Why Chicago Made Doors and Boston Made Textiles

Img: Shorpy/Lewis Wickes Hines. Thread mill girls in Fall River in 1916.

The Chicago History Journal picked up the story of Mayor Fitzgerald’s journey to the “metropolis of the west,” going on to point to another of the Boston Mayor’s choice quotes about why he was visiting Chicago in 1907 to purchase bronze doors. From the article:


They make good citizens and have much to do with Chicago’s success,” [Fitzgerald] declared. “They are skilled workmen and they are employed in places we could not fill with American born youth. The result is they make it possible to obtain here in the United States what it would be necessary to go abroad for were it not for this immigration. Chicago has been blessed with this influx of foreigners, and that is what has made us come here for bronze doors and other similar things which are not obtainable in Boston.”

What’s interesting is to look at numbers from the US Census board that, in 1910, put Chicago’s foreign-born population at 35.9 percent of the city, up just over a percent from 1900. In Boston, that same figure is 36.3% percent.

So here’s the puzzle: what is Mayor Fitgerald, “known as a deep student of immigration questions” talking about?

Here’s perhaps one catch, Chicago’s total population in 1910 is just over two million persons while Boston is at a little over half a million–the entire city just a little more than the size of Chicago’s immigrant population.

The rest of the answer probably has something to do with shifting industrial patterns already at work at the turn of the twentieth century. Boston and the rest of England actually had a lead on Midwestern cities of several decades in industrial production. While not New York or Philadelphia, Boston and surrounding towns hosted some of the largest concentrations of immigrants working in industrial manufactures.

These were typically industrial manufactures of light consumer goods. Like chess shops or diamond merchants in New York, industry of the same type tended to cluster–to draw on concentrations and exchanges of expertise, and particularly in the case of advanced mechanical operations, skilled technicians and experienced workers. In 1880, 57% of the country’s printed cotton cloth produced came from in southeastern New England textile centers, more than half from the textile mills of Fall River (Fall River’s foreign born workforce in the 1870s was 51%).

The East’s lead in these inexpensive products contributed to the decision of Midwestern industry to focus on more expensive commodities, leaving the established consumables market to cities like Boston and focusing on heavy regional products like building materials. With better transportation networks, the advantage of cities with wide regional access grew and specialization became established as goods could be transported anywhere.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, that lead also had become a liability. The age of Boston’s factories was beginning to show and stiff competition in textiles, at least, emerged from the South. The area began to see its manufactures decline for the first time.


One thought on “Why Chicago Made Doors and Boston Made Textiles

  1. Pingback: The news according to The Exhibit Designer: 01.26.10 « The Exhibit Designer

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