Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chicago in the 1890s, all the details

Indiana-born writer George Ade (1866-1944) wrote "stories of the streets and the town" in the Chicago Record between 1893 and 1900. The back-cover blurb for a published selection of them pays tribute to four key aspects of his work: "his keen eye for the absurd and sublime moments of daily urban life, his ear for the vernacular of late-nineteenth-century Chicago, his shrewd understanding of the midwestern character, and above all his firm belief that all of human life was worthy literary subject matter."

Acclaimed in his lifetime and largely forgotten since, Ade interested me particularly because he arrived in Chicago about the same time as my paternal grandfather and his father, brothers, and sister. The scenes he painted are those that Alexander Henderson lived: "Small Shops of the City," "Old Days on the Canal," "With the Market-Gardeners," "Little Billy as a Committeeman," "The Junk-Shops of Canal Street," "Vehicles Out of the Ordinary," "Sidewalk Merchants and Their Wares," "The Glory of Being a Coachman," "Life on a River Tug," and "Clark Street Chinamen." Ade also did mild social commentary on art, manners, and slang.

In these pieces there is no trace of sensationalism or self-promotion; Ade himself remains entirely in the background. Many of these pieces give no names or precise locations; others may use concocted names or are composites. But at least one is a real person. Ade visited with English-born Mrs. Sarah Barrington, then a widow taking in boarders and selling cigars at the historic Green Tree Inn, built in 1833 and later relocated onto Milwaukee Avenue.

She has the curtains drawn and the door chained. The visitor must pull vigorously at the bell-knob and she will inspect him through an inch or two of opened door before admitting him. She has one big room and a little kitchen. A portrait of the duke of Wellington hangs over her arm-chair. ... In the saloon and cigar store, as well as in Mrs. Barrington's private apartments, the floor is hilly and the widows have warped to an angle, the ceilings are low, the wainscoting narrow and the doorways cramped.... but in its general aspect the oldest building in Chicago is not sufficiently picturesque to attract attention on its merits.... [Mrs. Barrington] only hoped she could sell the place for enough money to take her back to England and keep her there.
This portrait of Ade's can be quickly filled out with a sketchy first search of indexes and records available on line: Sarah Murray and Alfred Barrington were reportedly married in Cook County 17 February 1872. In 1880 she was the 60-year-old wife of Alfred, a cigar dealer aged 70, on Milwaukee Avenue. In 1890 she was living at 35 Milwaukee Avenue, her business "cigars." The easily available records also show that her dream was not realized. Eighty-two-year old Sarah Barrington died 19 January 1902  of mitral disease of the heart and chronic rheumatism at the "Chicago Home for Incurables" and is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery.

Ade's papers are at the Newberry Library; the Chicago History Museum appears to hold copies of the eight early books that collected his columns. The edition I'm reading, cited below, is selected, and does not provide the dates when the originals were published.

George Ade, "At the Green Tree Inn," in Franklin J. Meine, ed., Stories of Chicago (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), reprint of the Caxton Club 1941 edition, pp. 70-74.

Illinois Statewide Marriage Index, 1763-1900, Barrington-Murray 1872, citing Cook County vol. 76, license 1804; : accessed 28 June 2012.

1880 US Census, Cook County, Illinois, population schedule, Chicago, enumeration district 101, p. 433D (stamped), p. 28 (penned), dwelling 195, family 238, Alfred Barrington household for Sarah Barrington; digital image, ( : accessed 28 June 2012).

The Lakeside Annual Directory of the City of Chicago 1890, p. 234, col. 2, Mrs. Sarah Barrington; digital image, ( : accessed 27 June 2012).
City of Chicago, Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Report of Death no. 967, Sarah Barrington, 1902; digital image,"Illinois, Cook County Deaths, 1878-1922," FamilySearch ( : accessed 27 June 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Chicago in the 1890s, all the details," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 28 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Chicago History, vol. 38, no. 1(Spring 2012):

1 comment:

Jim Gill said...

You can find many George Ade's books for Kindle -- free from Amazon. I got one last night. I have several families in Chicago at the time. Thanks for the tip.