This is the second of two blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.
“With Chicago, to know is to act.” -Charles B. Ball, chief inspector of the Chicago health department, on the Municipal Museum’s ambitious aspirations
I’ve spent some more time thinking about my trip to Chicago, and really considering how an organized tour of a city so packed-to-the-gills with Gilded Age splendor could reasonably and sensitively contextualize that gorgeous opulence alongside the sort of quotidian social history that I loudly advocated for in Pt. 1 of this series. I do think it’s possible, and here’s why:
In telling Chicago’s history, between all the beautiful buildings and industrial horror stories, I think it’s easy to forget that the city was once a place for radical experimentation. The first things in this vein that come to my mind are the settlement house “mecca” that is Hull House, and the “Chicago idea” of anarcho-syndicalism endorsed by the Haymarket demonstrators of 1886. But even the villains of the age, manufacturing giants like Philip Armour (meatpacking) and George Pullman (railroad cars), were undoubtedly innovators of their time, no matter how greedy and unprincipled. So were the architects Daniel Burnham and John Root, who pioneered the use of steel frames in buildings. (Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.)
My point is only that there’s more overlap than expected between these divergent personalities and value systems in their capacities to experiment with some then-radical ideas. One of these experiments, that I happened upon while doing thesis-related research, was the short-lived Municipal Museum of Chicago. (more…)