The Fair of 1893 opened its doors in the worst depression of the nineteenth century. During the first eight months of the year, 24 local banks failed; pig-iron production fell from 949,450 tons in 1892 to 405,261 in 1893; business failures increased 50 per cent; only 62 miles of railroad were laid in that year. Mills, factories, furnaces, and mines throughout the State closed down; unemployed workers crowded the streets of the cities begging food or work, while laborers from the farms and mines fled in desperation to the cities. Suffering continued until 1898.
With recovery Illinois achieved third place among the manufacturing States of the Nation. By 1914 Chicago was the greatest slaughtering and packing center in the country, first in production of farm implements, second only to New York City in printing, and its steel furnaces had the largest capacity in the United States.
By the turn of the century Illinois was able to record a phenomenal growth in population. In 1810, an outpost in the wilderness with only 12,282 inhabitants, it had grown to 2,539,891 in 1870, and by 1900 to 4,821,550. In 1910, 62 per cent of the State was urban, with Chicago housing one-half of the population.
Important changes were also taking place in the character of the population. At the end of the great wave of European immigration in 1910, Germans ranked first among the foreign-born population in the State, with 26 per cent (319,182) ; Austrians and Hungarians next, with 16 per cent; Russians and Scandinavians, about 12 per cent each; Irish 8 per cent, and Italians 6 per cent. Because of the exhaustion of cheap lands by the time these people arrived, and the greater immediate opportunities in the manufacturing centers, they settled largely in the cities and towns in the northern part of the State. Half the population of the cities of Chicago, Joliet, and Rockford was foreignborn. Negroes also began to settle here, mostly in towns of the southern counties; in 1870 they numbered 28,762; by 1910 there were 109,049; in that year Negroes comprised 37 per cent of the population of Cairo.
Notwithstanding the repeated victories of the Republican Party in State elections, Populist sentiment, born in the 1880's, remained strong in Illinois. In 1896, at the Democratic national convention in Chicago, William Jennings Bryan delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech, which was warmly received by the workers and farmers of the State; but in 1896 elections Bryan and Governor Altgeld were defeated by the Republicans. A Democratic governor was not again elected until 1912, when the Bull Moose campaign split the Republican Party, permitting the Democrats to take the major offices of the State.
Dissatisfied with Populism as an ineffective political movement, some workingmen turned to more radical politics. In 1901 the Socialist Party of the United States was organized in Chicago by Eugene Victor Debs, Seymour Stedman, and other well-known radicals. The party grew; by 1915 there were 44 Socialists holding political offices in the State: one mayor, 18 aldermen, 2 State legislators, 5 school officials, and 18 others. In 1916 William Cunnea, law partner of Clarence Darrow, ran on the Socialist ticket and was almost elected State's Attorney, losing on a recount. Another radical organization was the Industrial Workers of the World; organized in 1905, with Chicago as its center, its doctrine of "One Big Union" spread throughout the West. Chicago, too, was to see the demise of the 1. W. W. in the famous trial of a hundred leading members before judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis on charges arising out of their opposition to the war.
And it was at Chicago in 1919 that the Communist Party was organized by the left wing of the Socialist Party, which split on the question of support of the Russian Revolution.
In the first twenty years of the new century Illinois was one of the most progressive States in the Union in the field of social legislation. After the passage of the first mining law in 1872, it continued to provide for the safe operation of mines by enacting supplementary legislation in 1899, 1910, and 1913. Child labor legislation was adopted in 1891; a law fixing the maximum hours of labor for women was passed as early as 1893; the first workmen's compensation acts of 1911 were improved in 1913 and 1917. Many other measures were adopted; governmental reforms were undertaken, among which were the establishment of civil service, and the act of 1910 providing direct primaries in the State elections. After the 1907 local option law was adopted, dry areas spread throughout the State, until Illinois became at least technically "dry" by the Volstead Act. An attempt to redraft the antiquated Constitution of 1870 was made by a constitutional convention, which assembled in 1920 and labored for two years, only to have its draft repudiated by the voters in 1922.
Illinois played its part in the World War I. By June 1917, less than three months after the declaration of war, 351,153 Illinois men were in uniform. Illinois was one of the three States to furnish an entire National Guard Division. Officially designated the 33rd, it was popularly called the "Prairie Division," and saw action at St. Mihiel, Verdun, Chateau Thierry, and Meuse-Argonne. At the conclusion of the war the 33rd came home to be cheered and welcomed. Parades were reviewed by the Governor upon the arrival of each contingent. But missing in the demobilization were more than five thousand men from the farms, offices, and factories of the State.
After the war Illinois, along with the rest of the Nation, enjoyed a boom, an extraordinary period of construction and speculation. Politics, prohibition, crime, and the high cost of living filled the headlines of the newspapers. Governor Len Small launched an extensive program of building hard roads throughout the State. His political ally was the colorful William Hale Thompson, serving his second term as mayor of Chicago, who called himself "Big Bill the Builder." There followed the reform administration of Mayor Dever in 1923, but in the next election in 1927 Thompson was returned for a third term.
In 1931 Anton Cermak was elected mayor of Chicago. Then came the Democratic landslide of 1932, which turned the Republicans of the State out of office. Henry Horner, judge of the probate court of Cook County for five years, was elected Governer. Mayor Cermak was fatally wounded on February 15, 1933, when an assassin made an attempt on the life of President Franklin Roosevelt in Florida. Democratic policies again triumphed in 1934 when 22 additional Democrats were elected to the State House of Representatives.
During the twenties Illinois ranked as the third State in the Union in population, manufacturing, and wealth. It continued to lead the country in meat packing and slaughtering. Because of the State's strategic position between the iron mines of the Upper Lakes region and the large coal mines in its southern counties, foundry and machinery products ranked second in Illinois manufacture. Chicago remained an important center for printing, the making of men's clothing, farm implements, and electrical machinery. Railroad coaches were manufactured at Pullman and Chicago Heights. Important national centers for agricultural implements were Moline, Rock Island, and Canton.
By 1928 about 65 per cent of the children of school age were enrolled in public schools, requiring an annual expenditure of 143 million dollars. In addition, more than a thousand private schools were scattered over the State. Enrollment at the State university began to average fourteen thousand a year. Northwestern University and the University of Chicago recorded similar gains. Catholic parochial schools and universities, notably Loyola and De Paul in Chicago, also grew in importance. Greater care for the health of school children was provided with the introduction of regular medical and dental examinations.
As the cities expanded in the twenties with their skyscrapers, automobiles, electrical goods, chain stores, department stores, radios, and movies, there was another decline in agriculture in the State. From 251,872 farms in 1910, the number fell to 214,497 in 1930, and acreage fell from 32,523,000 to 30,695,000 in the same period. By 1935 the former had risen slightly to 231,312, and the latter to 31,661,000. Although the ox, the flail, the cradle, and the scythe were replaced by the combine, the four-plow cultivator, and the tractor, prices of farm goods continued to fall, and more and more people left the farms for the cities. This protracted agricultural recession of the twenties was regarded by economists as responsible, at least in part, for the devastating financial depression that began in 1929.
Under conditions strikingly similar to those of 1893, the Century of Progress Exposition opened in 1933. The times were critical: unemployed descended upon the State capital to demand relief; the coal fields were torn by a factional war between rival labor organizations; court dockets were clogged with foreclosure proceedings and evictions. To add to the suffering of the farmers came great droughts to parch their fields. The collapse of the Insull utilities empire and the widespread closing of banks impoverished thousands.
Despite all this, the fair opened with a note of hope and optimism. The exposition contained 84 miles of scientific, cultural, industrial, and commercial exhibits, seen by 39 million people, who came from all over the world. Its massive architecture of futuristic design was made brilliant at night by a dazzling revelation in new electric lighting.