Missing Information

Trying to do research into daily life in Chicago in 1885 without spending a ton of money. It’s hard! I’ve spent a couple of hundred on books so far. Ran into another one tonight that looks essential, but it’s $55, so I’m going to resist for a week or two.

There’s lots of good stuff at university libraries, but they won’t let me into the stacks at Stanford without a student ID card, and I’m not about to fly to Illinois to try to sneak into the University of Chicago library.

Tonight I was looking into the question of indoor plumbing. Or trying to. If you’re going to include a scene in your novel that’s set in a kitchen, you’d like to know whether there are faucets above the sink, or a pump handle, or whether the pump handle would have been outside the kitchen door. In that era, a lot would have depended on whether the inhabitants of the house were wealthy, middle class, or poor. Also, perhaps, on the neighborhood. I know Chicago had water mains, but I don’t know which outlying districts were supplied. And I don’t know whether houses would have had wells, because Chicago was built on land that had been a low-lying marsh. What happens if you dig a well in a marsh?

I’ve read that by the 1870s, a hot water tank would likely have been mounted above the back of the stove. The stove would probably have burnt coal, but perhaps gas — that’s another detail I don’t know. I know there were gas lines running under the streets, because when Chicago was digging trenches for cable car lines in 1881, rerouting the gas, water, and sewer lines complicated the process. But what were the gas lines feeding? Street lights? In-home lighting, or only lights in the business district?

And the big steam engines that provided power for the factories — coal or gas? It makes a difference, because coal smoke was a major pollutant at the time. When not choking on the coal smoke, however, Chicagoans in 1885 rode bicycles. The high front wheel bicycle was the latest fad. Citizens were sometimes arrested for speeding on their bikes (the slang term was “scorching”), because of course the bikes were the fastest thing on the street, short of a galloping horse.

And yes, there were a lot of horses. They pulled streetcars, private wagons, and so on. I found a wonderful little 30-second clip of a film of a Chicago street, made in 1897 by Thomas Edison (or someone in his employ). Amazingly dense crowds, and horses in the foreground.

What I really want is a time machine!

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One Response to Missing Information

  1. Gravel says:

    Try emailing the library about a card. Many, many times college libraries will pass out cards to community members who make a compelling case. Granted, I haven’t tried this with Stanford – only public school libraries – which may make a difference. That aside, try appealing to your public library – often they can request books from across the country (even Illinois!). If Stanford and the public library fail, try a community college – they’re linked into better college library networks than publics, and they’re less picky about who they issue a card to. You’ll probably still need to talk to someone/fill out a form, but at least you’ll have access.

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