Friday, January 02, 2015

Chicago's Gilded Age

I'm living in Chicago's nineteenth-century Gilded Age right now as I rewrite my historical novel. Once titled Potter's Wife, I think it will now be titled "The Gilded Cage." The story of Potter Palmer, who created the Palmer House hotel, and his society-born wife, Bertha (Cissy) Honore, is set against the background of Chicago's fascinating history. The Great Fire, the Haymarket Riot, and, finally, the 1893 Columbian Exposition. It was an era of tremendous wealth on the part of a few and abject poverty on the part of too many. Potter Palmer was a capitalist who believed that any man could achieve the wealth he had--he didn't realize how extreme poverty holds a man down. His wife, Cissy, was one of the first to recognize the social obligations of great wealth, and she worked at Hull House, had poor young woman into her house for cooking lessons, took food and clothing to those less fortunate than she, and ultimately was the president of the Exposition's Board of Lady Managers.
I'm fascinated by all this. I grew up on Chicago's South Side, not too far from the Midway created for the Exposition --it's where I learned to ice skate--and I attended the University of Chicago, which sits on the edge of the Midway. The history of Chicaago is part of my life story.
I'm noticing great parallels between that age and ours: the wealthy got wealthier, and the poor suffered incredible hardship--working ten or twelve-hour days for a pittance. Cries for shorter work hours and pay raises went unheeded by capitalists like Palmer, Marshall Field, Gustavus Swift, Philip Armour, George Pullman--all names famous in industrial history. So far, our situation today is less desperate but I can see how despair leads to civic uprising...and it makes me pause for thought.
Propriety was a big thing in those days--women of fashion did not bob their hair or wear bloomers nor protest for women's rights. Potter Palmer was always afraid his wife would become a suffragette. And Cissy, social-minded though she was, enjoyed the luxuries of wealth--I'm amazed at the ease with which these people traveled to New York City and to Europe. Chicago was also trying to prove itself to the East, where the Gilded Age flourished and people thought Chicago was still a rough outpost on the plains.
Fascinating stuff. If you can't wait for "The Gilded Cage," read Renee Rosen's What the Lady Wants, a novel about Marshall Field. And then read "The Gilded Cage" when it's published--sorry, no pub date yet. But I am really enthusiastic about this work. Thanks for letting me share.

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