I cannot believe it has already been six years since I wrote my capstone project at university. I still remember all the work that went into it. I traveled back and forth from my university and Detroit. I spent hours in the Detroit Public Library archives combing over newspaper articles from the 1930s. I visited museums in Hamtramck and found the inspiration for my story. I was reading over it again recently and I realized I had not published this work anywhere. I posted a brief summary as one of my first blog posts on this page, but there is so much more detail in my final product. I want to continue to share the story of these incredible Polish-American women and their fight for survival during the Depression. It is local history that takes place mostly in Hamtramck and Detroit, MI. It started as a small, community driven strike, but became so much larger and started a national conversation about the corruption of certain industries and workers rights. I have included the link for my entire capstone paper at the end of this blog post.
A short summary:
My capstone project: War Against the High Cost of Living: How a Community of Polish-American Women Fought to Better Their Lives. This paper is focused on a housewife, Mary Zuk, who organized and lead many of the women-lead protests in Hamtramck against the high cost of meat during the Great Depression (1930s). It highlights how it was the housewife who truly held the family together. They were often the key to the financial management of the household. Their careful budgeting helped the family survive during long periods of their spouse’s unemployment. It was the women who took the daring step from the private sphere to the public sphere to fight for their families and make active change. The women were united, stubborn, and strong. They would not take no for an answer. They risked arrest and sometimes had to take forceful measures to get their point across. They had to fight through adversity as the media described them as “unfeminine and Amazons” in an attempt to undermine their cause. They were not taken seriously due to their sex.
The women did successfully lower some of the meat prices at local shops in Hamtramck. They increased their knowledge of labor politics and started reaching higher with their demands. These local women made it all the way to D.C. to confront President Roosevelt with their written petition. They demanded an investigation of the meat packer companies for profiteering and 20% reduction on all meat prices. It was the meat packers who were price gouging and hurting local butchers, livestock farmers, and the working class family. They did their research and started a new conversation nationwide about the corruptness of the meat packing industry. Though the women were not entirely successful in achieving their demands, they were an inspiration to others. In 1937, Polish women led cigar strikes for better working conditions and wages in the cigar factories. They also influenced other men and in women in other industries and ethnic groups to take a stand against unfair working conditions (auto strikes, Woolworth strikes, etc.). There was national attention on the Polish-American women strikes in the Detroit area as the New York Times would regularly report on it. They proved that the housewife was a key interest group and Mary Zuk went on to have a brief political career herself (1936 First Women elected to the Hamtramck City council). Their story has been hidden for years now, but this project brings their achievements to the forefront.
If you are interested, please take a look as I have attached the PDF file here:
Mary I is considered to be the first queen of England to rule in her own right. Her brother, Edward VI, died at a young age with no heirs which meant, according to Henry VIII’s most recent Act of Succession (1544), his daughters (Mary and then Elizabeth) would be the next to inherit. Yet, Henry VIII never expected that his son’s death would cause a religious crisis. Edward VI and his Council (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and then John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, among others) had been expanding the Reformation in England. Edward VI was a strong Protestant and his administration created even more radical reforms than the previous king. This included removing images from churches, allowing priests to marry, and mandating the use of The Book of Common Prayer in all churches. The services would be in English and not Latin. Mary I was a devout Catholic and, if she came to power, she would remove all of these changes to return England to Catholicism. This is how the plot to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen of England came about. This is a story of a young girl who was used as a pawn by powerful men which, inevitably, fell to drastic consequences.
Jane Grey (born 1536-1537) was the eldest daughter of Henry Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset and Lady Frances Brandon. Frances Brandon was the daughter of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and Henry VIII’s younger sister, Mary Tudor. Charles Brandon and Mary Tudor’s marriage was considered scandalous at the time as it was done in secret and for love. Eventually, Henry VIII forgave his friend and granted them the title of Duke and Duchess of Suffolk. Through her maternal line, Jane Grey was fifth in line to inherit the throne of England.
Jane Grey was noted to be extremely intelligent and developed a love of learning at a young age. Education became a passion and a comfort to Jane. This continued until the day she died. She began by learning to read, write, and mastered the gift of memorization. She studied the classics and was educated in the Greek and Latin languages. She also became fluent in Italian and French, among other languages. One of her many tutors, John Aylmer, described Jane as “whom God has thought fit to adorn with so many excellent gifts.” She much preferred the company of books to any of the other activities around the estate and court. Roger Ascham, a renowned scholar, visited Bradgate Park (her family home) while Jane’s parents were out on a hunt and enjoying the summer day. He entered the hall where he spotted Jane reading Plato’s Phaedon Platonis in Greek. When asked why she was not out with her parents she replied, “all their sport in the park is but a shadow to that pleasure that I find in Plato.” She would continue to Ascham, “whatsoever I do else but learning is full of grief, trouble, fear, and whole misliking unto me. And thus my book hath been so much my pleasure, and bringeth daily to me more pleasure and more that in respect of it all other pleasures in very deed be but trifles and trouble unto me.”
Jane became extremely well versed in the Bible and religion. She was a passionate Protestant and very devote to her faith. She would study the works of many theologians (including Heinrich Bullinger) and often wrote to them to continue discussions. She was eager to learn Hebrew as well. Her stalwart devotion to her faith was a reason why she was key to many ambitious figures. She was sent to live at the home of Sir Thomas Seymour (uncle to Edward VI and brother to the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour) and the former queen Katherine Parr. It was her parents and Sir Thomas Seymour’s ambition to have her married to Edward VI. At the home of Katherine Parr, Jane was exposed to more debates and intelligent discussions regarding Protestantism and religion. Katherine Parr was also a devotee of the new faith.
Eventually, the ambitious Seymour brothers began to fall from power. Thomas Seymour, the younger brother, became involved in a shocking scandal as he attempted to woo and marry the Princess Elizabeth (I have written about this more a past post about a young Elizabeth, historynavigator.org/2018/01/18/390/ ). He was later caught breaking into the King’s apartments and in an attempt to kidnap the young King. He would eventually be put to death. The elder brother and Lord Protector, Edward Duke of Somerset, had quickly taken charge of the council and the new king upon Henry VIII’s death. Yet, as time went on his policies failed which caused the crown to become bankrupt. He was also viewed as over-bearing and uncompromising by his fellow councilors. John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, in a successful coup overthrew the Duke of Somerset. Northumberland got Somerset convicted on false charges then convinced the King to sign his uncle’s death warrant. Northumberland, with his enemy out of the way, took control of the government. Northumberland successful manipulated the boy king. Edward believed that he would be in full control now, but, in reality, Northumberland had control.
Edward VI soon became very sick and was visibly wasting away before the Council’s eyes. It was soon clear to the Duke of Northumberland that all he had fought for was about to crumble away. He knew that if Mary became queen, his time in power would be over. He also knew that Mary would revert all progress they had made towards furthering the Protestant religion in England. It had always been her ambition to bring England back under the Pope. Northumberland began to hatch a new scheme. He was going to manipulate Edward VI, on his sick bed, to re-write the will of his father. They would proclaim Lady Jane Grey as the new heir to the throne. This was actually illegal as Edward VI had not yet reached his age of majority. He was still a minor.
Northumberland quickly arranged the marriage between Jane Grey and one of his younger sons, Lord Guilford Dudley (a young, vain, and spoiled boy) in order for his son to become King. Naturally, Jane was not part of any of these discussions between Northumberland and her parents. She was just a pawn in their power games. She did express her contempt for the marriage and her disgust of Lord Guilford, but knew she had no choice as she was a young woman in this society.
Northumberland even went as far as to slowly poison the sick king in order to keep him alive longer to make all the arrangements for the succession. It was not hard to persuade him as Edward VI did have a vested interest in keeping the realm Protestant. He was also very devote to his faith and his greatest achievements in his short reign were expanding that religion. Jane Grey was the choice to keep this project going.
Northumberland provided Mary with false updates as to the King’s health in order to lure her into a trap. This just increased Mary’s current distrust of the Duke. “The Duke’s and his party’s designs to deprive the Lady Mary of the succession to the crown are only too plain. They are evidently resolved to resort to arms against her, with the excuse of religion, among others,” commented the Imperial Ambassador. It seems that the Duke’s plans were not as covert as he thought.
Edward VI died on the 6th of July in 1553 at the age of 15. Jane was immediately ordered to meet the Duke of Northumberland and the council at Syon House near London. She was informed that the King was dead and he had named her as heir upon his deathbed. Jane is described as being stunned and troubled. She fell to the ground weeping at the news. It has also been reported that she fainted on the spot. Obviously, she had not been expecting this command and was feeling incredibly stressed. She believed that this whole situation was very wrong. She is said to have cried, “the crown is not my right and pleases me not. The Lady Mary is the rightful heir.” This was not what her father and the Duke wanted to hear. Northumberland is recorded as responding, “Your Grace doth wrong to yourself and to your house!” She was essentially, again, forced to the will of others. She accepted the crown with great reluctance. She was only 17 years old and alone.
By July 10th, Lady Jane was conveyed to the Tower of London to await her coronation. She was official received as Queen upon her arrival. She was in the company of her husband, her parents, and attendants. Jane tried not to show emotion to give the appearance of a strong queen, despite what she may be feeling inside. She was welcomed inside with all the pomp and ceremony that a Queen of England would deserve. Yet, to the surprise of many of Jane’s supporters, the majority public opinion was not with them. The public wanted Mary, both Catholics and Protestants as she was seen as the true queen based on Henry VIII’s will.
Jane was immediately brought to meet her Council in the Presence Chamber upon her arrival at the Tower. They fell to their knees before their now, rather uncomfortable, Queen. She sat on the throne under the canopy of state. The Crown Jewels were presented to Jane along with the scepter and crown. Jane was encouraged to try on the crown to verify it fit well. Her composure broke and she refused the crown to be placed on her head. It is reported she began to have a panic attack, but, eventually, those of the council finally persuaded her to wear the crown. A proclamation announcing Queen Jane was prepared for distribution across the country, but it would likely be ignored. It must have been difficult for this very young girl to be forced to take this unwanted position. In addition, she was faced with the knowledge that most of the country was hostile to her.
Meanwhile, news was received that Mary was prepared to fight for her rightful place upon the throne. She sent her own letter to the council which demanded obedience. In reply, Northumberland sent out a message confirming that Edward VI had chosen Jane as his heir and that Mary and Elizabeth were both illegitimate. All 23 members of the council signed the letter which pledged their loyalty to Queen Jane.
By all accounts, Jane did take her new role seriously. If she was going to have to do this then she wanted to make the best decisions for the realm. She confronted her husband, Guildford Dudley, and made it very clear to him that she would never have him crowned as king. She would only allow him the title of consort if Parliament petitioned her to. Guildford did not share her royal blood and had been forced on her due to the ambition of two fathers. It is easy to see why she would not trust him. Guildford was also very selfish and irritable, not good qualities for a king. Guildford immediately ran to his mother, the Duchess of Northumberland, and, together, they attempted to force Jane’s hand. Jane proved to be stubborn and assertive. She would not budge on this issue and they were forced to obey her order. She held firm, but still felt a great deal of stress and anxiety. This was a position she never wanted and a marriage she never wanted. She was angry, anxious, and overwhelmed. It was amazing that she could still hold firm to who she was at her core. She knew in these coming days she would have to assert herself and her authority.
Attempts were made by Northumberland and his sons to rally an army to try and capture Mary, but they were failing. Jane had written many letters and multiple proclamations had been made across the country to support her as Queen, but they were falling on deaf ears. Mary kept attracting more support which increased her strength against Northumberland. More Lords were declaring for Mary which caused the Council to panic. Jane and her father were unable to keep control. This plot was quickly disintegrating. Men were deserting Northumberland’s army and Mary’s continued to grow. The Council abandoned Jane and she was left with only her parents and husband at her side. Jane could only wait and see which way the tide would turn.
On July 19th, the Mayor of London had commanded that Mary be proclaimed Queen throughout the city. The bells were rung and the crowds were immense in support for Mary Tudor. People were shouting in the streets and made fires and partied until the evening in support of their true queen. It was finally over for Jane.
In the deserted rooms of the Tower, her father told her quite plainly that she “must put off your royal robes and be content with a private life.” Jane responded that she was “much more willing put them of than I put them on…Out of obedience to you and my mother I have grievously sinned. Now I willingly relinquish the crown. May I not go home?“ Unfortunately, her father ended up abandoning Jane in the Tower as well as he went to proclaim his loyalty to Mary. He left his daughter to whatever fate that the new queen would decide was just. Jane essentially became a prisoner in the same place that had been her palace just hours before. Jane was alone once again as every who had once “supported” her were now trying to save their own skins. Her nine day reign was forgotten.
Queen Mary listened to her Councilors pleas for forgiveness and request for her pardon (which she did offer to most). She even acknowledged that Jane had been forced by other ambitious people to take the throne and would likely be pardoned as well. The scapegoat would be the Duke of Northumberland. Mary was determined to capture and mete out punishment. She sent out the order for his arrest. After a long chase, he captured and imprisoned with four of his sons.
On August 22nd, the Duke of Northumberland was executed on the Tower Green. Jane likely saw him as he made his way to the block through the window of her cell. She disapproved greatly that her father-in-law converted to Catholicism in a last ditch effort to save himself. She already had viewed him as a wicked man, but this was a different matter. Jane was so devoted to her faith that she would rather die than abandon it. While she was imprisoned, she spent a lot of her time studying the bible.
Jane wrote a letter appealing to Queen Mary. She acknowledges her guilt, but reveals her remorse.
Although my fault be such that but for the goodness and clemency of the Queen, I can have no hope of finding pardon…. having given ear to those who at the time appeared not only to myself, but also to the great part of this realm to be wise and now have manifested themselves to the contrary, not only to my and their great detriment, but with common disgrace and blame of all, they having with shameful boldness made to blamable and dishonourable an attempt to give to others that which was not theirs…[and my own] lack of prudence…for which I deserve heavy punishment…it being known that the error imputed to me has not been altogether caused by myself. [The Privy Council]….who with unwontd caresses and pleasantness, did me such reverence as was not at all suitable to my state. He [Dudley] then said that his Majesty had well weighed an Act of Parliament…that whoever should acknowledge the most serene Mary…or the lady Elizabeth and receive them as the true heirs of the crown of England should be had all for traitors…wherefore, in no manner did he wish that they should be heirs of him and of that crown, he being able in every way to disinherit them. And therefore, before his death, he gave order to the Council, that for the honour they owed to him…they should obey his last will…As to the rest, for my part, I know not what the Council had determined to do, but I know for certain that twice during this time, poison was given to me, first in the house of the Duchess of Northumberland and afterwards here in the Tower…. All these I have wished for the witness of my innocence and the disburdening of my conscience.’
Mary understood how little agency women had in their world and, it seems, truly wanted to pardon Jane Grey. Once Mary was secured with a Catholic heir, the goal would be to release Jane from prison. Unfortunately, Jane’s father once again made a decision that was not in his daughters best interest. He participated in the Wyatt Rebellion. With news that Mary would be marrying foreigner and Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, there was displeasure across the country. This unsuccessful rebellion was led by Sir Thomas Wyatt and other nobles who opposed Mary’s strict policy of Catholicism. This was quickly dealt with, but now Mary had no choice but remove Jane and Guilford as they were now severe threats to her. Her future husband, Philip, would not come to England until the threat was removed. Jane could be used as a future figurehead for these discontented groups. Both were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death.
Jane spent her last days in prayer and writing farewell letters to her family and friends. To her sister Katherine:
“Live still to die, deny the world, deny the Devil and despise the flesh. Take up your Cross. As touching my death, rejoice, as I do, and adsist that I shall be delivered from corruption and put on incorruption. Farewell, dear sister; put you only trust in God, Who only must uphold you. Your loving sister, Jane Dudley“
The Queen, likely feeling guilty, did offer Jane and her husband the chance to convert to Catholicism, but both refused. On February 12th, Guildford and Jane were executed.
“If justice is done with my body, my soul will find mercy with God. Death will give pain to my body for its sins, but the soul will be justified before God. If my faults deserve punishment, my youth at lease, and my imprudence were worthy of excuse. God and posterity will show me more favour.” This is from Jane’s farewell statement composed the night before her death. She requested that the executioner “dispatch me quickly”. She tied the blindfold over her eyes and reached for the block. When she could not feel it, she began to panic crying out “Where is it? What shall I do?“. She was assisted and the deed was done.
Jane Grey’s story is a sad, tragedy. A young and extremely intelligent girl was taken from life much too early due to the ambitions of men. Men who abandoned her once the tide was no longer in her favor. She was only 17 years old. She reigned for nine days, which is often forgotten in the history of the monarchy. There are not any surviving portraits of her. Would she have made a good queen? Possibly, she seemed to be strong-willed and highly educated. It is impossible to say what could have been. She became a Protestant martyr to many people who then had to endure Mary I’s reign. Almost 300 Protestants were said to have been executed (by fire) during her reign, which earned her the nickname of “Bloody Mary”.
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Crown of Blood : The Deadly Inheritance of Lady Jane Grey by Nicola Tallis
It was evening on the night of October 8, 1871 at 137 Devon Street in Chicago’s southwest side. Catherine O’Leary was trying to fall asleep after a long day of working at her profitable dairy business. Catherine and her husband, Patrick, were Irish immigrants who had escaped Ireland after the famine and were searching for a better life. They had bought a $500 double cottage and barn. Catherine’s business had grown so much that by 1871 she owned six cows and a horse/wagon for transportation. On this night, her husband and her five children were also asleep. Catherine struggled to fall asleep as her tenants, the Laughlin’s, (who rented the second half of the cottage from the O’Leary’s) were having a party with fiddle music. Around 9pm, there was a loud knock upon their front door. To the O’Leary family’s horror, their neighbor brought to their attention that their barn was aflame. They tried to quickly save the animals and other supplies (only a calf would end up surviving), but it was unsuccessful. Little did the O’Leary’s know, but their life (and all of Chicago’s history) was about to change.
At this time, Chicago was a fast growing city and had become the “Gateway to the West”. The city had a prime location upon the shores of Lake Michigan. All railroads would pass through Chicago as they traveled from the East to the West. It brought in many different people from all different types of backgrounds. Entrepreneurs were attracted to this city that oozed opportunity. The railroad, livestock/meatpacking, lumber, and steel industries were booming. Supplies would come in from various parts of the country through the railroad and then would be made into products ready to be shipped out. As the city expanded (by 1850 the population was about 300,000 and still growing), beautiful buildings began to be built. The Palmer Hotel and the Court House (claimed to be “fireproof” at the time) were some of the finest. Chicago wanted to stand up with some of the great cities of the East (New York, Boston, Philadelphia). Unfortunately, with the expansion and the hustle culture of the city, buildings were made quick and cheap. Most buildings of pre-fire Chicago were made almost entirely of wood. This included the streets and the bridges. The areas where Catherine O’Leary and the rest of the immigrant poor lived were small one story buildings that were close together.
As the city grew, so did the divide between the east coast Protestant aristocrats (who populated the North side) and the poor immigrants who lived in the slums. The immigrants were the factory workers and those who truly shaped Chicago into a successful city. One of the biggest groups of immigrants were the Irish Catholics who built communities and parishes in Chicago. Yet, they were also one of the most hated. The elite of Chicago (and in many other places in America) spread and published hateful words about the Irish immigrants. There was a big anti-Catholic sentiment at this time and they were eyed with suspicion. They would spread lies that the women were loose and the men were drunks. Yet, most just wanted to make a better life for themselves.
Newly freed African Americans also began to move to Chicago to find work and opportunity. They began to create communities in the South side as well. They began to feel prejudice as well.
The fall of 1871 had been extremely hot and dry. As of October 8th, the city had gone months without any rain. There had been over 20 fires within the first week, so conditions were ideal for a spark to erupt. Even the Chicago Tribune newspaper warned that any little spark could likely cause great destruction if let go unchecked. For a city of 300,000 citizens, there were only a bit less than 200 firemen. At this time, fires were put out by the horse drawn fire trucks. The firemen had been very busy already this month and were worn down, injured, and had damaged equipment.
When the watchmen first caught sight of the blaze from the O’Leary’s barn, they had misdirected the fire workers which caused them to arrive over 45 minutes late. The blaze had latched onto the dry, wooden buildings and was quickly consuming all in its path. People in nearby neighborhoods would watch the fire as a source of entertainment. That is until it started to burn further north as it was picked up by the heavy winds.
Many describe the view of this blaze as the apocalypse. It looked like the end of days as the fire kept raging higher and higher. The roar became very loud and one could feel the heat everywhere. It spread into the business district where it became a panic as the watchers realized that it was not stopping. The blaze was coming for them. It was described at some point as a 100 foot wall of flames that charged through the city. The “fireproof” court house eventually burned and collapsed. The great bell that had been ringing in alarm smashed to the ground in a loud clang. There were prisoners who were trapped in the prison inside the court house. Lucky for them, the mayor signed an order that they were to be released due to the events transpiring. Many escaped into the panic of the crowds.
The fire actually was able to cross the Chicago river twice during the 48 hours it raged. It was like it was a living creature. The fire workers could not keep up with the blaze. Eventually, it damaged the Chicago water works (actually one of the few buildings that survive to this day) and the fire workers had no access to the water supply to fight the fire. Everyone was now on their own. The wooden bridges were clogged with people desperate to flee the city. Families were separated in the panic. One could see many carrying as many precious belongings as they could. Some carried their mattresses upon their backs. Others, mostly in the richer neighborhoods, wore all the jewels they owned. It is hard to say what one would decide to take with them given only about two minutes to decide. Some people buried important items in hopes that they would be able to find it later. The owner of the Palmer Hotel actually was able to bury the blueprints which helped in the rebuilding effort later. Many people rushed to the lake where they stood in the lake for hours watching their livelihoods burn in the blaze.
Joseph Hudlin was a former slave who had also moved to Chicago with his family for a better life. He had a respectable position at the Board of Trade. During the fire, Hudlin bravely ran towards the Board of Trade offices (which were about to be burned in the fire) and saved critical documents before the building collapsed. His brave action made sure that Chicago would be able to rebuild quickly due to the documents and records that were saved. Later, the Hudlins would offer their surviving home to help families left homeless and in need in the aftermath of the flames. They would help any in need including both white and black neighbors. Hudlin would be recognized as a hero and his portrait would be hung in the new Board of Trade offices.
Finally, by some miracle, it began to rain on the night of October 9th after months of a drought. This ultimately extinguished the fire by October 10th 1871. The fire had left an estimated 300 people dead, one third of the population homeless (about 100,000), and 17,450 buildings destroyed. For those that survived, the city looked like a warzone. The fire had left a path of destruction four miles wide and one mile long. It was an open vista from the South side to the North. Much of the citizen’s belongings were now melted or turned to ash. One can imagine the panic as people began to search for missing loved ones. They would put ads in the papers and wait at any landmark they could find until they, hopefully, found who they were looking for. Many were never found.
All that progress over the past 40 years seemed to have been over in an instant, but many underestimated the energy the people of Chicago had. They began rebuilding as soon as possible. Businesses re-opened the day after the fire. They would build small wooden shacks to continue to hustle. The newspapers continued to run, including the Chicago Tribune which published the famous line “Chicago Shall Rise Again”. Many of the stockyards were untouched so the industries could continue, the railroads were still intact and many of the bank vaults still survived. This was national news, so donations from all over the country began pouring in. People in New York City and the East were encouraged to come to Chicago still as it was a city of opportunity. Now, they had a chance to rebuild even stronger. Even Queen Victoria in England, sent over a large number of books which started the first Chicago Public Library.
Unfortunately, many people wanted a scapegoat to point the finger at after this disaster. That fell hard upon the poor, especially the Irish Catholic immigrants. Despite being cleared in the official inquiry, Catherine O’Leary was destroyed in the public opinion. The newspapers and, later, books about the event came up with the myth that her cow had knocked over the lantern while she was milking it. This was completely untrue. Catherine had many things going against her, she was a successful business woman and she was Irish. She was portrayed looking like a witch who did this out of revenge. Despite speaking clearly and intelligently at the inquiry in the events (convincing law enforcement of her innocence), she was portrayed as an old senile woman (she was only 40 at the time). Ironically, her home survived. This was due to her husband and some of the neighbors filling wash tubs early in the night and keeping the home continuously damp. But, she did lose her barn, her livestock, and her business that she worked so hard for. Now she had to hide from photographers looking to take her pictures and vilify her to the city and nation. The official cause for the fire was not any specific person, but overall bad construction of the buildings and unsafe conditions. This was the opportunity for the white, Protestant, elite of Chicago to try and push out the Irish and other immigrants that they found to be undesirable.
During the initial rebuild, the city went under martial law (the first to be occupied since the Civil War). The official Relief and Aid Society was set up and run by the elite of Chicago. If one qualified, the society would help rebuild your business and your homes. Many would be able to obtain a relief kit which would give the materials to build your own temporary relief cottage for your family. They would help you find jobs as well as workers were need to help clear the rubble and rebuild the city to its former glory. As one can imagine, they were quicker to help certain people more than others. To many with immigrant backgrounds, they were strongly encouraged to take a free railroad pass and leave the city. About 30,000 left the city in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire. The majority were Irish Catholics.
Catherine O’Leary and her family stayed in the Chicago area. Yet, every anniversary she had to be faced with the hate and the blame towards her. She was branded a welfare queen with fire as her revenge, yet she had never taken welfare in her life. Every anniversary, people would attempt to interview her and take her picture. Oftentimes they would publish fake interviews/photographs. In the anniversary parades, they re-enacted her as a caricature with her cow. In 1879, the O’Leary’s sold the cottage and left their community that they helped to build. They moved to the outskirts where Catherine lived as a recluse. Even after death, she could not be free of the publicity. People would desecrate her grave. They put her name in songs about the fire (such as the popular song, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight”) to keep the myth alive. She would go down in history as the villain when in reality she had been a hard working woman just trying to make the American dream a reality. It is still unknown the true start of the fire. It could have possible been her tenants during their party, it could have been a group of kids playing in the barn, or someone who snuck in to smoke a pipe. But, the conditions of Chicago and the bad craftsmanship of the buildings would make a disaster like this inevitable. If it was not Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, it could have been anywhere.
By 1893, Chicago showed off its beauty and rebuilding efforts by becoming the site of the Worlds Fair. This was extremely important to the city and a lot of that pride must have come from the quick turn around from the destruction of the fire just about 20 years before. Chicago became a changed city, and likely for the better. They rebuilt buildings stronger and with more safety precautions in place. Young architects flowed in from all parts of the country and contributed their new ideas to the city. This was a challenge that they could undertake and a blank slate that they could put their name to. Skyscrapers begin to emerge within the decade which creates the skyline that we are familiar with today. One of the few remaining buildings, the water works, became a symbol of of civic pride. Chicago could have floundered during the years after the Great Fire, but the great entrepreneur spirit, the energy, and the creativity of the people helped to become the glory it was at the Worlds Fair and today.
This month recognizes the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster. It was a terrible tragedy, but the legacy provided better maritime safety measures that still assist us today. It is interesting to read stories from the survivors (most of the accounts were stories from women) and how their lives were impacted due to this disaster. Last month, I wrote about Mrs. Caroline Astor who was the pillar of Gilded Age society in New York City. I recently found out that her son was actually aboard the Titanic and, sadly, did perish during the sinking.
Her son was Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and he was the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic. Though his mother’s reign was now over, the Astors were still very popular with the press and the scandal sheets. Colonel Astor and his new wife, the eighteen year old Madeleine Force, were traveling home from their honeymoon in Egypt and Paris. They boarded with Mr. Astor’s valet, Victor Robbins, Mrs. Astor’s maid, Rosalie Bidois, Mrs. Astor’s nurse, Caroline Endres, and their pet dog named Kitty. Kitty was bonded to John Astor and they had been through a lot together, including his difficult divorce.
The Gilded Age, specifically in New York City, took place from about 1870-1900. This time period is so fascinating because of the absurd amount of wealth that was being thrown around by the upper class. The rules of society (specifically for women) were so strange and so confining. This is a time that the average modern American would not be able to connect to (maybe today’s technology billionaires could) and they must have seemed like other worldly beings to their contemporaries. They created luxurious houses, draped so many jewels around themselves, and stuck to a rigid code of etiquette all to cultivate an image. The members of the upper class during this era wanted to create something that America did not have. They wanted to be the aristocracy (like in Europe with their dukes, earls, etc.), yet, as this was America, there were no titles. They even had a queen, the formidable Mrs. Caroline Astor, who ruled and called the shots for what was considered “proper society”.
Ottawa, Illinois is a small town in the rural Midwest that is about 85 miles southwest from Chicago. In 1922, to the excitement of many of the residents, a small ad ran in the local paper which stated that young women were needed for fine brushwork. It advertised “ideal location and surroundings. Unusually clean and attractive work”. The ad was placed by a new company that had just set up their new factory in Ottawa, Radium Dial. The president was a man by the name of Joseph A Kelly. They already had loyal employees such as Lottie Murray and Mr. and Mrs. Reed who became household names in the area. Many young women began to apply in great numbers (just as we saw in NJ), as the pay was just too good to pass up.
In 1917, a new factory opened in New Jersey. It advertised that it was hiring young women of the local community. For a working-class woman, this was a great opportunity. The pay was above average and it was a skilled job where a young woman could gain experience. The advertised job was a dial painter. They would paint the faces of luminous watches (the numbers and hands of the clock). The paint that was used caused the watch face to glow in the dark. This was extremely useful for those in military service at this time. It was a very technical job as the watch faces were small and a fine pointed brush would have to be used. Women’s hands were smaller, so they were coveted for this detailed job. The girls were a paid commission per dial completed. Some of the top performers were able to make three times what their own fathers made. It seemed like a dream come true to many women which attributed to the high demand for employment at the company. Girls would quickly start to recommend family and friends to join them at the factory.
One of the most exciting things about this new job was that one worked closely with Radium. At this time, radium was the wonder drug and one of the most valuable substances on Earth. The media hailed this as the “miracle pill”. It was effective in cancer treatments and was sold in pharmacies in a pill form to cure just about anything. It was even included in toothpastes and cosmetics. The girls would become known as “ghost girls”. The dust from the radium would coat their clothes, hair, skin, etc. and give them an ethereal glow. The women would purposely wear their nice clothing to work at the factory so they would glow as they went out dancing later that night. Everyone was jealous of the girls who worked at the radium factory.
I have been doing research lately on the Irish potato famine (1845- 1852). The famine was a terrible disaster. Countless lives due to a blight affecting the potato crop which was the primary food source for a large part of the population. It is likely that many lives could have been saved if certain aspects were handled differently. This is easy to say in hindsight, but at the time the future was less clear. During this time there was a lot of fear, uncertainty, change in the workplace, and misinformation (sort of like what we have just lived through these past two years). There was a lot of information to sift through, but in this post I hope to provide the best summary of events.
In 1841, the population of Ireland was calculated at about 8 million people. By 1851, there was only 6.5 million remaining. 1.5 million are recorded deaths (likely to be much more than this) and 2 million as a result of mass emigration. This single event changed the shape of Ireland permanently. Pre-famine Ireland had quite a large population boom at the end of the 18th century. Despite the recent Anglo-Irish Union, Great Britain was growing wealthier and Ireland more poor. Once the war against Napoleon was complete, Irish exports were no longer in demand. Industrialization in Ireland slowed down and was unable to keep up with the the industrial revolution in England (which was now given priority). With the collapse of industrialization and manufacturing in Ireland, many people were pushed back to the land.
Vaccines have long been important in our current medical care. As children, we are protected from harmful diseases due to the development of these vaccines like measles, tuberculosis, meningitis, etc. The list goes on and on. Most recently, the development of the COVID-19 vaccine has allowed many of us to take steps in ending the pandemic that has changed the face of our world this past year. Many deadly diseases have been eradicated due to the development of vaccines which allows for better living conditions and longer lifespans. As of 1980, smallpox was declared to be eradicated. That would not have been possible without some of the work that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu did in order to fight for inoculation. As an upper class English woman of the 18th century, most of the public sphere was off limits. This included the medical field where women were not given the education or taken seriously. They would have to trust in men knowing what was right for their bodies. Yet, Montagu was different. As an early feminist, she was extremely bold. She did what she felt she needed to do and fought for the causes that she thought were important. This included the early smallpox vaccination.
I took a bit of a hiatus from the blog as it has been difficult to find the motivation to research and write. It has been a bit of a struggle to find topics I am passionate with especially with the worries of the past year. I recently took a trip to New York City and I found a bit of that passion once again. I visited Ellis Island and it was a great museum where I learned quite a bit. One small information blurb at the museum really caught my attention. From 1854-1929 the Orphan Trains delivered about 200,000 children to different homes in the American West. I thought this was incredible and I quickly wanted to learn more.