Illinois During the Gilded Age

Immigration, Labor, and Politics: 1878-1884

by Drew E. VandeCreek

By the late 1870s the pace of immigration to America, curtailed during the Civil War era, had begun to accelerate again. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland, flocked to the United States, and Chicago became one of their favorite destinations. The American economy had begun to show signs of revival, and the city's meatpacking establishments, rail yards and factories offered plentiful jobs to unskilled laborers.

The end of the 1870s' depressed economic conditions allowed labor unions to gain strength again and become a major force in Chicago politics. In the wake of the 1877 strikes socialists, organized as the Workingmen's Party of the United States, first found electoral success in Chicago. Like the mainstream American political parties, the socialist organization provided its members with a full slate of social and cultural activities, including parades, picnics, and rallies. The Workingmen's Party proved especially popular among German and Scandinavian immigrants and, flush with success, changed its name to the Socialist Labor Party in 1878.

But the socialists quickly faded into factional squabbling as the city's Democratic Party reorganized itself and sent the popular Carter Harrison to the mayor's chair in 1879. Harrison was a wealthy city businessman who proved friendly to labor. Many socialists supported Harrison because he defended their rights to assembly and free speech. He defused the volatile temperance issue by failing to enforce Sunday laws and other curbs on alcohol consumption. The Harrison administration also decentralized control of the city's police department; and in many strikes, officers tacitly (and even openly) supported their neighbors' actions.

The rise of the Knights of Labor, a national organization welcoming all workers, also reshaped labor politics in the city. The Knights were a secret organization founded 1869 in Philadelphia. They had spread through Pennsylvania coal fields during the 1870s, largely on their appeal as an inclusive union not restricted to the members of particular crafts.

Terence Powderly, Leader of the Knights of Labor

The Knights first emerged in Chicago in 1877, when the city's craftsmen and unions had largely disappeared during unskilled workers' violent clashes with soldiers and police. The Knights' vision of an inclusive union stood in sharp contrast, and offered the large numbers of unskilled laborers required by industrial economy with an organization of their own. Led by Terence Powderly (at right), Knights of Labor organizers brought  workers from diverse industries together and encouraged them to think of themselves as members of a single working class.

In Chicago the Knights led workers to take up nonviolent boycotts as a means to achieve their goals in public life. The boycott had begun in Ireland, and the Knights' Irish-American leaders adapted it to American conditions. In 1881 labor leaders organized a boycott of a west side streetcar line after its leaders rejected workers' request for a pay increase. Many members of the public, fed up with the streetcar line's inefficient service, supported the strikers and forced the company to grant the workers' demands.

The Knights of Labor stepped into the vacuum caused by the decline of the Socialist Labor Party, using the boycott to bring large community support to striking workers. These methods promised workers a way to compel their employers to negotiate without violence, bloodshed, or wide public condemnation. Like the socialists, the Knights provided workers with social and cultural activities, and also maintained a city labor bureau matching workers to available jobs.

A flood of new members strained the Knights' internal organization and leadership, and compromised their effectiveness, however. As the new members agitated for higher wages, the Knights often failed to deliver their promised benefits. Nonetheless, by 1882 Chicago employers had identified the Knights as a formidable adversary and began a stiff opposition to the new boycotts. When local tanners went out on an ill-advised strike, they compromised the Knights' devotion to organization and arbitration over work stoppages. When they gave in to united employers, the tanners ushered in non-union shops where union men had once worked.

While Chicago labor unions flourished under the protection of a sympathetic city administration, downstate workers faced more difficult conditions. Coal mining remained bitterly hard, dangerous work. In 1883 state militia broke a miners' strike in Collinsville. Not content to merely put down the work stoppage, the soldiers pursued fleeing strikers across the county line, arresting twenty and killing one.

In 1879 Frances Willard (pictured below) of Evanston became the president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union. She often worked for the organization without pay, relying upon money earned as a lecturer to support herself. The issue of prohibition, or banning the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages, often divided native-born reformers from immigrant groups. In the 1880s it spilled beyond the realm of voluntary associations and individuals' moral reform, and into electoral politics. In 1882 moralist reformers in Illinois nominated the first of four Prohibition Party slates for state offices. They found no success, but the new organizations provided women with new roles in electoral politics.

Frances Willard

In the 1880s new women's clubs organized among the wives of the prosperous middle class. Many devoted themselves to the causes of social reform and charity. Many female reformers found that, while they could not vote, their status as wives and mothers provided them with political capital valuable in the fight to provide better conditions for women and children. In Illinois, the Chicago Woman's Club became a leader in this movement, devoting special attention to the cause of preventing youthful offenders from becoming lifetime criminals. Clubwomen began to demand, and receive, seats on the boards governing important state and private institutions for children and families. Many also turned to the task of converting immigrant families to Protestantism and middle-class American ideals of family life.

In 1880 downstate Illinois became the home of the first black priest in America when Augustine Tolton was ordained in Rome. The child of Missouri slaves, Tolton began his career by serving an all-black parish in Quincy, but faced powerful opposition from whites there and moved on to a Chicago parish.

In 1881 the entrepreneur Charles T. Yerkes left Philadelphia for Chicago. Sensing a business opportunity, he turned his attention to integrating Chicago's many streetcar companies into a single system. Using all manner of political techniques, including bribery and blackmail, Yerkes received favorable franchises from the city government and built a transportation empire in the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Yerkes' transportation empire was just a part of the new city that emerged from the ruins of the Chicago fire. Architects made the city the site of new innovations in design and construction. In 1882 the Montauk building, the nation's first skyscraper at ten stories, rose in Chicago. The new structures presented a considerable challenge in Chicago's marshy terrain. In response, innovative architects used skeletons of iron beams to support the weight created by their great height. These frames sat upon concrete piers sunk to a bedrock base, known as "Chicago caissons."