That Windy City

Doing a little historical research on Chicago in the 1880s. If you were awake during American history class, you may recall the Haymarket affair, at least vaguely, but the more I learn, the more I want to know.

The labor movement in the U.S. is responsible for little niceties like the 8-hour workday, paid vacations, and paid overtime. Without the labor unions, we’d still be … oh, wait. That all changed, didn’t it? Today you have to work two jobs to support your family, so we’re back to 16-hour workdays. If we still had a strong labor movement in this country, maybe things would be different, but the moneyed classes have managed to tar labor with a broad brush. Exactly as they did 125 years ago, though generally with a little more gentility. The brutal campaign directed against the workers in Chicago in the 1880s left a lot of people (most of them ordinary factory workers) dead.

A lot of other things were going on in Chicago at that time. It wasn’t all riots. The world’s first skyscraper (10 stories tall) was built. And when the police weren’t taking bribes or hitting the unemployed with their billy clubs, they built an impressive city-wide network of dispatch call boxes. If there was a fire, or thieves, you could run down to the corner and pull a lever, and only a minute or two later a police wagon (drawn by horses) would dash down the street to answer your call.

The police force was predominantly Irish. My bet is that that’s why those wagons came to be called “paddy wagons.”

So there were technological innovations, banks, factories, taverns … it wasn’t all riots. Life went on. It’s important to remember that historians focus on the most dramatic incidents. The lives of ordinary people are generally ignored. Except when they’re rioting in the streets because they’re unemployed and starving, of course.

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