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Photos: Turn-of-the-Century Chicago, a City on the Make as It Was Being Made

An archive from the Detroit Publishing Company captures Chicago from 1890 to 1920, as the city more than doubled in population and transitioned into the modern age as a true metropolis.

Photos: Detroit Publishing Company/Library of Congress

One of the great archives of American photography is the Detroit Publishing Company’s archive, a vast portrait of the country as it moved from the 19th century into the 20th. As such, it captures Chicago during a period of massive growth. Its visual account of Chicago begins in 1890, after the city had recovered from the Great Fire and doubled in population over the previous decade, from 503,000 to 1,099,850; it ends in 1920, when 2,701,705 people lived in the city, on its way to over three million (very few of the photos have specific dates).

The city was exploding, but it’s only subtly captured in the images. Few are credited, but the ones that are were taken by a man named Hans Behm, who had a gift for shooting the city when few or no people were on its streets. Despite the massive influx of new residents, the city looks tranquil, and aside from the belching smokestacks, still not quite lived in. It’s eerie, and a bit mysterious, but a couple reasons for it spring to mind:

  • Chicago was still growing, and had only recently rebuilt from the Fire. As a result, much of the architecture is new; there’s not the jumbled mix of styles and sizes that allow us to subconsciously date a city as we walk around it.
  • Most interesting to me: also as a result, the city had very little landscaping. Grant Park is a giant, flat lawn; many of the trees had obviously just been planted. The result is sightlines that no longer exist, opening up the city to the photographer in a way that’s no longer possible.
  • The photographs also capture the city when it was in transition from horses and carts to cars, streetcars, and trains. There’s not nearly the density of transportation. Lake Shore Drive, in particular, looks like a country lane instead of the massive artery it is now, closer to to Havana’s wonderful Malecón than a highway.

The Chicago of the turn of the century was a smoky, hustling, corrupt, dangerous, vibrant place. But somehow Behm, and perhaps others, shot around all this, capturing less a city on the make than one being made.

[Other photo galleries of note: John H. White’s portraits of Chicago in the 1970s; Marshall Field, the world’s first PR man, and a Civil War vet produce an extraordinary photographic account of transportation around the world.]

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