Growing Up with a City

51NX1TX317L._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_It’s fitting that I publish my review of Louise de Koven Bowen’s Growing up with a City on International Women’s Day. Bowen was a natural leader and shaped civic life in the late 19th and early 20th century in Chicago. In fact she after women got the vote in the 20’s Republicans wanted Bowen to run for mayor, but she declined. (Remember that our parties’ philosophies have shifted through the decades.) I was blown away that back then having a woman run for a major office was even considered.

Bowen’s memoir begins with her family history. Her grandparents were some of Chicago’s first white settlers. Her courageous, wise grandmother frequently acted as a negotiator or peacekeeper with the native Americans near Fort Dearborn.

As a girl Bowen frequently had delusions of grandeur or desires for high social status. She competed with a visiting cousin from New York, whose lifestyle seemed more aristocratic.and fashionable. To make her family, which was plenty stylish and “couth” look better off, she used her own money to buy a smart uniform for her coachman and insisted on calling him Bernard rather than Barney, which he went by. Barney complied with most of the girl’s requests for finery but drew the line when 12 year old Louise suggested he call her Louise rather than her nick name Lulu.

Bowen was educated at a seminary in town, but upon completion felt her education incomplete. Thus the girl made a decision to read the encyclopedia to round out her knowledge base. She was wise enough to know that while that gave her a broad understanding, it didn’t offer much depth.

As an adult, Bowen was tapped to preside over hospital boards and civic organizations. Her book describes her successes and challenges in hospital management and affecting policy in the juvenile justice system and other causes. Bowen worked at Hull House with Jane Addams and offers insight into Addams’ leadership and beliefs.

Louise Dekoven Bown_courtesy Wkgn Park Dist P4353

With children attending her camp

Bowen saw the need for poor children to have an experience in the country and opened a summer camp for them. She pioneered social work and public policy. She spoke to massive crowds and compelled powerful men to do the right thing. She’s one of many civic leaders who’s gone unsung.

Reading Growing Up with a City, I learned a lot about philanthropy and life in the Gilded Age. I was impressed by how much more connected a philanthropist would be back then compared to now. Bowen would regularly walk through the impoverished neighborhoods to get a real feel for the hardships. When a woman , who’s husband had deserted her, came to a relief organization for help, immediate aid was given for the most pressing needs and then a search for the husband would take place. If at all possible the man was brought back to the family to make him take responsibility. I realize that’s not a cure-all, but we don’t even try such action. (We do try to find “deadbeat dads” and make them pay up, but that’s it.)

As is usually the case, reading a memoir written during an era rid me of silly notions our society projects on to the past. For example, I thought that surely after decades of fighting for the vote at least 50% if not a big majority of women would vote. That wasn’t the case at all. 

Growing Up with a City was a fascinating read that deepened my understanding not just of Chicago history but of the Gilded Age as a whole. I was amazed at all one woman could accomplish.

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Saint & Sinners Tour

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If you’re in Chicago this summer on a Friday and if you like history, take the Driehaus Museum’s Saints and Sinners walking tour. I took it on Friday and learned so much about the reformers behind the Temperance Movement and the people it affected and the hoodlums who came to power with Prohibition.

We started at the Driehaus Museum and learned the foundations of the Temperance Movement, the people behind it and the era of saloons and the power saloons owners in the city.

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We then went to the Tree Studios. In the late 19th Century Lambert Tree built tree buildings for artists to work and live rent-free. The first floor was for shops to take in rent to off-set the costs of the building. How smart. Artists lived there from 1894 till 2000. Now the Tree Studios have been restored and are office space and reception rooms which can be rented out.

At the Tree Studios we got our first drink. We could choose from beer, wine or water. Then we repaired to a courtyard where we learned about saloons and how they were organized. At first a saloon had to purchase beer from one brewery. However, saloon owners would switch breweries to get a better deal and bigger profits.

Brewers then borrowed the ideas of the “Tied-House” from England. The Brewers bought saloons and only let their brand be sold there. Saloon owners now became managers. While they lost power at work, they continued to have political power because many barkeeps were precinct captains and ward bosses.

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After the Tree Studios we went to St. James’ Cathedral, Fourth Presbyterian Church, the Drake Hotel, and Holy Name Cathedral. I learned a lot about female reformers, preachers, the social services that saloons provided. and prohibition and the unintended consequences, i.e. organized crime, that came from that. Along the way we had a couple more drinks. You could choose from a cocktail, beer, wine or soft drinks. The tour finished at the Kerryman Pub and lasted 3 hours.

The tour had 2 knowledgeable guides and we had 12 participants. You had to be 21 years old to take this tour. Price: $45 includes three drinks.

Clarke and Glessner Houses

Clark House, Prairie Avenue, Chicago

Clark House, Prairie Avenue, Chicago

Saturday I toured Chicago’s Clarke and Glessner Houses south of the Loop on the rejuvenated Prairie Avenue, where millionaires once lived and have recently returned after a bleak era when light industry and parking lots took over the neighborhood.

The Clarke House, above, was built by a prosperous banker and his wife in 1836. It’s the oldest house in the city. According to their letters, the Clarke’s could see Native American campfires from their property in the 1830s. They started building it in 1836 and it took 13 years to complete because shortly after they started it there was a financial crash and Henry Clarke, a banker, lost everything. For a long time the family lived in half the house and Mr. Clarke used the other side for his taxidermy work, a sideline he did to augment his salary as a banker.

A Romanesque, square house, Clarke House looks a bit odd on the outside. I just wanted it to be wider. The house had been moved a few times over the years and in the 1970s they had to lift it over the el tracks to get it to its current location on Prairie Ave. They did that in January and the hydraulic system froze. The house was precariously up by the tracks for two weeks.

Clarke House looks bigger on the inside than from the outside. The Colonial Dames provided the furnishings since the original furnishings are long gone. In the basement there’s a diorama which depicts how open the land was when the Clarke’s first came to Chicago.

Glessner House

Glessner House

The Glessner House was built later and the exterior resembles a fortress. I have to agree with the first neighbor, George Pullman who thought the house was hideous. Since the Glessner’s only lived in Chicago in the winter, (yep, in the winter) they built right up to the property line. No green. The neighbors hated it. There was an interior courtyard with a couple turrets that really looked strange. Inside was better. Lots of wood, artwork and carpets. I’d read an article in the Chicago Historical Society’s magazine from Mrs. Glessner’s diaries. She rarely bothered to learn her servants’ names and at one point they banded together and walked out on the family. The tour guide neglected to share that information. Mrs. Glessner seemed to be a big snob, though our tour guide emphasized how close and happy the marriage was.

English: First Floor Plan of the John J. Gless...

English: First Floor Plan of the John J. Glessner House, 1800 South Prarie Avenue, Chicago, Illinois (1885-87), Henry Hobson Richardson, architect. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our tour guide was great. She had such enthusiasm! Tours alternate between the two houses Weds. – Sunday.

Tour for one house $10 adults, $9 seniors/students, $6 children 5-12.

Tours for both houses $15 adults, $12 seniors/students, $8 children.

Bring a student i.d. for the discount. If you’re over 24, they’ll scrutinize the i.d. but give you the discount eventually.Wednesdays are free.

Chicago’s Gold Coast

images of Chicago

When I picked this up at the library I didn’t catch the smaller type: Images of America. So I thought there would be more text about Chicago’s Gold Coast. Once I figured out the subject of this book I appreciated the wide selection of old photos of grand houses in this Chicago district. Images of America upped my understanding of how the city looked in the late 19th century and beyond.

Here’s a few of the homes featured.

Marshall Fields: The Store that Helped Build Chicago

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I thought I knew most of what there was to know about Marshall Field’s the still beloved department store that started in Chicago, but I learned a lot more about how the business started, who Field’s partners were, how big their whole sale business was and how subsequent CEO’s like John G. Shedd, of aquarium fame, behaved at the helm. Seems every descendant of a Chicagoan knows that “the customer is always right” and “give the lady what she wants’ were first said by Marshall Field and we know the various explanations for the naming of Frango mints, but there’s still a lot we don’t know and  Gayle Soucek enlightens readers on all aspects of Fields in a pleasant breezy style. It’s a quick read and pleasant till we come to the end when evil Macy’s takes over the store and changes the name.

Field was a good man, and something of a straight arrow. He held true to his credit terms — even after the Chicago Fire in 1871 when creditors wrote him offering to change the terms. He came from Puritan roots and stayed true to them. (His son did not and I for one believe Junior was shot at the Everleigh Club, another interesting Chicago establishment.)  The man was a genius with incredible foresight and respect for people. I wish I could have been in the store when it had a library, offered information (to provide tourist information, ship times, railway routes, etc.)  and accommodation bureaus (which booked theater tickets,made sleeping car arrangements,  checked bags, offered stenographer services, and more). Services didn’t stop there. One anecdote tells how a man told a clerk he was “mourning the accidental estrangement of his brother, who had traveled to Europe and lost contact. The word went out to Field’s foreign buying offices, and in a short amount of time the wayward sibling was located.”

The book mentions Harry Selfridge, the brash man, who worked his way up to partner, a position Field’s was surprise Selfridge had the audacity to ask for (Field’s planned to offer it and was just a more reserved man). It mentions Selfridge as originating the bargain basement and later buying his own store, where he always kept a portrait of Marshall Field in his office. So much of Selfridge’s store is an homage to Field, which is why the book connects with the PBS program.

The book ends with an appendix of famous Field’s recipes.

I still can’t stomach that and haven’t made a purchase in Macy’s since they took over. Marshall Field’s, State Street, was a store you could love in a way current stores just aren’t. We’ve got smart phones so we can make our own travel arrangements or notes on the fly and we can shop online or in person in countless stores, but this personal touch is largely gone or on the way out.