Introducing our Media Productions Intern

Ursula Kremer, Media Production Intern

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not of the Barker Mansion*


As some may now notice, this blog post is authored by a new member of the Barker Mansion team. My name is Ursula Kremer and I am serving as an intern here at the Mansion, with a focus on media production. I’ll be here at the Mansion for the next few months and hosting some of the podcasts and writing for the blog during that time. To provide a little introduction to myself: I am a student at Hanover College pursuing a degree in English and Creative Writing. While not a history major, I enjoy the study of it and have a particular affection for the 19th and 20th centuries. The Barker Mansion in itself is a wonderful resource and also houses extensive records that I look forward to utilizing. Some topics that I hope to research in the coming weeks include: the types of and preparation needed for meals eaten by the family, symbolism and meaning of the beds of the family and guests, the mythology found carved on various pieces throughout the Mansion, a more in-depth look at the lives, expectations, and realities of the women living in the Mansion, and the experience of the wealthy children living in the Gilded Age, especially young Catherine Barker.

For those of you who have yet to visit the Barker Mansion, it is a truly spectacular and beautiful place. As a writer interested in historical fiction and the time periods in connection with the house, inspiration comes seeping up through the pine wood floorboards. I often feel like I am able to live my childhood fantasies of exploring and feeling at home in a massive, mysterious, old house. Now I just need to find my magical wardrobe. Having now become a member of the Barker Mansion staff, I also have an even stronger appreciation for the work put into preserving the integrity and the beauty of the house and gardens. Ranging from tough physical labor (our hard-working director, herself, vacuumed out the garden fountain yesterday) to in-depth research on the Barker family, the home, and the related time periods, the realities of being one of those entrusted with such a wonderful piece of history does hold a solemn weight. However, it is no less magical.

I look forward to the next few months that I have at the Barker Mansion and the future research and writing that will stem from that. Be sure to check out past blog posts written by the fabulous heritage interpreters of the Barker Mansion staff, as well as the Baker Mansion podcast. The next episode comes out on Friday.  See you all next week!


Ursula Kremer 7.2.19

A Gap in the Historical Record

TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter 

*The views Expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion* 

A lot of small historical details in the mansion keep me awake at night. Is the desk in my office original to the Barkers (it doesn’t have an inventory number, but it has a turn-of-the-century Marshall Fields label)? When were the bricks replaced on the 1857 wing of the house? Was this the first home in Laporte Country with electricity?  Who gave Catherine the sewing machine that is on the second floor? What happened to the dumbwaiter (I have documentation that one was installed)? Or, from my last post: was the dining room table button connected to a light bulb or a buzzer?

Last week I was able to rest a little easier, having found the answer to one of the more perplexing questions about the layout of the mansion. Every once in a while on tour, I am asked about this space in the Butler’s pantry: 

It is a gap, about three feet wide by five feet deep, between the cabinet on the west end of the Butler’s pantry and the wall of the kitchen pantry. The kitchen pantry was a small room between the Butler’s pantry and the kitchen. This is where some food was stored and where pastry dough was rolled on a marble countertop designed to keep the dough cold in the summer. Stacking small pantries such as this between the kitchen and dining room was a means of preventing the smells and sounds of the kitchen from reaching the dining room. When I first learned of this, I assumed the small gap was a part of this function, providing a means into the Butler’s pantry that did not require opening the main door to the Butler’s pantry.

This was a bad answer, and it did not very make much sense. The gap might have had different airflow, but it still did not have a door on it; the gap would not have restricted airflow very well. Without photos of what the room was like originally (the Barkers did not leave behind any photos of the servant’s areas, and likely none were taken) and without documentation, this poor answer would have to do even though it seemed very unnecessary.

A few other details about the gap were perplexing. The window in the back was of a different type of wood than anything else in the house, and the lock on it was much newer. The light in the gap also seemed to be a much newer fixture, possibly 1960s or 70s. There also was a small open cabinet in the back of the gap. Many things have been replaced in the mansion though, there may have been a window and a light fixture there originally which was replaced at some point. I needed more documentation to answer this riddle the Barker’s left for me.


The Cabinet and window in the back of the gap


It turns out the documentation was quite literally right in front of me. Taped on the wall to the left of my desk is a series of print-outs of the blueprints for the mansion. These are a few of the several hundred pages of blueprints, drawings, contracts, bids, and letters documenting the construction of the mansion that I found at the University of Illinois last year. One of the drawings on my wall was of the cabinets that were originally designed for the Butler’s Pantry, Kitchen, Kitchen Pantry, and Servants’ Dining Room.

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A big chunk of the work I do at the mansion requires me sitting in my office chair, e,.g., running the website, writing these blog posts, research, polishing silver. Usually, after a few hours of sitting in the same position, my back becomes a bit sore. My other job in Valpo is more flexible, and I normally leave and work from home or a coffee shop when my back becomes sore (I regularly become restless there because I sit in a boring cubicle as opposed to the Valet’s room of a 35,000 square foot mansion). At the mansion, I usually switch and work under the garden pergola, find outdoors work to do, or I do what many people do and I recline very far back in my chair and stick my feet on the desk (every once in a while I tip my chair over and fall on the floor).

Last week I was cataloging some documents on my computer, and I started to lean far back in my chair. My head was very close to the print-out of the drawings for cabinets when I realized something that I never noticed before. Right there on the wall next to me was the answer to my historical riddle. The drawing had the gap labeled as “old refrigerator.”


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“old refrigerator” labeled on the right


I was ecstatic, I finally found the answer! I quickly searched through my files and found some more blueprints that labeled the space the same. The 1905 addition blueprint for the first floor also had the “old refrigerator” marked in purple. The purple lines were parts of the mansion that remained in the new addition, the walls, doors, windows, and other features removed were drawn in dashed pink lines (the dashed lines in the photo below mark the old wall of the 1857 house that was removed in 1905). The refrigerator seemed to have been installed more recently was something worth saving when the Barkers planned the addition to the house.




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Refrigerator labeled on 1905 blueprint. The pink dashed line is the wall of the original home that was removed with the addition.


The refrigerator filled the gap between the cabinet and the wall and gave me a definite answer to give on tour but it still left some questions open. How did it work? What did it look like? Where did it go?

I am not sure how to answer the third question. It may have been removed by Purdue University when they were here, which might explain the dating of the lighting installed in the gap. Catherine Barker may have switched it out for a new model in the 1920s. All I know is that it is gone and that someone put in a window and light bulb in its place. I also am not sure when the small cabinet was added in the ba,ck, like the window, it is made from a very different type of wood from the rest of the cabinets.

To answer the first two questions, I had to dig around a bit more. The refrigerator that was in place would have been very different than what we use today. Electric refrigerators were not common until after 1911 and the refrigerator in place at the mansion may have had a system of mechanical coils that used ammonia to keep things cool. Refrigerators of this type were manufactured in Michigan City at the time. Below is a photo of a refrigerator manufactured in Michigan City that was displayed at the 1893 World’s Fair. I found the photo and a newspaper article about it at the Lighthouse Museum last year. I had scanned it as part of some research I was doing on the World’s Fair and had no idea that it would come in handy with my research at the mansion.


Michigan-City-made refrigerator displayed at 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Courtesy of Lighthouse Museum and Michigan City Historical Society.


I originally had thought that the refrigerator in place was an ice box; a series of cabinets lined with zinc or tile that kept food cool with ice that was regularly replenished by ice deliveries.  Below is a photo from the Lighthouse Museum of an ice delivery wagon in the Michigan City from around the turn of the century. This wagon would pull up and drop off big cubes of ice at Michigan City homes. The original mansion would have had ice delivery. as ice boxes were common at the time the first house was built. The addition also may have had ice delivery as well, for use in drinks in the summer. Oliver Mansion, a historic mansion in South Bend, still has a ten-door ice box installed in the 1930s (I’m jealous).


Michigan City Ice delivery wagon, date unknown. Courtesy of Lighthouse Museum and Michigan City Historical Society


Like every adventure in the world of primary sources, I had a great deal of fun with this project. I always enjoy looking at blueprints and especially at old advertisements from the Gilded Age; on a future post I might share my collection of strange Gilded Age advertisements that I have found in my various research projects. I can now rest easy knowing that this gap in the historical record has been filled.

TJ Kalin 6.30.19

The Barkers’ Smart Home

TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Historians today refer to our current time period as a “New Gilded Age” an era marked by the same economic issues and cultural debates of the first Gilded Age, e.g., similar levels income inequality, debates over immigration, the rise of mega-corporations (Standard Oil vs. Amazon). While these big parallels bring up very important historical questions (I’ll write a blog post on them soon), I am more interested in some more subtle parallels that may or may not be parallels as much as they are points on a single line of continuity from the Gilded Age. These parallels are technological.

The Gilded Age was an era marked by extreme technological change. Before the 19thcentury humans had never traveled faster than wind, water, or horse but suddenly in the Gilded Age, the onset of railroads and steamships meant that humans could travel incredible distances at never-heard-from-before speeds. Today our society is seeing public interest in similar changes in human abilities, such as hyperloops, accessible space travel, and even teleportation (recently researchers have been able to teleport photons). The first Gilded Age also saw the rise of a print media and the first wire press services, e.g., the Associated Press. With telegraphs and telephones human ideas and communication could travel much faster than ever before (I always think about how in 1815 Andrew Jackson fought the battle of New Orleans without knowing that a peace treaty was already signed on the other side of the Atlantic). After the millennium, humans’ ability to communicate and transmit knowledge has been rapidly expanded to all corners of the globe and as well entirely new mediums of communication, i.e., social media.

I try to keep these parallels in mind when designing interpretive programming. Freeman Tilden’s first principle of heritage interpretation calls for this:

  1. Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

To make meaningful interpretive programs and to ultimately provoke visitors to take part in stewarding our site, programming needs to connect to the experience of the visitor. I try to do some of this every day during the 1pm guided tour of the mansion. When on tour I invoke the technological parallels of the first Gilded Age to explain how the Barkers’ warming oven was an ‘old-fashioned microwave’ or that Mrs. Barker’s calling hour filled the same function as Facebook. This is of course simply using metaphors, not invoking concrete historical parallels. Some of these similarities are historical continuities; i.e., the warming oven was a device filled to fit the exact same demand as the modern microwave, the microwave is just more advanced.

A lot of new technology seems to lack a Gilded Age precursor for me to interpret. I previously thought that smart home technology such as Amazon Echo, voice-activated lights, smart TV’s, wholly lacked Gilded Age precursors. I am not a fan of this technology, in fact, I loathe smart home devices; at one point where I ordered my roommate to remove an Amazon Echo from our dining room. I am not afraid of technology, I wrote this blog post on a mac, after all, I just distrust the introduction of this technology into my life. The smart home is just too much too fast for me, too similar to the Telescreen in George Orwell’s 1984 or the spaceship in the movie Wall-E. My fears might be unfounded though, the smart home might not be that radical, in fact, this week I found some historical precedents for the Amazon Echo in the Barker Mansion.

Every week I reread bits and pieces of the several-hundred pages of work orders, drawings, blueprints, contracts, and bids for the construction of the mansion that I have saved on my desktop. This week I ran across the original plans for the telephone and bell system inside the mansion and decided to spend some more time picking them apart.


The telephone and bell system was described in a two-page work order from May 16, 1905. The plans were drawn up by the architect Frederick Wainwright Perkins and the contract for the work was signed two months later on July 22, 1905. The contract was between John H. Barker and electricians, Boyd and Garrettson, and the original cost was $1,300 for everything all together (roughly $35,000-40,000 in 2019). The contract included the “bell and telephone work” as well as the electric wiring in the mansion. The contract called for the conduits and wiring, and it is not clear if this included the telephone and bells themselves. Using these documents along with the remaining buzzers, bells, intercoms, and telephones in the mansion, I was able to paint a near-complete picture of how the system worked.

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The plans called for a “cabinet furnished oak annunciator of four drops” in the Butler’s Pantry and another one “of six drops” in the second-floor servant’s hallway. The annunciator was a wooden panel which contained rows of ‘drops’ that would signal when and where call buttons built into the walls of several rooms were pressed. The Butler’s pantry had four drops for the front door, porch, library, and drawing room. The annunciator on the second floor had six drops; one for each of the five second-floor bedrooms and one for the master bathroom.

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What did the drops look like exactly? Well, there are a few different types of drops in annunciators at the time. Some annunciators had drops that were holes which would uncover when a button was pressed. Another type had “drops” that were tabbed which would flip over like the numbers in a 1980s alarm clock (like the one that woke Bill Murray up in the 1993 film Groundhog Day). Other annunciators had arrows that turned when the buttons were pressed. I am not sure what the Barkers’ looked like, but I will keep digging in the historical record.

None of the annunciators are still in place, but most of the call buttons remain on the second floor. The plans ordered that the call buttons would be “bronze plated.” The buttons that remain on these floors are all set inside the bronze plates around the light switches. The buttons on the second floor were of this variety while the buttons in the drawing room and library were “Pullman pushes” with “black rubber buttons.” The drawing button appears to have been walled over, but you cans till feel the wiring behind the cloth wallpaper beneath the light switches. The library button was still in place and was set in wood. I did not see any black rubber on the button.

The front door and lower hall door (the garden door) included doorbells that would ring two different tones from a spot near the Butler’s pantry as well as in the servant’s hall upstairs. The butler’s room is across the hall from the butler’s pantry, and the first-floor one was likely situated so that the butler could hear them in either room. The two doorbells would also ring a ‘faint single stroke bell’ throughout the first floor. The bells would also be connected to the annunciator so that whenever a call button was pressed the servants would know to go look at the annunciators to see where they are needed. If a servant was by the annunciator, they could turn a switch that would turn the bell off so that it would not ring when the annunciators are pressed. This was likely to be done at night so that the on-call maids could watch the annunciator while not having the entire house woken up by the bells playing. Two buttons that remain in the Butler’s pantry are likely the ones used to turn the bells off.

In additions to the doorbells were two bells in the dining room and the Valet’s room. The Valet’s room bell was connected to a “silk cord extension push” in Mr. Barker’s bedroom; the two rooms were connected by a walk-in closet. A silk cord extension push was simply a porcelain button like the other call buttons in the house. The silk cord was a silk covered electrical cord that ran out from the top of the button panel. The silk cord and the buttons have nee taken out of these rooms, but some silk cords still remain in the mansion, attached to some telephones and lamps.

The plans called for another silk cord extension push in the dining room that turned on a “buzzer” in the Butler’s pantry. This specific detail has turned out to be a major puzzle for me. Today, a wooden outline of a button can be felt in the dining room table, and I was instructed that the button turned in a light bulb in the Butler’s pantry and not a bell. The light was at the end of the pantry, and it was above two buttons built into the wall that controlled the bells sound. The angle and placement of the light make me think it was used for signaling because it would not be providing much light where it is, and it is close to the buttons in the wall.

This historical detail has proved elusive. I have poured through the extensive electric lighting contracts and have not found any order for an electric light connected to the table button nor have I found instructions for the light bulb at the end of the Butler’s pantry. The electric specification called for an overhead light and two lamps over the windows, but no light bulb at the end of the room. It is possible that the buzzer was changed out for a light bulb at some point after all the work specifications are not definitive, changes occur all the time, and the Barkers may have changed their mind at some point after the buzzer was installed. It is also possible that the buzzer was used and instead the light bulb was added to give extra light in front of the refrigerator that sat across from where the bulb is today. The refrigerator was behind a cabinet at the very end of the room and would not have gotten very much light from the overhead light. Thus I am at a historical impasse, but hopefully, I will be able to piece together the puzzle soon; there is surely some detail out there I have missed in either the 800-page architectural documents or in the mansion archives. This is why I love primary sources.

The documents also included orders for quite several telephones inside the mansion. The mansion includes “six-eight station intercommunicating telephones,” these were intercom phones that could call one another throughout the home. The phones were “eight stations” rather than six because the Barkers had two extra phone lines in case they needed more intercoms (it did specify where the outlets were). Three intercoms were in the laundry, kitchen, and servants’ hallway. Another intercom was in Mr. Barker’s bedroom while another was on the third floor. An intercom is still in place on the third floor, but it does not appear to be the one installed in 1905. While the plans called for eight phone lines, but the one installed on the third floor has ten numbers lines and then two extra lines “H” and “I.” I am not sure what the extra two lines and “H” and “I” were for.

It is possible that this phone was added in by Catherine Barker in the 1920s, but it is still possible that the phone is original. The original specifications had called for three white oak intercoms and a mahogany intercom on the third floor and another mahogancy intercom in Mr. Barker’s room, but the words white oak and mahogany have been crossed out on the specifications. The third-floor intercom that is there today is made from what appears to be brass or copper. The words appear to have been crossed out by Boyd and Garrettson (their signature appears in the same color ink a few inches below where they are crossed out) and may have been a change added in when the addenda were signed. This means it is possible that the current metal intercom and more lines were added when they were first installed.

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The sixth intercom was a “nickel-plated desk instrument” in Mrs. Barker’s morning room on the second floor. This final phone was the only phone that was able to call out of the mansion. The phone, along with a telephone register filled with the names and numbers of various businesses and society individuals in Chicago still sit in Mrs. Barker’s sitting room today.

The final instructions in the contract was an addendum to the specifications when the contract was signed on July 22, 1905. The addenda specified that the telephones would be “non-interfering flush telephones” made by the “Electric Gas Lighting Co” through “Allen Haines, Agent Chicago.” Flush telephones are phones where the receiver hangs on a hook which, when pressed by the weight of the receiver, ends the call. The same company would also do the wiring in the mansion, which called for rubber wiring on all the phone lines (the electric wiring was covered with canvas).

This complicated system of buzzers, telephones, bells, annunciators, and call buttons made the Barkers’ home a smart home. Like an Amazon Echo, the Barkers would press a button or pick up a phone anywhere in their home and order anything they want whether it is a meal, an outfit, a massage (they had a massage table in the master bathroom), or a grocery list. Similar to a smart home, the Barkers would call the intercom and order the house to be cooled or heated as they pleased (thanks for a complicated modern heating as well as an early cold air register) or they could have servants turn on the lights as needed. The big difference though is that the Barker’s system cost the equivalent of $40,000 to install and required ten people working around the house to meet their demands.

This system allowed the Barkers’ servants to have a high level of coordination. Many of these servants would always be at the whim of the system; a typical domestic servant in the Gilded Age worked twelve to fourteen hours per days and was on call around the clock, with the exception of Sunday afternoons. This is a historical gap I find difficult to cross. I see the buzzers and bells with great excitement, another detail in the history of the building but to really understand the system I need to get in the servants’ heads. I need to understand what this system meant to them, the what-its-like of their historical experience. The system is more than just an interesting historical parallel, it directed the lives of ten people, and hopefully, this project can get me a little closer to understanding those lives.

TJ Kalin 6.26.19




TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

 *The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

 This week has been very exciting at the mansion! Well, exciting to me. See, I, TJ, love the mundane, the every-day, the unseen in history, things that appear boring at the outset. In the past I have gotten overexcited about small historical details such as finding old electrical outlets in the floor of the mansion, tracing out the stops Catherine Barker Spaulding took on her honeymoon in 1915, learning the original species of plants in our garden (see my next blog post for an update), finding out which pieces of furniture were designed by the mansion’s architect, and many, many more minute details. I live for this kind of history.

This week my ‘big’ discovery was the mansion’s drainage system. Outside the window of my office are three large manhole covers, hidden behind a hedge on the south side of the garden. I knew that they all led into cisterns, but I wasn’t sure what role they played or how they worked. Cisterns have historically been used to collect rainwater for drinking, laundry, and other uses. I was originally doubtful that the cisterns at the Barker Mansion were for drinking water since the mansion had pressurized plumbing installed in the new addition in 1905-09 and the cisterns were built as part of the addition. The original house also had cisterns, but they were taken out with the addition; The od cisterns were removed because the new house had far higher drainage demands given the size of the addition compared to the original house and the original cisterns may have been in the way of the planned addition. The cisterns that were added with the addition were used for laundry, the boiler, the bathroom and many other functions inside the house. They were connected to a special tank that pressurized the cistern water to carry it anywhere it the house, check out my post on water use at the mansion to learn more.

The cisterns are fed by rainwater collected from all of the gutters on the mansion. All of the roof gutters in the new part of the mansion collected in a big pool on top of the pergola. This pool drained into a pipe that ran through the wall of the pergola.

The older wing of the house had gutters that drained into the cisterns through drains around the basement windows. The pipe inside the wall was iron. This iron pipe fed into one of several tile drains that ran beneath the surface of the garden. Tile drains are made from a porous material, usually clay or porcelain that allows water in the soil to drain into the pipe. Tile drains run all throughout the garden, connecting drains inside the north wall to the Cistern; all of them were fed by similar iron pipes. Some even connected drains on the south side of the mansion bordering Washington and 7th streets, taking water at a right angle all around the house to the cisterns. This means all excess water in the gutter and soil of the grounds of the mansion would be able to find its way into the cistern.

The mansion garden is a sunken garden about 4-5 feet below street level. A well nearby the NIPSCO plant has the water table marked at about 7.4-8.3 feet below the surface (special thanks to Dr. John-Paul McCool for looking into this for me). The water table may be higher where the mansion is located. Apparently, there is a spring downtown that flooded the basement of Barker Hall one block away while it was under construction. All this means that the sunken garden at the mansion would likely be flooded or oversaturated during large rainstorms. The tile drains prevent this from happening, pulling excess water into the cisterns. I think they do a pretty good job given that in over three years at the mansion I have never seen standing water in the garden.

The two cisterns on the side of the garden were connected to the basement of the 1857 wing of the house. The two cisterns were made from brick all around with an extra layer of concrete on the bottom. Between the two cisterns was a box-shaped part labeled ‘filter system.’ After a little research, I learned that this was a chamber where water flowed through bricks to purify it for drinking water.

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In the photo above are three man hold covers. The middle cover is for the filtration chamber, and the other two covers are for the chambers of the cisterns. The Cisterns are quite deep, around 10 feet (the exact depth marked on the blueprints is smudged and hard to read). When I opened them up last week, the water was very clear inside the cistern that was fed from the filtration system, evidence that it was still working great after 110 years. All the cisterns were full of at least 5 feet of water or more; it was hard getting enough light in to take a decent photo. The filtration chamber was also quite clear. I had some trouble safely lifting the manhole cover off the cistern closest to the tree, it was covered in moss, and some bricks seemed to have fused onto the iron cover. With the help of our new gardener, James, we were able to safely lift it off without damaging any of the bricks. This cistern was also half full, and there was quite a bit of debris in it. At some point, someone had thrown a metal signpost into the cistern, and there seemed to be some more small pipes or pieces of wood on the bottom of the cistern. There also was a large metal pipe that was heavily, heavily corroding inside the cistern. This pipe was not included in the blueprints, so I am not sure when it was put in or what its purpose was. It would not have been the water intake for the cisterns since the intake had to be lower than the level of the tile drains that fed into it. The blueprint had the intake pipe entering the cistern about a quarter of the way up from the floor of the cistern.


I am not sure where the cistern let water out or where the overflow might be. The blueprints do not have the overflow labeled. There may originally have been a spout in the basement that allowed water to flow out from the cistern, but I do not have any listed on the basement blueprints. There also could have been a hand-powered pump in the garden above the cisterns, but this also unclear. I went down into the basement and looked at the walls on the side where the cisterns are, and I did not see any spigots coming from the wall nor did I see evidence any that have been removed. Since the basement bathroom is right across from the cistern that collected purified water, it may have been in there, but the garden-side wall in the bathroom has been covered in drywall. I will keep looking, and hopefully, in a week or two, I can update this blog post with the correct location.

On the other side of the tree was another manhole cover. The lid on the cover read ‘sewerage,’ and I was worried that it might have been a modern sewage pipe, in which case I would not have dared open it. The blueprints listed this spot as the location of a catch basin for the fountain, with a single tile drain running from a corner of the fountain to the basin. When I opened the cover (which was a light circle of metal compared to the heavy cistern covers), I was surprised to see a very deep brick basin, with several small inlets at the bottom and a large pipe through which water was running. This pipe may have been a sewer pipe that drained excess water from the mansion’s interior plumbing. In the cistern blueprints, a sewer pipe is labeled running parallel to the cisterns toward the catch basin.



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The fountain overflow is the top blue line running off the left side of the page. The supply for the fountain comes up underground in the lower left, most likely connected to the water main at the Barker’s factory. The access for the water main was in the alleyway on the other side of the west wall.


The blueprints also list another catch basin of a similar size on the north side of the mansion, right outside the laundry room windows. This basin appeared to be for excess water from the laundry as well as cooled water from the boiler, and possibly for water that drained into the window wells on that side of the house. Unfortunately, there is not a manhole cover in the garden where the basin is supposed to be so either this basin has been buried, removed, or was never put in place. My boss told me that I am not allowed to dig for the catch basin, so this will remain a mystery for now.


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Laundry and boiler catch basin on the left side, listed in 1905 foundation blueprint.


I had a lot of fun with this project, I was able to do a little archaeology, and anytime I can be in the mansion garden is a good time. I am not sure what the next step with this project is. I am thinking of either designing an interpretive program on water use in the Gilded Age which would be a tour of the garden and cisterns. What I am also thinking of is doing a children’s program on sustainability that meets STEM education requirements. At my other job as an environmental consultant, I help make sure that manure from dairy farms does not leach nutrients and pathogens into the groundwater beneath the farm. This involves measuring the speed of groundwater flow using wells, and by analyzing maps, tile drains that many farms still use today. For a children’s STEM program, I might do something similar by having kids map out where pollutants would flow in the mansion’s garden drainage system. I would give kids a simplified map of the tile drains that they can draw on it and have them pour cups of water in the garden after which they would draw a line where the water flows. I can use the garden as an illustration of how the how drainage works throughout the Calumet region, interpreting the continental divide just north of Valparaiso as well as the places where pollutants can get into Lake Michigan. I have never been one for STEM education, but this project made me think a lot more about the overlap between historical interpretation and environmental interpretation.

TJ Kalin 6.23.19




Kto Zbawi?

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

Kto Zbawi (Polish for ‘Who will save us?’) is a project I worked on for a class last year, The Social Gospel in American Life, taught by Heath Carter. I am revisiting this project this summer, looking through more archives and primary sources to strengthen my interpretation in hopes of findings its way into publication.



Kto Zbawi?

American Polonia and Rerum Novarum

Seventeen-year-old Anton Kloza wept in the hallway of the Laporte County courthouse. Earlier in the day, February 27, 1904, a jury failed to reach an agreement in Kloza’s suit against the Haskell-Barker Car Company, one of the largest freight car manufacturers in the United States. Haskell-Barker was owned and run exclusively by John Barker, an industrialist, and financier worth sixty million dollars upon his death in 1910. [1] Kloza had lost his leg while working in Haskell-Barker’s Michigan City Indiana plant and was suing the company for $10,000 in damages. When he was found in the hallway, it turned out that the young Pole, who was unable to speak English, had not eaten in days and had neither money nor a place to stay.[2]

In the American Polish diaspora or Polonia, Anton Kloza’s case was not unique. Polish immigration to the United States peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing millions of Poles into circumstances like Kloza. Between 1899 and 1932 1.8 million Poles flooded into the country, many of them gathering in industrial centers of the Midwest, particularly Chicago. [3] This wave of immigration is typically called the ‘za chlebem’ ‘for bread’ wave as most of the immigrants were peasants escaping famine and restricted economic mobility in partitioned Poland.[4] Like Kloza, these peasants were thrown into a dangerous world where they lived and worked in some of the worst conditions of America’s Gilded Age. These Poles were at the foot of powerful industrialists like John Barker, Philip Armour, or Gustavus Swift. As a pillar of the Polish community, many of these oppressed Poles turned to the Catholic church for support. Unfortunately for Polish laborers like Kloza though, the Catholic Church was never clear on the side of labor in their struggle under industrial capitalism––until 1891 that is.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, a papal encyclical which laid out for the first time the Church’s official stance on industrial capitalism and the labor issue. Rerum Novarum condemned socialism, but it also affirmed the validity of the worker’s movement. Rerum Novarum was released thirteen years before Anton Kloza lost his leg, but did it have an impact in his time? Did working Polonia recognize the role the Catholic church could play in their struggles? How was Rerum Novarum received in places like Michigan City or the South Side of Chicago, so far afield from the Vatican?


With Kloza’s case, the historical trail runs cold. We never see if Rerum Novarum touched his life. In this essay, though, I explore the reception of Rerum Novarum among working Polonia in general. I begin with an outline of Rerum Novarum and the encyclical’s reception among American Catholics. Polish Catholics represented a very distinctive community isolated from the mainstream Catholic Church. After highlighting this distinction, I dive into the reactions of Poles to Rerum Novarum as evinced in Polish newspapers in the time period. In the final section, I locate Poles’ reception of Rerum Novarum in the context of Polish labor activism.

Rerum Novarum was released on May 15, 1891. The encyclical’s subtitle reads ‘On Capital and Labor,’ as the encyclical was intended to be the Church’s first official stance on the labor issue. The encyclical legitimized many of labor’s most pressing grievances, recognizing that “by degree, it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the heartlessness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.”[5] In response to the plight of the worker, though, the Pope did not endorse socialism; on the contrary, he denounced socialists for “striving to do away with private property” and then proceeded to affirm the sanctity of the same.[6]

While the encyclical did affirm the rights of workers, it did so while clarifying the duties of capital and labor so as not to sound socialistic. The pope first off denied class antagonism: “capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital.”[7] Workers had a duty to work fully and faithfully “the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon.”[8] The encyclical went on to clarify that it was not Christian to consider one’s wealth to be ‘private property’ alone, rather all riches were ‘common to all, so as to share them without hesitations when others are in need.”[9] Employers thus had to ensure that a worker’s wages were enough so that all workers could live comfortably, yet those wages must be made through free agreement.[10] This was a major departure from previous American economic thought. Americans previously thought that a freely agreed contract by itself made labor just, this idea of a living wage was radical.[11]

Rerum Novarum was the beginning of what would become known as Catholic Social Teaching, a collection of Catholic doctrines on human dignity and society. The encyclical affirmed the fundamental rights of workers, and through this, the Pope had made a demand of his flock that had not been made so explicitly before: Rerum Novarum had made an argument relevant to public economic life.[12]

In the United States, the encyclical spoke to some of the most pressing issues of the day, but according to Aaron Abell’s overview of the reception of Rerum Novarum in the United States, the encyclical did not have much of an impact. Abell noted that the encyclical had provoked American Catholics to think about the moral law governing property.[13] However, Abell points out, the encyclical did not have a widespread impact on mainstream American Catholics. Some American Catholics recognized that the church supported labor, but the argument did not move them toward sympathy with labor.[14] The encyclical in some places even had the opposite effect, with priests latching on to the pope’s condemnation of socialism and ignoring the Pope’s call for support of labor.[15]

Despite the general apathy, Rerum Novarum did have an impact in some quarters. Some major Catholic periodicals ran articles praising the call for the liberation of workers. One article in Catholic World ended by stated that “indeed Pope Leo XIII would seem to imply by his encyclical that the church should take the lead in a worldwide movement for the relief and elevation of the toiling, struggling masses; and surely the nineteenth century offer no ampler field.”[16] Another article in the following issue of the Catholic World wrote on the significance of the encyclical for American coal and ironworkers.[17] Even though some thinkers interacted positively with Rerum Novarum, most who reacted in this way were blind to the plight of ethnic Catholics and immigrant workers.[18]

While most American Catholics were apathetic to encyclical’s call for labor, Rerum Novarum was directly used in a number of small labor movements in the twentieth century. The San Francisco labor movement, for example, was heavily influenced by Rerum Novarum. Father Peter C. Yourke, an Irish priest from Baltimore, successfully used the principles of the encyclical to explain to San Francisco workers in the 1900-01 strikes to explain the workers’ moral right to association.[19] An Irish priest was noted for speaking on Mid-century, the encyclical also had a noted impact on labor resistance to the Bracero Program, the US government’s use and abuse of migrant laborers on southwest farms in the 1950-60s. Archbishop of San Antonio Robert Lucey and his missionaries used Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals in the canon of Catholic Social teaching up against that point, to counsel Bracero workers on the importance of labor organization.[20]

While sharing the same religion and geographic space, American Poles were radically disconnected from the world of Abell’s Catholics as well as Irish Catholic priests such as Peter Yourke. Catholic Polonia was distinctly different mainstream Catholicism. Poles in the late nineteenth century were perceived as being non-white in comparison to German or Irish Catholics. Poles were a relatively new immigrant group in 1890s America, and they were considered to be too different from previous Irish and German immigrants. Poles, along with Italian and Jewish immigrants, were deemed to be non-white by the prevailing nativist and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political and social elites in the United States.[21] Poles were ethnic Catholics, included in the church as Catholic in name only.

The Poles were looked down upon by the Irish-dominated mainstream Catholic establishment. One of the most well-documented cases was the continuing conflict between Cardinal George Mundelein, bishop of Chicago from 1915 to 1939, and the Polish Catholics in his community. In the 1920s Mundelein refused multiple times to approve Polish prayers in Catholic masses in mixed parishes and at several points attempted to block the establishment of Polish parishes.[22] Mundelein’s attitude toward the Poles was typical of relations between the Catholic hierarchy and the Polish church. Was this social distance from the Catholic hierarchy enough for American Poles to be able to form a social gospel such as in San Francisco or in the bracero program?


Despite being isolated from the church hierarchy, Polish communities in the United States were deeply Catholic. For Poles, the church as a way of retaining their identity and community in the New World. In rural Poland, the church was the center of identity, it wholly defined how Poles knew and interacted with one another.[23] In the United States, the Polish diaspora tried their best to recreate this foundation. Polish workers working in the packinghouses and steel mills of Chicago, making barely enough to survive, always saved up enough to send their children to the local Polish parish school, where their language and identity could be protected.[24] Poles also increasingly created community organizations through the church, such as Fraternal clubs and devotional groups, essentially defining all public life in Polonia through the church.[25] With such a profoundly Catholic working-class community, one would expect that Rerum Novarum made some impact in the Polish community.


The encyclical did make an impact in the community, but of a different kind than that of Abell’s Catholic hierarchy or the labor movements that used the encyclical. Early Polish responses to the encyclical were subtle. In the years immediately following its publication, Polish newspapers did not write any significant tracts in response to the encyclical. But, over the following twenty years, Rerum Novarum would be mentioned in Polish papers at a much higher rate than other newspapers in the time period.[26]

Poles took a positive meaning from the encyclical. An article 1898 in Dziennik Chicagoski, a prominent Polish-Catholic newspaper, praised Leo XIII for following in ‘the path of common people’ with Rerum Novarum.[27] An 1893 article praised the encyclical for being aimed at ‘social harmony.’[28] Through Rerum, Poles recognized that Leo was on their side in their struggle with industrial capitalism.

A poem published in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1895 titled “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!”  or ‘Who will save us? –God!’ directly cited the meaning of Rerum Novarum for Polonia. The poem began:


W “Rerum Novarum” rzekłeś nam,                   In Rerum Novarum, you told us

Niech miłość będzie waszem prawem,             Your love is all our right

Niech biedak u bogacza bram                             Let Poor man and rich man enter the gates

Nie stoi z okiem łzawem…                                   He does not stand with tears

Niech będzie w słusznej cenie trud                    Give labor its rightful price

A wtedy Szczęsnym będzie lud.                          and the people will be happy[29]


To the Pole who wrote this poem for the newspaper, Rerum Novarum was seen as the Pope stepping in on the side of ‘us’ to give labor its due. The final stanza of the poem states that the world does not understand Leo’s words and that the only one who can save the Poles is God.

Through this explicit identification with the encyclical, it is evident Rerum Novarum had a well-known and pervasive meaning for the Polish communities. Through the following decades, this meaning subtly lingered on in many Polish newspapers. For example, into the twentieth-century Polish newspapers continued to reprint excerpts from the encyclical. A 1904 reprint in a Polish paper in Minnesota republished excerpts from paragraph twenty-four of the encyclical, on the importance of using the riches responsibility. The reprint also included excerpts of paragraph thirty-six on the responsibility of the state to interfere in strikes and worker’s issues.[30] Other Polish newspapers followed a similar pattern.

The encyclical later became a lens on a labor organization. Much of this language connected the encyclical to the labor movement in both the United States and in partitioned Poland. An 1898 Chicago paper published a labor periodical about Rerum Novarum that had been circulating in Galicia, to ‘advise’ Polish workers in America.[31] A newspaper in Cleveland in 1906 praised a new social-democratic party in Warsaw for taking ‘action’ on the encyclical.[32] American Polonia was aware of the impact and use Rerum Novarum had in Poland. The encyclical had been better received by the hierarchy there, and the labor-sympathetic message of the encyclical made its way into most pulpits, but it had relatively little effect on the weak labor movements in Poland’s few industrial centers.[33]

In 1911 Polish papers celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. One article celebrated the power the encyclical gave to the working class to defend against their exploitation and called upon the working class to celebrate its anniversary.[34] Other articles surrounding this revealed Poles to be considering how the encyclical connected to calls for Social Christianity. Another 1911 article detailed the history Social Christianity, as it was embodied in the French revolution and the German revolutions of 1848, the history ended with Rerum Novarum.[35] An extensive overview of Social Christianity also appeared in Dziennik Chicagoski in 1910. This overview was titled “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflections on Social Christianity], and it detailed the role of Christianity in civilization with several descriptions of the critical the role Rerum Novarum played in handling class relations.[36] These articles were only a few years after the publication of Robert Ruaschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and John Ryan’s A Living Wage (1906) which led many Americans into conversation on the role of Christianity in industrial America as well as popularizing the notion of ‘Social Christianity.’ Ryan, a Catholic priest, especially commented on social Christianity through the lens of Rerum Novarum. Ryan argued that Leo’s support of private property and profit-seeking was not all-out support of capital, instead of private property was equally the property of labor and capital.[37] As these articles revealed, Poles were to a minor extent part of this conversation.

Through the two decades after its publication, the Polish diaspora was persistently aware of the meaning and potential of Rerum Novarum. Poles reflected upon its meaning and consistently spoke of the encyclical with reverence and hope. Yet it is not clear if the encyclical made it way into the Polish labor movements as it did with Father Yourke in San Francisco or Archbishop Lucey in Texas. What was the Polish church’s role in the Polish labor movement? Did Polish workers have a social gospel in the first place and if so, did Rerum Novarum directly make its way into that gospel?


Polish labor was in a desperate state in the time these articles were written. Poles lived in some of the worst slums in industrializing America and worked some of the most dangerous and difficult jobs. Many Poles worked an eighty-four hour week in South Chicago steel mills while other salved away in the horrifying mess of Chicago’s packinghouses. Poles working at the Haskell-Barker factory in Michigan City where Anton Kloza worked before he lost his leg, walked to the freight car factory at dawn and worked a 12-14 hour shift seven days a week. Polish workers slowly organized at the end of the nineteenth century.

Since Poles, like most turn of the century immigrants, were for the most part unskilled laborers, unionization was especially difficult for them. Skilled workers refused to unionize with the Poles and attempts at organizing unskilled labor rarely succeeded since there was always a large labor pool to draw from. Poles did turn to unions in times of crisis in the Gilded Age, but when they did, they were not as radical as other immigrant groups in the time period.

Poles were somewhat averse to radicalism. Polish workers, although at the bottom rung, were especially conservative in their outlook on labor. Poles protested against Capital under cases of severe pay cuts or changes. In these cases though, but their demands were always for a return to the status quo.[38] Some later Polish immigrants who migrated from regions of Poland with high rates of peasant populism were more assertive but on the whole Polish workers were seen as docile in the time period.[39] Poles were also generally far less likely to support or join socialist organizations in this time.[40]

Polish labor activists were also not entirely united behind Catholicism. Many Polish labor agitators argued their case from Polish nationalist rhetoric instead of religious rhetoric. Poles, when leaving for the United States carried strong nationalist impulses stemming from Poland’s multiple partitions and political disenfranchisement. Nationalism provided a sharp lens on Polish views on labor, as well as American politics in general.[41] Through the first world war, Polish community leaders in Chicago remained divided over whether nationalism or Catholicism would define their political and labor movements in the United States, whether arguments for the dignity of Polish labor lay in the church or the nationalist spirit.[42] Rerum Novarum did sneak its way into some of these nationalist calls for labor, as evinced in the newspaper articles on Polish labor in both Galicia and in Poland above.[43]

A number of crucial Poles in the labor movement who relied upon Catholic arguments made arguments similar to that of Rerum Novarum. The prominent historian of Polish labor, John Radziłowski argued that while Poles were generally upset with the impact of industrial capitalism, but they did not partake in labor radicalism due to the influence of the Polish church in their lives.[44] The role of Polish religious leader, Wincenty Barzyński was a factor in this aversion to socialism, according to Radziłowski. Barzyński was a very successful church planter in Polonia, and wherever he started Polish parishes, he carried strong arguments against modernism that included both indictments of industrial capitalism and socialism.[45]  Barzyński also successfully aligned Polish Chicago with the Democratic party in the 1890s, politicizing the group’s goals but not making them too radical. Barzyński was just one loud voice in Polonia’s reaction to industrial capitalism though. He used some of the principles of Catholic social teaching, but his arguments did not define the movement or make a discernable impact.

Rerum Novarum, while on the minds of Poles, could not take root in the Polish diaspora in America. Poles were too averse to radical unionization, divided, and numbed by arguments against socialism to fully take on the calling of Rerum Novarum. While it would seem as if such a deeply Catholic community would take on the pope’s first social teaching, Polonia was merely too divided and complex. Polish newspapers evinced a distinct awareness and appreciation of Rerum Novarum, albeit it never worked its way into a robust Polish social gospel.


In 1991, Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical, Centesimus Annus or “hundredth year.” Centesimus Annus was a capstone to the tradition of Catholic Social teaching that had begun with Rerum Novarum; it condemned the communist regimes of the twentieth century and made a strong call for the ‘principle of subsidiarity,’ which stated that a higher order community must respect the right of a lower community to make its own decisions for itself but that the higher community still bears a responsibility for the lower community when that community is in need. Before taking his regnal name in 1979, John Paul II was the Bishop of Kraków, Karol Joźef Wojtyła. American Poles reacted to the election of the first Polish pope with tremendous zeal. Polish Catholics became a much closer, prouder community in the era of the ‘miracle pope.’[46]

Poles in this time had come a long way from Rerum Novarum. In 1983 the Solidarność movement put the plight of Polish workers in the global spotlight, highlighted the abuse of Polish workers by the postwar communist regime. John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland in the late 1970s and early 1980s were key in motivating Solidarność. Polish labor now had a radical face, tied in deeply with the Catholic hierarchy. This was a state of affairs inconceivable in the time of Kloza, albeit its seeds may have already been sewn as he wept in the courthouse hallway.

[1] James Forgan Recollections of a Busy Life (New York: The Banker’s Publishing Company, 1924), 224, “John H Barker Dead, Expired Soon After Noon” Michigan City Evening Dispatch December 11, 1910

[2] “Jury Fails to Agree, No Verdict in Damage Suit of Friendless Polish Boy” Indianapolis Journal February 28, 1904

[3] Pacyga, Dominic. Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago: Workers on the South Side, 1880-1922. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) 17

[4] William Galush, For More Than Bread: Community and Identity in American Polonia 1880-1940 East European Monographs DCLXXXIX (Columbia University Press, 2006) vii

[5] Leo XII Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor (May 15, 1891) §3

[6] ibid §4-5

[7] ibid §19

[8] ibid §20

[9] ibid §22

[10] ibid §45-46

[11] See Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)

[12] Kevin Schmeising, Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II. (Lenham MD: Lexington Books, 2004) 18

[13] Aaron Abell, “The Reception of Leo XIII’s Labor Encyclical in America” Review of Politics Vol.7 No4 (October 1945) 464-495; 471

[14] ibid 478

[15] ibid 481

[16] E.B. Brady, “The Pope and the Proletariat” Catholic World Vol.53 No. 317 (August 1891) 633-644; 644

[17] Rev. Morgan Sheedy, “The Encyclical and American Iron-Workers and Coal Miners” Catholic World Vol.53 No.318 (September 1891) 850-861

[18] Martin Zielinski, “The American Catholic and Chicago Response to Rerum Novarum” Chicago Studies Vol.31 No.2 (August 1992) 142-153; 145

[19] Richard Gribble, “Rerum Novarum and the San Francisco Labor Movement” American Catholic Historian Vol.9 No.3 (Summer 1990) 275-288; 285

[20] Brett Hendrickson, “Catholic Social Policy and Resistance to the Bracero Program” in Heath Carter, Christopher Cantwell, and Janine Giordano eds. The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016) 192-210

[21] Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) Jacobson identifies race as a lens defined by power struggles in the United States in this time, Poles and other new immigrants were excluded from being white on account of the 1798 naturalization act which stipulated that citizenship was only available to ‘free white males.’

[22] Edward R. Kantowicz, Corporation Sole: Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) 75-6

[23] Pacyga Workers 111-12

[24] Pacyga 144-45

[25] Galush For More than Bread 67

[26] The majority of the results for a search for ‘Rerum Novarum’ in several digital newspaper databases for the decades between 1890 and 1920 were in Polish newspapers.

[27] “Polacy w Chicago” [People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[28] “Poglądy Katolickiego Męź Stanu Na Kwestyę Socalnyą” [A Catholic’s View on the State of the Social Question] Dziennik Chicagoski April 4th, 1893

[29] “Kto Zbawi? –Bóg!” [Who will save us? God!] Dziennik Chicagoski July 23rd, 1895, Author’s translation

[30] Wiarus February 4, 1904

[31] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

[32] “Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[33] Brian Porter, Faith, and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford University Press, 2011) 129-130

[34] “Rocznica Encyliki Rerum Novarum” [Anniversary of Rerum Novarum] Dziennik Chicagoski  June 9, 1911

[35] “Uwagi: Socyalizm Chrześcijański” [Comments on Christian Socialism” Dziennik Chicagoski December 7, 1911

[36] “Refleksy e Społecno Chrzescijańskie na Czasie” [Timely Reflection on Social Christianity] Dziennik Chicagoski December 15th, 1910

[37] Ryan, John A., Harlan Beckley Ed. Economic Justice: Selections from Distributive Justice and A Living Wage (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1996) 118

[38] William Falkowski, “Labor, Radicalism, and the Worker” in John Bukowczyk ed. Polish Americans and the History: Community Culture and Politics (University of Pittsburg Press, 1996) 39-57; 41

[39] Falkowski 43

[40] Galush For More than Bread 61

[41] See Matthew Frye, Jacobson,  Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants. Cambridge MA: Harvard University, 1995.

[42] George Pabis, “The Polish Press in Chicago and American Labor Strikes, 1892-1912” Polish American Studies Vol.48, No.1 (Spring 1991) 7-21;8

[43] “Polacy w Chicago” [Polish People of Chicago] Dziennik Chicagoski March 24th, 1898

Nowy Stronnictwa” [New Party] Ameryka Echo January 6, 1906

[44] John Radziłowski, “Rev. Wincenty Barzyński and a Polish Catholic Response to Industrial Capitalism” Polish American Studies Vol.58 No.2 (Autumn 2001) 23-32; 24

[45] ibid  29

[46] John Radziłowski, “Miracle: American Polonia, Karol Wojtyła and the Election of Pope John Paul II” Polish American Studies Vol.63 No.1 (Spring 2006) 79-87

A Cultural History of Gilded Age Suicide

By TJ Kalin, Heritage Interpreter

 *The views expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

In the summer of 2017, I spent a significant chunk of my time looking through newspapers on microfilm at the Michigan City public library. This was part of the research for a book on the Barker Family which eventually that book turned into a full history of Michigan City in the Gilded Age, Michigan City and the Gilded Age: Industrialists, Immigrants, and Sand which is coming out this fall through the History Press of Charleston SC. I was looking through these newspapers for information on the Barkers, local politics, factories, immigrants, scandals, and other pieces of Gilded Age Michigan City history. As the case with most late-nineteenth-century local papers, Michigan City ran more national news than local news, using new telegraph news services such as the Associated Press. This meant sifting through pages of articles that had little to do with Michigan City or even Indiana to find information usable for my research (in the end I actually found more information on Michigan City in Chicago, South Bend, and Indianapolis newspapers than I found in Michigan City).

While mind-numbing at times, there were a few interesting things in these non-Michigan City articles. My favorite was a series of 1880s articles on an individual known as “Bill Nye, Scientist.” Rather than a beloved 1990s children’s science educator, the Gilded Age Bill Nye was a doctor who answered questions about anatomy in a column for the New York World.

One of the more troubling things in the Michigan City papers was the regularity in which Michigan City papers sensationalized Suicide. Nearly every day, there were long articles on the front page about the suicides of local residents as well as people from Chicago, New York, and even overseas. The most striking article I found (which I made a note of but unfortunately did not print off a copy of) was a long report on the Suicide of an inmate at the state prison in Michigan City. Reporters for the New Dispatch had gone to the prison and taken, from the prison post office, several letters the prisoner had addressed to his family, and then proceeded to print the text of the letters in full on the front page. I was perplexed, why was Suicide such a sensational topic in Gilded Age? What drove the demand for this extreme in nineteenth-century media?

An important historical question, but one that would have to wait. I had more pressing concerns, including securing the book contract and my upcoming senior seminar paper on the Katyń massacre, which I was writing that fall. The following spring, which was the second semester of my junior year at Valparaiso University, I began exploring possible topics for my honors thesis. At the end of the semester, my project proposal was due, and I was expected to work on it for the next year with the final draft due in April of my senior year. I was still under the thrall of Eastern European history when I first decided to do honors work. My first idea for the project was going to be an intellectual history on the influence of the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in Poland. The previous year I had run across some debates between Polish Hegelian academics and Polish Catholic priests while researching a philosophy paper. I ran into trouble on this topic, though. While some sources were in Polish, the majority of the sources on Polish Hegelian thought was written a German, a language in which I was woefully unskilled.

Around this time, I was beginning to drift more and more into American history. I had studied and written on American history in my work at the Barker Mansion, but I never considered myself an American historian, I always had my hopes set on becoming a historian of the Soviet Union and Poland. I had my doubts about this dream, though. For one, I had never traveled to Eastern Europe. I had never experienced the culture which I wanted to study, and I also lacked knowledge of Russian. I had studied Polish with a tutor for several years at Valpo, but my knowledge of Russian barely extended beyond being the Cyrillic alphabet, basic grammar, some phrases from the Soviet Era, and crossover words between Polish and Russian. I found American history on the hand very attractive.

American history, while shorter, was much more real to me, especially the Gilded Age. The problems of the Gilded Age seemed very much alive with many of the same issues in our public discourse today. I still live and walk amongst the buildings, institutions, and inventions of that era. I also found that I did not have to abandon Polish history wholly, for the Gilded Age was the time when all of my Polish ancestors came over to the United States to work in the steel mills.

I quickly abandoned my plans for the thesis on Hegel in Poland and started exploring the history of Polish immigrants in the United States. I spoke to Heath Carter, the Gilded Age historian at Valparaiso, who agreed to be my thesis mentor on the project. Dr. Carter also supervised an independent study on the Gilded Age that spring, where we explored the vast literature on the Gilded Age. He also gave me feedback on my book manuscript in the class. We read a few books on immigration history such as John Higham’s Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, which covered the history of immigration debates in the Gilded Age, and Dominic Pacyga’s Polish Immigrants and Industrial Chicago, a history of Polish steel mill and packinghouse workers in Chicago.

Dr. Carter also introduced me to the extensive scholarship on the cultural history of the Gilded Age. Cultural history is a historical method which focuses on the symbols and representations with a single culture. This meant following the changing use of terms in American media and literature; seeing how different Americans found different meanings for the same turn. It meant understanding how Gilded Age Americans perceived the world through their culture. I found this method of historical inquiry extremely interesting. To me, cultural history seemed to get closer to the ‘what-its-like’ of historical experience than other methods seemed to allow. I have always wanted to get into the head of historical agents, to get an inkling of what is meant to live in a particular historical context; cultural history seemed to be the best route towards that.

I tried to integrate my newfound love for cultural history into my honors thesis plans. My initial plan was to explore the perception of time among Polish immigrants working in Chicago. Polish workers were mostly peasants who went from working in the fields of Poland to working eighty-four hours weeks in the blast furnace of South Chicago Steel Works or spending all day on the horrific assembly line of one of Chicago’s meatpacking plants. I wanted to see if their perception of time changed as their experience changed; did time slow down for them when they made this move?

This was a big question, and I quickly found that it was not feasible given the scope of an honors work project. To understand how Polish immigrants experienced the time I would have to essentially read any bit of media circulated in the Polish community both in Chicago and in Poland, hoping to find evidence of angst or anxiety about how they felt the time was moving. I found some evidence of this thesis in my cursory research, but the task was too monumental. I did not want to condemn myself to read newspapers on microfilm for another, and Polish newspapers at that!

Around this time, the question of Gilded Age suicide drifted back into my train of thought. Dr. Carter had me read TJ Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace, cultural history of the anti-modern impulse in American history, which I covered in broad strokes my the previous post. Lears’ work covered different ways in which Gilded Age Americans responded to the negative effects of industrialization and urbanization. These Americans felt a feeling of weightlessness as their entire world changed dramatically.

Lears’ book made me think about the suicide notes that the Michigan City papers stole from the prison post office; what meaning did Suicide have for these Americans? Americans felt their whole world change, did Suicide have some sort of metaphorical significance to this feeling?

It turns out Suicide was a major topic of public debate in the Gilded Age. Americans claimed that suicide rates were increasing due to urbanization and modernization. Extensive tracts on the rise in Suicide regularly ran in mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune as well as in the labor press, the immigrant press, the feminist press, religious periodicals, fashion magazines––just about everywhere I looked I found debates over Suicide. Suicide was also sensationalized in American media with dramatic accounts of suicides and graphic illustrations regularly printed in newspapers. Reprinting suicide notes as the case with the Michigan City paper turned out to be a common practice.

A cultural history of Suicide in the Gilded Age thus became my honors thesis. For the past year, I have poured through thousands of newspapers, magazines, books, medical journals, and other sources to reconstruct several areas of public debate and discourse where Suicide played a significant role. Eventually I narrowed the study down to three distinct areas of discourse: (1) suicide and anarchism in the Gilded Age, the Suicide of anarchists such as condemned Haymarket bomber Louis Lingg were commented on extensively in American media; (2) gender and Suicide, the Suicide of women in nineteenth-century American cities were sensationalized by different strata of American society; (3) suicide and the market, Americans increasingly tied Suicide into the new industrial economy of the Gilded Age. Through all of these arenas of discourse, I argued that suicide sensationalism expressed Americans’ deep anxieties about the direction America had taken under industrialization.

I finished writing this thesis a few weeks ago, I went a little primary-source-crazy, and it ended up being 118 pages long. On May 10, I defended the thesis and managed to pass. This summer, I plan to share some of my findings in a three-part podcast on Suicide and the Gilded Age, which will be posted on the mansions podcast site. I also will publish pieces of the study on this blog, and I am going to submit some sections for consideration by various journals. You can also read it by clicking here.

You never know where a research project may go or what may strike interest. I traipsed from Hegel’s influence in Poland to the perception of time by Polish immigrants. The only reason I ended up studying Gilded Age suicide was because of some articles I happened to stumble by in my quest for other sources. That’s why I plan to live my life immersed in the world of primary sources; you never know where you are going to go, and I always enjoy the journey.

TJ Kalin, May 26, 2019

Anti-Modernism and the Barkers

By TJ Kalin Heritage Interpreter

*The views expressed are solely those of the author and not the Barker Mansion*

John Barker was born in Michigan City, Indiana in 1844. Chicago, fifty miles away, had a population of about 15,000 when he was born. When Barker passed away in 1910, the city had a population of over 2,000,000. His lifetime saw other dramatic changes to American life. He lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction; people began to say the ‘United States is” instead of the “United States are.” In his lifetime, electric light fundamentally changed how Americans viewed their own homes and cities. Telephones and telegraphs made once great distances seem incredibly small. With the railroad and later the automobile, humans were able to travel faster than horses, wind, or water. Laws of incorporation saw companied became incredibly large, and the advent of bureaucracy gave a new face to the government.

When Barker was born, Americans lived by the Jeffersonian Republican ideal; everyone worked in hopes of someday running their own independent farm. Wage labor was seen as a means towards one day, gaining independence. Labor was a matter of interacting with one’s environment. With industrialization, this changed. Millions of immigrant workers entered perpetual wage labor in the United States. The modern assembly line meant that the workers’ tasks were simplified, repeating the same motions all day long.

Labor changed for the professional class too. With incorporation, more white collar workers were needed to manage the complex hierarchies of American companies. Factories like the Haskell and Barker car company needed more middle management, more people in offices. Suddenly, labor for middle was a matter of sitting in artificially lit offices all day, endlessly shuffling paperwork. In their attempt to feel as if they were still interacting with the work, these workers began to work extremely long hours. According to John Barker’s obituary, even though he was president of the company, Barker was still in the office before anyone else in the morning, and he was always last to leave.


Oglesbee and Hale, History of Michigan City Indiana (1908) p.200


This changes in labor occurred in tandem with shifts in Americans view of morality and the self. Before the Civil War, most Americans lived in small towns. Their identity was rooted in their communities; they had moral accountability among a small group of people. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization, that sense of self fractured radically. Living in cities of millions of people uprooted Americans’ sense of identity and moral assuredness. The image of the urban vices of the city, opium, alcohol, prostitution, further undermined Americans’ moral sense in the era.

Together, the loss of identity and the change in labor led middle-class Americans to feel a ‘weightlessness’ of modern life. They felt as if they were no longer interacting with the world, that their actions were futile; American did not think they had control over their lives. The term ‘neurasthenia’ came into usage to describe a nervous collapse brought by weightlessness and ‘overcivilization.’


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“Worry Drives Thousands to the Death, the Madhouse and to Suicide,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 13, 1905.


One remedy was to search for intense experiences to offset the weightlessness. The middle class took up hobbies such as silversmithing, crocheting, beekeeping, and pottery. Through these hobbies, Americans tried to embody the ideals of medieval artisans, whom they thought lived intense lives. Outdoors hobbies such as camping and fishing became popular, as Americans sought to escape the cities into the outdoors. The Barker family was involved in these hobbies. Pillows sewn by Katherine Fitzgerald Barker are in the museum’s collection and our archives house several photos of the Barkers on camping trips with other high society families.

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The return to the medieval artisan was one way in which Americans sought to defy modernization, i.e., a return to pre-modern ideals. American architecture also reflected this change, as Greek and Roman revival style skyscrapers sprung up across the country. These styles masked the modernity of the buildings, hiding steel beams, electric light, and elevators beneath old facades. The Barker Mansion is an excellent example of this impulse, constructed in English-Renaissance revival style. Inside the mansion elaborate woodwork, tapestries, and faux candelabras hide electric light, radiators, modern vents, and pressurized plumbing. Historians refer to these trends as the anti-modernism.

When I am in the mansion today, I try to look for more evidence of the Barkers’ anti-modernism. The advent of the internet on my life is nothing compared to these changes the Barkers went through and I try to keep that in mind when I look at their world through my eyes. The Gilded Age was a time of changing perceptions of the world, people saw time, space, and themselves differently and my plan for the next year is to design interpretive programs that convey the weight of these changes. Last weekend I held the second “Building Barker Architecture Tour” which explored the mansion and the family’s history through the lens of Frederick Wainwright Perkins, the architect who designed the mansion as well as that of Jens Jensen, who designed the gardens. Using Perkins’ correspondence with the Barkers as well as the context of Gilded Age architecture, we explored several manifestations of anti-modernism in the structure of the mansion as well as the symbolism and designs throughout the building and grounds. I am also planning a program for September 18th, tentatively titled “Lighting the Barker Mansion” (not much pizzazz right now, but I’ll work on it!). In this program, I explore the impact of electric light in the Gilded Age, how lighting changed social customs, fashion, and altered how people interact with the space inside their own homes. Anti-modernism is just one of a myriad of perspective we can take on the Barker Mansion, and it brings us a hair closer to seeing the world through the Barkers’ eyes.

Further Reading:

Lears, TJ Jackson. No Place of Grace: Anti-Modernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1870-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

———, The Railroad Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979.