- Historic Sites
The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires
While New York families were spending fortunes inherited from fathers and grandfathers, the Chicago rich had to start from scratch, both making and lavishly spending money within one generation
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
Armour also drove his production chiefs to find new ways for utilizing the by-products of the assembly-line slaughter, so that soap, glue, fertilizer, buttons, and brushes were as much products of the packing industry as hams and steaks. (According to legend, his competitor, Swift, would inspect the sewers behind his plant to see if there was any telltale “wasted” fat on the surface of the water.) When 1893 rolled around, the Armour fortune was estimated at fifty million dollars, and some fifteen thousand workers toiled for him under conditions that became a national scandal in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle .
Yet they worked no longer hours than Armour himself. He had built the expected splendid house for his wife and children, but he arose at five each morning and drove to the plant. There he stayed, this mighty transformer of meat into money, until six in the evening, at which time he went home for dinner, followed by a nine o’clock bedtime. “I have no other interest in life but my business,” he told an interviewer. “I do not love the money. What I do love is the getting of it.”
Armour arose at five each morning, drove to the plant—this mighty transformer of meat into money—and there he stayed until six.
He was not, however, afraid to risk the money or to give it away, particularly in the service of Chicago’s future. Chicagoans would long remember what happened in 1893, when a major panic and depression struck the country. A rumor spread that the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank was going under. Panicky depositors lined up to withdraw their savings; a fatal run was a matter of hours away. At that point Armour and some other wealthy Chicagoans showed up to reassure the crowd that they had confidence in the bank’s survival. Armour made a further offer. Anyone still worried could cash personal checks at his office. One account says that a thousand people did so and that Armour forked over the cash without a blink. He and the bank both survived.
Meanwhile he had already given generously to the Armour Mission, a charitable and vocational-training institute under religious leadership and he was one of the founders of the city’s Orchestral Association. When the pastor of Armour’s Plymouth Congretional Church once preached a sermon on the good things he could do “If I Had a Million Dollars,” he had Armour’s promise of the million that very morning. What the minister, Frank Gunsaulus, had in mind was a technical institute for boys. At first known simply as the Armour Institute (opened in 1893), it became the nucleus of today’s Illinois Institute of Technology.
Armour commented happily: “I like to turn bristles, blood, bones, and the insides and outsides of pigs and bullocks into revenue now, for I can turn the revenue into these boys and girls, and they will go on forever.” If there was a conflict between this sentiment and the terrible conditions for Armour’s workers, it was a conflict built into the psyche of his generation, which extolled personal charity but justified gross cruelties in the name of business principles. Armour’s benevolence was genuine, and so was his acceptance by the mass of his fellow citizens. When he died on a January day in 1901, two thousand children were gathered at the mission, singing him into the next world to the tunes of some of his favorite hymns.
George Pullman’s hubris was classically Chicagoan. Mere philanthropy was not enough. He tried to build a worker’s paradise just outside the city limits and met the classic fate of those who compete with the gods.
Like many other successful Chicagoans, Pullman hailed originally from upstate New York. Though trained as a cabinetmaker, he had a taste for invention and engineering. His first triumph came shortly after his arrival in 1857. Like many of the hastily built structures of the raw town, the city’s major hotel, the Tremont House, was sinking into the prairie mud. How could its foundations be strengthened without tearing it down? Pullman’s solution was to dig trenches around the building and ring it with forty-eight hundred jackscrews and twelve hundred men. At prearranged signals each worker would simultaneously give four jackscrew handles a half-turn, and so, a fraction of an inch at a time, the hotel was levered upward without—the story goes—so much as disturbing a sleeping guest or rattling a dish in the dinine room.
Comfort was much on Pullman’s mind. He soon began thinking about a railway car that would allow passengers to sleep in beds instead of sitting up miserably all night on straight-backed, swaying seats. Working with a partner, he invented the system of facing pairs of seats and an overhead rack that could be converted quickly into a curtained cubicle containing an upper and a lower berth. Familiar to generations of travelers (and now remembered only by the aging), the sleeping car turned a two-or three-day train trip from an ordeal into a vacation, especially when Pullman also patented the dining car, a quality restaurant on wheels. The price of a first-class ticket entitled anyone to ride in what the creator called his “palace cars.”