The Press and Labor in the 1880s

In the pages of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, essayist A. L. White described Chicago journalism in 1888 as being like the city itself--"one of the wonders of the times." Chicagoans had a choice of many newspapers: morning and evening dailies of various political persuasions, weeklies in the languages Chicagoans spoke at home, and English-language papers targeted to particular interests. White felt that the daily English-language press gave residents of the city good access to all the news of the world, comparable to that of larger, more-established cities. Yet, he argued, the city's newspapers had something unique to Chicago:

There is, it is true, running through a majority of the articles, an indescribable quality due to the influence of a community where, according to the local slang, "everything goes and goes like thunder," a disposition to carry a point by the use of the bludgeon instead of the more artistic flourish of the rapier; but, like most Western writers, Chicago editors go to the point aimed at by very direct lines and when it is reached no reader has any difficulty in finding out what it is. (p. 687)

The newspapers' opinions stood out more explicitly on certain topics than on others. With the notable exceptions of the evening Daily News which claimed its "Independence of Parties until the Party Lines are Drawn upon Principles rather than Plunder," and the morning Herald that eschewed national politics even in its reporting, the big dailies each supported a national political party. Originally a Whig paper, the Chicago Tribune became a force in the Republican Party as it pushed successfully for Abraham Lincoln's nomination as that party's presidential candidate. The Times, especially under the leadership of outspoken Wilbur F. Storey, advocated the cause of the Democratic Party so strongly that during the Civil War the paper was closed briefly for what the government considered its seditious attacks on President Lincoln. Both papers were equally involved in local politics. The Tribune's Joseph Medill served as the city's mayor from 1871 to 1873. Carter H. Harrison Sr., a former and future mayor of Chicago, purchased the Times in 1888.

The mainstream newspapers took an equally unambiguous position in support of the business values associated with the age of laissez-faire capitalism. Historian David Paul Nord argues that this commitment was as true of the Chicago Times, with its working-class readership and its sensationalistic stories and headlines, as of the Chicago Tribune and the Inter-Ocean, a newspaper created in 1872 when its publisher felt the Tribune was not Republican enough because of its support for Horace Greeley for President of the United States. By the mid-1880s, only the Daily News, by then on its way to becoming the city's largest circulation newspaper with over 100,000 readers, cautiously advocated that certain contemporary urban problems might best be solved by entities and organizations outside the business mainstream.

Standing in fierce opposition to the mainstream press's stance on capitalism were the city's labor, socialist, and anarchist newspapers that had a combined readership of some 30,000. Their support of causes from unions to socialism, as well as their advocacy of direct actions ranging from strikes to bombings, attracted readers from Chicago and beyond. The Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung published daily in German; the Knights of Labor, the Alarm, and the Anarchist published weekly in English; and smaller weekly papers published in German, Czech, and Danish Norwegian. Their editors and publishers, including Haymarket Martyrs Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel, spread their message in open meetings across the city and the Midwest, a message that challenged the basic assumptions about the proper order of the nation's economy, politics, and society shared by the mainstream papers. The stories, editorials, and images in the socialist press were equally clear about the very different version of America they wanted to create.

The visibility of these men and women and the easy availablity of their newspapers made them ready targets in the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing. At least 114 of 136 exhibits presented at the subsequent trial were taken from the city's socialist and labor press. Most of the mainstream papers supported efforts to silence some of those voices permanently during the Haymarket trial and its aftermath.

The continuing disorder of the rapidly industrializing and growing city gradually moved influential members of the mainstream press to consider and even endorse a more regulated form of capitalism and a larger role for the government in resolving problems that faced urban America. They became, according to Nord, proponents of this new ethos of urban community best exemplified by the Chicago Daily News, which, by the 1890s, had become the city's undisputed circulation leader with more than 200,000 readers. Although both a labor and a socialist press continued in Chicago, the balance between its readership and that of the mainstream papers was never again as close, nor was the battle over the society they represented quite as open or clear.