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History of Chicago from Trading Post to Metropolis
External Studies Program | University College

Module 1 Chapter 2
From Town to City

Image of the Water Tower Image of W.W. Boyington
The world-famous Water Tower was dedicated with great celebration in 1867.  Made of limestone, the Water Tower was designed by W. W. Boyington. The Water Tower was needed to solve Chicago's water supply problems.

Cultural Beginnings

Visitors to Chicago in the 1840's remarked on the city's rapid growth. J.H. Buckingham, who visited Chicago during the River and Harbor Convention of 1847, called it the greatest place of the age. By this time frame and brick houses had taken the place of the log cabins and cultural institutions were transforming the prairie town. At the time of incorporation (1837) the city already contained a bookstore, a theatre, a newspaper, and three debating societies as well as a regular offering of musical concerts. By 1856, Chicagoans were conscious enough of their position in the cultural world as well as the financial world to establish the Chicago Historical Society. In 1841 Walter Newberry, who was making a fortune on Chicago real estate, helped to found the Young Men's Association for the purpose of establishing a circulating library. This endeavor eventually established the core of what is today the Chicago Public Library system.

The city was cosmopolitan almost from the beginning. Many of Chicago's early settlers were refined and wealthy. Visitors to the area commented constantly on the fact that men of education could be found living on the prairie in and around the city. Men like Newberry were as at home in the East as in Chicago. The origin of many early Chicagoans being New England, many cultural institutions were transplanted in one form or the other from the East to Chicago. The growth of Chicago's cultural life mirrored the growth of its economic one. The advances in technology and agriculture were a terrific boost to the city, which in turn resulted in an unprecedented increase in the population. The following statistics show the growth of the city in the years before the Fire of 1871.

Population - Report of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society (Chicago, 1874) p.4.

























 Not taken

















































The increase in population that can be traced through these statistics was not only the result and in turn the cause of economic wealth, but also the impetus of the city's cultural growth. While the years between 1833 and 1848 can be seen in many ways as elemental ones, the cultural life of Chicago expanded rapidly as the city entered the 1850's. In 1837, nearly half of the white male population was twenty-one years old or older; by 1850 this percentage dropped to about one third. Meanwhile, the percentage of children in the population reached about 50%. By 1871 the ratio between men and women in the population also had evened out and the growth of families in the city helped to remove many of the frontier characteristics of the early settlement. As time went on, the number of children increased and much of the immigration to the city was characterized by the arrival of families.


As Chicago became more family oriented and as a result the city was faced with the problem of developing an adequate urban school system. The 1850's were the takeoff period for the Chicago school system. In 1854, John C. Dore arrived from Boston to become the first superintendent of the city's schools. Under his supervision the first school system experienced an initial and important period of growth.

With the opening of the first Chicago public high school in 1856, the system began its expansion into all levels of education. While early ordinances passed in 1849 and 1851, said that all children over five years old were eligible to attend schools only 1,919 children attended schools in 1850. The school system would experience terrific growth in the next twenty years as 27,944 children would attend the schools in 1870.

Despite this increase in attendance truancy remained a real problem for Chicago throughout the 19th century. In 1856 alone 4,000 children were estimated to be non-attendants in the city. Other problems which plagued the school system from the beginning were the lack of adequate classroom facilities. The inadequate school buildings just could not keep up with the rapidly increasing enrollments. Attracting top teachers was also a problem. In 1849 the school system employed only nineteen teachers; by 1871 the number had grown to 570. Despite the increase in the number of teachers the ratio between student and teacher remained extremely high, with some schools having nearly 100 pupils for every teacher. Many of the teachers had only grammar school educations and of the women teachers, who made up the great majority of Chicago teachers, less than half had graduated from high school or normal school in 1870.

Part of the reason for these early difficulties was a lack of adequate financing. The cost of the school system was taken care of by the school fund income, special taxes, and especially after 1865, the issuance of bonds. The school fund, which was the most important source of income for the early school system, included rents from school lands and the interest on money derived from the sale of other school lands as well as an added state appropriation or dividend.

The school system was basically geared toward an elementary education. The reality of life in Chicago dictated this to be a necessity. Chicago children like children all over 19th century America found themselves at work at a very early age. Chicagoans, although now residents of a great city, often kept their rural attitudes toward education and labor. Also the economic system was not geared in favor of working class families having the opportunity to send their children to school. In many cases the wages of the child were simply needed in order to allow the physical existence of the family unit. In 1869-1870, the percentage of Chicago school children attending the high school was only 1%. The need for reaching the working classes and bringing them into the educational system was widely recognized in the city even before the Fire of 1871.

The press and working class organizations successfully campaigned to establish evening schools and trade schools, later Mary E. McDowell and the settlement house workers would join with the people of the Stock Yards district to urge the establishment of summer schools for the children of the working class. As early as 1871, Josiah L. Pickard, the superintendent of the schools urged the creation of part-time day schools for working children, voicing official agreement with the demands of labor organizations.

The growing ethnic groups also had an influence on the school system. As early as 1865, the Germans, who were becoming the most influential ethnic group in the city, successfully demanded the teaching of German in the schools. As time went on different ethnic groups would make the same demands and the Chicago system has to a large part been flexible in the development of curriculum, especially if the group making such demands has been politically influential.

Disenchantment with the Chicago public school system has also been a feature of Chicago history from the beginning. This was especially true for those groups who felt that their religious and cultural loyalties were ignored by the public system, which was American and Protestant in orientation. The ethnics who made demands on the Chicago system more often than not simply decided to ignore it and develop their own school system. Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and other ethnics made this choice early in the history of education in Chicago.

The Roman Catholics organized the first parochial school in 1844. Under the guidance of Bishop James Van de Velde the Catholic school system increased from twelve parish schools in 1853 to twenty-one in 1871, with an attendance of 10,000. As the Catholic population of the city increased, the parish school system grew. In 1869, the Jesuits who had had such a formidable influence on the early history of the region returned with the establishment of St. Ignatius College on the near west side of the city. This college which was really a Catholic high school, would prove to be an important factor in the lives of upwardly mobile Catholic families in the city of Chicago.

The Protestants were hardly left behind by the development of the Catholic system. While the German Lutherans built a parochial school system in much the same tradition as the Catholic ethnics, the other denominations began to concentrate on the development of the area's first institutions of higher learning.

In 1856 the Methodist Episcopal Church with the help of several prominent Chicagoans chartered Northwestern University and in its wake created the university suburb and Yankee refuge of Evanston, named after one of the founders of the school. The Baptists on the other hand, founded the first University of Chicago on the South Side in 1857. Rush Medical College and the Chicago Medical College provided the new city with a much needed professional medical establishment. The educational needs of the city were quickly being filled by both private and public institutions as the 1850's came to a close.

Instruction in the arts also came to Chicago as the culture of the city entered its next phase. The Chicago Conservatory of Music (1867), the Chicago Academy of Music (1870), and the Academy of Design (1865) all appeared before the Great Chicago Fire. Out of these early attempts would come Chicago pre-eminence in the Midwest in the arts and in the world of architecture.

Image of Newspaper Row, 1851The Press

As has already been mentioned, Chicago had developed a large market for reading materials with the establishment of sixty-eight bookstores by 1871. Chicago became the publishing center of the Midwest and one of the great centers of the nation in the years just before the Civil War and afterward. Newspapers, periodicals, journals, and books came out of the Windy City at an increasingly quick pace filtering throughout the city's expanding hinterland.

The first newspaper to appear in Chicago was the Democrat, which was edited by John Wentworth shortly after his arrival in the city. The Democrat, as the name implied, catered to the tastes of the growing party of Jackson in Chicago. By the 1850's the newspaper was selling some 600 copies daily and 3,500 of its weekly edition. The chief rival of the Democrat was the Chicago Tribune, whose staunch antislavery editorial policy and support of Lincoln would make it very important in the creation of the Republican party prior to the Civil War. In 1861, the Democrat was forced to merge with the Tribune because of financial difficulties and a law suit. Another Chicago newspaper of great importance started publishing in 1854. The Chicago Times was established by supporters of Senator Stephen A. Douglas and was purchased by the reaper manufacturer Cyrus McCormick in 1860. During the Civil War the newspaper was edited by the controversial Wilbur F. Storey, who maintained an editorial policy that claimed the suppression of slavery would destroy the economy of the North as well as that of the South. Storey also maintained that the war was being fought to undermine the basic freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. On June 3, 1863, the newspaper was seized by the federal government and closed resulting in a storm of protest from Chicagoans. President Lincoln revoked the order the next day and the Times resumed publication on the fifth of the month.

The newspaper industry found Chicago to be a very lucrative market. As early as 1853, there were seven dailies in the city and the city had already begun to establish its position as a center for the foreign language press in the nation. Besides the seven English language papers a host of foreign language newspapers appeared after the establishment of the Illinois Staats-Zeitung in 1848. The Staats-Zeitung, originally a weekly, became a daily in 1851, and was a supporter of the Republican party. By 1871, the city had witnessed the coming and going of over thirty German periodicals.

Although the Germans were the largest group in 19th century Chicago, they did not completely dominate the foreign press. The Irish, who came to Chicago in large numbers in the 1840's and were in fact the largest immigrant group in the city until the arrival of the Germans in the fifties began the publication of the Irish Republic in 1867. As its name implied, the goal of the paper was to promote Fenianism (the independence of Ireland from Britain), which was to be an important factor in the life of Chicago's Irish community. The Swedes published Hamlandet and other Scandinavian groups maintained their own newspapers. Even the small pre-fire Czech community maintained two newspapers by 1868.

Chicago's reputation as a publishing center did not revolve strictly around the expanding foreign and English language press, but also encompassed plethora of journals, magazines, and books. The reading habits of the city spread throughout the area that was reached by the expanding railroad system and influenced a growing farm population.

Religious publications proved to be extremely popular in the 19th century rivaling the secular press in subscribers long before 1871. Besides the religious journals Chicago's publishers put out periodicals that were centered around the interests of the growing community of farmers. The Prairie Farmer and the Western Farmer were among the most successful of these publications along with the Chicago Daily Drover's Journal and the Breeder's Gazette, which dealt specifically with the interests of the livestock industry.

Chicago quickly became a great book publishing center especially after the creation of Donnelley's Lakeside Press. As both employer and cultural institution the publishing industry became important for the growth of the physical city as well as its cultural development.


Another sign of the cultural development of what Chicago's detractors called a "cow town" was the creation of fine theatres during this period. John B. Rice who started the Chicago theatre business played a very important role in attracting first rate names to perform in Chicago. The popularity of the professional theatre in Chicago was symbolized in the building of theatres in the city. Rice erected a brick theatre in 1851, that cost $11,000, but this was soon replaced in prominence by the McVicker's, which cost $85,000 in 1857 and the $600,000 Crosby's Opera House, which opened in April of 1865. Anti-Southern plays were very popular in Chicago especially just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and afterward. Other types of plays of interest to Chicagoans had a local setting.

The professional theatre was reflected by the growth of amateur groups culminating in the organization of the Chicago Dramatic Club in 1857. Once again the world of the ethnics responded to the development of the performing arts. The German, Irish, Scandinavian, and Czech communities developed ethnic theatres that would prove to be very important for the self-conscious of those communities. German plays and operas often centered their basic themes around the ethnic experience. The trials of immigration and the positive and negative points of the assimilative process were explored in theatres built in the immigrant communities.

ANSWER QUESTION 4 IN THE REPLY BOOKLET. (Provided after registering for courses through the External Studies Program.)

Ethnic Neighborhoods

Another aspect of the mature city appeared early in Chicago's history. From the beginning the population of Chicago was ethnically diverse. The first neighborhood change in Chicago took place in the 17th century when French fur traders moved into the future Cook County. As was pointed out the Indians finally moved out of the area in 1836, but by this time the French were replaced by the British and Americans. Ethnic change and population growth were two sides of the same coin in the history of Chicago. The Yankees who were so important in the early history of the city soon saw "their" city being taken over by strangers. This scenario would be acted out by Chicagoans in a constant procession over the next century.

With the city's largest ethnic groups in the late 20th century being the Poles, Blacks, and Latins, the early history of ethnicity is often forgotten. As early as 1850, 54% of the population of Chicago was foreign born. This percentage would slip back to about 50% by the time of the Fire, but swing in the other direction once the large migrations from eastern and southern Europe took place in the last quarter of the 19th century. This later migration and its effect on Chicago will be discussed in the next module. The important influence of what historians mistakenly call the "old" immigration on the history of the city should not be forgotten.

Traditionally the term "old immigration" has been used to describe those Europeans who migrated to the United States up to about 1880. These immigrants generally came either from the British Isles or from Northwestern Europe. Generally Protestant in religion and Anglo-Saxon in culture, they were often pictured as the very bone and sinew of the young country. The Irish who came at the same time in large numbers were generally seen as an anomaly, being the opposite of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in almost every way except color. American historians saw these immigrants as more literate, more intelligent, and more independent than the group that would come later. In recent studies these allegations have generally been proven false. The literacy rates have in some cases been proven to be higher for the later groups while with most the rates were the same. It was these early foreign groups that came to Chicago in large numbers before the Chicago Fire.

Image of Illinois and Michigan CanalThe Irish came to Chicago in large numbers in the late 1830's. By 1850, the Irish population of Chicago numbered over 6,000, or more than 20% of the total population of the city and 39% of the foreign-born population. The Irish of mid-century Chicago came, primarily from Waterford, Cork, and Limerick, filling the ranks of the unskilled workers. The areas of settlement were in Bridgeport on the South Side and the North Side near the river. There was also a considerable West Side Irish population in Conley's Patch. It was here where the O'Leary's lived, in what would later be the Hull House neighborhood. The initial attraction for the Irish was the Illinois and Michigan Canal, but Chicago like America as a whole needed a source of cheap, unskilled labor to do many of the jobs necessary in an increasingly industrial society. The Irish and later groups provided the labor pool that was necessary for continued economic growth in a capitalist system.

Next to the Irish the largest immigrant group in Chicago was the English. Together with other groups from the United Kingdom (Scottish and Welsh) they made up 29% of the total population and 55% of the foreign born. These groups, which were closer culturally to the Yankee settlers than the Irish, quickly moved into the rapidly expanding middle class of the city. Even though their assimilation was much easier than for the Irish or for other later groups, they too formed ethnic organizations. The English as early as 1847 established the St. George's Society of Illinois, while the Scottish formed the Illinois St. Andrew's Society and the Walsh established the St. David's Society in 1852. These organizations tended to be fraternal institutions which, besides creating social outlets, also helped impoverished immigrants and the children and widows of deceased co-nationals in time of stress.

ANSWER QUESTION 5 IN THE REPLY BOOKLET. (Provided after registering for courses through the External Studies Program.)

The single nationality which added most to the population of 19th century Chicago was the Germans. This early immigration consisted primarily of Protestant Germans though Catholic Germans would soon follow their co-nationals to Chicago. In 1850, the Germans were already 17% of the total population; by 1870, their percentage would grow to more than 20%. Their political power or "clout" can be seen in that their demand for the teaching of the language in the public school system was met in 1865. In 1871, with the victory of the Prussians over the French and the creation of the German Empire, the city of Chicago went wild. In one of the biggest victory celebrations in Chicago history, over 30,000 Germans and their supporters marched in a parade that was ten miles long.

While the major German concentration in the city was on the North Side, stretching down Clark Street and Lincoln Avenue, Germans could be found in every district of the city. A large concentration of Germans began to rival the Irish for control of Bridgeport, as the meatpacking industry attracted skilled German and Bohemian butchers to the new stock yard area. Many of these Germans also settled in the newer district down Back of the Yards, and that neighborhood took on a distinctly Irish-German characteristic until the turn of the century, when Slavic groups entered in greater numbers.

Another large Protestant immigrant group that entered the city was the Scandinavians. While a general Scandinavian society was formed in 1854, called the Chicago Scandinavian Union, the Scandinavians quickly broke off into different national groups. The Swedes formed the Svea Society while the Danes and Norwegians formed separate societies, which like those of the British and German, tended to be self-help fraternal organizations.

The Scandinavians tended to gather on the near North Side near the old German settlements and like the Irish lived in some of the poorer districts. Gradually many moved to the South Side, especially to Englewood, while others continued the trek northward to be replaced in the older districts by newer groups of immigrants.

The French, who had played such an important part in the early development of Chicago, tended to be a very minor force in her later development. In 1870, the French community numbered only 1,418, which made them less than 1% of the total population. They organized La Society Francaise de Secours Mutuels in 1859, as a way of dealing with problems affecting the small community. The French, like other Catholics, organized themselves in Catholic parishes, many of them changing ethnicity soon after they were established. An example of this is the parish of St. John the Baptist on 51st and Peoria Streets, which, while organized by the French, quickly found the Irish to be dominant in the community.

Other groups that would later play an important role in the history of the city were either very small or nonexistent. In 1850, there were only 323 Blacks in Chicago, but already the amount of segregation was considerable. By 1870, the Black population had mushroomed to 3,691 with 80% of the Blacks living on the near South Side.

In 1851, the Indians who were the first to have been driven out of the neighborhood were a rare sight. That year a small group of Pottawatomies were encamped on the South Side for a short time. In 1870, only five Indians could be found in the city. The Native Americans would return in some numbers in the second half of the 20th century, but this time as just another ethnic group in the sea of Chicago's ethnicity.

While members of ethnic groups would often try to live close to other members of the same ethnic group, no neighborhood was ethnically pure. This type of segregation could only be found among Blacks in Chicago.

ANSWER QUESTION 6 IN THE REPLY BOOKLET. (Provided after registering for courses through the External Studies Program.)


By 1871, Chicago had grown from a small frontier settlement to a major American city and had defeated her rivals to become the major city of the Midwest. Even before 1871, the problems and specific characteristics of the city had appeared on the scene. Many of these problems, such as housing and the quality of the school system, developed out of the quick growth of the city. Other characteristics of the city such as her diverse ethnic population and her importance as a great marketplace were results of Chicago's geographic location and they, too, appeared early in the history of the city.

The cultural growth of the city came with the growth of population and the establishment of a more or less even sexual balance among that population. The appearance of women and of a stable family life in the city helped to do away with the frontier aspects of the settlement, which was still rather rough in 1850. The characteristics of a frontier settlement, especially the uneven sexual distribution, would remain in many of the immigrant districts until the early years of the 20th century, giving these districts many of the characteristics of earlier Chicago. Still, by 1871, the city had developed a sound and well advanced urban culture.

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