Historical Context

The decade of the 1890’s marks the firm establishment of Chicago’s position as the nation’s second city, passing Philadelphia and Brooklyn in population, and assuming a place of financial and industrial preeminence, reinforced by being the center of the newly linked national railroad system. After the historic immigrations of the 1880’s, mostly from Europe, and the rebuilding from the devastation of the Fire, the city’s economy boomed, bringing more people.

The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 – the White City, the Great Fair – backed by vigorous civic effort and $10 million of public money, galvanized the community and brought millions of visitors. These social and political adhesions remained intact long after the White City burned and the admired avenues of the urban center were populated with 100,000 homeless men sleeping on the sidewalks. A great depression had settled on the city and country, lasting until 1896.

Chicago in the 1890’s was a time of Great Strikes, fierce nationalism, social activism and protest, an unpopular foreign invasion, and building – of street car lines, factories, meat packing plants, steel mills, banks, businesses, libraries, and civic and art institutions. The city’s political and legal culture was characterized by energy, corruption and ambition. During the Pullman Strike more than 5,000 federal troops were encamped along the Lake, and the legacies of Haymarket were palpable. The vice district, the Levee, was as famous as the city’s skyscrapers and elevators, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors as predictably as its political and labor conventions.

In the 1890’s in Chicago a strong willed community of self styled reformers and advocates for social improvement — Florence Kelley, the first female factory inspector, and her colleagues – set out to change economic and social relationships through the Law. The documents and commentary brought together here is record and testament to what they did.

next: The World’s Columbian Exposition