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Sons and Daughters of Chicago

Plan of Chicago

by Daniel H. Burnham, by Edward H. Bennett, edited by Charles Moore
Princeton Architectural Press, 164 pp., $75.00

Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel

by Carla Cappetti
Columbia University Press, 274 pp., $39.50; $17.50 (paper)

Frank Lloyd Wright 10, 1994

An exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York February 20–May

Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect

catalog of the exhibition edited by Terence Riley
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 344 pp., $60.00


When the forces of good are mobilized against Frank Cowperwood, the financial predator in Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan, they have to use tainted instruments to encompass his downfall. Smiling Mike Tiernan and Emerald Pat Kerrigan, saloonkeepers and vote deliverers, are the sordid men who wield power in Chicago’s Loop district. Dreiser modeled them closely upon Bathhouse John Coughlin and Hinky Dink Kenna, the most famous ward bosses in the scrambling years of Chicago’s growth. Bathhouse was elected an alderman in 1892, when the city was creating the Columbian Exposition. He remained in the office for forty-five years, ending his days of power as a flunky to A1 Capone.

But in his prime, he and Hinky Dink were lords of the combined forces of the First Ward, with its daytime bustle around Chicago’s grand new skyscrapers and its night-time swarm of transients and regulars through the red light districts along the Chicago River’s South Branch. The police made life safe for the illegal businesses of “Bath and the Hink,” and the two of them made elections safe for Chicago’s cultured rulers, men like Carter Harrison II, educated abroad and at Yale Law School, the inheritor of his father’s office as mayor of Chicago.

Harrison, in his charming autobiography, treats Coughlin and Kenna as Dogberrys he used for his own amusement. He likes to quote their malapropisms—Coughlin protesting that honesty always “caricatured” his campaigns.1 When the flamboyant Coughlin seemed to be going too far, Harrison asked the dour partner, Kenna, if his friend were crazy, and got this answer: “No, John isn’t dotty and he ain’t full of dope. To tell you the God’s truth, Mr. Mayor, they ain’t found the name for it yet.”

But Carter Harrison II, for all his condescension, needed his cronies. He admits that he was pulled through his close 1911 election by “the flop vote”—the flop houses emptied out by Coughlin and Kenna, sailors and other transients voting as if they were ward residents. Harrison adds, stoically: “In politics you must take them as they come.” Coughlin and Kenna were the eleven-foot poles he used to touch even worse parts of the ward.

My theory in dealing with the more unsavory individuals, with whom political fate insisted on throwing me, was to exert what I had of skill and intelligence in lifting them to as high a standard of political philosophy as I might, the while I held to my own standards.

It is a standard of political life—“I use the crooks, but I’m not a crook”—honored continuously into the era of Richard J. Daley.

The shaping of that political culture made sense in Chicago’s early years. Though “Bath” and “Hink” dealt largely with the Irish of the First Ward, who spoke their own form of the English language, aldermen to other wards were literally ambassadors to foreign populations, those speaking German, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Russian, Greek. The new flood of immigrants skipped over the filled-up areas of the East and came directly to the Midwest, where Chicago was growing exponentially and creating thousands of new jobs each year. “By 1890, sixty years after its birth, Chicago had become a city of a million persons, and three-quarters of them were either foreign born or children of the foreign born.”2

And they just kept coming. The entire population of Chicago was a million in 1890, but by 1910 two million people had arrived from Poland alone.3 When Tolstoy asked Jane Addams, during her visit to Russia, why she did not dress like a peasant, she thought “it would have been hard to choose among the thirty-six nationalities we had recently counted in our ward.”4

A natural sifting process put these immigrants in pockets of their own nationalities. Jobs and neighborhoods were parceled out by ethnic division, and politics naturally followed. There were as many subordinate “machines” as there were clusters of potential voters. While ethnic pride and cohesion, including the religious rites of the homeland, gave some order to crowded neighborhoods, the working and living conditions were deliberately kept at a Darwinian level of competitive striving. And overnight millionaires did everything possible to distance themselves from the overnight arrivals. Harrison, who spoke German from his school days in Europe, was an early patron of Wagner—which was one way of distinguishing himself from the German-speaking immigrants in Oscar Mayer’s sausage factory.

Chicago, by 1900, was a perfect laboratory of different cultures crammed into narrow confines. Extreme wealth daintily picked its way through poverty and filth. This laboratory of social dynamics seemed to call out for laboratory observers—and John D. Rockefeller created the observation post in 1892, when his money opened the University of Chicago. No other university in history has drawn so much of its mission from the study of its own surroundings. Perched unhappily in that nest, like a gargoyle in the Gothic towers he sneered at, Thorstein Veblen created his theory of conspicuous consumption by a close, disgusted inspection of the likes of Carter Harrison.5

Other members of the great new faculty at the university would make names for themselves and for their institution by studying the immigrants, slums, and poverty of Chicago; but Veblen was less interested in the poor than in pillorying the rich, and Chicago gave him endlessly inviting targets. Mr. Rockefeller’s school in a new city of the West was a mock fortress, with

a fictitious winding stair thrown into the design to permit such a façcade as will simulate the defensive details of a mediaeval keep, to be surmounted by embrasured battlements and a (make-believe) loopholed turret. So, again, space will, on the same ground, be wasted in heavy-ceiled, ill-lighted lobbies; which might once have served as a mustering place for a body of unruly men-at-arms.6

Bad enough that modern scholars sneeze in chilly dungeons meant for storing armor. It reduced Veblen to seizures of violent laughter that the same architect responsible for the university—Henry Ives Cobb—had put up the most famously pretentious private mansion in Chicago, using all the same Gothic excrescences to create a “bastard antique” for Potter Palmer. Nothing could better illustrate Veblen’s thesis that conspicuously wasteful structures were talismans of “predatory prowess.” Mrs. Potter Palmer’s famous residence—where she played host to visiting royalty during the Columbian Exposition—was a war-trophy of entrepreneurial combat. Even Bertha Palmer recognized this, according to the literary portrait drawn of her in 1895 by the Chicago novelist Henry B. Fuller.

She shows up in Fuller’s novel With the Procession as Susan Bates. She instructs the novel’s young heroine on the uses of unuseful things: “As for all these books [in the castle’s library], heaven only knows where the keys are to get at them…all for show and display, bought by the pound and stocked by the cord.”7 In Fuller’s eyes, Mrs. Palmer did not even enjoy her wealth’s appurtenances. Her tastes ran to the “elaborate and ingenious simplicity” of her own manners.8 Though she frankly admits that her art gallery is a “branch of industry,” she became Mary Cassatt’s patron and, with Cassatt’s assistance, acquired some of America’s Impressionist paintings, which later formed the nucleus of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Impressionist collection.

Bertha Palmer was not only rich but a do-gooder—just the combination Veblen hated in Rockefeller, the benefactor of his own university. Ladies’ philanthropies are a use of “conspicuous leisure” ridiculed, in The Theory of the Leisure Class, for theatrically fussing over “some specious object of amelioration.”9 Bertha Palmer surely earned Veblen’s view of her conspicuous consumption—Chaliapin claimed that when he sang for one of her private parties, she had a flutist hired to perch on a tree outside her rented London house and imitate the nightingale.10

No one better illustrates the huge fortunes made in Chicago than the wife of Potter Palmer. She was also a trophy in Veblen’s sense—Potter had picked out this beauty to be his when he saw her in 1862. She was only thirteen. He wed her after she had completed her convent education, when he was forty-four and she twenty-one. After making his fortune with a department store (which would later become Marshall Field), Palmer had switched to real estate and owned three dozen buildings by the time of his marriage, including the Palmer House Hotel, nearing completion when the newlyweds departed for Europe. Within a year the Great Fire had destroyed all of Palmer’s buildings. But he rebuilt even more grandly. For his own house, he took a swamp on the lake, filled it in, and created that stretch of Lake Shore Drive that would be known as the Gold Coast when other pretentious houses went up near his Gothic castle.

Palmer was one of the city fathers who planned and financed the Columbian Exposition; but his wife was more identified with the fair than he was. A feminist herself, an ardent supporter of Jane Addams’s Hull House, she knew from her feminist friends how women had been lied to at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia—promised a building of their own, then denied it after they had raised money for the general celebration. She knew, as well, that the Women’s Committee was mistreated at the Paris Exposition of 1889. She would not let that happen in Chicago.

As soon as planning began for the Exposition, she went abroad to organize international delegations to the women’s exhibition. Canceling this would cause international embarrassment. She organized the bodies that commissioned a woman architect for the Women’s Building, authorized two murals by women (one of them Mary Cassatt), and found women sculptors to ornament the structure.11 She was the work horse for the women’s exhibit at the same time she was playing hostess to its most glittering events. This was the woman who held meetings of trade unionists in the house better known for the banquets attended by her husband’s union-hating millionaires. The Pullman strike ended her formerly close friendship with George Pullman.12

None of this could redeem Mrs. Palmer in Veblen’s eyes. She was one of the rich Chicagoans his own university’s president wooed so fulsomely. Rockefeller had put up money on the condition that local supporters match it. This meant that the very machicolations above Veblen’s head were examples of conspicuous consumption paid for by Chicago’s Captains of Solvency—Veblen’s term for the financiers who replaced earlier Captains of Industry, the wealthy people who had done something productive. The founding president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, embodied everything Veblen could not abide. He was an uplifter, a dogooder, a promoter, an ordained veteran of the Chautauqua circuit (where he was a boy-wonder orator). Harper had persuaded Rockefeller to give money to a research university—as opposed to the scattered Baptist schools that first appealed to Rockefeller’s conscience—on the grounds that a university in Chicago would be a greater force for social improvement than would lesser efforts in small towns.

  1. 1

    Carter H. Harrison, Stormy Years (Bobbs-Merrill, 1935), p. 229.

  2. 2

    St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis (University of Chicago Press, 1993 edition of the 1945 classic), p. 8.

  3. 3

    Eli Zaretsky, in the introduction to William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, abridged edition (University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 2.

  4. 4

    Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1909), edited by James Hurst (University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 156.

  5. 5

    Veblen joined the university in its first year, 1892, brought there with his academic sponsor from Cornell, the conservative economist J. Laurence Loughlin. Veblen taught in Chicago until 1906. His principal work, on the atavistic use of wealth as trophy, appeared in 1899: The Theory of the Leisure Class. As Veblen’s biographer notes, Veblen arrived in Chicago when the local millionaires were putting on their most grandiose bash, the Columbian Exposition: “Heretofore he had been most familiar with country towns; now he was set down in a large industrial centre” (Joseph Dorfmann, Thorstein Veblen and His America, Viking, 1934, p. 89). The subjects of his initial study shaped his thought forever after. When Veblen speaks of the vulgar rich, he always, implicitly, means the Chicago rich.

  6. 6

    Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (Reprints of Economic Classics, 1965), pp. 144–145.

  7. 7

    Henry B. Fuller, With the Procession (Harper and Brothers, 1895), p. 59.

  8. 8

    Fuller, With the Procession, p. 123. With reference to the hothouse flowers and exotic plants she keeps for show, Susan/Bertha confesses, “As soon as I get poor enough to afford it I’m going to have a lot of phlox and London pride and bachelor’s buttons out there in the back yard” (p. 76). For her art collecting as “this branch of industry,” see p. 68.

  9. 9

    Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, (Penguin, 1979), p. 96.

  10. 10

    Ishbel Ross, Silhouette in Diamonds: The Life of Mrs. Potter Palmer (Harper and Brothers, 1960), pp. 207–208.

  11. 11

    Mrs. Palmer’s achievements at the Exposition are thoroughly described in Jeanne Madeline Weimann’s The Fair Women (Academy Chicago, 1981). See also Nancy Moll Mathews, Mary Cassatt: A Life (Villard, 1994), pp. 202–214.

  12. 12

    Ross, Silhouette in Diamonds, p. 108.

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