This article is part of our latest special report on Fine Arts & Exhibits, which looks at how art institutions are helping audiences discover new options for the future.
Legend has it that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a candle and lit the Great Chicago Fire 150 years ago.
The fire, which burned for three days in October 1871, killed 300 people and made more than 100,000 homeless.
In reality, however, nobody knows what started the fire. That’s just one of the revelations of a new tragedy anniversary exhibition, City on Fire: Chicago 1871, that will run through August 2025 at the Chicago History Museum.
The exhibition designed for families with many interactive elements follows the path of the fire from the barn of the Irish immigrant family O’Leary, where the fire probably broke out, and wanders through the city to the east and north. Visitors can learn about the destruction of the fire, the decisions made by citizens in their escape, and the city’s restoration efforts that eventually led to new fire safety procedures.
Founded in 1856 as the Chicago Historical Society, the museum lost its original building and most of its collection in the fire and moved to its current home in 1932.
It also runs public programs related to the exhibition. These include bus tours offered through October 31 in partnership with the Chicago Architecture Center that follow the course of the fire and highlight the highlights of the city’s recreation, and a December 9 lecture on the legacy of African American firefighters in Chicago.
A family program, offered in partnership with design collective Chicago Mobile Makers, enables participants to build a model city that works for all people. Another is “Fire in Boomtown” – performances by musicians and storytellers Amy Lowe and Megan Wells-Shunk, based on their 1998 CD of the same name; The museum describes the performances as “a musical mixture of commentary, theater and history”.
Julius L. Jones, an assistant curator for the museum who curated the exhibition, said Chicago faced problems in 1871 that it continues to face to this day. “It was a big city with big city problems – the fastest growing city in the world,” he said. “There were issues of class and race and ethnicity, social and economic tensions.”
Immigrants and minority groups in the city included Germans, Irish, and Eastern Europeans, as well as African-Americans, whom Mr. Jones described as a “small but vibrant community”.
The exhibit dispels some myths about the fire, including the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking a candle and lighting the fire in the family’s barn.
At the time, immigrants “were held responsible for all of the city’s vices and social ills,” said Jones, adding, “Blaming their guilt is taking on a life of its own. We don’t know what started the fire. “
He hopes the exhibition will generate a modern response. “People will be able to draw parallels between perceptions of non-native-born immigrants in 1871 and the way immigrants are discussed in some areas of discourse today,” he said.
One reason the fire spread quickly was the widespread use of wood, not only in buildings, but also in pavement and water pipes. Unusual weather conditions also contributed to this: According to the exhibition, the weather was “unusually hot for the time of year”, over 80 degrees, “much higher than normal for this time of year” as well as dry and windy.
Also, the firefighters were exhausted from putting out so many previous fires.
The objects on display include lithographs and photographs taken at the time of the fire; Equipment used by local firefighters; alleged fragments of the O’Leary barn sold as souvenirs; Items that were melted together during the fire, including pocket watches, teacups, plates, coins, and knitting needles; and charred cookies that resemble pieces of charcoal.
One of the most interesting objects is a modern photographic replica of the study for the 47-foot by 380-foot circular image of fire made for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Mr. Jones said the original circular painting was destroyed and sold as scrap in the early 20th century. An adjoining, interactive touchscreen provides information about what the scenes occupy today in the reconstructed panorama.
Another part of the exhibition is dedicated to Julia Lemos, a widow who supported her five children and parents by working as an artist for an illustration company in downtown Chicago. In bed, when the fire reached her house, “I thought I was dreaming, the whole street was full of people,” she later recalled, “the sky reflected fire.”
A manuscript she wrote about her experiences during the fire and her 1912 oil painting entitled “Memories of the Chicago Fire of 1871” are on display.
The Hudlin family can also be seen in the exhibition. Anna Elizabeth Hudlin was born free in Pennsylvania while her husband Joseph was born into slavery in Virginia but escaped. They met and married in St. Louis, moved to Chicago in 1855 and had five children.
Mr. Hudlin worked downtown as a doorman with the Chicago Board of Trade; during the fire he went there to rescue important documents. Mr. Jones said this allowed the Board of Trade to resume operations quickly after the fire and that Mr. Hudlin was “recognized as a hero”.
Mrs. Hudlin opened her house – in the South Division of Chicago, off the fire route – to people who had been driven away by the fire; Mr. Jones said she became known as the “Angel of Fire”.
At the end of the exhibition, the current fire protection reforms will be discussed. For example, a fire that swept the city in 1874 resulted in a ban on the construction of wooden houses in the city center. Steel frames were required for new buildings, including some of the world’s first skyscrapers.
A 1903 fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago caused theater doors to open outwards rather than inwards – the latter a design that can lock in occupants, even during the 1903 fire. Mr Jones said a 1958 fire occurred in the Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago has led to “significant improvements in fire safety in schools,” including the installation of fire doors and automatic sprinklers.
“Fires that later happened in and around Chicago,” he said, “shaped fire safety all over the world.”