Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Making Things Good
The invisible hand gives some back to Chicago
See Illinois (unpublished)
The great buildings that house the pride of Chicago culture—its museums, its universities, its libraries, and hospitals—are festooned with names. Few of those names identify artists or scientists or thinkers or teachers, the people who do the culture’s work. Instead, they are the names of the people who pay for the work—the super-rich business class, acting variously out of conscience or vanity or civic patriotism.
This sketch is taken from a much longer chapter about Chicago business that was to have appeared in my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. That chapter, Money Machines: Business in Chicagoland, can be read here.
Mail-order magnate Montgomery Ward commissioned a new company headquarters building in the 1890s. It was to be a grand affair on Michigan Avenue, with a ten-story tower on whose roof was perched a weathervane carried by an eighteen-foot gilded female figure called Progress Lighting the Way for Commerce. Considering the crucial role that its successful men have played in Chicago’s higher culture in all its forms, a more accurate name would have been Commerce Lighting the Way for Progress.
As they gradually lost control of local political system, businessmen set up an alternative realm of quasi-private institutions they could control, and they used it largely to shape the city’s cultural life. If the men who made Chicago were servants to Mammon untempered by culture, it is not always true of the second generation, which included men of genuine culture, such as the second Martin Ryerson. For most, however, “culture” meant bourgeois good taste, which was then uplifting and a bit prudish. What soprano and director Mary Garden said of Samuel Insull, patron of the Lyric Opera, could be said—and was, behind their backs—of most such men. “I saw very soon what Mr. Insull had in mind. That was to turn the opera into a utility, like all his business. You can’t do that, of course.”
Whatever their tastes, nearly all of Chicago’s public-minded businessmen were social conservatives (perhaps because they’d amassed so that was much worth conserving). Most were fiercely protective of the prerogatives of their class. They believed in the use of government power—it was their government, after all—to protect the social order from people they, with more fervor than accuracy, regarded as anarchists. In the quarter-century ending in 1900, at the height of worker unrest in Chicago, the members of the Commercial Club bought land for what became Fort Sheridan to house the U.S. military force that was quartered there in response to a petition by Mssrs. Field, Armour, and Pullman—sleep-in security guards, in effect, paid for by the taxpayer..
Marshall Field was typical only in the zeal with which he defended his free-market principles. He was a virulent union-hater who got rich in part by underpaying his shop girls to the extent that some driven into prostitution after hours. The Illinois National Guard was called "Marshall Field's boys" by Chicago's labor leaders after he supported the use of federal forces against Pullman railroad strikers in 1894.
Whatever their politics and however loathsome their business methods, more than a few of the business giants of Chicago’s golden age were social liberals by the standards of today. They gave little to the least fortunate, being enlightened enough to realize that charity was inadequate, if not inappropriate, as a response to the social ills of their day. They saw that the presence in the city of too many unskilled and useless people was a dead weight that the economic engine strained to pull, leaving class resentment in its wake.
The antidote prescribed by Field et al to fend off the revolution they feared was money. Not taxes paid for government relief, but charitable support for institutions that promised to lift the dangerously poor into the middle class in Chicago. Thus the grants to agents of uplift and education, such as McCormick’s Armour Institute or Rosenwald’s bootstrap charities for Southern blacks. Essentially, they gave so that working Chicagoans—the worthy ones, with ambition and energy, like themselves—might become people like they were—god-fearing, schooled in the manual or business arts, and patriotic.
For decades, institutions thought of a basic part of every decent government—orphanages day care, hospitals, and museums—were provided not by government but by such charitable-minded private citizens, usually well-to-do enough to have the leisure. The Newberry Library was a gift to the city from businessman and book lover Walter Loomis Newberry. John Crerar was a New York-born railroad man who died rich in 1889. He directed that some about $2.5 million (more than $78 million in 2002 dollars) be spent to buy and endow a “Free Public Library" for Chicago. The names on the new library’s board of directors—Robert T. Lincoln, Marshall Field IV, George Armour, Timothy Blackstone (he was president of the Chicago and Alton Railroad from 1864 to 1899) —suggests the circles Crerar traveled in.
Every private college seminary and university founded in Chicago’s golden age was founded to advance one creed or another, religious, social, or professional. But while the founding of most was inspired by God, it was rich businesspeople that the schools usually pray to when they need money for new buildings. And they usually get it. This will strike some as odd—Chicago’s many millionaires, while hardly peasants, tended not to be deeply educated men, but they had all done well enough that they could be forgiven for concluding that education was not necessary to success. However, like most ambitious people whose opportunities had been limited in their youths, they tended to over-valued formal education.
Northwestern University is typical. Its inventory of major facilities includes the Deering Library (named for John Deering, the farm implement magnate), the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences (1851), the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science (1909), the Medill School of Journalism (endowed by the heirs of Joseph Medill, who made the Chicago Tribune what it used to be), J. L. Kellogg School of Management (a gift of the son of the founder of Kellogg Corn Flakes Company), the Annie May Swift Hall (paid for by meat packer Gustavus F. Swift in 1895 as a memorial to his late daughter). The University of Chicago in particular was a creature of wealth. Its mother and father so to speak were oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, who gave the money, and Marshall Field, who gave the land.
The motives of the donors were mixed. There are critics who suggest that the university was, in effect, a money-laundering scheme whose purpose was to earn Rockefeller good publicity to help fend off antitrust legislation then pending in Washington. Most entertained the sincere hope of changing Chicago from the mid-continent’s benighted Porkpolis into a urbane Chicagopolis, the world city. The city's better element—it is not absurd to speak of such a thing—was clearly troubled by what cowboy capitalism had wrought in this, the first great city of America’s industrial age. The values of commerce had laid waste to the city and to many of its people; the rich sought to create a separate realm in which culture would rule rather than profit, where would be inculcated ideals and good habits. They therefore undertook to achieve this transformation by means of those cultural institutions—the libraries, the museums, the schools, the hospitals—that advanced cities need.
These conflicted businessmen also knew that the city suffered from more than material poverty. In a richly illustrated and richly illustrative book, Columbia University professor Daniel Bluestone describes "how culture made itself manifest" in the Chicago cityscape of the 19th century. Constructing Chicago examines—indeed rethinks—the development of the lakefront (devoted to high‑minded culture with a capital "C"), the admirable park system, and the Loop business district in terms of their meaning to their builders as well as their form.
For example, the spareness of certain Chicago tall buildings is usually taken to embody the city's pragmatism, but what Bluestone reads in the entrances and lobbies even the elevators of buildings like the Rookery is an attempt to transcend commercialism via architecture, not to embody it.
For a generation, the city saw an orgy of philanthropy that built the great institutions of the arts and learning and charity that are what much of the world think of what they hear “Chicago.” This generation of givers were Robin Hoods of a peculiar American sort, who stole from the working class and gave to the bourgeoisie. They emerge from most histories either as boorish bumpkins—the story of Charles Hutchinson in Europe, buying up painting for his new museum by the square yard, is a favorite slur—or (less often these days) as heroes. Donald Miller, in City of the Century, does not shrink from calling them parvenus, “these self-anointed modern Medici” but allows that they also were genuinely proud of their city and sincere in wanting to make it a better place to live, if only for themselves.
Trader, investor, and banker Charles Hutchinson for example was a contributing member, officer, director, or trustee—to at least seventy separate organizations. He was so busy giving away money (spending half of each year at it, reputedly) that in 1898 he resigned as president of the Corn Exchange Bank to assume the less-demanding office of vice president, which gave him more time for philanthropy.
Marshall Field’s philanthropic legacy is visible throughout Chicago. In 1879, he helped to found the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, which became the Art Institute in 1882. He gave generously to the University of Chicago and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. Field bequeathed over $10 million to the World’s Columbian Museum, which is known today, fittingly, as the Field Museum of Natural History, having been renamed in 1905, one year before his death.
Sears, Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald was Chicago’s Andrew Carnegie, a man who by one calculation gave away the equivalent of about $700 million in today’s dollars. (So industrious was in giving that he left no endowment; his charities, and also his reputation as a philanthropist, died with him.) Rosenwald in 1929 famously said, "I can testify that it is nearly always easier to make $1,000,000 honestly than it is to dispose of it wisely." He managed to do both. He gave to the city, in 1929, the industrial museum now known as the Museum of Science and Industry. (To be fair, he donated only $7.5 million of the $12 million it took to get the museum up and running in the 1920s—the piker.) His gifts to the University of Chicago (on whose board he sat for more than twenty years) amounted to almost $5 million—this in days when a million dollars really was a million dollars.
Some say that World War I killed the city, but that was merely a convenient spot on the calendar to mark the convergence of social forces that had been building for years. One of them was the loss of that generation of business titans who had given Chicago the Art Institute and the 1893 World’s Fair, who had backed the building of the lakefront and its universities, who had provided their city not only economic but cultural and social direction.
George Pullman had died in 1897, P. D. Armour in 1901, Potter Palmer in 1902, Gustavus Swift in 1903, Marshall Field in 1906. Charles L. Hutchinson would live until 1924; Martin A. Ryerson, until 1936, but as Helen Horowitz notes in her history, Culture & The City: Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago from the 1880s to 1917, World War I marked a significant turning point. “The war itself drained the energies of the cultural philanthropists and shifted their commitments. After the Armistice the names of the cultural elite were still invoked, but except for their important bequests, their roles seem largely symbolic.”
Visitors of leftist political bent are often flabbergasted that these brigands should be lionized by the city they helped build, rather than being vilified for the misery they caused or the social unrest their business practices engendered. However, so much does America love the idea of wealth that any man who makes a lot of money, no matter how, is a hero, and any man who then gives much of it away is seen as a saint.
Time has rendered its own judgments. Most of these people have been dead barely a century, but today these legends in their time are but names on a guidebook map; to many a tourist, “Field’ means a museum, not a retailing magnate. Their names are remembered but they are not—proof of the vanity of vanity. How many of the hordes that stream past the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute pause to ask who Martin Ryerson was, or care?
The new rich
Chicago’s new Armours, Swifts, and Palmers are for the most part not entrepreneurs or inventors but formally trained managers—more like bureaucrats than the buccaneering capitalists of old. They bring a different perspective to the business of city-building than did their predecessors, if for no other reason than so many of their firms are based in the suburbs. For the new breed, it’s not a matter of seeing their relationship to the city is a new way, but of having a relationship at all.
Chicago continued to make people rich after the golden age, nonetheless, and a few of them continued to use their wealth to make Chicagoland a better place according to their lights. An interesting throwback to an earlier Chicago, and an earlier type of Chicago businessman, was Gary C. Comer, the billionaire founder of the Land’s End mail order clothing firm. Comer grew up n the Grand Crossing neighborhood during the Depression is the son of a railroad employee and a stay-at-home mom. Land’s End, which briefly became the second largest apparel-only mail order business and the world's largest clothing Web site, was run out of a basement apartment in Chicago. Among his gifts were some $50 million to his old neighborhood including new housing and the Gary Comer Youth Center, a new $30 million building not far from his childhood home, and donations of more than $84 million to build or expand children hospitals at the University of Chicago.
Indeed, Chicago still has its capitalist dynasties, even if the capitalists are new. Motorola for a time run by the grandson of founder Paul Galvin, and the longtime top executive at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy was his daughter Christie Hefner. The progeny of Nicholas Pritzker—self-taught Russian immigrant turned druggist turned lawyer who arrived in Chicago in 1881—parleyed holdings as owners and operators of the Hyatt hotels into a fortune worth more than $15 billion.
Changes in the tax laws meant that family foundations were increasingly the agent of giving. The grandson of the founder of the printing colossus R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company, Gaylord Donelley set up the Gaylord Donnelley Foundation (more recently the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation) in 1952. As a result, one may hike on the Gaylord Donnelly Trail in Lockport, study at the expense of the Gaylord Donnelly Chicago-Cambridge Exchange Scholarships or the Gaylord Donnelly post-doctoral fellowship at Yale. One pet project that Donnelly underwrote independently of the foundation was restoration of a venerable limestone warehouse along the Illinois & Michigan Canal in Lockport. Work on the Gaylord Building was painstaking and expensive, but today this handsome structure is the focal point of interpretive programs along the popular I & M Canal Corridor and is held under the auspices of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Today’s rich not only come from new families, they have taken up new causes. The $39 million donated by philanthropist Irving B. Harris toward the cost of the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Music and Dance Theater in Millennium Park—a mid-sized house intended as a home to no fewer than a dozen local arts groups— was the largest gift (in nominal dollars) made by an individual donor to a Chicago performing arts organization.
Like most heirs to a great fortune, the younger generations of Pritzkers cultivated interests other than making money. Conversations at family gatherings touch on such subjects as Himalayan art cosmology and paleontology, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. A recent Pritzker gift of $30 million to the University of Chicago for biomedical research was the largest received by that university in more than a century of receiving large gifts. In addition to medical research, the Pritzker family backs local cultural institutions from the Art Institute of Chicago (the Pritzker wing) to the Lincoln Park Zoo (the Pritzker Children’s Zoo) and its sponsorship of the annual $100,000 Pritzker Architecture Prize, sometimes referred to as "the Nobel Prize of Architecture," owes not a little to that family’s consciousness of Chicago’s heritage in that field. They added to it with the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Today as in the 1800s, one of the purposes of the civic gift is to teach people who gave it. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
Illinois Labor History Society
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
Illinois Migration History 1850-2017
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
Southern Illinois University Press
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
Northern Illinois University Press
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.
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