From the Ashes, 1872-1900
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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May 23, 1881

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The city's fire limits, the area in which the outer surfaces of buildings had to be constructed of fireproof materials, were made coexistent with the corporate limits in 1874. This reform had been instituted as a result of pressure from fire insurance companies and the business community. The danger from fire had become so acute that insurance companies announced that if sweeping preventive measures were not undertaken, they would no longer issue protective policies. Chicago's population had reached approximately 395,408 in 1874. By 1881 it had swelled to over 530,000 with much of this increase coming from foreign immigration. The federal census of 1880 showed that of a total of 503,185 inhabitants, 204,859 had been born in foreign countries. Although the population grew by a third from 1874-1881, the amount of low-cost housing available in the city had increased hardly at all. And this was largely because fire limits regulations made housing construction expensive. Tenement houses were dark, poorly ventilated and densely populated. It was not uncommon for two families to live in the same room separated by a chalk line.

This petition on behalf of tenement residents was countered with a printed remonstrance against the same which was signed by all the city's fire insurance underwriters and hundreds of businessmen. The remonstrance stated that the fire limits ordinance was an absolute economic necessity and that the city had prospered as a result of it. The full city council voted on August 1 not to act upon the petition and ordered it placed on file.

Points to Consider

What was the problem being described in this document and how was it being addressed?

What was the total population of Chicago in 1880 and what percent of residents was foreign-born? Which were the dominant ethnic groups?

Which political persuasion is suggested by the phrase, "the strife, between the Landlords and Tennants"?

Describe a Chicago tenement of 1881.

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