Bookwomen building Chicago: an international sisterhood

Part IV 0f IV

Adele Hast


ucy Perkins’s contemporary, Caroline Margaret McIlvaine (1868-1945), shared an interest with Perkins in materials for children. McIlvaine’s involvement with children, however, took a different form from that of Perkins and was only a small part of her many achievements. McIlvaine was a librarian and museum curator, who brought innovative changes to the activities of the Chicago Historical Society’s museum during the first quarter of the 20th Century.

Born in 1868, Caroline McIlvaine embarked on a library career in 1891, when she and her sister Mabel took jobs at the Newberry Library. She worked in all departments at the library. After five years, she was appointed head cataloger and the director of a genealogy index.

In 1901, she left the Newberry for the Chicago Historical Society (CHS) and a job with more responsibility. She became librarian, classifying and cataloging. Although she was supposed to work under the secretary’s direction, between 1906 and 1921, she herself was acting secretary, responsible for the building and the collections. In practice, she did the work of director of the CHS. She handled all areas of operations, contacting donors, managing the maintenance workers, handling acquisitions and publications, and promoting the museum to the public.

She began the practice of field trips to historic places in the state as part of educational programs. She obtained important documents — maps, manuscripts, correspondence — about the history of Chicago and the state. Her most important achievement as a curator was the acquisition of the collection of Charles F. Gunther and the subsequent steps she took to manage the collection. Gunther was a candy manufacturer, a trustee of the Chicago Historical Society, and a friend of Caroline McIlvaine’s family. After his death in 1920, Gunther’s family offered his varied collection of foreign antiquities and Americana to the CHS for $150,000. McIlvaine realized that the purchase of this collection would make the Chicago Historical Society a major American historical museum.

She bought the collection and then had to take steps to raise the money. She combined this goal with a desire to bring women into the society in an active way. McIlvaine organized a Women’s Auxiliary of CHS that would raise the money to buy the Gunther antiquities. She also sold foreign portions of the collection at a New York auction to receive needed funds and to help define the scope of the CHS collection.

McIlvaine realized that the CHS needed press coverage to let people know about the society and to bring in new members. She therefore became active in civic decisions related to historic sites. She was involved with the Chicago Plan Commission to determine Chicago historic places that should have markers and worked for the preservation of the Water Tower and other historic buildings.

In managing the museum, she developed new approaches in programming. McIlvaine saw the value of radio in bringing information to large audiences, and she gave broadcasts on WMAQ about both Chicago history and the services of the CHS.

The museum became an educational institution under McIlvaine’s direction. With large numbers of immigrants in the Chicago population, she saw the collections as a means to popular education for both immigrants and native-born Americans. Her educational agenda included programs for children. For example, school children came to the museum on Saturdays for interesting additions to textbook studies. She believed that the children of immigrants would assist their parents in Americanization by bringing home the museum’s lessons in history. McIlvaine set up a Junior Auxiliary in 1925 for the children of CHS members.

Outside the Chicago Historical Society, she became a leader in a newly developing profession of museum managers. At a time when few women were members of museum staffs, she set standards of professionalism in exhibiting history and in developing collection policies. As the history editor of the journal, Museum Watch, she reported to a national readership on CHS programs as well as developments in other museums.

During the 1920s, her focus on education in museum programming apparently did not receive the support of the Executive Committee of trustees. In 1926 she resigned, citing unsatisfactory salary and working conditions. She explained that she had been working ten hours a day and had not received a salary increase that had been due to her two years earlier. The Executive Committee members, in accepting her resignation, awarded her a $2500 stipend to show their esteem for her service for 25 years.

For the rest of her life, she continued to promote Chicago history as a writer and lecturer. She did a series of radio presentations on notable Chicagoans, directed to primary school children. She became historical adviser to the writers of Chicago and Its Makers, Paul Gilbert and Charles Lee Bryson. The contents of the 1929 publication came from McIlvaine.

During her leadership of the Chicago Historical Society, McIlvaine changed the collection policy and the role of the institution, developing education programs for the public. This focus on education has continued and has remained an important approach to the collections to the present.

In the next generation, another woman also promoted Chicago history but in a different way from McIlvaine. Bessie Louise Pierce (1888-1994), born 20 years after Caroline McIlvaine, was in the academic world. She was a pioneer in the field of urban history, who put the city of Chicago into the midst of historical studies by writing the first scholarly history of any large American city. Her leadership in this work came after a daring career decision.

Inspired by her aunt, Della M. Pierce, who was one of the early women physicians in Michigan, Bessie Pierce set her sights on a professional career. A graduate of the State University of Iowa (today the University of Iowa) in 1910, she taught high school and spent the summers in graduate study at the University of Chicago. By the time she received a Master of Arts degree in 1918, she was teaching at the University of Iowa’s high school and was an affiliate in the history department, doing teacher training.

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., a newly arrived professor at the university, asked Pierce to enroll in a Ph.D. program as his graduate student. She resigned from the teaching job and supported herself by working as Schlesinger’s graduate assistant and babysitter. After she received a Ph.D. in 1923, she joined the Iowa faculty as assistant professor.

By 1929, she had published two books on the teaching of history and was in line for a full professorship, when she had to make a choice once more between job security and opportunity. Professor Charles Merriam, with whom she had studied at the University of Chicago, invited her to join the social studies program there for three years. She would work on the university’s research in urban studies. Accept- ance would mean that she would give up tenure — at age 41 — for a more prestigious position that was, however, temporary and required a change in her research specialty.

After struggling with the decision for a month, she decided to accept the offer and began a lifelong project that would give her an important place in Chicago history. She initiated her own research, the History of Chicago Project, employing graduate students as the researchers. Her plan was to write an accurate scholarly history of the city that improved on the existing popular histories. Under her direction, the students did extensive reading of a variety of sources — manuscripts, letters, newspapers, with double and triple checking of each other’s work. She also taught in the history department, looked for foundation grants to support the research, and wrote.

In 1933 she published As Others See Chicago, a group of travel accounts that introduced a planned extensive study of the city. Four years later, still at Chicago and now a regular member of the faculty, she published the first volume of A History of Chicago, with the subtitle The Beginning of a City, 1673-1848. Pierce’s study marked the start of urban history as a specialty field. In 1940, just three years later, she published Volume II, From Town to City, 1848-1871. Unlike most history books written at the time, Pierce’s volumes included considerable social history, though they focused on economic history.

During World War II, many colleagues and student assistants left to serve in the military, and the publication of her next volume was delayed. In 1943, she became full professor, 14 years after arriving at the University of Chicago.

Bessie Pierce retired in 1953 and then finished the third volume of her Chicago history, The Rise of a Modern City, 1871-1893, published in 1957. She never completed the fourth volume, but left behind a mass of information on the city at the turn of the 20th Century.

The three volumes remain reliable sources on the history of Chicago. Indeed, we used them in the course of the research for Women Building Chicago. Bessie Pierce took a chance in her ambition to advance and thereby left a lasting heritage in Chicago history and in urban history.

We’ve just taken a look at a few of the accomplished bookwomen who played a role in Chicago’s history. Although there are many more in the book, the limits of one volume restricted the number. Perhaps in the future someone will record the lives of those who are not in the book or who are now busy in the community.

Author’s note. The profiles in this article were drawn, in part, from the following essays in Women Building Chicago 1790-1990: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Rima Lunin Schultz and Adele Hast, copyright 2001 by Chicago Area Women’s History Conference, with permission of Indiana University Press: “Barker, Margery, and Hamill, Frances,” by Ruth B. Hutchison; “Butcher, Fanny Amanda,” by Celia Hilliard; “Cleary, Kate McPhelim,” by Susanne K. George; “Humpal-Zeman, Josefa Veronika,” by Julia E. Noblitt with Alena Zárasová; “McIlvaine, Caroline Margaret,” by Victoria Kasuba Matranga; “Perkins, Lucy Fitch,” by Pamela Todd; “Pierce, Bessie Louise,” by Perry R. Duis.

Caroline M. McIlvaine

Caroline M. McIlvaine. Photo provided through special arrangements with the Chicago Historical Society, through whose courtesy it is used.

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