Steel Men and Wooden Ladders
Coming in 2019...
When F. D. Cossitt founded La Grange in 1876 he did so with a purpose. The village was to be a bastion of temperance, alcohol and intoxicating liquors would have no place in the village. His determination and opposition to alcohol reached beyond the village to encompass all of Lyons Township. The township was, for all intent and purpose, controlled by the residents of the Village of La Grange and what was good for the village was good for everyone in the town. Cossitt was temperant in more than just drinking, he certainly felt that moderation in all things was essential. It is likely that the only entertainment he believed in was singing at the family spinet and attending church.
The village fathers and early residents were of the same mindset as Cossitt. Most of them chose La Grange for just that reason. They had become tired of the city life with an air of debauchery and sordidness, and were seeking fresh air and open space. Cossitt had planned the village around the concepts of wide streets, trees, and large lots with equally large homes. The Chicago fire of 1871 was still lingering in many minds and to leave the congestion and dirt of the city was exactly what they desired. And, if a man did want a drink, there were plenty of opportunities in nearby towns.
Amusement was more than just a drink in a saloon, as will be related in this book. In my first book Steel Men and Wooden Ladders I explored the early history of the La Grange Fire Department. While doing research for that book I was intrigued by the volume of material and the hours spent by the La Grange Village Board on issues related to entertainment. Everything from pool halls to movie theaters came under the scrutiny and control of the village. Village ordinances were drafted to meet each contingency, and generally under the watchful eye of the more conservative members of the board.
In this book, I will relate through the board minutes and the writings and advertising of the La Grange Citizen, Chicago Daily Tribune, and other sources the progress of amusement in the village. While La Grange was more restrictive than many communities, the interaction between the village and other towns demonstrates the conflict and influence the village held.
To begin, the first question which one might ask is simply “what did people do for entertainment at the turn of the century? There were no motion pictures, no radio, no broadcast media of any type; and while Edison had patented the phonograph in 1877, it was still not common in the late 19th century, in part due to the cost. There is also the issue of class division in determining how people chose to entertain themselves. The self-identified upper class certainly would not indulge in the crass and debased behavior associated with the working class, many of whom were recent immigrants who brought their own social life and entertainment with them. Socials, dances – or more respectable – balls were one outlet, as were Sunday programs centered around the church. The other factor is that life for most people at the time was not conducive to spending one’s time on amusements. Work days of ten hours, six days a week were still common, and even the privileged class still worked long days which left little time for relaxation. Considering the social, economic, and free time restrictions, the development of amusement as an industry closely paralleled the changes in these factors. People began to work fewer hours, incomes were increasing, and social norms were changing. These changes fueled a revolution in the scope and nature of entertainment and amusement. The period covered by this book, 1886 – 1945 was the period which saw the greatest change in how people amused themselves in history.
The Village of La Grange was certainly not unique, although there were perhaps more restrictions and greater control over what was allowed. In any case, the events documented in this book are reflective of many of the Chicago suburbs.