The following is a reprint of an article featuring a brief history of the early Bohemians of Chicago that appeared in the Chicago Tribune on March 07, 1886. It was entitled as follows: Manners and Customs of the Bohemian Portion of the City’s Population. They Are Industrious, Thrifty and Generally of a Most Peaceable Disposition. A Community That Is Rapidly Growing Rich by the Efforts of its Individuals. I have highlighted a few of the names and this may help some with their genealogical research. All of the photographs and articles have been added by me, they did not appear in the original.
It’s interesting to see what was written about us Czechs over 133 years ago. Remember, this was before World Wars I and II, before the Depression, before Clément Ader invents the first aircraft or airplane – a fly machine called Ader Éole (1890), before the first running, gasoline-powered American car was built and road-tested by the Duryea brothers of Springfield, MA (1893).
It is the year Heinrich Hertz publishes a conclusive proof of the existence of radio waves (1888), before Frédéric Swarts invented the first chlorofluorocarbons to be applied as refrigerant (1890), before Whitcomb Judson invented the zipper (1891), before Léon Bouly invented the cinematograph (1892), before Rudolf Diesel invented the diesel engine (1893), before Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen invented the first radiograph or x-ray (1895) or before Waldemar Jungner invented the nickel–cadmium battery (1899).
Almost nothing that we use (and often take for granted) today existed at the time of this writing. Chicago was rising to the sky as a large city, and there was already a very large population of Bohemians in the city. We know that there were approx. 10,000 Bohemians in Chicago in 1870, and by the turn of the century, Chicago would become the third-largest Czech city in the world after Prague and Vienna.
By 1920, the Bohemian population in Chicago would grow to approx. 200,000.
But life in Chicago was difficult. Like all other larger cities of the time, the neighborhoods were overcrowded and unsanitary, the oppressive working conditions were unsafe for the tens of thousands of immigrants who labored long hours at low-wage jobs and the city was, in many ways, a filthy cesspool.
Bohemians were active in making positive changes. They fought for higher wages and organized unions. They worked together to ensure that the new world they were building for their families and descendants would be a good one.
Beginning of the article written March 7, 1886 – – – – –
There is probably no more interesting and progressive section of Chicago’s foreign population than that inhabited by the Bohemians. Some years ago, there was a decided prejudice against them on the part of American workingmen and capitalists.
They took a very active part in the strikes and riots here some eight years ago, and they established a Socialistic propaganda which was far from being popular. They so far succeeded in carrying their ideas into effect that they were the ringleaders of the strikes, and they elected four of their nominees – not all of them Bohemians, however, to the Chicago Common Council.
One of the most active among them at the time was Belohradsky, who is now living in Texas. Another so-called leader was Leo Meilbeck, Alderman and legislator, who afterwards committed suicide while acting as Public Library attendant. Frank Stauber and J. J. Altpeter were also elected to the council as representatives of the German and Bohemian Socialistic elements, as was Christian Meier.
It is only fair to say, however, about Stauber and Altpeter that there have been few more conscientious councilmen than they. But as before stated, the Bohemians lost caste about the time alluded to on account of their Socialistic tendencies and “striking” propensities.
It is only fair to say, however, about Stauber and Altpeter that there have been few more conscientious councilmen than they. But as before stated, the Bohemians lost caste about the time alluded to on account of their Socialistic tendencies and “striking” propensities.
When they first came to America they were willing to work for almost anything. They would underbid the Irish and German and American workingmen, and naturally evoked considerable hostility against themselves as a result. They were to suffer for this, and were, in fact, looked down on as outcasts, and not entitled to much sympathy. When they took to striking and communism they were cursed up hill and down dale by employers and employees.
Latterly all this has changed, and in the lumber and furniture manufacturing regions, where they are now employed, they are looked upon as some of the thriftiest members of the community, useful citizens, capable and efficient workingmen and large contributors to the wealth and growth of Chicago.
The First Bohemian Immigrants
The first Bohemian immigration to Chicago began about the year 1848 – “the year of revolution”. The Czechs rose in rebellion against the Austrian authorities, with whom they have never been on good terms, but were speedily suppressed by the Emperor and his army. Those who were prominent in the rebellion had to flee the country.
Most of them came to America, some of them settling in Montreal, where they engaged largely in the cigar-making business. The Bohemian emigration was at first about the rate of 6,000 per year. In 1878, 1879 and 1880 it reached probably 10,000 per annum.
It has fallen off again to 6,000. Most of those who came here were farmers, farm laborers, workers in wood, or weavers – usually carpet and cotton weavers. Those of them who located in Chicago settled down in the lumber region of the Sixth and Eighth wards. Some settled in the hardwood region of the Fourteenth Ward. F. B. Zdrubek, editor of the Bohemian daily paper the Svornost, estimates the Bohemian population of Chicago now at 40,000 at least.
He estimates the entire Bohemians of America at 20,000.
Outside of this city they are located in Nebraska, Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin on farms. Of the 40,000 in Chicago 26,000 are in the Sixth Ward, 9,000 in the Seventh and Eighth Wards, along Canal Street and Blue Island avenue principally, and about 5,000 are in the Fourteenth Ward.
Lumber Workers and Furniture Men
They readily find employment in the lumber yards and furniture factories. The lumber merchants say they are steady, faithful workingmen. They are constant, but they do not rush matters. The ordinary pay is about 15 cents per hour, though they get as high as 20 cents. They have practically driven out Irish and German lumbermen. The latter will not work by the hour. They work by the piece – by contract – and are not satisfied unless they make from 40 to 50 cents per hour. At Harvey’s, where the foreman, John Kallal, is a Bohemian, very few of the Bohemians are employed. The same is true of Hatch and Keith’s. At Beidler’s Germans seem to have preference. But as a rule the Bohemians have the call.
Many of them are excellent cabinetmakers and upholsterers. They make from 535 to 40 cents per hour at this trade. They are nearly always at work – always driving at something. Their wives and the members of their families are also employed washing for families, tailoring, etc. Any person who goes into the Bohemian district will encounter some Bohemian man or woman in every block loaded down with bundles of pantaloons or vests on the way to some down-town clothing house.
The housewife usually employs four or five girls at this work. The girls make from $5. to $6. per week, and their employers make a handsome profit. The practice which prevailed in Bohemian regions some time ago, of sending the women around to pick up shavings and kindling wood is fast dying out. The women’s time is more valuable now-a-days and begging is unknown among them. The Italians appear to have a monopoly of that. The “dagos” can be even encountered in the Bohemian quarter plying their vocation.
The Bohemian quarter in the Sixth Ward is certainly a credit to their industry and zeal. There is not a more cleanly or better built workingmen’s section in Chicago. The district west of Halsted to Lawndale, south of Sixteenth to Twenty-second Street, is built up with comfortable three-story brick dwellings and stores, nearly all of them owned by the Bohemians.
The buildings occupy nearly the entire length of the lot. They are all neat and substantial, although there is some degree of sameness in the plan of building.
People so hard working and so thrifty as the Bohemians cannot but prosper.
Portions of some are frame structures pushed back on the lot and built up in front. All are neatly painted and have a wholesome and healthy appearance.
Along Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-first, Centre Avenue, Throop Street, Ashland Avenue, Blue Island, Wood Street, Hoyne Avenue, the structures are very fine; the stores are especially substantially built and commodious, and would reflect credit on any part of Chicago.
From a sanitary point they are all right too, though perhaps there is too much crowding. Nearly every floor has three families. This is not always conducive to morality, it is claimed.
The Bohemians, as is well known, are very fond of soups. The odor from that article of food is not always the most pleasant. But, on the whole, there is little cause of complaint nowadays. Being so very frugal they do not buy the best cuts of meat, but they buy good cuts. Mr. Curran of Curran and Delany, who do an extensive trade with the Czechs, says they always buy good but not the best meats, and they are excellent at paying. They always come to time with their bills.
They are good customers and not in the least clannish. Very many of them are in the butcher line themselves, and though there are some in the saloon line, there are not many.
The editors of the Svornost say there are only about fifty in the “Cesky vinopalna line” (Bohemian distillery). There are almost as many in the drug store business. Quite a number are also in the carpet-weaving and clothing trades. Nearly all of them are making money.
It is estimated that at least 60 per cent of the Bohemians are property owners. They have twelve building societies, with an average membership to each society of 700, and Mr. Cermak, one of the editors of the Svornost says that the weekly receipts from each society varies from $600 to $900. Besides, there are a number of men who are not members of those societies who are large property owners; William Kaspar is reported to be worth $100,000.
John Kallal is a member of the firm of T. W. Harvey and Company. Dr. Kadlec of the Public Library Board; Frank Fucik, the West Town Clerk; John Matuska of Matuaka and Craig, the furniture dealers; and several others well-to-do.
The editor of Svornost publishes besides the daily, two weekly papers, the Amerikan Mondays and the Prilcha Duchu Casu Sundays. Besides, he publishes quite a number of books and pamphlets, and his establishment on South Canal Street is well stocked. He employs about fifteen typesetters.
Nearly all of the Bohemians can read and write their own language. Their public school system in the old country is conducted almost entirely by the priests. In this country the priests try to control the education, but the liberal thinkers’ society – the C. S. P. S. (Czecho-slovak Benevolent Society) – which has a membership of 2,000 in this city, stoutly opposes.
The C. S. P. S. by the way, has a magnificent hall and school in the Eighteenth Street. The organization is condemned by the church, but it flourishes. The editor of the Svornost seems to be the leading spirit in it. Liberal thought has been a phase of Bohemian public life since the time of John Hus. The attendance at the Catholic schools – there are three of them – is quite large. They are taught by the sisters. The children in attendance are all neatly and comfortably clad. They seem to run to bright colors. Every one wears a bright red hood, strong, thick-soled shoes, and a comfortable calico dress with abundance of petticoats.
The Bohemian attendance at the public schools is also quite large, especially at the Throop, Longfellow and Garfield schools. Few, however, remain to complete the Grammar School course.
The young women nearly all marry early. There is a disposition among the boys to be somewhat wild. This is especially the case with those of them who get to have a contempt for their parents and their parents’ country.
There are three Bohemian Catholic churches, one in the Fifth Ward, one in the Sixth Ward and one in the Eighth. Nearly all the women attend church while not more than half the men do so. John Kallal, already alluded to, is the leading Catholic layman. There are three theaters and about a dozen Bohemian halls.
There is usually theatrical entertainment every night, and there is sure to be a dance every Saturday. At these dances some of the young Bohemians are apt to be boisterous, but as a rule they are well conducted, and there is little trouble.
Habits and Mode of Life
There is an impression abroad that the Bohemians are slovenly in their habits. This is not the case. On the contrary, they are clean and tidy as a rule. The women especially are very cleanly. They get on very well with their neighbors. Since Sadowa, there has been some feeling between them and the Germans, but it is dying out. They take very kindly to the Poles. The Irish do not play them fair in politics, they say, and there is a tendency among them to be more self assertive.
They like Cullerton because he attends to ward improvements, but they are down on Lawler for many reasons, though Frank appointed a leading Bohemian sub-Postmaster of the Southwest district. The leaders among them say that they will demand a better representation among the political parties in the future.
They have a sort of natural penchant for politics. They manage to secure representation in all the principal offices in town. They claim from 6,000 to 7,000 votes, though this is probably an exaggerated estimate.
They claim a population of but 40,00 altogether, and as they have abnormally large families, and, as many of them neglect to take out naturalization papers, 6,000 or 7,000 is too high an estimate.
They have very nearly a majority, however, in the Sixth Ward. Hitherto they have acted with the Democrats, but the leading ones among them, with the exception of Kallal, Schlessinger and Nikodeun, say they are tired of the Democratic party, particularly of the Harrisonian branch of it.
They assert that they have been victimized by the contractors in street-paving jobs, and, rightly or wrongly, they hold administration responsible therefor. They also complain of the espionage of the police.
As a usual thing the Bohemians are orderly and law-abiding – they are, as stated before, a little boisterous at their society meetings when they indulge too freely in beer, which they too often do, and the policemen are too apt to use their clubs on them. There is a general impression, too, that the women are so desirous of getting rich that they do not know the difference between “mine and thine” very frequently. This is pronounced a gross slander, however, by the Bohemians themselves, who complain that the police treat them harshly, spread false reports about them and allow young toughs to break into their amusement halls, where the aforesaid toughs insult the women. This is especially the case at the Bohemian Hall on Taylor Street, near Canal, and frequent fights result as a consequence. In the Sixth Ward places of entertainment the Bohemians are amply able to take care of themselves.
The Loafers Among Them
It is very noticeable that they do not loaf about saloons to any great extent. The present is a very dull time in the lumber region, and many hundred men are idle there, but in the Bohemian saloons in the vicinity very few men are to be found. They devote much of their time now-a-days to improving their buildings, constructing sidewalks, and clearing away rubbish or assisting their industrious wives. They are seldom found idle. Two young men met on Twenty-second Street last Thursday were asked why they were not at work. “No work to do”, they replied. No house – no work now”. They went on to explain as best they could that they had been in search of work.
Besides the religious, anti-religious and building societies, the Bohemians have also several gymnastic societies.
They practice nearly every night.
They are very athletic fellows although they are not quick. For persons who are such skilled tailors they display very poor taste in dressing. The men’s clothing is generally speaking, coarse and badly fitting, the pantaloons bag at the knees and are many inches too short, while the shoes are coarse and heavy.
They are a healthy race, though there is considerable mortality among the children in summer, very likely due to overcrowding and the neglect of other sanitary regulations. Though they have prospered in Chicago there is a general tendency among those who have ready cash or who can dispose of their property, to leave here and go to live on farms. Their papers here are filled with advertisements of farms for sale in Nebraska, Dakota, Texas, and parts of Wisconsin, and there are a couple of farm agencies here doing a big business. For this and other reasons it is not likely that the Bohemian population of Chicago will increase to any great extent in the future, though they are a prolific race, and many of those who go to farming return in a few years.
The Bohemian quarter of the Sixth Ward is now nearly built up. The Scandinavians are crowding in on them west of Ashland Avenue, in what is called the Stockholm region. The lumber business there is not expanding. Much of it is likely to go to South Chicago, and the furniture factories are already crowded. As small traders they do not make much headway, their trade being confined mostly to people of their own nationality.
The extension of the tracks of the West Division Railway Company on West Nineteenth Street, will open up some new territory, but not a great amount. The building societies of the region have practically done their work. Very few dwellings are going up now.
Nearly all are three and four story store buildings of a very substantial character. The Bohemian are not the only buildings, however. The Germans and the Hebrews are doing more than their share.
It is curious that, though there are very many Bohemian Jews in this city the relation between them and the Bohemian Christians appear to be far from cordial; and the Catholic Bohemians and the liberal thinkers appear to cordially hate each other. The liberal thinkers seem to be the most prosperous, and also to be the better educated.
They seem to have a decided preference for Voltaire, Huxley, Darwin and two or three of their own writers. Their literature is not extensive. The women have two or three societies of their own, and, strange as it may seem in women, the societies are not of a religious character.
It is a mistake though, to suppose that the Bohemians as a whole are not religious people. Of the 40,000 who live here more than two-thirds attend church some time or other. The average Sunday attendance at the church at the corner of Allport Avenue and Eighteenth Street is about 6,000. (Link to parish history here.)
Twice that number of different persons attend during the year. The attendance at the DeKoven church numbers about 4,000 on the average, and the attendance at the Portland Avenue Church in the Fifth Ward is about 2,500. The Bohemians of the Fourteenth Ward attend the Polish church. (Link to Jan Hus and Fourth Presbyterian Church history here.)
The pastors pay great attention to the societies belonging to the church, and devote their entire energies to keeping them intact. Among no foreign nationality is there such pronounced hostility to formal religion, and it requires all the zeal of the clergymen to combat this.
Mr. Frank Fucik, a well-known Bohemian of the Seventh Ward, said yesterday, in relation to the building societies and other matters: “The district between Halsted Street and Ashland Avenue is now almost built up, and the Bohemians are beginning to build in the district between Ashland and Western Avenues. The Scandinavians are also building in there, but west of the lime kiln on Hoyne Avenue and thereabouts the Bohemians seem to have it all to themselves.
Value of Their Property
“What is the value of their property? I heard it estimated at $20,000,000, but that is an exaggeration, perhaps. They own at least $16,000,000 worth of property in Chicago. They seldom send money to the old country, except for the purpose of assisting relatives to come out. What they earn they keep here.
It is a mistake to think that the Bohemians are only common laborers and wood-shovers. They are blacksmiths, watchmakers, and wood-turners, etc.
Those along Canal Street, Canalport Avenue and Blue Island Avenue work at various mechanical trades. They work at the manufacture of American cutlery to a very large extent, and they are all steady, sober, active men. They have frequently been slandered because they have not been understood.”
Renters or Owners
To whom do the house-owners rent?
To people of all nationalities – generally to their own countrymen though. They usually get $7 or $8 for three rooms. A good proportion of the rent goes for a time to pay interest. The death rate is as low in the Bohemian quarter as in any other portion of the city. Their homes look as neat and as clean. They appear clean themselves, and I don’t think there is the least ground for prejudice against them now.
Mr. Chatfield of the firm of Street, Chatfield and Keep, lumber dealers, who traveled through Bohemia, said that in their native country the Bohemians appear to be industrious, frugal, hard-working people.
Like the Irish they did not like their form of government. There have been frequent uprisings. They seemed to be of considerable political and intellectual force in their native country. He considered them a very valuable portion of the population. He had heard few things derogatory to them.
A three days’ sojourn in their midst was convincing as to their thrift, their industry, their cleanly habits, their generally high moral character, their saving habits and their intellectual advancement.
They usually make good citizens; they have aided more than any other class of the population in building up the best portion of the southwestern district of the city; they have done their part by their labor in adding to the material prosperity of the city in adding to its taxable value.
They are excellent members of society, and they and their children have done and will no doubt continue to do their full duty towards the great city which they have chosen for their future home.
End of article ——–
Bonus Articles and Images
Many things happened in the years to follow and the number of Czechs grew in the Chicago area. None of the early Bohemians could have predicted what was to come and how their newly adopted city would be so important to their homeland.
Below are some interesting articles and photographs from the early Chicago days which I came by while researching this article. Most are loosely translated or explained. They are not in any particular order – I just thought since I was so interested in them, you may be too.
Underground goods transport in Chicago. (1909)
Chicago has acquired a magnificent new transport business that has proven itself to be excellent. It is a spectacular subway network for the transport of goods and postal goods, operated first in the Illinois Cie Underground Tunnel, which soon became so important that its network would be expanded by an additional 20 miles to reach a full 60. miles of circumference and led up to 46 feet underground. This highly modern means of transport has gained such popularity that hundreds of department stores are negotiating a special line of direct connection with the underground transport route. Transport of goods happens directly from the station to the shops and vice versa. Two years ago, the post office had also made a special contract with this line, and today you will not see a mail carriage in all of Chicago’s streets – all the vast supplies of letters, newspapers, and goods are transported from post office to post office by expensive underground. Built at a cost of $ 10 million, it has over 250 electric locomotives and over 2,500 wagons. The only post office has 66 electric motors and 115 cars. The whole tunnel is illuminated electrically on all sides and individual trains are also electrically controlled. However, the railway operates day and night and transports goods to 100,000 tonnes in 24 hours. As soon as the new network is completed, the company intends to take over the transport of all the raw material — excavation of construction and construction supplies. However, it is pale that the streets of the city will acquire a new, quite extraordinary character, and that the legendary noise and unbearable turmoil will be removed. In our country, however, this seems to be just a dream, purely American. Luckily for other European cities, too – for that they abound in something that “poor” America can rarely indulge in; marching troops, the noise of guns and above all popular military music! … American technical buildings and facilities are late in Europe, usually when they are in America long ago in use. Therefore, America also surpasses Europe in so many cases, and the “new world” has become a truly new and different world, which will soon overwhelm the old mother of Europe and whose winning competition is not so easily overcome, let alone overcome – in America. it offers everything for effort and persistent work, and the famed pursuit of the dollar is the result of tough work.
American Czechs from Chicago Visit Prague
A Game of Lights & Shadows in US Advertising, 1927
Chicago in 1908
The second metropolis of the United States of America, the second with its size and population, spectacular trade and industry, but in terms of the wonderful, truly “Americann” development and growth of the world’s first ever, as the world’s largest market 2 million inhabitants, forming the true commercial and industrial center of the entire United States.
However, the city’s location is extremely favorable – it lies at the wake of the great Lake Michigan, not the southernmost of the huge lakes of Canada, and thus has the most convenient connection with the whole commercially important water area. Through the whole branch of the canals connected the city with the Mississippi and the Canadian lakes and the canals with the Atlantic Ocean. The small but navigable river Chicago-River and its tributary South Brauch of Chicago-River divides the city into triple almost the same part, north, south and west; the territory of the city is about ten times larger than the territory of Prague. The entire network of railways links to the outermost parts of the United States, growing year by year. The internal connection is ensured by a huge network of tramways, omnibuses and vehicles of all kinds, and across the rivers leads to 70 revolving bridges.
The streets are unusually dull in character, built at right angles, wide and paved with mostly wood; they are budgeted over a length of 3000 km. In addition to the dizzying bustle of commercial and industrial, Chicago is a true city of gardens, and spectacular parks (Lincoln’s largest park on Lake Michigan with statues of President Granf and Lincoln, where the World’s Great Exhibition was held in 1893) are linked by magnificent boulevards in length. finished – 24 km. Over 450 churches and prayer houses serve piety and, of course, the zealous agitation of various religious denominations. The Court House, while forming a large block in the French Renaissance style with the Citty Hall, was no longer enough to meet the needs of the municipality, so a new building (see our first picture) was built next to it at a cost of many millions of dollars. show off the largest city hall in the world. Since the terrible fire of 1871, all houses have been built from solid mineral material, and an interesting picture shows us a truly American situation in this regard – the building so-called. “Sky Scrapers”, multi-storey buildings, consisting entirely of iron traverses and concrete and constructed with sweat equity. And, as we know, in America, everything is founded and built at most practically, so is the legendary University of Chicago, built far beyond the city in a beautiful park on a lovely lake, and in the form of a medieval noble castle. The legendary and numerous branched Freemasonry of America has its own special building in Chicago – the Massonic Temple. Special mention should also be made of the penitentiary in the area, one of the largest in America – where, however, a nation from all over the world meets.
The US Penitentiary, left to individual states, provides a blend of the most colorful images according to the nature of the people and their legal opinions; it happens that in some states, prisoners are treated truly draconically, in others, they are extraordinarily mild, as we see in the pictures of our nearby Chicago penitentiary.
Chicago can certainly also be called the third largest Czech city (after Prague and Vienna …), in total we can say that the twentieth share of the population, ie 100,000, are Czechs. The largest local Czech settlement, Pilsen, is a place both inside and outside purely Czech with Czech schools, temples, theater, etc. The oldest Czech settlement is on the western side of the city.
Czechs enjoy relative prosperity and seriousness – they live mostly in their own houses – they are skilled craftsmen and workers. They have a number of magazines of all kinds and mindsets – Chicago is the true Czech mental metropolis of America. The Czechs also have a clever representation in both the city council and the Illinois state to which Chicago belongs. – A number of young Czech writers, journalists and actors who have been unable to work in the old country find a favorable ground for their activities in Chicago. This circumstance becomes hastily symptomatic, and also in the Czech Republic it is slowly foreseen. Of course, so much green hope on the completely different soil of the New World will either turn into a completely different monster, or completely stun, but the massive, bouncing energy will be used victoriously!
The Czechs & Bohemians of Today
So what are your thoughts on theses articles? I must say that the focus on the ‘poor immigrants’ living in tenements seems to be the usual description in most old articles. One imagines terrible poverty, hunger, illness, etc. and then I come across photographs of evenings at the opera and statesmen and their wives. It’s interesting how immigrants were (and continue to be) portrayed.
Are the Czechs in America of today as industrious, patriotic, nationalistic and committed to their heritage as they were in the early days of Chicago? Where are all the Czechs now? The old communities have been uprooted and younger generations have not held firm to the roots the earlier Czechs planted. Do present day Czechs organize and ensure that their language, literature, arts, music, history, and traditions will not be forgotten? To what level?
I do believe that we are doing our part with this site that reaches over 100,000 people a month, but I often feel I am rolling a boulder up a mountain with no proper support or much needed funding. Sometimes I find it disheartening that we do not have the groups and societies Czechs had back then, fighting for a common cause – and if we do – then I feel that they are hiding from me. Again, please do share your thoughts in the comments …
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