The Changing City

Chicagoans Grapple with Urban Life

The city of Chicago changed tremendously during the first half of the twentieth century. On a daily basis, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, African Americans from the American South, and middle-class youths from the rural Midwest arrived in Chicago, looking for work and a new way of life. They found jobs in the city’s factories and warehouses, in its downtown office buildings, and even in its growing retail and entertainment industries. For some, the work could be rewarding, but most were happiest when the closing whistle blew. At week’s end, with paychecks in hand, Chicagoans sought relief from the monotonous routines of the work place by partaking in hundreds of cheap amusements and leisure-time activities.

This new way of living, in which the vast majority of individuals found personal fulfillment in leisure-time activities rather than in their economic productivity, was described by many in the early twentieth century as the “modern” style. Modern Chicagoans defined themselves by the clothes they wore, the movies they had seen, the dances they could dance, and the company they kept. And while they needed money to partake in these activities, what specifically they did to earn money was not viewed by their peers as especially important.

Wealthier Chicagoans likewise embraced the modern way of living. As the city grew and fortunes increased, up-and-coming families utilized new forms of commercial entertainment to confirm their social status. In particular, they relied upon department stores and restaurants to identify and explain the latest and most appropriate fashions, foods, and decorations for every occasion. Well-to-do women, freed of the duties of industrial labor or homemaking, studied the new styles and worked assiduously to ensure their family’s conformity.

The city’s growing number of middle-class families looked upon the new consumer culture with a mixture of enthusiasm and concern. Those who believed their family’s respectability lay in its outward appearance embraced the latest fashions and leisure activities. Discount department stores, for instance, offered marked-down knock-offs that helped budget-minded wives give their families the appearance of wealth and sophistication.

By contrast, many middle-class families condemned unbridled participation in the new consumer culture as vulgar gratification of immoral and selfish material desires. Instead, they placed importance on individual self-denial and preserved the family’s honor through vigilance against those who over-indulged in the vices of leisure and consumption. Attacked as “old-fashioned Victorians” by their detractors, these self-proclaimed “Progressives” lay the groundwork for numerous reform movements during the period, including Prohibition, anti-prostitution campaigns, and the Juvenile Protective Association, which worked to “clean up” the growing amusement industry.

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