, animal flesh could just as easily be associated with heavy industry as pastoral splendor. Again, though, the attitudes of the poor can only be speculated upon. One thing that can be said for sure is that the poor were forced to live in very crowded conditions by economic necessity, while the rich took great pains to avoid overcrowding, in keeping with the dominant ideals of the day.

Individual housing choices as constrained by market forces were not the only method by which Chicago was shaped around the period of the Great Fire, though. Elite action and corresponding public outcry was also an important force in shaping the city. From the start with James Thompson’s first city plan in 1830, Chicago was intended to be a grid city, laid out according to the rational, orderly ideals of the enlightenment like almost all of America west of the Appalachians (Duis, 1998, p.68). As it grew rapidly, though, the ideals according to which it had been laid out went by the wayside, giving way to haphazard growth with little regard to public order or beauty especially among the lower class areas. Starting in 1869, city planners began to encourage outward growth of the city by establishing a ring of parks and boulevards beyond the edge of settlement. These proved to be enticing for developers, who began to regiment the land into the grid system that dominates Chicago. The developers would also typically provide for communication with the city, especially if their subdivision was fairly far out of town: “It was also common for developers to construct a depot as an inducement to the railroad to stop long-distance trains there or establish a commuter run (Duis, p.70).” The backlash against rationalization and mechanization also influenced the growth of these areas, however. Uniform homes on square lots were seen as markers of relatively low class in a neighborhood, and were additionally considered to be unsightly and monotonous. For those who wanted a home with more personality, “The undulating landscape of many parts of the North Shore made it much more difficult to lay out grids and rendered the area more attractive to elite buyers,” and even the famous Frederick Law Olmsted helped to ease the monotony by transforming the flat Riverside area into a distinctive part of Chicago attractive to wealthy buyers by laying out curved streets with unique houses on them (Duis, p.70). Aside from the fact that the more irregular pieces of land reminded people of the relative chaos of nature while still remaining in the restrictively planned rational city, they went one step further by actually bringing nature into the city with exceptionally green lots. The backlash was relatively minor in this area, though, and the prevailing design for the city remained the grid. Rationalization remained the byword for civic planning: “Civic boosters had already been battling for years to remove anything unsightly or inefficient from Chicago’s streets when Daniel Burnham and his assistant Edward H. Bennett unveiled their dramatic Plan of Chicago in 1909 (Duis, 286).” Burnham’s plan emphasized ease of transportation to the extent that with its adoption many buildings both large and small, including the enormous Our Lady of Lourdes Church, were moved in order to accommodate the widening of several major streets. This plan was, as stated, the result of long-term public agitation in the direction of increased efficiency of movement within the city.

The landscape of Chicago is, overall, a prime example of Victorian ideals in action. Although there was an increasing push in the direction of rationalization, mechanization, and uniformity with regard to transportation and city planning in general, there was a corresponding backlash against those ideals, as well. With the increasing prevalence of mechanization and industry, it became more fashionable to pay respect to less orderly, more “natural” ideals with one’s home and community, although as is often the case this option was open mostly to the wealthy. Not only did these ideals shape the society in which those who held them lived, they also shaped the way those people ordered the world around them and in turn the way they interacted with it.


Abbott, Edith. The Tenements of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1936.

Bigott, Joseph C. From Cottage to Bungalow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Chicago Relief and Aid Society. Report of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society of Disbursement of Contributions for the Sufferers by the Chicago Fire. Chicago: Riverside Press, 1874.

Duis, Perry R. Challenging Chicago. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

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