What Sandburg Missed

by kelly on June 20, 2013

Chicago 1914. Postcard from Chuckman’s Collection

by Carl Sandburg
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women
under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman
kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I
have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I
give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and
coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger
set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of
the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud
to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and
Freight Handler to the Nation.

Sandburg’s vivid ode to his scrappy city, “Chicago” (1914)—a muscular piece of verse if ever there was one—is kind of a bromance. Amid the butchers and railroad men, the cons, sluggers, and stackers of wheat, it contains only two references to the other half of the population: “painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys” and the downtrodden women on whose faces the speaker has seen the “marks of wanton hunger.”

It is interesting to me, as someone who writes fiction about women’s lives in history, that Sandburg saw only half of his city, only half of the backbreaking tasks that kept it running like a hot engine. What did he miss?

Well, inside just about every home, from the squalid tenement to the Gold Coast mansion, he would have found flushed women plucking, chopping, boiling, stuffing, kneading, and pickling. On laundry day they turned to beating and scrubbing, wringing, and pinning garments on a line. They sewed and darned and patched. They ironed and scorched and cursed. When their children got sick they turned from their work to nurse them. They walked in the cold in a borrowed coat for medicine. They were nameless and faceless and forgotten, but they kept many a body and soul together: their children’s, their husbands’, their parents’ and relatives’. These women may not have been “bragging and laughing” as Sandburg’s bold working men did, but their work was just as important to the story of the city.

And by no means were all women ensconced in kitchens and laundries, their own, or someone else’s; nor was prostitution the only way they earned a living. In Chicago in 1914, women worked as clerks, typists, stenographers, and bookkeepers. They toiled in crowded garment factories where their pay was docked for every broken sewing needle. Jane Addams and the Women’s Trade Union League organized to lobby for better working conditions for telephone operators and women who worked in the packinghouses, among others. Just the year before Sandburg’s poem was published, shop girls at Marshall Field testified at the state legislature about their employer’s refusal to pay them a living wage—of course, women still did not have the vote, so the legislators were not beholden to them. The Visiting Nurses Association converged like the National Guard in poor neighborhoods to provide basic medical care to the sick and deliver babies.

All women, all working and probably “flinging magnetic curses” too–but all invisible to the Sandburgs of the world. The story he tells is epic, beautiful, and true, but it is only half the story.


About this post
This piece is the first in a series of short essays on Chicago I am writing in tandem with urbanologist and historian Max Grinnell. To see Max’s take on Sandburg’s poem, click here.


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