“Domestic and Respectable”:
Suburbanization and Social Control After the Great Chicago Fire
Chicago’s Great Fire of October 8-10, 1871, left 100,000 people
homeless. At first, city authorities erected barracks for emergency shelter,
but within a week they changed their tactics, “the barrack style
of life proving unhealthy, both morally and physically” (Chamberlin
87). Chicago’s elite philanthropists decided that barracks posed
not only a physical threat of disease, but also a moral threat to economic
industry, political stability, and sexual ethics: “So large a number,
brought into promiscuous and involuntary association, would almost certainly
engender disease and promote idleness, disorder, and vice” (87).
Chicago’s Relief and Aid Society was especially worried about “mechanics
and the better class of laboring people, thrifty, domestic, and respectable,” who
had owned homes before the fire and for whom they believed only single-family
houses could restore “hope, renewed energy and comparative prosperity” (Relief
and Aid Society 8). What was at stake, according to the Relief and Aid
Society, were the moral, civic, and economic values of Chicago’s
developing middle-class, and with these, the prosperity of the whole
So the Relief Society built single-family homes. Winter was approaching,
lumber was scarce due to other forest fires that hot and windy autumn,
the center of
the city had just been destroyed by flames, one-third of Chicago’s population
was homeless, and Chicago’s Relief Society chose to build suburban-style
single-family homes.1 Chicagoans had been burned out of apartments, boardinghouses,
brothels, and hotels, but for the safety of their city, the Chicago Relief and
Aid Society decided to re-house these people in suburban cottages. Over the exceptionally
cold winter of 1871-1872, Chicago’s Relief and Aid Society built 8,033
single-family homes on the outskirts of Chicago, while, downtown, businessmen
erected a new commercial district (New Chicago 8). A few working-class immigrants
protested this suburbanization, but most late nineteenth-century observers agreed
that Chicago’s fire had provided a lucky chance to build a better city.
Chicago’s post-fire reconstruction provides a window on Americans’ nineteenth-century
ideas about housing, morality, and social control. Urban historians often analyze
the effects of transportation technology on housing location, but in many American
cities these technologies existed for years before suburbs became popular: technology
does not determine its uses independent of questions of culture and power.2 Streetcars,
electricity, automobiles, trucking, asphalt technology, and roads systems helped
suburbanize the U.S. more than Europe because suburbs supported Americans’ late-Victorian
ideas about gender identities and class formation. Chicago’s Great Fire
of 1871, like the flash from a camera, allows us to see many Chicagoans, all
at once, discussing their built environment and the values they expected suburban-style
houses to exert on their occupants.
Chicago’s surrounding prairie had been crisscrossed by railroads since
1854, Chicago’s model suburb of Riverside was begun in 1868, and “park
speculators” had made fortunes buying and selling land in Chicago’s
outlying picturesque regions in the real estate boom of 1869. The Great Fire
did not change this admiration for suburbia, but it did articulate and expedite
it. After the fire, Chicago’s suburbanization accelerated so much that
boosters bragged, “Chicago, for its size, is more given to suburbs than
any other city in the world” (Our Suburbs 3).3 Visitors wrote: “The
city stretches into suburbs, which themselves widen away and exhibit the outlines
of new suburbs . . . . Chicago will be the City of the Twentieth Century” (Butterworth
Looking at suburbs allows us to examine underlying relationships between the
familiar binaries of city/country, work/home, and men’s/women’s spheres,
but, perhaps because of this, defining the suburbs is far from simple. Nineteenth-century
cities often annexed outlying districts, so suburbs were not necessarily politically
separate from cities. Early suburbs grew up around older village centers (especially
in the East, but affecting expectations in Chicago) and grew around the same
time that many manufacturing industries also moved to metropolitan fringes, so
suburbs were not necessarily distant from some places of employment. Paid employment
existed inside many nineteenth-century homes, with servants, boardinghouse-keepers,
and female producers of commodities like soap and honey, so suburbs were not
necessarily spaces of consumption separated from production (Boydston 120-142).
I will use suburb to mean an outlying district (Chicago realtors measured by
distance from the courthouse in the center of what would become the Downtown
Loop), containing single-family houses in neighborhoods of relatively low densities
and relatively high social homogeneity. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society summed
up most of these criteria in their term for what they wanted to build: “Isolated
Recently, an urban planner declared: “There is no clear villain in the
sprawl scenario, except possibly the American dream” (Burwell 12). He was
echoing more than a century of realtors, speculators, bankers, house builders,
and house buyers who assume the American dream for an isolated house is ahistorical
and value-neutral. Even historian John Stilgoe asserts that the American penchant
for enclaves of single-family homes with private yards is “unchanging” (16)
and “almost timeless” (308). But the suburban ideal has not always
been the dream of most Americans. Especially before 1820, American villages
mixed home and work as well as rich and poor in houses built close together,
how much land was available. The American suburban dream did not develop until
the middle of the nineteenth century and did not gain wide popularity until
the late nineteenth century. It is worth resituating the American dream into
historic context of Victorian gender and class formations, a context we can
see clearly in Chicago in 1871.
A Startling Story—Fiendish Work by Communist Incendiaries”
It had been exceptionally dry that year, with no
rain since early July and daily fire alarms throughout early October.
Admitting that the “proximate
cause” of the fire could have been the dry weather, the exhausted
fire department, the hurricane-like winds, and possibly the wrath of
God, Chicagoans still sought to identify an immediate cause (Luzerne
91; Colbert and Chamberlin 196). Their theories about the origins of
the fire exposed fears about Chicago in 1871 in the midst of late nineteenth-century
urbanization, immigration, and industrialization. Chicago’s population
had doubled almost every five years since 1830, and by 1870 European-born
immigrants made up more than two-thirds of the city’s residents.
Chicago was not only crowded with foreigners; it was also filling with
factories on the awesome scale of the stockyards, which had opened in
1865. The Chicago River, pristine in 1840, had become undrinkable by
1860. Chicago had grown more rapidly than any other nineteenth-century
American city, and Chicago could be frightening.
The fire story most widely circulated, then and now, is that an Irish
immigrant named Catherine O’Leary was milking her cow in a barn
on DeKoven Street at 9:30 p.m. when the cow kicked over a kerosene lamp
and started the fire.
The moral seems obvious: beware of poor foreign women who pursue rural careers
in urban settings (Sawislak 43-44; Spinney 99; Cromie 24-30). But contemporaries
drew a slightly different moral:
If the woman who was milking the cow had not been late with her milking,
the lamp would not have been needed. If she had plied the dugs of the
animals with proper skill, the lamp would not have been kicked at all
. . . . The blame of setting the fire rests on the woman who milked,
or else on the man who allowed her to milk. (Colbert and Chamberlin 202)
This was a moral about engaging in punctual, careful,
gender-appropriate behavior; it was a moral about adopting the strategies
of the emerging
middle class (Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class; Dixon). The Chicago Times
emphasized this lesson by tweaking the story: in their version, Mrs.
O’Leary grew angry when charity workers cut off her relief after
discovering she owned a house and cow. “There are those who insist
the woman set the barn on fire,” the Times alleged. “The
old hag swore she would be revenged on a city that would deny her a bit
of wood or a pound of bacon” (“The Fire” 1).
The Workingman’s Advocate included a rebuttal from “Mrs. Leary” herself: “I
never had a cint from the parish in all my life and the dirty Times had no
business to print it” (“Origin of the Fire” 1). But even
this union newspaper did not dispute the underlying accusation, that someone
might cheat charity and destroy the city. The Advocate recorded Mrs. O’Leary’s
defense—she swore she always milked her cows responsibly on time, before
dusk—but they also noted that “the woman would naturally shrink
from the responsibility” of having caused the calamity (1).
Still, neighbors swore that the O’Leary family had been in bed an hour
before the fire began. Some reported a suspicious man lurking near the barn
when the fire started, and soon the Chicago Times printed “A Startling
Story—Fiendish Work by Communist Incendiaries,” in which a Parisian
communard revealed his secret organization’s “Diabolical Plot for
the Destruction of the City” (“A Startling Story” 1; Luzerne
186-196). Frustrated after months of “fruitless attempts to stir up strife
between the mechanics of the city and their employers,” the communard
claimed he had burned Chicago “to humble the men who had waxed rich at
the expense of the poor” (“A Startling Story” 1). Other newspapers
reprinted this story with doubt, “without the expression of any opinion
as to its authenticity” (Luzerne 190), but they did print it, and one
journalist added: “That many of our prominent citizens believe in the
genuineness of these revolutions, is demonstrated in daily conversation; and
it is by no means impossible that they are founded on truth” (196).
While French radicalism or Irish carelessness were blamed for starting the
fire, other factors were criticized for intensifying it. Many people blamed
the poor who built with wood too near to the brick and stone homes of the rich.
Others blamed the corrupt fire commissioners, who were drunken immigrants according
to some observers and exhausted heroes according to others. The picture that
emerges is of a remarkably divided city, changing rapidly, frightening many.
This was a world in which an angry old Irish woman or a fanatic Parisian communard
could be believed to have destroyed an entire American city. In the words of
a popular song of the time: “A cow could kick over Chicago” (qtd.
in Smith 96).
Chicagoans felt unstable in 1871, torn by growing divisions of class and ethnicity,
so they sought stability through suburbanization. The potential for strife
between mechanics and their employers that was visible in the rumor about the
communard, the dangers from insufficiently bourgeois immigrants like Mrs. O’Leary,
the risks from placing wooden cottages too close to marble mansions: all these
tensions might be alleviated, Chicago philanthropists hoped, by suburbanizing
an emerging middle class.
“Barriers Burned Away”
The fire exacerbated the instability of nineteenth-century
defiance to the very laws of nature” (New Chicago 4), Chicago’s
Great Fire destroyed marble buildings, warped metal railings, and lit
the night of October 8, 1871, “as light as day” (3). According
to contemporary chroniclers, it was not only natural, scientific laws
which the fire transgressed. Victorian-era norms of gender and class
were impossible to maintain without the built environment. Nineteenth-century
cities had been developing increasing spatial segregation between classes
as well as gender-specific spaces, a segregation which the fire destroyed
(Blumin 232, 275). Prostitutes filled the streets, according to many
contemporary chroniclers of the fire; prostitutes were no longer contained
by brothels or limited to vice districts. At the Washington Street tunnel
under the Chicago River
there rushed into the dark, cavern-like tunnel bankers
and thieves, merchants and gamblers, artizans and loafers, clergymen
matrons and rag-pickers, maidens and prostitutes—representatives
of virtue and vice, industry and improvidence, in every grade, and strangely
commingling . . . . There were bruises and groans, blows and piercing
shrieks, prayers, imprecations, pocket-picking, and indignities unmentionable.
Matrons and ragpickers, clergymen and burglars, and
other pairs mixed by class (but still segregated by gender in this
account) all might meet
in more ordinary times, under circumstances in which each knew their
place. Part of the horror of the fire was of a crowd of people without
places, a crowd where classes had become unrecognizable. One of the best-selling
novels about the fire described “the awful democracy of the hour” in
a book titled, simply, Barriers Burned Away.
Witnesses describe white people, begrimed by smoke, who appeared black
(Colbert and Chamberlin 251). But accounts of the fire dwell most often
of class and gender norms. There were “north side nabobs, herding promiscuously
with the humblest laborer . . . . Scores of men were dragging trunks frantically
along the sidewalks, knocking down women and children” (Colbert and Chamberlin
230). While some men showed too much masculine aggression, others showed too
little: “Men of iron were completely unmanned” (New Chicago 4).
And women were shockingly unfeminine. The crowd fleeing the fire had
features wildly distorted with terror, people unclad, half-clad, some
wrapped in bed clothing, women dressed in the apparel of the opposite
sex, and some protected only by their night-wrappers, carrying beds,
babies, tables, tubs, carpets, crockery, cradles, almost every conceivable
thing of household use . . . . [The] uproar redoubled with Babel sounds
and Bedlam outcries. (Luzerne 67-68)
Women outdoors in their nightgowns were alarming
enough to proper Victorians. But some of these women had found the
strength to carry beds. And a few
women, at least according to this account, had cross-dressed as men.
Nineteenth-century men’s clothing would have been quicker to put
on, more practicable for walking long distances, and more protective
for any woman wishing to avoid sexual harassment (those “indignities
unmentionable”) in the crowd fleeing the fire. Men’s clothing
was also less flammable than women’s; newspapers in the decades
after the Civil War contain thousands of stories of ladies burning alive
in fashionably elaborate costumes which they were unable to remove (Luzerne
More often than cross-dressing women, chroniclers of the fire reported
other women, in shock, giving birth out-of-doors and alone to babies
died of exposure. They disagreed on the number—somewhere between 150
and 500—but we do not need to believe their facts so much as marvel at
their underlying alarm over women without shelter (Colbert and Chamberlin 357;
Luzerne 101, 119; Higginson 56). Sudden homelessness would be traumatic to
anyone, but it is particularly Victorian to read accounts of a man following
his sister-in-law as she ran out of her unburnt house into the crowd fleeing
the fire, repeatedly fainted, and lost her children and jewelry in the confusion,
until he finally “hauled her, shrieking with hysterics, in a baker’s
wagon, some four miles, over much debris, to the home where she ought to have
stayed in the first place” (Colbert and Chamberlin 245).
Only 300 people died in the fire, according to official reports, while 17,450
buildings burned. Chicago’s Great Fire left prostitutes uncontained by
brothels, poor people uncontained by tenements, a few women uncontained by
clothes, and many people uncontained by houses. Crowds of fire refugees mixed
by class, gender, and sometimes race were without the familiar status-markers
of fashion and architecture: “That first night after the fire—that
fearful Monday night of the 9th of October in Chicago—was as complete
a picture of social, moral, and municipal chaos as the wildest imagination
can conceive . . . . Men were like ships which had lost their anchors—adrift
in mid-ocean, without chart, compass, or destination” (Taylor 256). Homes
were the anchors that were lost: “Like thistle-down ten thousand homes
went drifting through the air / And dumb Dismay walked hand in hand with frozen-eyed
Despair” (256). Chroniclers of the fire grasped at multiple images of
chaos: it was Babel, Bedlam, Sodom, Pompeii; it was, perhaps, the end of the
world (King 39; Judd 69; Painter). To restore that world, Chicago’s elites
decided to build single-family suburban houses.
“There will be a very general demand for property
in the numerous suburban villages that surround Chicago.”
On the night of the fire, “away sped the crowd, afar off to the
bleak prairie, to the lake shore, to parks, cemeteries, anywhere remote
from combustible material” (Luzerne 70). The places that people
went for safety were picturesque parks and suburban enclaves. While the
fire was still smoldering, the New York Times’ Chicago correspondent
declared: “Numerous outlying blocks and many edifices of the better
class in the more thinly-occupied [districts] have been spared” (“Devastated
Chicago” 1). The fire, he implied, vindicated the wealthy who had
chosen to live on larger lots further from the central city. The Chicago
Times was explicit about this lesson: “There will be a very general
demand for property in the numerous suburban villages that surround Chicago
. . . . This demand will be the natural result of the recent fire, which
has shown the danger of building frame dwellings too close together” (“Real
Estate” 1). People turned to suburbs for safety.
This suburban impulse intertwined with an ideology of domesticity. One
of the widely-circulated engravings after the fire showed the shop of
D. Kerfoot, the first burnt-out business to reopen, in a shanty whose sign
declared: “All gone but wife & children & ENERGY!” (Luzerne
229). Energized by domesticity, Kerfoot encouraged others to be similarly energized
and to buy homes from him. Another image showed a couple getting married in
the ruins. These images encouraged the formation of nuclear families in isolated
houses. These images were popular, presumably, to people eager to see that
domesticity and realty would continue in Chicago.
Actual weddings immediately after the fire were not as glamorous as the one
pictured in the engraving, but Chicagoans eagerly shared wedding news: “Essie
Stockton was married the Thursday after the fire in a white petticoat with
a morning dress looped over it and departed on her wedding trip with her ‘trousseau’ tied
up in a pillowcase! Louise Goodwin and her devoted went off on theirs with
passes furnished by the Relief Society!” (Higginson 54). This letter-writer
was impressed that domestic ideals endured, yet also distressed that the trousseau
was so meager and the fashionable wedding-trip subsidized by charity. She recognized
that ideologies of gender and space also depend on class, and would not be
as easy to restore as the popular engravings made it seem.
Others were so confident about rebuilding that they made jokes: “The
editor of the New York Commercial says he read it just 47 times in 48 hours
that ‘Chicago will arise like a phoenix from the ashes’” (“Chicago
Cinders” 1). Chicago could rise like a phoenix because most of Chicago’s
geographic resources had survived the fire:
All is not lost. Though 400 million dollars’ worth of property
has been destroyed, Chicago still exists . . . . The great national resources
are still in existence; the lake, with its navies, the spacious harbor,
the vast empire of production, extending westward to the Pacific; the
great outlet from the lakes to the ocean, the thirty-six lines of railways
connecting the city with every part of the continent—these, the
great arteries of trade and commerce, all remain unimpaired, undiminished,
and all ready for immediate resumption . . . . We have lost money—but
we have saved health, vigor, and industry. (“Rebuild the City” 2)
The conditions that had made Chicago a prairie metropolis,
gateway to the West, still existed, and it served the interests of
to help their Chicago debtors. In addition to networks of railways and
canals, Harper’s Magazine explained, “[t]he telegraph has
made us all of one nerve . . . . While Chicago burns New York trembles” (“Editor’s
Easy Chair” 133). Philanthropy flowed to Chicago because of these
commercial networks. Boston, Berlin, Cincinnati, Dublin, Milwaukee, New
York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and other cities together sent more than
$7 million for Chicago’s relief; relief funds that were organized,
often, by businessmen in Chambers of Commerce (New Chicago 13).4
Some women reported that no amount of money could replace their domestic losses,
especially the losses of sentimental objects that had helped them adjust to
the dislocations of the nineteenth-century Midwest:
We had a nice little cottage . . . with a little
yard in front, where I had planted the rose tree mother gave me from
our dear old home. Mother
is dead now, and the homestead sold . . . . The honeysuckle over the
door came from a far-away sister’s grave at the East. The mementoes
on the mantel, the pictures of those gone before, the playthings of some
little ones who are lying still and peaceful in Rose Hill, the golden
locks cut from their curly heads, and the little clothing that they wore—where
is it all? What a horrible dream! We didn’t save anything. (qtd.
in Luzerne 181)
Such sentimentality coupled with mortality is familiar
to any reader of nineteenth-century women’s writing. It is also often suburban.
This woman missed her decorated cottage and picturesque yard; she missed
the horticulture that suburban architect Andrew Jackson Downing had called “a
labor of love offered up on the domestic altar” (Downing 79; Beecher
294). She lamented that she could not recover her nice little cottage—and
the social relationships it signified—as easily as most of Chicago’s
men recovered their businesses.
But it is deceptive to think of women’s domestic sphere as entirely separate
from men’s commercial sphere. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society designed
relief cottages so that
a handy man [can] build in ten days a comfortable
dwelling which thousands of Illinois pioneers forty years ago would
have coveted. He will thus
obtain a new home for his family; a home which he can call his own; a
home which comfort, cheerfulness, and contentment can then make glad
with blessings and from which he can go forth with a heart full of hope
to battle against the world, to assist in rebuilding Chicago. (“The
This home was a refuge, built by men, maintained
by women, meant to energize men to go forth into the confusion of the
city. This vision omitted all unattached, single people, while it intertwined
men’s and women’s spheres. This vision was a nostalgic one,
with its reference to pioneers, written by someone who had already forgotten
that most of Illinois’s pioneers had lived in a fort until the
1830s. In the 1840s, according to early settlers as well as city directories, “half
of [Chicagoans] boarded in the taverns and boardinghouses, and the other
half were crowded into small dwellings in rooms over the stores” (Cleaver
49).5 Some of the pioneers’ sixteen-by-twenty foot wooden houses
did outwardly resemble relief society cottages, but inwardly contained
commercial uses, mixed classes, and un-related residents. By 1871 many
Chicagoans, with the rest of the U.S., believed in the false nostalgia
of the cult of domesticity.
“As a rule, none but permanent paupers will
stay in the barracks.”
After the fire, a Citizens’ Committee, appointed by politicians,
began to distribute funds donated for fire sufferers, but “the
relief was necessarily conducted without system, and relief was given
to all who asked” (New Chicago 7). This was a problem, Chicago’s
elites worried, because “indiscriminate” charity might create
a permanently dependent underclass. Chicago’s mayor asked the elite
philanthropists of Chicago’s Relief and Aid Society to take charge
of dispersing relief “scientifically.” Scientific charity
meant using a businesslike board of directors, including George Pullman
and Marshall Field; dividing the city into districts and the charity
work into bureaus; and carefully examining each request for charity on
forms which eventually cost $22,000 to print. Scientific charity meant “perform[ing]
the double service of guarding against imposition and hunting out deserving
cases who were too sensitive to apply in person” (New Chicago 7).6
The paradoxes are fascinating: while discouraging anyone who asked for
aid, the Relief and Aid Society also encouraged people who had not requested
aid to take it. While trying to re-establish the domestic sphere, the
Society paid women visitors to examine others’ homes, implicitly
presuming the public, political nature of domesticity.7
The Citizens’ Committee had erected barracks, the Chicago Tribune had
advised bringing in an army quartermaster to teach more barrack construction
(“Committee on Shelter” 2), and the first general plan of the Relief
and Aid Society had included a “Committee on Shelter, to provide tents
and barracks” (6). But, a week after the fire, the gentlemen leaders
of the Relief and Aid Society had a grander idea. They explained that “rude
barracks” risked leaving Chicago with “a large class of permanent
poor still without homes, and demoralized by a winter of dependence and evil
communications,” a class who would be “dangerous to themselves
and the neighborhood in which they might be placed” (8). Although barracks
were convenient, the Relief and Aid Society reserved barracks for “the
class who have not hitherto lived in houses of their own, but in rooms in tenement
houses” (10). This tenement-class of former renters was 5% of the fire
sufferers, sheltered in four barracks, where, the philanthropists explained
reassuringly, “under the constant supervision of medical and police superintendents,
their moral and sanitary condition is unquestionably better than that which
has heretofore obtained in that class” (10-11).
Another class, 40% of the sufferers, the Relief and Aid Society recognized
as the “mechanics and the better class of laboring people, thrifty, domestic,
and respectable, whose skill and labor are indispensable in rebuilding the
city, and most of whom had accumulated enough to become the owners of their
own homesteads” (8). For this middle group of former homeowners, the
Relief and Aid Society decided to erect isolated, single-family houses in order
to provide “incentives to industry [and] the conscious pride and independence
of still living under their own roof-tree . . . to raise them at once from
depression and anxiety, if not despair, to hope, renewed energy, and comparative
prosperity” (8). They believed a domestic refuge in an isolated house
would inspire the better class of laborers to help rebuild Chicago. Labor historian
Karen Sawislak describes a two-tiered class system during the Great Chicago
Fire, divided between laborers and employers (14). Blurring those two tiers,
Chicago’s Relief and Aid Society insisted on making homeowners out of
the respectable laborers of the lower middle class.
In the Society’s view, a few families needed barracks and supervision
while many families merited houses and respect. The Society ignored people
without family, especially elderly or single people, along with anybody in
the middle or upper classes who chose to rent. By the Society’s own statistics,
they did not provide housing help to 55% of fire sufferers, who were either
too immoral to merit charity or else too well-off to ever request “public
“The committee on shelter is proceeding in a manner worthy of the highest
commendation, and their plans contemplate a work which the whole community must
applaud for its wisdom as well as for its Christian spirit,” the Chicago
Times enthused, and others agreed (“Houses for the Houseless” 2;
Sawislak 95). The committee on shelter “illustrate[s] the intelligence,
energy, business-like economy, and prompt dispatch” of the Relief and Aid
Society (Colbert and Chamberlin 527). This was their business-like, moral plan:
to any family who already owned its own lot, they gave one bed-frame, mattress,
stove, table, cooking-pot, half-ton of coal, and all the lumber necessary to
build a house, all for $125, a remarkable bargain, even in 1871. They gave this
outright to widows, while they asked for payment from those they believed could
afford to pay. They rejected about one-third of the housing applications they
received, “of course,” the Chicago Times explained, “as the
vouchers of endorsement will not always hold water, and again many others are
unable to furnish satisfactory proof of their being in any way worthy objects
for help in this direction” (“Relief Report” 1).
The Relief and Aid Society provided lumber for two basic houses: a twelve-by-fifteen
foot one-room house for families of three or less, and a sixteen-by-twenty
two-room house for families of four or more. Such small quarters were not unusual
for their time. The most basic design for a suburban cottage, by popular nineteenth-century
architect Andrew Jackson Downing, was a two-room building, eighteen-by-twenty-six
feet, with only a few closets and a larger overhanging roof to distinguish
it from the plain plan of the Relief and Aid Society (Downing 72). As late
as 1947, popular housing developer William Levitt built a similar, small cottage.
The Relief and Aid Society cottage was stark, but it was not much different
from the lowest level of suburbia in America for decades before and after 1871.
The Society expected people to upgrade to larger, sturdier buildings anyway,
and many cottages were eventually given additions and second stories (Abbott
74, 184, 186).
“The morals, the health, and the liberty of
The Relief and Aid Society had been worried about
promiscuity in the barracks. Promiscuous, in the nineteenth century,
meant crowded together
indiscriminately (“Promiscuity”). Urban promiscuity posed
a physical risk, as new ideas developed about the importance of healthy
fresh air while new factories and technologies made living close to industry
less appealing. But urban promiscuity also posed a moral risk, as urban
people mingled without small-town systems of supervision and “girl
on the town” became a euphemism for prostitute, replacing the earlier
term, “suburban sinner” (Cohen 64; Jackson 147). City hotels,
boardinghouses, and tenement apartments with lodgers came to be seen
as “insidious, family-wrecking” spaces, as stated in a 1904
suburban advertisement (Stilgoe 241).8 As Foucault has observed, Victorian
sexual repression was also a sexual obsession, attributing an immense
amount of attention and power to sexual desire (17-35). If busybodies
could not tell who was entering a home, it was assumed, the members of
that home would be tempted to commit adultery (Jackson 90; Deutsch 69).
If non-related adults lived in close proximity, especially in lower-class
homes, they might also be tempted to commit adultery. Servants and visitors
in upper-class homes were exempt from this reasoning, of course, because
it did not serve any moralists’ interests to prohibit servants
or houseguests. Moralists worried about the one-fifth of urban families
who took in boarders to supplement their incomes (Hayden, Redesigning
the American Dream 20), and the nine-tenths of Victorian-era New York
City housing starts that were “Parisian flats,” which we
now call apartments (Ryan, Civic Wars 196).
Causality was confused between cleanliness and godliness, housing and
morality. Among congestion, dirt, poverty, crime, intemperance, foreignness,
political radicalism, who could tell which was the cause and which the effects?
As early as the eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson declared: “I view
large cities as pestilential to the morals, the health, and the liberties of
man” (qtd. in Jackson 68).9 Cities, Jefferson believed, bred immorality,
disease, and bad politics. By the Victorian era, popular magazines like Harper’s
agreed: “Myriads of inmates of the squalid, distressing tenement-houses,
in which morality is as impossible as happiness, would not give them up, despite
their horrors, for clean, orderly, wholesome habitats in the suburbs, could
they be transported there and back free of charge” (qtd. in Jackson 117).10
Tenements were so bad, apparently, that they left tenement residents unable
to appreciate better environments. Environmental determinism was popular logic:
just as some temperance reformers sought to eliminate drunkenness by eliminating
saloons, many housing reformers sought to eliminate poverty and vice by eliminating
urban housing. Reinhold Neibuhr later named this “the doctrine of salvation
by bricks” (qtd. in Jacobs 147).
In order for homes to influence their occupants best, many nineteenth-century
supporters of domesticity agreed with Henry C. Wright that “[t]he isolated
home is the true home” (qtd. in Ryan, Empire of the Mother 97).11 These “true” homes
were isolated from each other only geographically, not politically. Women’s
historians are familiar with the irony: the supposedly private, feminine, domestic
sphere was assumed to hold immense power over public morals for both sexes.
Domesticity was the central topic of popular literature in the nineteenth century,
as this supposedly private realm was the focus of public scrutiny and the agent
of gender and class formation (Ryan, Empire of the Mother; Blackmar 87).
In addition to reinforcing sexual morality, single-family suburban-style houses
were conducive to consumerism. Paul Groth has argued persuasively that urban
residential hotels and apartments were a zone of opposition to middle-class
mores, a place where people did not have to save money or accumulate goods
(198, 223-224). Homeowners, in contrast, have long been perceived as responsible,
thrifty people. While urban apartment-dwellers may spend money in saloons and
theaters, suburban homeowners are seen as saving money for larger, more stable
purchases of land, furniture, and home décor. There are many examples
of this pervasive discourse, such as this statement from the New York Morning
Courier in 1847: “An immense proportion of the present misery of the
poor arises from the associated community—the practical Fourierism in
which they are forced to live and which does more than any other cause to destroy
those feelings of attachment and moral responsibility, which belong to the
idea of the home” (qtd. in Blackmar 148).
The idea that suburbs fostered responsible, middle-class consumption led to
a related hope that suburbs would create conservative citizens. In 1948 Levitt
famously declared: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist.
He has too much to do” (qtd. in Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream
8).12 From the other end of the political spectrum, Friedrich Engels also theorized,
in 1872, that owning a house could keep a worker from becoming a communist: “For
our workers in the big cities freedom of movement is the first condition of
their existence, and land ownership could only be a hindrance to them. Give
them their own houses, chain them once again to the soil, and you break their
power of resistance to the wage cutting of the factory owners” (18).
In addition to being kept busy caring for their lawns, homeowners can be reluctant
to go on strike and risk missing a mortgage payment, less able to vote with
their feet by moving to jobs with better conditions, and less free to demand
political change. This seemed self-evident to American thinkers across many
decades. According to the Industrial Housing Associates’ 1919 publication
Good Homes Make Contented Workers, for example, “[a] wide diffusion of
home ownership has long been recognized as fostering a stable and conservative
habit” (qtd. in Hayden, Domestic Revolution 283).13 Chicago’s Relief
and Aid Society was not as explicit as Engels or Levitt, but shared their assumptions.
Nineteenth-century communitarian societies often drew direct links between “isolated
houses” and the “conventions of civilization” (Spurlock 54).
Communitarians changed their built environment in order to change their culture.
Yet this logic could work both ways, as Chicago’s leaders sought suburban
housing to stabilize Chicagoans’ relations with the conventions of civilization.
“No barrocks. No Tenment Houses . . . . Leave
a House for the Laborur.”
A few months after the fire, the Chicago City Council
met to strengthen Chicago’s fire ordinance by prohibiting wooden building within
city limits. Chicago Times journalists explained: “Those who had
the welfare of the city really at heart . . . with justice asked of the
city for some guarantee that if they erected $100,000 marble fronts some
other person did not squat $500 tinder-boxes beside them” (New
Chicago 24). The rich, for their safety, wanted Chicago’s housing
more segregated by class. The wooden housing of the poorer people, including
all 8,033 Relief and Aid Society cottages, would have to move outside
of Chicago’s city limits.
On January 15, 1872, thousands of Germans and Irish marched to city hall
to protest the proposed fire limits, carrying signs whose spelling the
Times mocked: “No barrocks. No Tenment Houses. No Fire Limitz at the
North Site. Leave a House for the Laborur” (“Hesing’s Mob” 1).14
The Times criticized “those who wish to erect hovels on the North side” (“The
Fire-Bugs” 3), and the Tribune wrote alarmist headlines about the “COMMUNISM” (2)
of “The North Side Incendiaries” (2). This was the first mass protest
after the fire, and the English-language newspaper claimed the protesters were
not respectable homeowners at all: they were drunken “scum of the community” (“COMMUNISM” 2)
and “scalawags who invaded the sacred precincts of the City Hall” (“Monday
Night Riot” 2).15 There is fear under this insulting rhetoric, fear of
respectable property owners who were simply demanding what the relief society
had been offering: simple homes of their own. After another two weeks, Chicago’s
council passed the fire limits with no provisions for any effective enforcement,
in a compromise that left few people happy (Sawislak 158-162; Rosen 95-109).
The people wanted simple, single-family houses, but they wanted these houses
in the city, not in the suburbs.
We know about white flight, transportation technology, and government subsidies
as linked causes of America’s suburbanization, but we rarely hear this:
it was cheaper to build outside city limits. Chicago’s lower middle classes
were pulled to the suburbs by relief cottages, but they were also pushed to
the suburbs by municipal building codes, city taxes, and policies like Chicago’s
fire limits. We see this in advertisements for subdivisions, such as S. E.
Gross’s 1880s advertisement, which reads: “OUTSIDE FIRE LIMITS!
You can Build Wooden Houses! NO CITY TAXES!” We see this, too, in a real
estate journalist three years after the fire:
The fire ordinance which followed the fire . . . drove beyond the limits
named all persons who desired to build homes for themselves and who had
not the means to put up a structure of brick or other fireproof material.
Hence a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits . . .
. Indeed, the feature of the Chicago market for the past two years has
been the suburban trade, in which many fortunes have been made. (Chamberlin
Other journalists complained the poor had not moved
out far enough: “Let
a block get well on fire towards the Stock Yards in some densely settled
locality, in the face of [a Southwestern] gale, and all the apparatus
of the fire department must prove futile. Nothing but acres of solid
brick or stone buildings that are virtually fireproof can stop it” (Croffatt
57). Instead of medieval city walls, Chicagoans envisioned a modern wall
of expensive brick and stone housing surrounding their city.
“Jerry-built frame cottages”
The fight over fire limits highlighted ethnic strife
in the city, but it also pointed to the ambiguous position of frame
Boorstin’s classic paean to the American mobility made possible
because of ingeniously flexible balloon-frame wooden construction, known
as “Chicago construction” from the 1830s until the 1870s
(148-152), was not shared by Chicago’s elites, who often dismissed
frame buildings as insubstantial shanties and “rickety . . . old
fire-traps” (“The Ruined City” 1). Mrs. O’Leary’s
frame house was variously named a “solitary shanty,” shack,
or “small one-story tenement” (“Origin of the Fire” 1).
It was, remarkably, still standing after Chicago’s two-day-long
fire had burned 17,450 other buildings. And it was, remarkably, similar
to the style of buildings that the Relief and Aid Society helped 8,033
other families build after the fire. It had been a fire cause, when occupied
by an irresponsible immigrant too close to downtown, but the Relief and
Aid Society hoped that something like it would be a fire solution, creating
responsible property owners at the edge of town.
The housing hierarchy, in post-fire Chicago, placed hovels, shanties
(rickety wooden buildings), rookeries (multi-unit wooden buildings),
and tenements (any
housing for the poor, but especially multi-family housing) all on the lowest
rung. A single newspaper report could call the Relief and Aid Society’s
house plans a “tenement of one or two rooms,” yet also a “cottage” and “an
incalculably more comfortable abode for an intelligent human being” than
the larger tenements of the barracks (“The Fire” 5). We do not
usually consider one-family houses to be tenements, but Edith Abbott also identified
post-fire frame buildings as one of the main causes of Chicago’s tenement
districts. “With all their good intentions, [the Relief Committee] had
erected great numbers of ‘jerry-built’ frame cottages” (21),
Abbott explained, so that one of Chicago’s worst housing problems was “frame
tenements [which] were built hastily after the Great Fire of 1871, and . .
. still remain after the hard usage of more than half a century” (184).
Abbott’s study of Chicago’s tenements reveals the eventual deterioration
of Chicago’s less-elite inner-ring suburbs, as multiple families and
less-elite races crowded into houses designed for only one family. Yet, back
in 1871, few people criticized Chicago’s post-fire reconstruction.
“The grandest year’s labor in the world’s
“Chicago rose sublime from its ashes,” most Chicagoans agreed
(Maitland 21). Using a series of maps, historian Christine Rosen concluded
that the fire “caused a permanent reorganization of residential,
commercial, and industrial land use patterns that turned an old-fashioned
walking city into a comparatively modern . . . metropolis in less than
two years’ time” (140-176). After the fire, Chicagoans separated
areas that had held mixed uses, and Chicago set a model for modern American
The fire let Chicago’s business leaders replace downtown neighborhoods
of poor immigrants with an expanded central commercial district. After describing
the frame shanties, brothels, “jew clothiers,” and cheap boardinghouses
that had filled Fifth Avenue before the fire (renamed Wells Street in 1871,
which later became the site of the Sears Tower), Chicago Times journalists
observed this street had
a reputation so odious that nothing less than our fire could have remedied
it . . . . In fact Wells Street contained a class of buildings and population
that Chicago could not feel sorry at the loss of. The property occupied
in this objectionable way was valuable, being eligibly situated in respect
to some of the most important thoroughfares in the business [district]
. . . . The fire, with all its train of misfortunes, did not do so badly
in solving this difficulty for Chicago. It swept away all the obnoxious
features of the street, and forever. (New Chicago 31-32)
In the weeks after the fire, the Relief and Aid Society had provided
free train passes to 30,000 people seeking to leave town, while forward-looking
businessmen purchased centrally-located land at fire-depressed prices.
Within a year, prices had risen above their pre-fire levels, and Chicago
had laid the groundwork for a much larger central business district,
while separating the homes of the poor from the retail business of the
rich. This separation of rich and poor, business and residence, was valued
Chicago property now stands better classified and
its future more distinctly marked than could have been possible before
the fire . . . . The different
departments and grades of business are assigned . . . . Within the city,
homes for the poor, quarters for the humble trades, districts for the
chief manufacturing enterprises, retail streets of the various trades,
boulevard regions and the meaner purlieus, are distinctly marked and
foreshadowed. (“The Effect of the Fire” 261)
Earlier in the nineteenth century, workers had lived
near their employers, industrialists had built mansions next to their
factories, and business-owners
had lived above their shops. Immediately after the fire, small factories,
retailers, and professional offices mixed in whatever available buildings
they could find, and sometimes located in residential parlors, a mixture
that contemporaries labeled “whimsical” (Rosen 145). As the
expanded downtown sorted out different commercial uses, and as the new
fire limits segregated flammable factories from less-flammable retail,
Chicagoans separated their businesses in a style most twentieth-century
urban planners call “rational” (Rosen 159), but which planning
reformer Jane Jacobs calls “unbalanced” (215).
This separation meant that the fire “hastened the removal” of many
Chicagoans to the suburbs, so that prices of suburban real estate rose 10-50%
during the year after the fire: “There has never been a season of greater
land activity in the suburbs” (New Chicago 24). National observers agreed
with Chicagoans that the fire had actually improved the city. “The prices
of real estate are higher than at the time of the fire, and the industrial
interests of Chicago have been more than re-established,” Harper’s
explained. “In fact, the great disaster of last year is beginning to
be regarded as a blessing in disguise” (“Editor’s Historical
Decades after the fire, University of Chicago sociologist Ernest Burgess considered
Chicago’s central business district, with its rings of poorer and richer
suburbs, and developed his radial theory of city growth, expecting other cities
to behave like Chicago, expanding across open prairie, influenced by fears
of fire and by ideologies of respectable housing. These theories were then
nationally adopted in the policies of the Home Owners Loan Corporation and
the Federal Housing Association, as well as the assumptions of many realtors
and their customers. These theories, now known as “red lining,” became
self-fulfilling prophecies that helped create America’s twentieth-century
sprawling suburban landscape (Palen 15-17; Jackson 198). Chicago’s sociologists
helped the built environment created in Chicago in 1871 become the normative
environment for America in the twentieth century.
“No monument has ever been erected to commemorate the event [of the fire]
and really Chicago needs none but herself,” the New York Times wrote on
the ten-year anniversary of Chicago’s Great Fire (“Chicago’s
Recovery” 7). If the Relief and Aid Society had given out only food and
clothing, Chicago’s journalists agreed, people would have sunk into “hopeless
despondency” and become “helpless paupers” (Gay 171). Giving
alms might hurt the alms-recipients, but giving “a cheap but comfortable
house,” on the other hand, “made them again independent citizens,
giving them once more the proud sense of being property-holders, of having a
share in the well-being of the community, bestowing upon them a renewed incentive
to good order, industry, and thrift” (172). Relief housing kept people
from having to pay rent elsewhere, kept land values from varying too chaotically,
and kept in Chicago “a permanent population which would otherwise have
been scattered or have remained in penury, but which now may be relied upon to
furnish mechanics and laborers for the future wants of the city” (172).
The housing program cost one-third of the relief fund, but “the money could
have been put to no wiser or more beneficent use, both in its material and moral
1 For forest fires in Michigan and Wisconsin that year, see Colbert
and Chamberlin 475-494.
2 For streetcar technology preceding suburbanization, see Marsh 15. For links
between technology and suburbanization which resist a technologically-deterministic
simplification, see Warner; Jackson; Nye; McShane.
3 Chamberlin writes: “The fact is thoroughly established that ninety-nine
Chicago families in every hundred will go an hour’s ride into the country
. . . rather than live under or over another family, as the average New Yorker
or Parisian does” (188). See also Chamberlin 339, 347ff.
4 Karen Sawislak notes that on the same day a larger fire in Peshtigo, Wisconsin,
left more people dead but garnered far less attention (21).
5 For an examination of Chicago city directories from 1844 for statistics on
boarding, see Groth 56.
6 Donald Miller explains: “At times, the society seemed as interested
in maintaining public order as in alleviating suffering” (162).
7 See Sawislak 5, 60, 82-106, 264-280; Smith 64-77; Spinney 105-106. An interesting
rejected housing application is reprinted on the Chicago Historical Society’s
website The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.
8 See also Wolfe; Beveridge 164-166; Spurlock 25, 81, 150; Hayden, Domestic
Revolution 38, 102.
9 For a plethora of elite pronouncements about urban immorality, see Lees.
For more diverse views about urban dangers and urban economies, see Cohen 10,
100, 355. For the best analysis of the double-edged impression of Chicago as
both terrifying and awesome, see Cronon 350-369.
10 For the moral influence of single-family homes, see Beecher; Sedgwick.
11 Even when purportedly discussing neighborhoods, proponents of nineteenth-century
domesticity described only isolated homes (see, for example, Beecher).
12 See also Groth 254; Wright 125.
13 See also Sawislak 64.
14 For a more detailed account of this protest, see Sawislak 121-162.
15 A Chicago Tribune article about North-siders who favored the fire limits
was headlined, wonderfully, “They Are Not All Idiots” (1). The
Tribune conceded that “there were quite a number of respectable Germans
and Irishmen among the crowd—men who really do own lots,” although
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Elaine Lewinnek is a Ph.D. candidate in American
Studies at Yale University. She is writing her dissertation on Chicago’s
nineteenth-century working-class suburbs.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (Fall 2003)
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