- 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
The very rich are different from you and me, F. Scott Fitzgerald noted. It is not merely, as Ernest Hemingway wisecracked in response, that they have more money; the possession of a fortune sets them apart in other ways too. They are free to indulge their dreams; free from anxiety about bills; free from the basic burdens of a struggle for subsistence. On the other hand, they must worry constantly about exploiters, extortionists, cranks, frauds, beggars, blackmailers, kidnappers, and every form of hostility that envy can generate. Small wonder that the conflicting pressures often squeeze them into eccentricity. They may not resemble the rest of us, but they tend to look a lot like each other.
Yet there are exceptions and degrees. And the case can be made that the founders of Chicago’s first families—especially those who earned their money in the years between the Civil War and World War I—were distinguishable from their fellow moguls. For one thing, unlike their more notorious and overpublicized counterparts among the New York Four Hundred, most of them created their fortunes in their own front yard. Call the roll of Chicago wealth, and the most resonant names will belong to men who packed meat, made farm machinery and railroad cars, sawed lumber, rolled steel, and sold goods right there in the city—men like Armour, Swift, McCormick, Pullman, and Field, known to the country at large but remembered best as Chicagoans. Their names survive in the schools, institutes, museums, hospitals, orchestras, opera companies, parks, and auditoriums that they endowed there.
There were rich and benevolent citizens of Chicago whose fame was primarily local, like John V. Harwell or Joseph and Martin Ryerson. And there were Chicago nabobs whose reputations were mainly national, like Richard Sears and A. C. Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald, and Aaron Montgomery Ward. But the quintessential Chicago millionaires were those who not only chose to stay close to the smoky, noisy, smelly sources of their wealth but also made their money when they were young and interwove Chicago’s fortunes closely with their own. Not for them the flight of a Carnegie from Pittsburgh or a Rockefeller from Cleveland to New York’s glitter.
Call them provincial if you will, but what a province the Midwest was! And what a capital it had in Chicago! Carl Sandburg’s lines, written in 1916, spoke simple truth: “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders. … half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”
From the early 1840s to 1915 it was the city whose motto was a robust “I Will”—the city that leaped up from its own funeral pyre in 1871 and twenty years later was home to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Louis Sullivan, Jane Addams, John P. Altgeld, “Mr. Dooley,” Hamlin Garland, and millions of freshly arrived immigrants.
Chicago had room for them all. And its rich men had a style to match these urban energies. They fought in the town’s political and economic battles. They wrestled with its demons and built its temples. Characteristically, they reared their private mansions on the shore of Lake Michigan, described later by Walker Percy as “the North itself; a perilous place from which the spirit winds come pouring forth all roused up and crying out alarm.” Chicago’s moneyed families liked to match themselves against the spirit winds.
Philip Armour was of the breed. One of eight children of a New York farmer, he headed for California in 1852 at the age of nineteen, looking for gold. He came back with several thousand dollars, enough to get him started in the wholesale grocery business, and an undiminished capacity to think big. His real gold strike was just ahead. Late in the Civil War he engineered an enormous “short” sale of pork. Shrewdly anticipating the hour of the Confederacy’s collapse, he made contracts for future deliveries at the wartime price of forty dollars a barrel. Sure enough, when the fighting ceased, the price dropped to eighteen dollars, and the young businessman could complete his sales at a twenty-two-dollar-per-barrel profit. He cleaned up one to two million dollars.
By then he was living in Milwaukee, but in 1875 he moved a short distance south to Chicago, clearly the rail hub where the future of the meat-packing and shipping business looked brightest. He already had rivals on the scene, like the New England-born Gustavus Swift, seven years his junior, but he soon caught up with them. Like Swift, Armour invested heavily in the invention and development of refrigerated cars that kept dressed meat fresh until it reached Eastern tables. And, on the south side of town, he bought large tracts of land, which were turned into a gigantic enclosure where thousands of bawling animals were unloaded at rail sidings, hurried to their execution, and sent back onto the rails again as dismembered, cleaned, and wrapped carcasses. The size, the sound, and the smell of the stockyards made them an unforgettable part of Chicago for generations.