As the initial panic of September 1873 grew into a full-fledged recession during the onset of winter at the end of the year, more and more people lost their jobs.  Correspondingly, over 6000 new men in Chicago had cast their lot with the Communist International Workingmens Association by Christmas 1873.  By January 1, 1874, the Tribune estimated that over 25,000 men in Chicago had lost their jobs, providing fodder for the fledging local sections of the IWA. The political climate had drastically changed since its initial 400 members had marched on March 28, 1872, to commemorate the first anniversary of the downfall of the Paris Commune.  In addition to the increasing number of the newly unemployed, European Socialist theory had finally gained a foothold in America and it now had effective English-speaking spokesmen who offered European socialism to the working class as an alternative economic model to American capitalism.  Encouraged by the recent sweep of nearly all city offices by the People’s Party candidates in the recent municipal election, Chicago witnessed its first mass Socialist rally on December 21, 1873, in Vörwart’s Turner Hall on the West Side, attended by a crowd estimated to have been between 5000 and 7000 men.  Speakers laid out a program not unlike what the Paris Commune had instituted less than three years earlier that comprised of four demands to be presented to the sympathetic Common Council: employment for all those able to work; money and provisions for those unable to work; working-class control over the distribution of the post-fire relief program (a direct swipe at the business-controlled Chicago Relief Society); and if the city did not have sufficient cash to provide these, the city would borrow the difference.

These four demands would form the basis for the IWA’s slogan: “Work or Bread.”

The following night, December 22, an even larger crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered on the West Side, split into two bodies, and walked silently, arm-in-arm, “Six, eight, ten sturdy fellows stood hand in hand, each fearing to let go, lest he should be lost in the great metropolis.”  Their goal that night was to present their petition to what they thought would be a receptive Mayor Harvey Colvin and Common Council at the temporary City Hall.  As the crowd peacefully waited outside, their representatives presented their petition to Council, only to told by the ones that they had just recently elected that the City had no money nor any extra credit to meet their demands due to the recession.  Eventually, the Council came up with a solution that passed the buck on to the Relief and Aid Society itself.  It was reported that the Society was sitting on almost a million dollars of relief that had yet to be spent.  Why not use this money to fund the IWA’s demands?  The Mayor asked the Society for a meeting to discuss the issue that was promptly ignored by the city’s elites.  All of Chicago woke up on Christmas morning 1873 to the Tribune’s headline, “Our Communists.”  For the first time in the city’s history, the paper had to take the burgeoning working class movement seriously, “So long as they are only debating, they are law-abiding citizens.”  But the paper quickly reminded its readers of how the Commune in Paris had ended with much of Paris in flames less than thirty months earlier…

Bread Riot in front of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society Building, La Salle and Randolph, 1873. (Online)

After Christmas the Relief Society answered with a complete rebuff to the Mayor and  the Council, rejecting the idea that they should turn over control of their relief responsibilities and resources to the city.  The new year saw the IWA turn its attention to the office of the Relief Society on La Salle Street, as its frustration and the needs of the city’s unemployed mounted over the winter.  The protestors threatened to seize control not only of the Relief Society’s office but more ominously also directed its threats to the newly-completed Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, as it was well known that the same men who controlled the Relief Society had been behind the construction of the Expo Building. March 28, 1874, saw a protest march to mark the third anniversary of the Paris Commune, in which the Red flag of the Commune made its first appearance in the streets of Chicago.

W.W. Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, Chicago, 1873. (Online)


Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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