On the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Chicago History Museum is kindling an exhibit examining the fire and the social issues smoldering beneath the surface that can be felt even today.
The fire touched everyone, from the wealthy Chicago businessmen to the often poor Irish and German immigrants, but the recovery efforts were vastly different for the varying social classes, explains Julius L. Jones, a historian and the curator of the family-friendly interactive exhibit, A City on Fire: Chicago 1871.
“It was in the idea that certain people are less deserving of help, less deserving of charity, that animated the way they went about it,” Jones says. “Who deserves help is fascinating to think about, especially when we’re recovering from COVID-19, and when we think about who to give help to and how much, you see a lot of parallels.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate from COVID has been significantly higher for Black and Hispanic/Latino communities and it’s had a devastating effect on those who are less affluent. Data from Gallup polls found that 59 percent who are in the bottom quintile of earning are unable to avoid going to public places so they physically can’t socially distance, while high earners are more likely to be able to comfortably work from home, order in groceries and stockpile everything they need to keep their household running.
Essentially, we’re facing similar recovery efforts 150 years after the devastating fire — from our current catastrophe.
“We thought this anniversary was an opportunity to take a story that most Chicagoans are familiar with — the fire — and reintroduce it to a new audience, drawing on issues that are relevant to our present day,” Jones says. “We thought this was a story that would be a great way to engage families with history.”
In the fire’s wake
In the exhibit, the Chicago History Museum leads visitors through the start and progress of the 150-year-old fire as it consumed mainly wooden-built homes and businesses that made up the growing city and left more than 100,000 people homeless and businesses shuttered in its wake. In addition to more than 100 artifacts and historical records, families will hear personal stories from survivors and interact with multimedia elements, all created to stimulate conversations at home about race, social inequities and survival.
One of the most impactful parts of the exhibit may be in the interactive process visitors will take to apply for their own financial aid through the virtual Chicago Relief and Aid Society (the group responsible for helping Chicagoans in the aftermath of the actual fire). Visitors will go through the process of applying for aid, and based on who you are, you may be treated differently in your request to receive aid, Jones says.
At the time of the fire, it was believed that some people were less deserving of charity than others, and the general understanding that no person should be made better off because of the fire. For example, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society purchased sewing machines for seamstresses who lost theirs in the fire. Those who needed a new sewing machine had to prove that they already knew how to sew, which prevented anyone who wanted to start sewing after the fire from getting a sewing machine, Jones says.
It was a way to keep the classes exactly as they were before the fire.
If you couldn’t get a sewing machine, you couldn’t get a job.
At that time, many of the established Chicago settlers blamed immigrants for crime and unsanitary conditions in their city. The anti-immigrant sentiments were deeply entrenched, Jones says.
Everyone might have heard the myth about Ms. O’Leary’s cow, Daisy, starting the fire by kicking over a lantern in the barn.
“It’s a stand-in for the anti-immigrant sentiment, the idea that the ‘other people’ are responsible for the disaster,” Jones says.