How did people live in Chicago in the late 19th century?
DePaul students have been digging up the answer in archeological excavations at two sites: Pullman, the “most perfect town in the world” (London Times), built in the 1880s for the workers of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and the Charnley-Persky House at 1365 N. Astor Street, a rare joint venture of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, built in 1892 on land belonging to the legendary retailer and real estate developer, Potter Palmer.
“Archeology is everywhere,” says Jane Baxter, associate professor, Department of Anthropology. “People leave a signature every day: they drop things, those things get worked into the ground, and a material footprint is left behind. The things we find tell us a lot about the way people lived — poor people and rich people — about the food they ate and the clothes they wore, about how they worked and how they played. In the 19th century, trash wasn’t carted off every day, so in both these sites we have found many artifacts of everyday life”
For three summers, DePaul students dug out several sites at Pullman: the factory, the administration building, the area around the Hotel Florence, the carriage house, the arcade, and several backyards.
“Of the 7,000 workers living in Pullman at the time of the infamous strike of 1894, only 10 left written records, so an excavation can be critically important to understanding their lives,” says Baxter. “As historical archeologists, we also look at documentary records and still-standing architecture; we interview informants who can talk about the history of their community — then, we put all those things together to tell a more complete and complicated story.”
Behind the factory, the students found evidence that administrators and workers took breaks and ate lunch in separate places; they ate different food, off different types of dishes. “Here were two totally different worlds, side-by-side but not touching,” says Baxter. Around the Hotel Florence, not a single artifact dated to the time of George Pullman. “Clearly, the huge lawn was not open to the workers, as public space, until after Pullman died.”
“The artifacts we found made it even more apparent that, for the workers, life was all about the factory,” says Ciara Brewer (’11). “They worked in the factory, lived in the factory’s houses, and bought all their goods at the factory store.” One finding was particularly illustrative.
“In the surgeon’s backyard, we found 100 buttons in a very small space. We didn’t know what to make of these artifacts, until we examined the historical documentation,” says Baxter. “According to his diaries, the doctor performed 35,000 surgeries—his kitchen was the operating room. In photographs, factory workers wear button-down shirts. So, it’s apparent that when a worker was injured, the surgeon cut off the buttons to remove his shirt. Now, when someone sees those buttons in the Pullman museum, he or she takes one step closer to history.”
Because Pullman is important in the history of labor, the dig established DePaul’s reputation in urban archeology. In January 2009, the work was featured in the popular scientific journal, Archaeology.
This year’s dig at The Charnley-Persky House is surfacing equally interesting artifacts.
The exterior of the house is unadorned brick and limestone, the interior dominated by a three-story atrium topped by a large skylight. The house’s plan and decor are evidence of Sullivan’s signature juxtaposition of plant forms and geometric patterns.
In fact, the house is so significant — “the first modern house in America,” according to Wright — that it now serves as headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians, the leading international organization which promotes the study, interpretation, and preservation of architecture around the world.
Over the summer the five-week-long, five-day-a-week program was an intensive experience that honed the students’ skills in excavation and interpretation. The dig was organized and supervised by two University of Chicago Ph.D. anthropology candidates, Rebecca Graff and Mary Leighton. Late in June, teams of DePaul undergraduate students opened up three excavation units next to the house; from these they recovered hundreds of artifacts, including shards of fine, hand-painted china, metal pots, beverage bottles, and containers of glass and ceramic for food, medicine, and cosmetics. There are perfume bottles, old buttons, and bone-handled, boar-bristle toothbrushes (“Getting the Dirt on Gilded Age High Society,” Chicago Tribune, July 28, 2010).
What’s the significance of these findings?
“The material record and the archaeology of the site was formed by a broad range of people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds who lived on the Gold Coast at that time — not just the Charnley family, but also likely their live-in servants and other working class people living near or at the site,” says Graff.
A program that stands out
A “dig” is required of all students with a major in Anthropology and a minor in Archaeology. Some students also take the class for elective credit. While most universities offer some type of field school program, DePaul’s is unusual in its pedagogy and in its focus on the local, urban community. “These digs matter,” concludes Baxter. “They’re a fulfillment of DePaul’s urban mission, relevant to our students, to Chicago, and to historians and scholars around the world.”