Neglected Gems: Chicago Made

By Richard Harris

Robert Lewis. 2008. Chicago Made. Factory Networks in the Industrial Metropolis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Many fine works are neglected because they treat a subject that is important but unfashionable. Chicago Made falls squarely into that category.

Now not all of the overlap between urban and business historians has been neglected. For example, a number of scholars have told us about how developers created suburbs and how department stores have satisfied consumers’ needs while helping to define urban culture. No, it is merely the most important area of overlap that has commonly been passed over: how urban manufacturers go about their business, and with what consequences. Focusing on one of the world’s great manufacturing centres, Chicago Made gives us one answer and, by extension, shows us how the job can be done.

We know that many cities have thrived because of manufacturing. We don’t think as much about the flipside: what it is about cities that attracts industry and, once manufacturers are there, how those businesses cooperate and compete in order to thrive. This is what Robert Lewis shows us. To that end, he taps sources that may be familiar to business historians but which are a closed book to urbanists like myself: business directories, company reports, and, above all, bankruptcy records. It is the latter that bring the business connections to light. He shows us how companies competed but also cooperated with each other. They built alliances with railroads and developers, who recognized that the growth of manufacturing was good for their operations too. As an historical geographer, he is alert to the importance of the small- and medium-scale geographies of production, showing that, contrary to stereotype, suburbanization happened back in the nineteenth century, that it involved small as well as large firms, and that it always functioned within metro-wide linkages.

In the process, manufacturers redefined the experience of workers within and beyond the factory. In rare cases, Pullman being the prime example, employers built housing for their newly-suburban workers. More typically, they left it to developers and workers themselves to address that need. In the process, they rearranged the social geography of Chicagoland as factories moved out singly, or in groups, into planned industrial districts. Through planning, and a lot of serendipity, the wheeling and dealing of industrialists created the landscape of city and region as we know it today.

We may not all want to dig deep into bankruptcy records, although they are always likely to be a regrettably rich source. But at the very least we should try to be alert to the business connections that shape our cities and enable them to function. That is a perennial truth, one which the fallout from the current pandemic is unfortunately serving to underline.

harrisPast president of the UHA (2017-18), Richard Harris teaches urban geography at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. He has written several accounts of Toronto’s suburban development, notably Unplanned Suburbs. Toronto’s American Tragedy, 1900-1950. (Baltimore, 1996).


Featured image (at top): “Oppenheimer Casing Company Building, 36th Street near Morgan Street,”  in The Central Manufacturing District: Chicago Junction Railway Service, 1915, p. 131.

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