Landmark Stages

America in 1889

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age

The Gilded Age in America was nearing its end in 1889. The Gilded Age was an era featuring the growth of industry and immigration. It was a time of steam railroad expansion, electric street railways, horse and buggies, stagecoaches, high front wheel bicycles, telephones, telegraphs and new electric lights. The production of iron and steel rose dramatically and oil was in great demand. Steamers and sailing ships were used for trade, mail and immigration. Business tycoons like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie rose to wealth and power. The opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the upper class' leisure hours. While the upper class roared into wealth previously unknown in the United States, most of the population was in poverty. Nearly a million eastern and southern European immigrants arrived in America each year, settling primarily in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These new immigrants crowded into the poorest neighborhoods, the cities’ crime- and disease-ridden slums. A growing middle class spurred a late-nineteenth-century reform movement to reduce poverty and improve society.

For more information regarding Illinois during the Gilded Age, please visit

Key Events from 1889

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The Eiffel Tower*
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Oklahoma land rush*
  • The Hull House was opened by Miss Jane Addams
  • Vincent van Gogh painted "The Starry Night" while in the asylum of Saint-Rémy
  • Mark Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
  • John Philip Sousa composed "The Washington Post"
  • In the 1889 World Series, New York defeated Brooklyn 6 games to 3
  • The Eiffel Tower, built for the World’s Fair Paris Exposition Universelle 1889, opened. At 984 feet it was the tallest structure in the world until 1931
  • Dr. Herman Hollerith received first U.S. patent for a tabulating machine
  • President Cleveland signed bills to admit the Dakotas, Montana and Washington State to the Union, bringing the number of states to 42
  • In March 1889 Benjamin Harrison was inaugurated as the 23rd President of the United States
  • The Wall Street Journal began publication
  • The Kodak Camera (“You press the button. We do the rest.”) was placed on the market for the first time. It was loaded with 100 pictures and cost $25
  • In October 1889, Thomas Edison demonstrated his first modern picture Kinetoscope
  • The Oklahoma Land Rush opened at noon on April 4, 1889
  • Bayer introduced aspirin in powder form in Germany
  • The “three cent nickel” was discontinued
  • The Moulin Rouge in Paris first opened its doors in October 1889
  • In May 1889, Johnstown, Pennsylvania was devastated by the worst flood in the Nation's history. Over 2,200 people died.
  • The Monadock Building by Chicago architectural firm Burnham & Root began construction
  • Chicago's City Council began their campaign to host the World’s Fair on July 22, 1889 (Chicago won the vote in 1890)
  • The Auditorium Theatre opened


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The Republican Convention, 1888 Chicago, c.1889
Courtesy of "Chicago and Its Makers" (Chicago: Felix Mendelsohn, 1929)

The Booming City
Chicago grew from a city of 503,000 in 1880 to a city of over one million in 1890, making it the second largest city in the United States. This growth brought booms in architecture, pollution, business, production, diversity, crime, culture, and art. People flooded into Chicago from all over the world looking for new opportunity.

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The Great Chicago Fire, c.1871
(Illustration courtesy of Harpers Weekly)

The Great Chicago Fire
The Great Chicago Fire occurred on October 10, 1871. The fire began on DeKovan Street and raged through the center of the city, past the river and past the north side city limits to Fullerton Avenue. Over 1600 acres were burned, 250 people killed and more than 17,000 buildings destroyed. In 1889, eighteen years after the fire, Chicago continued to be influenced greatly by this historic disaster.

The architecture of the 1880s in Chicago was thriving. The Great Fire brought architects from all over the world to help rebuild Chicago. New technologies of the time included Elisha Otis’s elevator (1857), floating foundations, and new steel form construction, allowing for the birth of a new type of building called a “skyscraper”. The first completed skyscraper, designed by William LeBaron Jenney in 1885, was the Home Insurance Building located on Adams and LaSalle. Mr. Jenney joined the following as practitioners and pioneers in the new technologically advanced approach to architecture called the Chicago School of Architecture: John Van Osdel, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, John Welborn Root and Frank Lloyd Wright. Additional architectural styles of the 1880s included: Stick Style, Queen Anne Style, Shingle Style, Ricardsonian Romanesque, Chateauesque, Colonial Revival, Italianate and others.

Labor Activism
Through much of the 1870s and 1880s Chicago was a leading center of labor activism and radical thought. Working men and women from every trade, of every skill-level, and of all nationalities and races streamed into labor organizations by the tens of thousands, expressing demands for shorter hours, higher wages and a permanent voice in determining their working conditions. Major labor unions in Chicago during 1889 included Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.

The stockyards opened in 1865 and made Chicago the center of the American meat packing industry for decades. Using Chicago as a hub, this new stockyard would serve as a commercial link between America's East and West. Fifteen miles of track delivered livestock directly to the stockyards from the city's main rail lines. In addition, hedging transactions by the stockyard companies played a key role in the establishment and growth of the Chicago-based commodity exchanges and futures markets. The working conditions for the thousands employed at the Union Stock Yards were terrible. Laborers on the killing floors had to work amidst the stench and piercing shrieks of animals being slaughtered while standing on blood-soaked floors. They worked long hours-usually ten to twelve a day-in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summertime. Stockyard employers could keep wages low and withhold benefits due to the ready supply of immigrant workers desperate to earn a living. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, describes the life of a family of immigrants working in Chicago's Union Stock Yards at the end of the 19th century.

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Fashion plate 1888* from Peterson's Magazine

In 1889, upper-class men wore bowler or low top hats, tuxedo jackets and matching long pants. Women wore corsets and bustles with their hair often piled on top of the head with curly fringe or bangs on the forehead. They often wore tall hats tilted back and decorated bodices. Starting at the end of 1889, the bustle diminished and was completely out of fashion by the mid 1890s.

*This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired in the United States.

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*Photos Courtesy of the Auditorium Theatre and Roosevelt University unless otherwise noted.