Manufacturing Climate in the 1880s

During the 1880s, Chicago's manufacturing climate, like that of much of the industrializing world, was both booming and volatile. Unlike the rest of the world, however, Chicago seemed to be the epicenter of the changes that accompanied the transformations that were taking place in industry, transportation, marketing, and urban development.

The most obvious change--especially in the eyes of visitors--came in the growth of the city itself. Ever since the Fire of 1871, the city seemed to be on a building spree that fueled the local economy and provided both business opportunities and jobs. The 1880 manufacturing census, for example, counted 171 carpentering establishments employing 1,792 employees. By 1890, the same census enumerated 500 establishments with 6,223 employees. New technologies generated new jobs, as the city's infrastructure simultaneously enhanced growth while expanding in response to development. In 1880, 358 employees worked for 86 Chicago plumbing and gasfitting firms. As running water, sewer connections, and gas for lighting and cooking become more common in both residential and business buildings in the 1880s, those figures jumped to 2,586 employees at 278 firms.

Not all of the fittings created, however, were destined for new buildings in and around Chicago. The U.S. railroad network, for which Chicago was unquestionably the hub, continued to expand. As rail lines were added in all directions, the movement of goods from and products to the city became even easier. Meatpacking, for example, expanded rapidly as more animals were shipped to Chicago and as meatpackers expanded into the processing of by-products and developed new technologies like the refrigeration car. By 1890, 41 Chicago firms were engaged in wholesale slaughtering and meatpacking. Their 17,000 employees butchered, processed, and packed products for sale across the United States and to an expanding European market. The manufacturing of agricultural implements also boomed as railroads opened new lands to farmers and homesteaders. Three firms in 1880 employed 1,021 men and children. By 1890, six firms employed almost 4,000 workers. The rail network also needed materials to sustain its own growth and Chicago firms responded. In 1880, five Chicago firms with 582 employees manufactured and repaired railroad and street cars. Ten years later, 27 firms employed more than 12,000 workers.

The figures demonstrate the rapid expansion taking place in Chicago industry, but they obscure other transformations taking place, transformations that were equally important for the growing metropolitan area. The first was the emergence of factories that employed thousands of workers rather than the tens or hundreds that typified manufacturing before the 1880s. Among the first of these factories belonged to the McCormick Reaper Company. Even before the 1871 fire, the company had purchased substantial acreage on the South Branch of the Chicago River for a larger plant. Built in the mid-70s, McCormick Works alone employed more thab 1,000 workers a decade later. Opened in 1881, the Pullman Car Works employed nearly 2,500 workers five years later. Although such large-scale operations still did not dominate Chicago industry, they were beginning to change many sectors of the economy as smaller firms could not survive the competition of the larger firms. During the severe recession of the mid-'80s, the changing nature of industry itself helped contribute to the unrest that characterized relations between labor and management. Larger firms, with their thousands of employees, fought, sometimes viciously, against sharing control of any business decision with employees. Smaller firms, especially those caught in a market dominated by the larger factories that set prices and wages, found themselves having to negotiate carefully with employees to keep their businesses intact.

The reorganization of industry also helped change the nature of the workforce. Despite the overall increase in manufacturing employment from, on the average, slightly over 79,000 employees in 1880 to 210,336 in 1890, the number of children working in manufacturing decreased from 4,798 (6% of the manufacturing workforce) to 2,552 (1.2% of the workforce). The percentage of women in the manufacturing workforce also fell from 15.3% to 12.3%, although the number of women workers more than doubled to 25,910. Over one thousand of these women worked in custom millinary and another 8,000 in manufacturing men's and women's clothes, another of Chicago's rapidly expanding industries. The number of men over 16 engaged in manufacturing jobs in Chicago climbed most dramatically from 62,431 in 1880 to 181,814 (in Cook County, from 64,454 to 212,336).

Industrial reorganization also reinforced the locational changes begun earlier by the railroads and the fire. Not only had the Chicago River become less necessary for the shipment of raw materials and manufactured goods, the location of more business offices, retail establishments, and other services in the area south and west of the river made the presence of manufacturing there less desirable. Coupled with the demand for larger parcels of land required by the new factories, this change in the real estate market dramatically accelerated migration of industry out of downtown.

Finally, as Chicago firms became more completely integrated into the national and even international economies, they became more susceptible to its boom and bust cycles. The recession of mid-1880s hit Chicago hard. As the economy began to recover at the end of the decade, business activity exploded. By the beginning of the 1890s, Chicago had attracted the world's attention as a center of manufacturing and urban growth, a spotlight it would continue to occupy well into the next century.