The story of Chicago and its hinterland is one of the wildest histories of socio-economic growth you will encounter. In our time perhaps only comparable with the rapid growth of the Chinese economy and population. The story of Chicago is perhaps also the most revealing story to understand the American Dream and American Exceptionalism on one hand and the depravity of American capitalism on the other hand.
In 1830, Chicago barely did exist, but in the minds of a few so-called boosters or land speculators and a dozen early settlers. In 1840, Chicago had grown over 500% and counted a little over 4,000 settlers. Fifty years later, Chicago boasted over a million citizens and in the 1890 census had become the second largest city in the United States, after New York City. It was selected as the site for the World’s Columbian Exhibit in 1893 that commemorated the arrival of Columbus in the continent 400 years earlier, and surpassed in grandeur even the World’s Fair or Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris. The Chicago Exhibit became the site of the original Ferris Wheel that outdid the Eiffel Tower. Chicago had become the beginning and end station for all rail road routes in the United States, had centered the meat packing industry and the agricultural industry, but also had become the crime capital and witness to deplorable labor circumstances and exploitation.
‘Nature’s Metropolis – A Natural History of Chicago and the Great West,’ is a 385 pages long history of Chicago and its hinterland, the Great West, by William Cronon, that describes the rapid growth and its conditions right up until the Chicago Exhibit. What Cronon describes is for non-Americans probably also the best history of their version of ‘the real America,’ the America we know from the movies, of cattle drovers and cowboys, rail roads, the Wild West and the Great Frontier, Indians and buffaloes, and organized crime. But also created the industrialized society of meatpacking, processed meats and feedlots, drummers and mail order catalogues, futures and grain elevators, balloon framing and lumberyards. This is the landscape that to me always represented America, even more than the equally American ecosystem of tech startups and urban youth culture that I know from personal experience in my own time.
Cronon has organized his history into the natural resources that provided the conditions for the Chicago boom. Chapter 1 talks about the boosters and land speculators that drove the pioneers and settlers to the Wild West. The key factors for successful settlement turned out to be proximity of the location to water and the access to a new network of rail roads, providing access to the markets of New York City and ultimately Europe. Part 2 elaborates on developments and innovations of the grain, lumber and meat markets, including the financial innovations of the futures. Logistical and capital developments are discussed in Part 3, ending with the Chicago Fair.
The Jungle (1905) by Upton Sinclair is about the moral deprivation of an unbridled capitalism, where profit and personal gain overhaul all moral, legal and health standards, and where society is essentially crumbling apart. Published first in 1905, the novel caused an uproar so large that it led to legislation and the formation of federal agencies that later were renamed to form the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sinclair was known as a communist, reason for president Roosevelt to despise Sinclair, but despite the personal aversion the descriptions of the meat packing industry practices and the labor conditions of the workers caused a genuine shock.
Erik Larson published ‘The Devil in the White City’ in 2004, and it is highly original in its literary form of non-fiction in a novel structure, and so meticulous in its historic details, that it would be hard to imagine and understand the Chicago of the 19th century without having read his book. The book follows two historic threads. The first is the realization of the Chicago Fair with the main architect Daniel Burnham at its center. The other is the unbelievable events that detail the true crime story of H.H. Holmes, also known as the first serial murder of America.
The story of the creation of the Chicago Fair is a history of the rise of American modern architecture with the invention of the skyscraper and the balloon frame that enabled the building boom. Burnham and Root were one of Chicago’s most influential architectural companies in the 19th century, whose offices were at the top of the Rookery Building. Burnham among other designed the Flatiron Building in New York City, the Union Station in D.C., or the Heyworth Building or the Rooker Building in Chicago.
But the Chicago Fair also included contributions by the leading architects of the time. Frederick Law Olmsted, the leading landscape architect, had designed Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, and Niagara Reservation in Niagara Falls among other, and was now commissioned to develop Jackson Park in Chicago as the site for the fair. Richard Morris Hunt, George Post, Henry Van Brunt, Robert Peabody, Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler were all renowned architects.
Thomas Moran, a representative of the Hudson River School of painting, created this painting of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1894.