CHICAGO 1890-1930

A Human Documentary


In the Vicinity of Maxwell and Halsted Streets, Chicago 1890-1930: A Human Documentary has two overarching objectives.

First, to tell a story of the compelling role Chicago’s West Side played in the making of modern America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era publicized to the world by Jane Addams and Hull-House Settlement progressive reformers on Halsted Street.

Chicago’s West Side was a microcosm of the emerging urban, foreign immigrant, domestic migrant, industrial, consumer service nation. Global in reach and a door to world populations in transit, the densely populated inner-city business and residential streets housed eighteen nationalities and races by peoples speaking thirty different languages. No group dominated or prevailed with a majority.

As an event, a turning point in the lives of hundreds of thousands of diverse foreign and domestic peoples moving within and through the vicinity, in time to all parts of the nation, Chicago’s historical West Side merits our thoughtful attention today.

Second, to make accessible to the public an expansive array of original sources, written and visual. By means of exploring multi-disciplinary and multidimensional types of evidence, the project constructs life-size topics of timely interest to working individuals, families, and groups.

Rigorously produced (like a printed book), this enterprise seeks to realize the potential of the web as an innovative technology for historical study.

This was the first historical period when the affordable street camera came to the consumer market. A “photo story” emerges picturing everyday lives within historical narrative contexts. The years identified as Chicago’s Progressive era were imaged and imagined in striking hues of black and white, with all shades of gray. Visual cultures in authentic settings are integrated with historical witnesses in this presentation.

“Ever the human documents.”  In the realm of historical time, place mattered, consequences were real, and life’s milestones from birth to death meaningful.  The passage of human time is relentless, irreversible, and finite, everywhere for everyone. In “human documents” the unique past is valued, and resemblance to more recent historical trends raised to awareness.

Understanding an historical event in this project is realized by experiencing aspects of the lives of those  struggling to find meaning in a place. They often had to challenge generations of tradition and customary belief including habits of provincial prejudice. The powers of established orthodoxies within national, religious, ethnic, race and gender identities were prevalent, often overpowering. Tensions between change and convention are an enduring feature of the story.

The historian’s universe does not privilege subjective fictions of myth and imaginative story telling.  Nor does it privilege objective sciences of measurement and numbers. No single piece or genre of documentation is definitive, or accepted as credible at mere face value.

On a topic of significance such as the origins, dynamics, consequences, and legacy of the Progressive liberal years in American history, a plurality of narratives compete, each supported by varieties of evidence. In the Vicinity of Maxwell and Halsted Streets, Chicago 1890-1930 offers an intimate fresh urban perspective embedded in a wealth of engaging archival sources. The historical devil resides in the local detail.

Burton J. Bledstein (hereinafter, “bjb”)