In the fall of 1871, a massive fire spread through the city of Chicago. Within three days , over three square miles of the city were burnt, over 200 people were dead, and nearly a third of the city’s population was homeless.
Remarkably, while the city was smoldering - only a few days after the fire was extinguished - railroads were forced to schedule additional trips toward the city. From across the Midwest, thousands of tourists descended on the smoking ruins. Along the debris-choked streets, visitors were greeted by “relic vendors” (usually children) who mined the burnt-out homes, stores, and hotels for melted or charred curiosities.
Children selling relics of the Chicago Fire in the streets.
Here’s how a visiting newspaper reporter described post-fire scenery:
“The town is beginning to fill with aesthetic sight-seers… If one could divest himself of the all feelings of sympathy and pain he could gain from these smoking squares the finest intellectual enjoyment. Monotonous as the gray stretch of desolation appears at first, the longer you look and linger the more this uniformity of character and color breaks up and reveals to you an infinite study of lines and forms. Of course these ruins lack the consecration which has come with the course of ages to the splintered monoliths of Thebes and the gnawed plinths of Paestum. But there is not an equal if not greater human interest in surveying these brand new shards of a great city, and reflecting that the builders do not hide from the sympathies in the mists of immemorial time, but today live and breathe....”
What burned at Chicago was not the heart of an ancient city with multiple pasts. The fire of 1871 burned down a very modern place. Most of what destroyed was probably less than a generation old. Today, the equivalent would be the destruction of a familiar suburb built in the early 1980s. The photos, drawings, and descriptions of the Chicago ruins didn’t illustrate ancient wonders, they depicted a corner of the modern landscape destroyed.
Not Pompeii, Chicago. 1871.
The relics purchased by tourists weren’t antiques. They were decomposed or mutated versions of their own familiar world – a warped teacup or a mass of melted spoons. Visitors to the remains of the Chicago Fire saw the furnishings of their own lives cast in the past tense. Much like the popularity of contemporary post apocalyptic fantasies (take for example the History Channel’s popular “Life After People” series), residents of 1870s America were also intrigued – and entertained - by the idea of the end of their own world.
Teacup, circa late 1860s, warped by the fire in 1871.