GOOD OLD DAYS?
Each generation tends to believe that its burdens are unique and unbearable and that life in the past was a kind of golden age free of the troubles that plague us today. This is a time of rapid change, when we are confronted by the problems of drugs, gangs, and gridlock; when the social fabric seems to be coming apart; when the human future is threatened by possible demographic, ecological, and nuclear disasters. And so we look back through a haze of nostalgia to a past that was seemingly peaceful, orderly, and moral. The following essays may remind us that living in the so-called good old days had drawbacks, too.
The Working Day
Been working long hours lately? Probably not as many as they did in Elgin in days gone by. "Six days shalt thou labor" was an Old Testament commandment and it continued to be the rule in the nineteenth century.
Idleness led one down the primrose path, but the work ethic helped the believer prosper. It was said of a German immigrant, C.J. Schults, who arrived in Elgin as a young man, that "he sought work of any kind, no matter bow laborious, with only a knowledge of the general meaning of the word, 'work."'
Retail store clerks often put in 12-hour days starting at seven in the morning. In 1865 a New York journalist visiting Elgin commented upon the labors of the working wife: "Most of the stores in Elgin have lady clerks .... Married women are preferred .... When she goes home at noon a good deal is done in a short time .... After eight o'clock at night there is little time to rest."
More than 20 years later, according to a letter to the Daily Courier in 1886, conditions hadn't changed: "In all of our stores we find the clerk at this post at 7 a.m.; very often earlier. The work is such that he is constantly kept busy all day until 8 p.m., often till 9 or later, and only has a chance to sit down when he eats his meals."
The letter was written to further an agreement among the dry goods and grocery merchants, subject to the approval of all the city's stores, to close at 6 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday of each week. The proposal collapsed when a few small shops remained open, despite demonstrations by clerks and their friends. Again in 1892 dry goods, jewelry, and crockery stores planned to close at six o'clock three days a week, but the arrangement broke down under the pressure of competition.It was only after the turn of the century that the movement for shorter hours made headway. In 1906 the printers' union received the now customary eight-hour day, a standard adopted by the David C. Cook Publishing Company in 1911, but these were exceptions prior to the First World War.
Although both men and women worked "only" ten hours daily, sixty hours per week, at the watch factory, they were closely supervised. Their jobs for the most part were sedentary, but in 1892 stools replaced chairs with backs in the majority of the departments. Workers weren't allowed to engage in conversation, and if idled by a lag in the production process, they had to remain perched on their stools without removing their aprons or reading.
How many of us would enjoy working under these 1879 rules?
Elgin National Watch Company Regulations
1. The regular hours of labor in this factory will be from seven a.m. to twelve p.m and from one to six p.m..
2. The factory bell will ring at ten minutes, and tofl at one minute before the time to begin work.
3. The engine will start promptly at the time named, and all operatives not beginning work at that time, will suffer a deduction of not less than fifteen minutes from their time.
4. The factory door will be locked at five minutes part seven a.m. and five minutes past one p.m., and all operatives arriving after that hour will be refused admission until quarter time.
5. All employees are to keep in good order the tools and benches appropriated to their use.
6. Ten minutes will be allowed every Saturday evening for cleaning, and this time must be entirely devoted to that object.
7. Employees will not be allowed to leave off work, or make preparation to do so, either at noon or night, until the bell rings.
8. All intercourse between departments must be on the business of the Company, and be transacted with the foreman or his representative. Visiting, either in the departments or corridors of the factory, will not be tolerated.
9. Quiet and orderly deportment will be insisted upon in all parts of the factory, and at all times.
10. Reading will not be allowed during working hours.
11. Smoking in any part of the factory or grounds is strictly prohibited.
12. Employees are not to throw water, paper, or any kind of rubbish out of the windows.
13. No work of any kind, but the Company's, allowed to be done in the factory.
14. Those who desire to be absent must personally obtain permission of the foreman of their department; and foremen must in all cases inform the Superintendent of their intention of being absent, however short the time.
15. Employees intending to leave the factory will be required to give ten days' notice.
16. Employees will not, under any circumstances, admit persons not in the employ of the Company, to any part of the factory.
Lottie Magden, 13, died on Saturday. Her brother Eddie, 3, and her sister Lizzie, 15, died the following Wednesday. All three children were among several Elgin victims of an outbreak of diphtheria in 1883. At the time the source of the disease was believed to be a stagnant and slime-covered slough at the intersection of Dundee Avenue and Gifford and Summit streets. Its bed was on a level with the water in the wells of the neighborhood.
The current spread of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has revived the fear of contagion that was common in the so-called "good old days." Dreaded epidemics, and the suffering and sorrow that came with them, were once frequent in Elgin. In 1845, the ague or "bilious fever" raged. Many settlers fled the town and nearly every remaining resident was prostrate. It was said that one man whose wife succumbed from the illness had difficulty finding assistance to bury her in a decent manner.
"Children have been swept away as with the pestilence," reported the weekly Gazette after 16 had died of smallpox and about an equal number of scarlet fever and diphtheria in 186263. If this mortality rate were applied to the population of Elgin today, it would be equivalent to more than 600 fatalities.
The city was hard-hit by cholera in 1854 and 1866. Diphtheria was an all-too-frequent visitor in the fall and winter months, severe onslaughts occurring in 1895, 1896 and 1897, when there were 42 deaths. Childhood diseases were devastating. In 1887 there were 323 burial permits issued, about half being for children. During the year 1893, of the 290 deaths in the city, not including those at the asylum, 127, more than forty percent, were those of children ten years of age or younger.
Typhoid fever broke out in August, 1916. About 200 residents, most of them watch workers and members of their families, were stricken. Twenty-four deaths from typhoid were reported that year. The source was an artesian well at the watch factory that had been contaminated by river water seepage.
The great influenza pandemic of 1918, which caused an estimated twenty million deaths in Europe and the Americas, was the last major scourge to inflict the city. Although 70 died in Elgin, the outbreak here was relatively mild in comparison with Joliet, which reported 236 deaths, and Aurora, where there were 125 victims. Of the 40 Elgin men and women dying while in military service during World War I, at least nine succumbed to the flu or its complications while stationed in the United States.
Over the years, the community took steps to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. One landmark was the watch factory's decision in 1882 that all employees be vaccinated against smallpox. Other advancements were provision of a pure water supply in 1888, the subsequent construction of a unified sewer system, and the elimination of household wells and privies.
Medical scientists, public health workers, and improved sanitation have eliminated the fears of an earlier day, but AIDS is a reminder that the battle against contagious disease is not yet won.
In 1880 Mayor George P. Lord, noting the number of burials in the annual report of the city sexton and comparing it to Elgin's population, concluded that the average duration of human life was 42 years. Elgin, he proclaimed, was a healthy place in which to live. Considering the amount of proprietary drugs that people were consuming, it had to be.
If the path to good health could be found in patent medicine bottles, they were readily available. Just one issue of an Elgin newspaper in 1882 contained more than a dozen advertisements promoting a variety of cures. These nostrums often contained liberal amounts of alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and opium.
Gray's Specific Medicine was the remedy for loss of memory, back pain, and premature old age. Indian Blood syrup, "the best remedy known to man," was just the thing for rheumatism and heart disease. Cole's Carolisoap "positively cured" piles and all diseases of the skin and scalp. Ayer's Sarsaparilla claimed "nothing short of unmistakable benefits" for blood disorders, and Dr. C. W. Benson's Skin Cure removed freckles. Fleury's Wa-hoo Tonic assured users that although it was mild as a lamb "it don't go fooling around but tends strictly to business."
Dr. C.M. Daniels of Elgin concocted the popular TantaMiraculous, a vegetable tonic for dyspepsia. His ads were unusual in stating that "it is not good for any other class of diseases."
One of the most widely known of these panaceas was produced by John A. Hamlin and his brother, Lysander B., who once lived in Elgin. They began manufacturing Wizard Oil in Chicago in 1861. According to an ad in the Elgin Gazette of October 19, 1864, their elixir cured, among other ills, toothache in three minutes, headache in five minutes, earache in ten minutes, diphtheria in a few hours, and rheumatism in a few days.
The Hamlins transferred their business to Elgin during a two-year period in 1867 and 1868, then moved it back to Chicago. Lysander, who had married an Elgin woman, returned to Elgin in 1886 and purchased a South State Street mansion. Wizard Oil sales wagons accompanied by entertainers were sent to all parts of the country to sell the remedy directly to the public. During the winter some of the wagons not in use in the South were stored behind the Hamlin home in Elgin. A large stable at the rear housed some of the horses which drew the show wagons.
Some of the patent medicines were peddled by itinerant "doctors" whose credentials were questionable. A Dr. Haynes, who called himself an eminent and successful European surgeon and physician and "genuine O.K. M.D.," was doing a brisk business at the Commercial Hotel in 1877. He treated diseases of the eye, ear, throat, lungs, liver, kidneys, fits, sick headache, palsey, neuralgia, rheumatism, old sores and scrofula. He called the public's attention to remarkable cures of patients residing in Elgin and vicinity and claimed over fifty of them gave permission to use their names, "but this is unnecessary, as his great success is rapidly advertising itself."
Dr. S. H. Van Doren was a periodic visitor to Elgin who wanted "the so-called incurable cases" and assured readers of the Daily News that his treatment would show its power over pain and weakness in five minutes time. "Many of you who have been taking medicine and so-called treatments for months will be absolutely cured in a few days," he claimed in 1910. "Very chronic cases will require a somewhat longer time, but it makes no difference, you will be treated free (remedies excepted) until you can say I am cured."
"What Is Your Disease?" Van Doren asked in an Elgin sojourn the following year. "Is it asthma? If so, I can cure you .... My treatment also cures weak lungs, bronchitis and catarrh. If your affliction is rheumatism you cannot afford to go another day without my treatment. My new method is just as effective in neuralgia, sciatica, and lame back. I have no failures."
Patent medicine quackery was vigorously opposed by the American Medical Association, but it wasn't until a series of articles entitled, "The Great American Fraud," was published in Collier's Weekly in 1905 that the public became alarmed. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, passed at the urging of President Theodore Roosevelt, required the labeling of harmful and addictive ingredients and prohibited fraudulent claims. The law finally caught up with Wizard Oil. In 1916 Lawrence B. Hamlin of Elgin, the son of Lysander and the manager of the firm, was fined $200 and costs for advertising that his product "will check the growth and permanently kill cancer." The judge who imposed the penalty, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, considered it too light.
If the bulging cheek of a baseball player on television dismays some viewers today, squirting tobacco juice was once a more common sight in America. When the English novelist Charles Dickens visited this country in 1842, he was astonished at the spitting habit. "I have twice seen gentlemen at evening parties in New York, turn aside when they were not engaged in conversation, and spit upon the drawing room carpet,"he wrote to a friend. "And in every bar-room and hotel passage the stone floor looks as it it were paved with open oysters-from the quantity of this kind of deposit which tesselates it all over."
Elgin was no exception. The watch factory prohibited smoking because ashes could interfere with the accuracy of a watch movement, but chewing was permitted. Anyone spitting on the floor was discharged. The company rented cuspidors at fifty cents per month, and employees resented the fact that the revenue from this source substantially exceeded the cost of emptying and cleaning them.
Chewers were not the only culprits. It wasn't unusual for cigar smokers to let fly. The habit aroused frequent protest in the local papers. "The average condition of the sidewalk in front of the Borden Block (where the Tower Building now stands) is a disgrace to this bright and busy city," complained the Democrat in 1891. The News in 1892 reported that a lady "was covered with tobacco juice by some thing standing on the corner. Whether or not the thing did it intentionally or opened its mouth without noticing that a lady was passing, the effect was the same."
"I was up to the post office this morning and the sidewalks and steps were covered with slime, tobacco juice and filth," a woman was quoted by the Advocate in 1904 after a spitting contest had been held there the previous evening. The paper editorialized that "crowds can be dispersed, indecency and nuisances of various characters can be suppressed. But disease laden tobacco juice is not considered a nuisance by the laws of the city."
The Women's Christian Temperance Union finally pushed the City Council into passing a sweeping prohibitory ordinance in 1905:
No person shall spit, expectorate or deposit any spitum, spittle, saliva, phlegm, mucus, tobacco juice...or any refuse upon ... any part of any public building ... or upon the sidewalk of any public street." Violators could be punished by a fine of not less than $1 nor more than $10 for each offense. A few years later, the WCTU complained, with good reason, that the ordinance was not being enforced.
"The bank corners of the city are hardly fit to walk upon the greater part of the time," commented the Advocate in 1909. "Loafers and others collecting in the doorways of the banks cover the sidewalk with the filth they expectorate, making it unfit for a lady to pass by."
In 1915 "Lady Elgin," a Daily Courier columnist ' employed some feminist vitriol in commenting on a chewing tobacco advertisement that recommended a plug as an "aid to clear thinking." "You see why women have been considered as inferior to men in mental make-up all these years," she explained. "She lacked the mental stimulus of a big brown quid bulging her cheek and necessitating frequent trips to a box of sawdust or spittoon."The problem continued until the cigarette, which has its own drawbacks, replaced the plug in popularity-except, of course among some of the ball players.
Get a Horse
An automobile, for all its convenience, is one of the exasperations of modern living. Its financing, operation and maintenance account for a major portion of most family incomes, and it invariably refuses to start or breaks down at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
One of the deceptive charms of nostalgia is the mist that obscures the realities of life in the past. Ah, for the romantic days of Old Dobbin! The horse wasn't as fast as a car, but he was less costly and more reliable, a gentle friend of the family in a simpler world.
Unfortunately for the accuracy of this picture, the annual cost of feeding, shoeing, and harnessing a horse about equaled the animal's purchase price. This would be equivalent to buying a $15,000 car and spending$15,000 for its annual operating cost.
Most families didn't own a horse because they couldn't afford one. In 1887, for example, there were 1,623 horses in Elgin Township. (That fact should lay to rest the imputation that old Elgin was a one-horse town.) This was a ratio of about one horse-generally Owned by a farmer, livery proprietor, or teamster-to every ten people.
Gentle? The News in 1877 reported the beginning of a strained relationship between Dr. R. R. Stone and his noble steed: "When about three-quarters of a mile west of Udina ... his horse began to kick. She kicked the thills into toothpicks, and pulverised the dashboard. Not content with this, she just kept right on from force of habit, and finally struck the doctor on the leg, cutting a deep gash and fracturing the bone."
Or consider the fate of one Ralph Hardy in 1888, who according to an article in the News, "was kicked in the head by one of his father's horses at home. He was rendered senseless." So much for the family friend.
The eruptions of crazed horses were so frequent that one paper headed an account of an incident, "The Usual Runway." In 1894 Fred Haseman's team, a buckskin and a chestnut, were left untied for a moment, and the passing of a streetcar started them galloping down Grove Avenue. The piano wagon to which they were hitched collided with, and overturned a buggy. The team then swerved across the street and ran into a grocer's wagon. The vehicles became interlocked, but Haseman's horses tore loose. They ran up Fulton Street and turned at DuPage, where George Haseman seized the bits, but fell beneath the hooves of the terrified horses. He was dragged several feet until one of them stumbled and fell over Haseman's body. George survived, but the wagon was a total wreck.
The sight of a horse and carriage floating down the river attracted a crowd one afternoon in 1885. The driver had led the rig to the river for a washing, when a locomotive frightened the animal and it plunged into the Fox. What the spectators did not see was the poor driver, who was under water and nearly drowned before managing to free himself from the harness.
A large iron-grey in 1892 pulled his carriage up on the sidewalk. The carriage was too wide to enter a clothing store, so the horse left it outside and galloped into the establishment.
Now for that romantic portrayal of a young man and his best girl seated in their buggy behind Old Dobbin on a summer night. They may have been gazing at the moon, but Dobbin's posterior was a more obvious part of the scenery. Alas, the horse has no control over certain natural functions. Each day a horse deposits about twenty pounds of manure. Think about it. For all their perversities, cars don't do that!
In the days of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. Elgin boys behaved themselves. They grew up in a world with firm standards of right and wrong, had plenty of chores to keep them out of mischief, and were disciplined by parents who didn't spare the rod. They read good literature instead ofwatching the violence on TV, and were expected to attend Sunday school and church.
Yes, the boys of yesterday were far different from the unruly, disrespectful, rootless youths of today. Abundant indications of their wholesome upbringing can be found in the pages of nineteenth century Elgin newspapers:
"Some boys, it is supposed, entered the Watch Factory School House last night by false keys, built fires in all three stoves above and one in the basement, lighting them with school books and papers, opened the drawers, tipped over the desks, took out the works of the clock, and made indecent figures on the walls with ink." Daily Bluff City, November 29, 1875
"Is there no way in which the intolerable nuisance of boys throwing stones at the birds in town can be abated? .... Letter to the Editor, Elgin Advocate, June 10, 1876
"Elgin, like numerous other cities, is infested with a good sized crowd of vandals A favorite pastime with them seems to be the tearing down of fences." Advocate, August 7, 1880
"The man who has charge of the gasoline street lamps says that the boys break the globes faster than he can replace them." Evening Advocate, July 22, 1881
"Of all the terrors that infest the street, none eclipse the small boy. He is omnipresent and always intruding upon the privacy, if not the rights, of his elders." Every Saturday, November 14, 1885
"The attention of school and city authorities is called to the very common use of profane and vulgar language by many of the school children in the city." Elgin Advocate, September 15, 1888
"Malicious boys committed depredations to St. John's church school."
Daily Courier, March 14, 1889
"Quite a good deal of damage has recently resulted from the use of slingshots by the boys." Daily News, April 19, 1889
"If those persons (boys or others) who have been stuffing things into the keyholes of fire alarm boxes know what is healthy for them they will cease such practice." Daily News, July 17, 1889
"If parents will make no effort to control their boys, but permit them to run at large, at night, learning all sorts of deviltry, then the law should step in." Daily News, October 18, 1889
"The small boys about town have a mania for gambling by flippingpennies at a crack in the sidewalk." DailyNews, October 31,1889
"The people of the north end are very much annoyed by the conduct of a class of young fellows who prowl around drunk late at night." Evening Dial, October 31, 1899
Fourth of July
Back in the good old days, Elgin really knew how to celebrate the Fourth ofJuly with a bang. Beginning the evening before the holiday, the city reverberated with the-sharp reports and crackle of fireworks. The aftermath was often bloody, and many homes had anguished, conscience-stricken parents.
In 1899, seven local celebrants had facial burns, six suffered hand lacerations, four lost one or more fingers, and one was left with a ruptured eardrum. The next year, the Daily News stated that "doctors had the usual number of cases of burned faces and mutilated fingers." In 1901, a ten-year old boy died of a wound in his abdomen, and the list of injuries included one person's cheek and another's mouth torn by blank cartridges, a finger amputated by a cannon cracker, and two sight impairments. The first victim in 1904 was none other than the Elgin chief of police, who was a bystander when a boy pounded the pavement with a repeating dynamite shot cane. Doctors used pliers to extract a piece of flat steel nearly an inch in diameter from his cheek.
For the country as a whole, during the celebration of five national birthdays, from 1903 through 1907 inclusive, 1,153 persons were killed and 20,520 injured. Of the injured, 88 suffered total blindness and 389 partial blindness; 308 lost arms, legs or hands; and 1,067 lost one or more fingers. Of course, these were all accidents, or to use a current line of reasoning fireworks don't do any harm, people do.
The movement for a "safe and sane" holiday grew with the annual casualty lists, and it gained momentum with the publication of "Our Barbarous Fourth" by Mrs. Isaac L. Rice in Century magazine for June, 1908. Only one city in the country had then curbed the custom of observing the day with gunpowder. Few elected officials wanted to call a halt for fear of being charged with a lack of patriotism and denying Americans the right to express their rugged independence of social controls.
Public sentiment, however, was aroused against what Rice called"a sadder commentary on human folly than that afforded by any other celebration in the world." Influential periodicals joined with women's groups, hospital administrators, and the American Medical Association in pushing for a ban on the explosives. President William Howard Taft denounced what he termed the "inane and foolish" practice and asked cities to take action. Locally, the Daily Courier reproduced on its front page the widely circulated painting, The Glorious Fourth, which pictured a mother weeping at the bedside of her maimed child.
On July 5 the Elgin papers continued to tally the injuries, broken windows, and fires. "A face full of powder was an often repeated phrase. In 1907, one man was wounded by a glancing bullet from the revolver of a patriot who disdained using blanks. In 1912, cannon crackers mutilated four hands, and toy canons claimed a finger and shattered a leg. According to the Daily News, "scores of persons, especially children, were burned by firecrackers and fireworks. Drugstores were busy supplying salves and medicines."
The Fourth of July in 1891 featured a revival of the Parade of the Horribles of 1878 and a continuation of injuries from fireworks. A 16year old boy had his right hand, except for the thumb, blown to shreds by an exploding toy cannon. The ligaments and nerves were exposed, and the hand had to be amputated at the wrist. Several other celebrants ended the day with faces blackened and specked by powder.
The city physicians prepared for Independence Day in 1914 by stocking up anti-toxin serum and issuing a list of do's and don'ts. "Don't look a Roman candle in the muzzle to see why it didn't didn't go off ... Under no circumstances should any fireworks, when lighted for explosion, be thrown near individuals, particularly girls and ladies. * . Be sure to have a supply of picric acid Solution for burns and tincture of iodine for other injuries, together with a package of sterile gauze cotton and bandages."
Finally, in 1917, the Elgin City Council approved an ordinance that forbade the sale of and discharge of fireworks within the city except for licensed displays. The ban included toy guns and cannons, blank cartridges, torpedoes, bombs, rockets and &man candles. Passage was suggested by the need to reserve explosives for war use. State legislation later provided uniform regulations. Public opinion was behind the law. Those who chose to violate it had difficulty in obtaining explosives, and injuries began a marked decline. By the time the Fourth was relatively safe from fireworks, attention had shifted to the perils of the highway.
The Black List
The past has been compared to a foreign country because many old ways of doing things seem strange to moderns who venture a journey back in time. An example from Elgin's days gone by was the "habitual drunkards list." The city attempted to make it difficult for abusers to obtain liquor by compiling and distributing a list of their names for the guidance and protection of saloon keepers. A proprietor who ignored the list could be subject to a fine.
Reporting the arrest of an alcoholic in 1887, the Daily Courier warned: "The unfortunate woman has no control over her appetite for intoxicants and has caused her husband much grief. Those who have furnished her with liquor will be prosecuted."
The blacklist ordinance authorized a responsible member of the family to request a listing that denied service. One such petition was submitted to the City Council in 1859: "1 feel compelled to represent to your body that my husband-, has (been) for the last six weeks in a state of intoxication, neglecting entirely the support of his family and feel that it is necessary that something should be done to prevent his getting liquor. I would therefore request that he may be declared an habitual drunkard."
Those who were listed could petition for removal, as did one who cited his good record in 1875: "1 stand ready to prove that I never comit (sic) a disgraceful act. I never was hawled (sic) before a justice of the peace by drinking. I never fell on the street by drinking. I never was put in the calaboose." This suppliant added that his son requested the listing without the consent of his mother.
As the city increased in population, identification of the listees became difficult, and saloon keepers vainly asked the city council to supply photographs. Use of the list became ineffective. In a majority of cases, reported the Daily News in 1900, drunkards procured liquor through some other person, making it difficult to get evidence against the supplier. The law was finally dropped when Elgin's ordinances were revised in 1911.
The blacklist would be out of place in today's society, which places a higher value on the right of privacy. Which of our ways will cause wonderment fifty or one hundred years from now? Come to think of it, some of our social behaviors seem rather strange right now.
All the News
The National Enquirer, which claims the "largest circulation of any paper in America," had its sensational counterpart in the Elgin Evening Press. Eighty years ago this local daily ran a poor third in circulation behind the News and the Courier.
It was an eight-page "penny paper" (its larger rivals cost two cents a copy) produced with only one linotype machine. The source of much of its content was the police blotter, the divorce court, and the state mental hospital. Press stories were introduced with eye-catching headlines such as:
DEAD BOY'S PHOTO CAUSE FOR FIGHT
INSANE WOMAN COMPELS W.C. HALL TO REMOVE HIS SHOES
DEAD MAN WALKING ABOUT ASYLUM WARDS
GIRL COMPELLED TO WEAR MAN'S CLOTHES
Suspects in criminal cases were characterized as "desperate degenerate" or "dangerous looking," and individuals were tagged with ethnic labels:
COLORED DIVINE SEEKS DIVORCE
SACRED NECKLACE LOST BY HEBREW
DREW KNIFE ON ITALIAN
OFFICER HIGGINS CAPTURES A POLOCK
Romance, its rise and demise, was frequent:
LUND LOVE AFFAIR READS LIKE NOVEL
MAN GAVE UP WEALTH FOR WOMAN HE LOVED
FACTORY GIRL IN ROMANCE RUNS AWAY WITH HUNTLEY FARMER
MAN DRAGS WOMAN ON ELGIN STREET
FAMILY QUARREL ENDS AT POLICE STATION
The Press delighted in giving its readers the "particulars." One story in 1904 was introduced with:
OVER 1500 BODIES TO BE REMOVED
It went on to explain in great detail the somewhat morbid problems encountered in transferring remains from the old burial ground on Channing Street to the new cemetery on Bluff City Boulevard.
Deaths, in fact, provided many an intriguing header for Press columns:
CUTS THROAT WITH KNIFE, EAR TO EAR
BATAVIA MAN USED THIRD RAIL FOR PILLOW
PAINTER SUICIDES AFTER LONG AND EXCESSIVE DRINKING
Rumors were facts, even if they had no foundation:
IS THERE CRIME SCHOOL IN ELGIN?
RUMOR THAT FIRM LOST QUITE A SUM
TROUBLE BREWING AT SHERMAN HOSPITAL
The Press ignored complaints about its journalistic style, but on one occasion it was forced to admit an error. The paper had run a picture of "the prettiest octette of dancing girls in the world," which exposed their legs. This apparently offended the jaded sensibilities of even Press readers, and the paper published a front page apology. Back in 1906, if not today, there were limits to what could be pictured.
The Poor House
Those who were down and out in the good old days didn't have the support of unemployment compensation, welfare checks, or social security benefits. Unless they had families to assist them, some ended up in the county home, the dominant form or relief in Illinois prior to 1931.
"We call it a poor house, "commented the Advocate in 1896. "Yet in one sense it is a hospital, for here are gathered the weak and crippled, the lame, the halt, the blind, the mental, moral and physical wrecks left behind in the great battle of life."
Kane County purchased 179 acres and opened its first poor farm in 1852. When the original frame structures became dilapidated, the first of three stone buildings were completed in 1871. Because funds were always limited, the farm's crops and animals were intended to support the inmates.
In 1889 the farm consisted of some 230 acres, about 95 of them under cultivation. It was located on what is now Averill Road, then about two miles northeast of Batavia. The superintendent and his wife looked after 74 inmates. "The floors are scrubbed every day," reported the Aurora Daily News. "The various rooms are vigilantly ventilated. The inmates are kept clean." The farm produced 2,000 bushels of oats, 75 tons of hay, 1,400 bushels of potatoes, 200 bushels of turnips, 100 bushels of beets, 50 bushels of carrots, 70 bushels of onions, 3,500 heads of cabbage, and 200 pounds of tobacco. Hogs and cattle were also raised.
There was a stigma attached to having to go to the poor house, but some inmates were pleased. The Daily Courier reported in 1890 on the status of former Elgin residents living there. One was "greatly improved in health and cheerful. He was feeling better, he said, than he had in years. He is a great favorite and makes himself very useful about the institution." Another said he was "pleasantly disappointed upon his arrival." One resident, well known in Elgin, told the visitor "he would make a vigorous protest against being removed." The article concluded that "not one but had words of praise for the good treatment received at the bands of the management."
Others were not so favorably impressed. Visitors from the Charity Council of Aurora in 1901 were critical of the overcrowding and the failure to separate the healthy from those with tuberculosis and other diseases. Men occupied the east half of the building and women the west half. As many as eight persons slept in a small room. When a death occurred, one of these desperately needed rooms had to be vacated until the body was removed.
Of the 160 inmates at the time of this visit, 110 were mentally ill or retarded. Initially committed to the asylum at Elgin, they became county charges after it was determined they were incurable. They were then sent to the county home.Many of these unfortunates earned their keep. "It may not be the proper place for the insane," the matron stated in 1896, "yet if they were not here, the expense of running the farm would be greatly increased." It wasn't until 1905 that the state began transferring some of the hopeless cases to a hospital at Bartonville.
The population of the poor house usually increased in the cold months, as it does in the present day homeless shelters, when those who could be self-sustaining in the summer, returned to keep warm. During the winter of 1906-07, for example, there was a daily average of more than 200 inmates.
Replaced by the welfare state, the Kane County home was closed in 1969. To the very end 56 residents were kept active and contributed to their well-being. The women peeled potatoes, prepared the vegetables and made their own beds. The men did a little gardening and other chores. Could today's homeless, some of whom are mentally ill, feel useful on a poor farm?
So What Else Is New?
Each generation tends to believe that its burdens are unique and that life in the past was somehow free of troubles afflicting the present. Items from old Elgin newspapers, however, reveal that some "modern" problems have been with us a long time.
Take for example the despair over the quality of education in this letter
to the editor: "How few of the public school pupils are good readers! By
the way, spelling is horribly neglected." Daily News, October 1, 1885
Even the litter bug was present a century ago:
"Some people have very little forethought about them, or they would not throw pieces of paper in the streets. Advocate, May 22, 1880
The demon rum arrived with the first settlers. An Elgin civic committee reported in 1864: "In spite of all our efforts to restrain and moderate the use of alcohol, it is probable there has been no day for 18 years since liquor licenses were first allowed but that someone in this town has been partially or totally intoxicated."
The problem of drug abuse goes back a long way:
"Offices of Elgin physicians are being besieged by dope users who have
been bereft of their supply....
"Not only are local drug users included in lists who beg for something to allay the terrible craving, but outsiders who have their supply cut off seem to be traveling around endeavoring to get some of the drug." Daily Courier, March 9, 1915
Youth has been running wild all the days of our years:
"What is Elgin to do with the boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 20 who persistently violate the laws? Daily Courier, June 27, 1917
And crime is always rampant:
"Burglars are running Elgin ragged. It is getting so people don't want it mentioned in the paper when they are going out of town. Many residents are purchasing guns. Daily Courier, February. 12, 1904
Few of the continuities of history recur more often than outcroppings of the primal urge. Three examples will suffice:
"Some of the unmarried women of this place, in their anxiety to contribute to the Union Army have gone to raising children." Gazette, April 1, 1863
"Many girls promenade the streets nightly for the purpose of 'catching on, and Elgin is noted for the number of its males whose propensities lean the same way." Daily News, April 21, 1893
"After being operated in close proximity to the downtown churches, nearly two years, a disorderly house at 122 North Spring Street was wiped out last night by a sensational police raid." Daily Courier, August 1, 1913
Has there been no progress over the years? Hasn't there been some change
for the better? Is there no problem that has been solved? Well, yes, gardeners
no longer have to put up with this:"Notwithstanding the ordinance against
letting cattle run at large within the city limits, there are persons who
allow their cows to run in the streets. The other day a drove of these
marauding cattle broke into a poor widow's garden and destroyed a large
number of her vegetables, which she was depending upon for her winter's
supply." Daily News, September 19, 1877
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