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The Forgotten Four Hundred: Chicago’s First Millionaires

May 2024
19min read

While New York families were spending fortunes inherited from fathers and grandfathers, the Chicago rich had to start from scratch, both making and lavishly spending money within one generation


The very rich are different from you and me, F. Scott Fitzgerald noted. It is not merely, as Ernest Hemingway wisecracked in response, that they have more money; the possession of a fortune sets them apart in other ways too. They are free to indulge their dreams; free from anxiety about bills; free from the basic burdens of a struggle for subsistence. On the other hand, they must worry constantly about exploiters, extortionists, cranks, frauds, beggars, blackmailers, kidnappers, and every form of hostility that envy can generate. Small wonder that the conflicting pressures often squeeze them into eccentricity. They may not resemble the rest of us, but they tend to look a lot like each other.

Yet there are exceptions and degrees. And the case can be made that the founders of Chicago’s first families—especially those who earned their money in the years between the Civil War and World War I—were distinguishable from their fellow moguls. For one thing, unlike their more notorious and over publicized counterparts among the New York Four Hundred, most of them created their fortunes in their own front yard. Call the roll of Chicago wealth, and the most resonant names will belong to men who packed meat, made farm machinery and railroad cars, sawed lumber, rolled steel, and sold goods right there in the city—men like Armour, Swift, McCormick, Pullman, and Field, known to the country at large but remembered best as Chicagoans. Their names survive in the schools, institutes, museums, hospitals, orchestras, opera companies, parks, and auditoriums that they endowed there.


There were rich and benevolent citizens of Chicago whose fame was primarily local, like John V. Harwell or Joseph and Martin Ryerson. And there were Chicago nabobs whose reputations were mainly national, like Richard Sears and A. C. Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald, and Aaron Montgomery Ward. But the quintessential Chicago millionaires were those who not only chose to stay close to the smoky, noisy, smelly sources of their wealth but also made their money when they were young and interwove Chicago’s fortunes closely with their own. Not for them the flight of a Carnegie from Pittsburgh or a Rockefeller from Cleveland to New York’s glitter.

Call them provincial if you will, but what a province the Midwest was! And what a capital it had in Chicago! Carl Sandburg’s lines, written in 1916, spoke simple truth: “Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders....half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”

From the early 1840s to 1915 it was the city whose motto was a robust “I Will”—the city that leaped up from its own funeral pyre in 1871 and twenty years later was home to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Louis Sullivan, Jane Addams, John P. Altgeld, “Mr. Dooley,” Hamlin Garland, and millions of freshly arrived immigrants.

Chicago had room for them all. And its rich men had a style to match these urban energies. They fought in the town’s political and economic battles. They wrestled with its demons and built its temples. Characteristically, they reared their private mansions on the shore of Lake Michigan, described later by Walker Percy as “the North itself; a perilous place from which the spirit winds come pouring forth all roused up and crying out alarm.” Chicago’s moneyed families liked to match themselves against the spirit winds.

Armour: From Hogs to Heaven

Philip Armour was of the breed. One of eight children of a New York farmer, he headed for California in 1852 at the age of nineteen, looking for gold. He came back with several thousand dollars, enough to get him started in the wholesale grocery business, and an undiminished capacity to think big. His real gold strike was just ahead. Late in the Civil War he engineered an enormous “short” sale of pork. Shrewdly anticipating the hour of the Confederacy’s collapse, he made contracts for future deliveries at the wartime price of forty dollars a barrel. Sure enough, when the fighting ceased, the price dropped to eighteen dollars, and the young businessman could complete his sales at a twenty-two-dollar-per-barrel profit. He cleaned up one to two million dollars.

By then he was living in Milwaukee, but in 1875 he moved a short distance south to Chicago, clearly the rail hub where the future of the meat-packing and shipping business looked brightest. He already had rivals on the scene, like the New England-born Gustavus Swift, seven years his junior, but he soon caught up with them. Like Swift, Armour invested heavily in the invention and development of refrigerated cars that kept dressed meat fresh until it reached Eastern tables. And, on the south side of town, he bought large tracts of land, which were turned into a gigantic enclosure where thousands of bawling animals were unloaded at rail sidings, hurried to their execution, and sent back onto the rails again as dismembered, cleaned, and wrapped carcasses. The size, the sound, and the smell of the stockyards made them an unforgettable part of Chicago for generations.

Armour also drove his production chiefs to find new ways for utilizing the by-products of the assembly-line slaughter, so that soap, glue, fertilizer, buttons, and brushes were as much products of the packing industry as hams and steaks. (According to legend, his competitor, Swift, would inspect the sewers behind his plant to see if there was any tell-tale “wasted” fat on the surface of the water.) When 1893 rolled around, the Armour fortune was estimated at fifty million dollars, and some fifteen thousand workers toiled for him under conditions that became a national scandal in 1906, when Upton Sinclair published The Jungle.

Yet they worked no longer hours than Armour himself. He had built the expected splendid house for his wife and children, but he arose at five each morning and drove to the plant. There he stayed, this mighty transformer of meat into money, until six in the evening, at which time he went home for dinner, followed by a nine o’clock bedtime. “I have no other interest in life but my business,” he told an interviewer. “I do not love the money. What I do love is the getting of it.”

Armour arose at five each morning, drove to the plant—this mighty transformer of meat into money—and there he stayed until six.

He was not, however, afraid to risk the money or to give it away, particularly in the service of Chicago’s future. Chicagoans would long remember what happened in 1893, when a major panic and depression struck the country. A rumor spread that the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank was going under. Panicky depositors lined up to withdraw their savings; a fatal run was a matter of hours away. At that point Armour and some other wealthy Chicagoans showed up to reassure the crowd that they had confidence in the bank’s survival. Armour made a further offer. Anyone still worried could cash personal checks at his office. One account says that a thousand people did so and that Armour forked over the cash without a blink. He and the bank both survived.

Meanwhile he had already given generously to the Armour Mission, a charitable and vocational-training institute under religious leadership and he was one of the founders of the city’s Orchestral Association. When the pastor of Armour’s Plymouth Congretional Church once preached a sermon on the good things he could do “If I Had a Million Dollars,” he had Armour’s promise of the million that very morning. What the minister, Frank Gunsaulus, had in mind was a technical institute for boys. At first known simply as the Armour Institute (opened in 1893), it became the nucleus of today’s Illinois Institute of Technology.

Armour commented happily: “I like to turn bristles, blood, bones, and the insides and outsides of pigs and bullocks into revenue now, for I can turn the revenue into these boys and girls, and they will go on forever.” If there was a conflict between this sentiment and the terrible conditions for Armour’s workers, it was a conflict built into the psyche of his generation, which extolled personal charity but justified gross cruelties in the name of business principles. Armour’s benevolence was genuine, and so was his acceptance by the mass of his fellow citizens. When he died on a January day in 1901, two thousand children were gathered at the mission, singing him into the next world to the tunes of some of his favorite hymns.

The Kingdom of Pullman

George Pullman’s hubris was classically Chicagoan. Mere philanthropy was not enough. He tried to build a worker’s paradise just outside the city limits and met the classic fate of those who compete with the gods.

Like many other successful Chicagoans, Pullman hailed originally from upstate New York. Though trained as a cabinetmaker, he had a taste for invention and engineering. His first triumph came shortly after his arrival in 1857. Like many of the hastily built structures of the raw town, the city’s major hotel, the Tremont House, was sinking into the prairie mud. How could its foundations be strengthened without tearing it down? Pullman’s solution was to dig trenches around the building and ring it with forty-eight hundred jackscrews and twelve hundred men. At prearranged signals each worker would simultaneously give four jackscrew handles a half-turn, and so, a fraction of an inch at a time, the hotel was levered upward without—the story goes—so much as disturbing a sleeping guest or rattling a dish in the dining room.


Comfort was much on Pullman’s mind. He soon began thinking about a railway car that would allow passengers to sleep in beds instead of sitting up miserably all night on straight-backed, swaying seats. Working with a partner, he invented the system of facing pairs of seats and an overhead rack that could be converted quickly into a curtained cubicle containing an upper and a lower berth. Familiar to generations of travelers (and now remembered only by the aging), the sleeping car turned a two-or three-day train trip from an ordeal into a vacation, especially when Pullman also patented the dining car, a quality restaurant on wheels. The price of a first-class ticket entitled anyone to ride in what the creator called his “palace cars.”

By 1881 Pullman was a rich and famous man. Cars carrying his name rolled all over the country’s burgeoning rail network. He had factories, building them in several cities besides Chicago, but it was there that he summoned into existence a vision in which he took enormous pride: a model village for his workers—Pullman, Illinois.

The spirit of paternalism was not new, and earlier enlightened capitalists in Britain and America had experimented with industrial Utopias. But Pullman’s was a model of modern efficiency. His workers rented from him sturdy brick houses with modern conveniences like running water, gas, and electricity—purchased from him. Even sewage was thriftily piped as fertilizer to a Pullman-owned farm.

The town had a park, a theater, a school, a bank, and a hotel. Those who lived there were not only Pullman’s beneficiaries but his subjects. Pullman, the town, was outside Chicago city limits and was administered by Pullman, the owner. However benevolent the intention, it was a company town, and its resident American workers, never hospitable to feudalism, complained that they were baptized in a Pullman church and, when they died, went to a Pullman heaven or a Pullman hell.

Grumbling turned into revolt in May 1894. The depression of that year had curtailed orders for cars, and Pullman’s cost cutting included slashed wages in the shops. At the same time, rents in the village of Pullman were not reduced. It was operated by an ostensibly separate company that was expected to break even. Philanthropy could not violate economic “laws.” Forced to choose between starvation and eviction, the workers struck.

Stung by what he saw as ingratitude, Pullman refused all pleas of mediators—and many fellow businessmen—either to restore the wage cuts or to lower the rents. Then events ran out of control. Some of the workers belonged to Eugene V. Debs’s American Railway Union, embracing all kinds of operating personnel. It called a sympathy strike against all trains that included Pullman cars. This turned the Pullman strike into a crippling, nationwide rail tie-up. Savage feelings were unloosed on both sides. Before it was all over, federal troops had been sent to Chicago to protect strikebreakers, rioters in the city had put the torch to railroad property worth millions of dollars, and Debs had gone to jail.

And George Pullman the model capitalist had become George Pullman the synonym for autocracy and reaction. To add to his sense of being ill used, the courts denied his right to govern his town, which was eventually incorporated into Chicago proper.

Pullman died in 1897, morose and unhinged. He ordered his grave to be lined in concrete to foil grave robbers. He left to his twin sons only an annual income of three thousand dollars each, noting in his will that neither had the talents “requisite for the wise use of large properties.” He likewise bequeathed to his wife only the income of his fortune, which had been reduced to seven and a half million dollars. But she chose to exercise her dower right to claim the principal and, in a posthumous rebuke to her husband’s judgment, ran it up to eighteen million dollars before she died.

Pullman tried to build a workers’ paradise near the city and met the classic fate of those who compete with the gods.

Of all products manufactured in Chicago in the 1890s, Pullman cars may have been most widely known among the general public. But to the millions of America’s farmers and those who depended on them, the name McCormick, stamped on agricultural machinery, was even more familiar.

What McCormick Reaped

Cyrus Hall McCormick was no beginner when he arrived in Chicago on the trail to fortune in 1847. Thirteen years earlier he was refining his already renowned reaping machine on his father’s substantial Virginia farm. Looking for a central location to build reapers in quantity, he judged rightly that the national wheat belt was moving westward and that it would make good sense to locate his plant within a short delivery range. He considered and discarded St. Louis and Milwaukee, then chose Chicago. Seldom has a bet on a city’s future been better rewarded. Within a dozen years the jerry-built little lake port had become the spigot through which Western grain gushed out to the world. It shipped 16,000,000 bushels of wheat in 1859; only three years later the total had swollen to 65,400,000 bushels.


McCormick’s reapers, binders, cultivators, and other harvesting machines were making it all possible, even when hundreds of thousands of farm hands were away at Civil War battlefronts. McCormick was the point man in a technological revolution still in progress that keeps producing greater crops with less labor, and in his time he made Chicago its headquarters.

What was more, he was helping change the outcome of history. Partly because Great Britain needed Northern wheat more than Southern cotton, Britain did not, as expected, intervene on the Confederacy’s behalf. So McCormick, as well as his fellow Illinoisans Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, helped win the Civil War.

This was ironic because McCormick was notably unenthusiastic about the great conflict. Although he had moved into Republican heartland, the Virginia-born McCormick remained unshakable in his loyalty to the Democratic party and the conservative wing of the Presbyterian Church. In his adopted city he bought a Democratic paper, the Chicago Times, and sponsored editorials denouncing Lincoln’s “abolitionist” war and urging peace with the South. He even ran for Congress in 1864—something rare for businessmen then—and lost. He bought a Presbyterian newspaper, too, and endowed professorships at a school for ministers that later became the McCormick Theological Seminary.

Like so many of his ilk, McCormick was a conservative in politics and religion and an innovator and modernist in his business. He sowed a network of agencies and warehouses throughout the Midwest, so that no farmer was ever far from a source of spare parts for McCormick machines or from a salesman to sell replacements. He organized “demonstration days,” which were basically outdoor parties at which farm families were stuffed with food and entertained with plowing and threshing contests—all at McCormick’s expense. He began to sell machines on the installment plan as early as 1851 and was patient when hard times held up payments. It was his boast that he never sued a farmer.

McCormick’s Children

These were policies that made him rich—two hundred million dollars rich when he died, in 1884. The next generation of McCormicks was ready to take over. Like all children of the super-wealthy, they were beset by conflicting impulses toward their inherited treasure. One was to conserve and enlarge it. Another was to employ it in good works. And a third was to blow it gloriously. Within this single clan there were heirs who followed all three courses.

Cyrus Junior inherited his father’s business talents and ambitions. Eighteen years after the patriarch’s death, he led the company into the J. P. Morgan—financed merger that created the gigantic International Harvester Company. But the other son, Harold Fowler McCormick, was the stereotype of a playboy, though he held the customary honorific titles in the family business. First came a dynastic wedding in 1895. He married Edith Rockefeller, and after a lavish honeymoon they moved into a turreted mansion, reputedly a gift of the bride’s father, on Lake Shore Drive.

Edith McCormick filled the house with artworks, silver, porcelain, rare books, precious rugs, and antique furniture. Its gigantic reception hall was called the “Empire Room.” Even for family meals, menus in French were prepared, and four servants were considered necessary to serve lunch for two people. At parties described by society reporters down to the last Paris gown and floral centerpiece, the guests dined off gold plate—but sipped no drop of wine, because true to John D. Rockefeller’s teetotaling principles, his daughter banned alcohol from her home.

The Harold McCormicks never stinted themselves personally—she even had a diamond collar made for her dog—but they were also generous to Chicago’s institutions. They were cofounders of the Chicago Opera Company, which Harold twice bailed out of million-dollar deficits. She gave land for the John McCormick Institution for Infectious Diseases (named for a son who had died of scarlet fever) and for Chicago’s marvelous Brookfield Zoo.

As early as 1851 McCormick sold reapers on the installment plan. It was his boast that he had never sued a farmer.

The story saddens after 1913. The marriage was moribund by then. Edith suffered a nervous breakdown, went off to Switzerland to find psychic healing, and became a convert to Jungian therapy. She returned after World War I, bringing a young Swiss companion—an architect named Edwin Krenn—divorced her husband, and resumed the throne of Chicago society. Harold married a Polish opera singer of debatable talent named Ganna Walska. (She was once pelted with eggs by a disappointed Havana audience.) Before their wedding he underwent a controversial operation popularized by a Vienna doctor, Eugen Steinach, to rejuvenate his sex glands. This marriage lasted only nine years. Edith died in 1932, leaving a fortune of disputed size, but which was at least three million dollars. Harold lived until 1941 and bequeathed a “mere” seven and a half million dollars.

In the third generation the family name came back into politics and journalism. By one of history’s more amiable jokes, a nephew of Cyrus the founder—a diplomat by profession—married the daughter of Joseph Medill, the editor and major owner of the arch-Republican Chicago Tribune, who had been McCormick’s stormiest enemy in wartime days. Two sons were born of this Chicago-style Capulet and Montague coupling. One, Joseph Medill McCormick, became a representative and finally a senator from Illinois from 1919 until his death in 1925. The other was the redoubtable Colonel (from service in World War I) Robert R. McCormick. “The Colonel,” as he was always referred to, took over the Tribune and made it a nationally known organ of Midwestern conservativism and isolationism. Loud in his insistence that the Republic was doomed so long as Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, he was a favorite butt of satirists. What they often overlooked was that he had inherited the business acumen of both his grandfathers and, at the time of his death, had made the Tribune corporation a forty-million-dollar empire of newspapers, radio and television outlets, paper mills, steamships, and real estate.

In 1941 there was a new development that a fiction editor might have dismissed as too unlikely. A paper specifically intended to challenge the politics of the Tribune hit Chicago’s streets. Its name was the Chicago Sun, and its owner, Marshall Field III, was the grandson of another titanic contemporary of Cyrus H. McCormick. Now two descendants of Chicago’s millionaires were battling it out for the civic conscience of the city. It was almost too pat. But in Chicago the remarkable was often ordinary, and such rivalry probably wouldn’t have surprised the first Marshall Field at all.

The Great Shopkeeper

Field, a bashful twenty-one-year-old store clerk from Conway, Massachusetts, came to Chicago in 1856. Like others flocking to the town, he thought the end of the rainbow was somewhere near those bursting, brawling lakeside docks. He began the hard way, working for a local storekeeper for four hundred dollars a year. “Thank God,” he said later, “there is no disgrace in being a clerk.” But he did not intend to stay one. He denied himself everything and slept on a cot in the back room of the store. After nine years of carefully investing his pittances, he had amassed thirty thousand dollars and was ready to move up.

He went into partnership in 1865 with two other Easterners, Levi Leiter and Potter Palmer. Leiter was a Maryland Dutchman; Palmer, still another upstate New Yorker. The three of them understood what was happening to merchandising. In frontier days goods were always in short supply. When a pack-train or a schooner-load arrived, customers uncomplainingly scrambled to get what they could, oblivious of surroundings, careless about price. Now it was different. Customers had to be wooed. And more of them were women. So at Field, Palmer, and Leiter’s dry goods store, an owner, dressed in a frock coat, greeted newcomers at the door. Clerks took the trouble to learn the names and tastes of repeat customers. Attractive window displays tempted middle-class wives, and money-back guarantees won over doubting husbands. Bargains, variety, service—all were part of a new, big-town, democratic marketing strategy.

Palmer moved on to real estate operations in 1867. Fourteen years later Leiter, too, was persuaded to sell out his interest. He went on to other speculations, to the presidency of the Chicago Commercial Club, and to a patron’s role in the Art Institute and the Historical Society. Eventually Leiter became the father-in-law of Lord Curzon, viceroy of India—a long way up for a tradesman.

Field stayed, metaphorically speaking, behind the counter. He moved to new quarters in the bustling heart of downtown Chicago, another expensive concession to shopper convenience. He advertised boldly and roamed the world to stock his shelves. He is credited with originating the slogan “The customer is always right.” And as he helped bring civilization to rowdy Chicago, his wisely managed personal fortune climbed to $120 million.

Yet the most hackneyed, dubious, and envious cliché uttered about the rich—“Money can’t buy happiness”—seems to have been true in Field’s case. His wife, daughter, and son chose to live abroad, out of his presence. The son, Marshall Field II, shot himself in what was described by the family as an accident but was rumored to be suicide. “Marshall,” said a truthful old friend to the father, “you have no home, no family...nothing but money.”

Like others flocking to Chicago, Field thought the end of the rainbow was somewhere near those bursting, brawling lakeside docks.

Field could perform small acts of kindness, like outfitting shivering clerks with gloves and overcoats, free of charge, and simultaneously have union officials—any union officials, according to legend—thrown out of the store. His gifts to the city, however, were unencumbered by contradictions. He provided the University of Chicago with ten acres of prime land, not to mention some $350,000 in other donations. He also endowed the natural history museum that bears his name and is one of those proud structures that make the downtown Chicago lakefront as handsome a stretch of promenade as any European capital can offer.

Marshall Field III inherited the social conscience that his grandfather lacked and would not have comprehended. In 1940 he founded the New York newspaper PM, a handsome, ad-free, illustrated daily that gave a star cast of left-leaning journalists ample scope to muckrake. The next year, as noted earlier, he took on Colonel McCormick in Chicago. In the long run he was the loser; he was forced to abandon PM after punishing losses, and he could keep the Chicago Sun alive only by merging it with the afternoon Times in 1948. He continued to be a heavy benefactor of Chicago institutions, including the University of Chicago and Roosevelt College (now University), which aimed at becoming a working-class avenue to higher education.

Colonel McCormick died in 1955, and Marshall Field III in the next year. The battle between the grandson and the grandnephew of the grandees was over. So, in a sense, was a Chicago era.

Mr. and Mrs. Potter Palmer

No history of Chicago’s wealth should end without at least a nod to Potter Palmer and his wife. Both of them radiate an enviable and refreshing vitality. Palmer left the department store business, as we saw, in 1867, to concentrate on the improvement of downtown real estate. In 1871 workmen finished a splendid new hotel, the Palmer House, into which he had poured three and a half million dollars. He was forty-five years old, and he had just married the daughter of another Chicago developer, the beautiful Bertha Honoré, twenty-three years younger than he. With a courtier’s gesture, Palmer presented the Palmer House to her as a bridal gift.

Thirteen days from the day it opened, it was incinerated in the Great Fire. So was most of Palmer’s other property. Like many other ruined Chicagoans in what was the city’s finest hour, he dismissed the mourners, thumbed his nose at the odds, borrowed, and finagled—and quickly built another Palmer House finer than the first. A “gilded and mirrored rabbit warren,” scoffed Rudyard Kipling when he visited the hotel, which had silver dollars ostentatiously embedded in the barbershop floor. But clients came to stay and to pay. The Palmer House became one of the country’s most famous hostelries, and Palmer’s other ventures prospered, too, allowing him to indulge his favorite extravagance—Bertha Palmer. He indulged her—happily, handsomely, unabashedly. At their Lake Shore Drive mansion, for instance, the outside doors had no knobs. One had to be let in by one of the ever-ready servants. Palmer also liked to see his wife lavishly bejeweled. A diamond and pearl necklace she wore contained 2,268 pearls and 7 diamonds.

“There she stands,” he boasted on one occasion, “with two million on her.” Another time, his lawyer reminded him that Bertha would get eight million dollars if he died. Did he wish to take steps to prevent a second husband from laying hands on it? “No,” was Palmer’s answer. “He will need it.”

But Mrs. Potter Palmer was no mindless clothes horse. She stocked her palatial house with French impressionist paintings that ultimately were worth far more than she paid for them. (The paintings now hang in the Art Institute of Chicago, among others that she helped inspire her peers to buy and that together make up an outstanding collection.) She ran her staff of twenty-six servants with such celebrated efficiency that she was appointed in 1891 to chair a “Board of Lady Managers” of the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition. Then she went and talked Congress into appropriating two hundred thousand dollars for exhibits relating to women and women’s work.

The exposition also gave occasion for one of Chicago’s most celebrated snubs and retorts. Invited to open the exposition was the Infanta Eulalia, the royal princess of Spain, whose ancestors had sent Columbus on his journey. She was known to enjoy a cigarette and a drink when ceremonial duties did not interfere.

Her Highness was put up elegantly at the Palmer House. Then she learned that a grand reception in her honor was to be held at Mrs. Palmer’s home. “An inn-keeper’s wife!” she burst out. She would not condescend to go. The Spanish ambassador was called on to explain the ground rules of American life to the princess. She relented just enough for a cool, token appearance. Bertha Palmer told reporters afterward that she was not hurt. She could not be offended by any gesture of “this bibulous representative of a degenerate monarchy.”

Potter Palmer died in 1902, after making State Street and Lake Shore Drive respectively the commercial and residential showplaces of the city. Bertha Palmer stayed in Chicago until 1910, then moved, at sixty-one, to Sarasota, Florida. She did not go to play cards and gossip in the sun. Instead she opened a real estate business, became a booster, brought citrus orchards and cattle ranches to the little community, and built her inheritance up to about fifteen million dollars. Potter Palmer had obviously taught her a thing or two. Or perhaps it had been the other way around.

With a courtier’s gesture, Potter Palmer presented his splendid new hotel to his young bride as a wedding gift.

End of the Era

By the time Bertha Palmer and Edith McCormick left their social thrones, an era was ending for Chicago and for the whole country as well. In forty post-Civil War years, the United States had surged to industrial greatness, largely by exploiting the mineral and agricultural wealth of the continental interior. More than any other American city, Chicago—and its men of means—stood for that headlong drive, in all its achievement and vulgarity.

After World War I, fortunes would still be made, but on different terms. Recent laws, including the income tax, no longer allowed the very wealthy to flourish with the unabashed self-assurance of the old masters of acquisition. And the big money now was to be found in different places. More of it was made in providing consumer goods, utilities, and urban transportation—and in manipulating stocks. These were the very places where Chicago’s best-known modern masters of capital—Charles T. Yerkes and Samuel Insull (see box on page 43)—made their illegal piles. Those two were part of the new Chicago whose reputation for robustness stayed alive in the Jazz Age. But the city’s true golden day of millionaires already lay behind it in the first generation—the day of the McCormicks, the Armours, and their like—folk heroes of a coarser, less homogenized and more honestly voracious America.


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