This study explores the history of provisioning in industrializing Chicago. It asks two questions: How did the city’s nineteenth-century residents acquire the food, water, clothing, and fuel that they needed to survive? And why, by century’s end, did productive practices such as agriculture fade from the urban landscape? I answer these questions by examining the cultural and environmental history of Chicago’s households. I argue that during the 1830s and 1840s, the city’s households shared many of the same patterns of provisioning. Both merchants’ and workingmen’s families obtained some of what they needed through productive labor, whether by growing food, making clothing, or hauling water. As the nineteenth century progressed, however, such practices disappeared from a portion of Chicago’s households. The city’s upper classes sought increasing distance from labor in nature, and they used products, servants, and municipal services to make their homes appear free from toil. They did so to distinguish themselves from the city’s working class, who continued to use homes, yards, and the urban landscape to produce some of what they needed. My study of provisioning thus shows that the well-to-do constructed class identities through their most intimate relationships to nature. Out of the shared needs of human subsistence, these men and women created social difference.
With chapters that move from frontier woodsheds to antebellum kitchen gardens to Gilded Age dinner parties, my study challenges the assumption that domestic life reflected, rather than shaped, the emerging industrial order. Transformations in provisioning were not inevitable consequences of industrialization; rather, these labors changed because of the values and actions of the well-to-do. My study also challenges the prevailing belief that industrialization alienated urban dwellers from the nature that sustained them. Not only do I show that the working class continued to know nature through domestic labors such as gardening and scavenging, but I also suggest that alienation was an upper-class project?a homespun effort to obscure the ties that bound them to nature and to their fellow urban dwellers. For better or worse, the modern relationship to nature was forged in Chicago’s kitchens and parlors as well as its stockyards and factories.