chicago was a foreign city -- 5/06/15

Today's selection -- from Death in the Haymarket by James Green. In the 1870s and 1800s, the population of Chicago skyrocketed, and it grew far faster than any other American city. The growth was from immigration, especially from Germany, and these immigrants brought their own societies, customs and celebrations -- much to the horror of native-born Protestants. (In fact, it was this native-born Protestant aversion to immigrants and their beer-drinking ways that helped lead to Prohibition). This mass immigration led Chicago to the point where 56% of its workforce was foreign and many considered it to be a "foreign city":

"During the 1870s, Chicago's overall population growth raced ahead of all other large American cities because young men ... flocked there from the South as well as from the East, but mostly because 60,000 Europeans flooded the city, their numbers reaching a total of 204,859 by 1880. At that point, foreigners constituted 40 percent of the overall population and 56 percent of the workforce. By far the largest number of these newcomers -- 163,482 -- came from the German Empire.

"Immigration from Germany to Chicago before 1860 originated mainly from the southern provinces of Bavaria, Baden, Hesse and Württemberg. Many of these newcomers were traditional Catholics from peasant and small-town backgrounds who were drawn into the ranks of the Democratic Party. This influx also included many talented, educated people who had been engaged in the skilled trades and professions, including a few thousand German Jews and political exiles who had mounted the barricades in the failed revolution of 1848. ...

"After the Civil War, a new group of Germans migrated from the Prussian provinces that stretched east of Berlin beyond the Oder River as far as the Vistula: these were mainly peasants from large families whose incomes had been devastated when cheaper imported grain flooded the European markets. Soon after arriving in Chicago, they were sucked into the city's jobs machine -- the men into the construction projects, factories, foundries and packinghouses and the young women into cigar shops, garment lofts and the servant quarters of well-to-do American families. During the 1870s the number of Germans in the city's labor force grew to 40,000. ...

"Chicago's Germans created a profusion of societies to satisfy their desire to congregate, celebrate and help one another. Mutual-aid societies such as the German Society for the Protection of Immigrants and the Friendless, and the Workers Association, meant that newcomers need not rely upon American charities for relief. The Turner Society (Turnverein) erected numerous halls for gymnastic activities that also provided meeting places for all sorts of groups and served as venues for balls and concerts. The impressive Aurora Turner Hall on Milwaukee Avenue was the most important German cultural center in the city. ...

German Gymnastics Hall

"The Turners epitomized the rich tradition of associational life Germans brought from the old country to Chicago, where they created a sphere of life outside the workaday world of established structures and institutions. Unlike Americans, who thought the special nature of women's feelings made the world of men's entertainment offensive, Germans welcomed women into the realm of festivity because they were seen as having a special gift for expressing their feelings. On Fridays and Saturdays men and women flocked to music and concert halls where brass bands and full orchestras played. On other nights they could be found at numerous clubs devoted to song, band music and dramatics, places where they performed for their own pleasure.

"Because all aspects of German working-class culture involved performance, many forms of theater flourished in immigrant neighborhoods, where groups of amateurs enacted folk dramas, which offered up stories of the heroic common man, as well as comedies and farces, which provoked laughter. In some midwestern cities strict Protestants opposed the German theater with its libertine characters and profane Sunday performances, but it flourished in Chicago. Like many of his country folk, August Spies adored the theater and yearned to display his own flair for the dramatic....

"The joyous consumption of beer and wine at these immigrant celebrations raised deep concerns among the city's Yankee elites, who were for the most part staunch advocates of temperance. ...

"During the 1880s Chicago's total population increased by 118 percent -- a rate of growth five times faster than that of New York City. The city's foreign-born population doubled, reaching 450,000, a total that made immigrant Chicago larger than the total population of St. Louis or any other city in the Midwest, a total swollen by thousands of impoverished Polish Catholic peasants and Jewish refugees from the ghettos of Russia. To many native-born Protestants, who constituted but one-fifth of the city's people, it seemed that Chicago had become 'a foreign city,' a place that now contained 'more Germans than Anglo-Saxons.' "


James Green


Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America


Anchor Books


Copyright 2006 by James Green


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