Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sister Carrie 
Literary Tour of Chicago

This month we joined the Glen Ellyn Historical Society Book Club in its reading of Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. One of the joys of reading Sister Carrie has been to follow Carrie on her journey through the streets and sights of Chicago in 1889. Dreiser wrote the book in 1900, but set it in a time when Chicago was on the verge of major change and development in preparation for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Chicago just wasn't the same in 1900 as it was in 1889 - and neither was Carrie Meeber. 

One of the remarkable things about a Sister Carrie Literary Tour is not how much has changed, but how much has been preserved. It might take a little imagination, but the ghosts are there among the landmarks. 

We are working on creating a map of all of these sights for a self-guided sightseeing tour. If we have enough people to sign up we will arrange a private bus tour from Glen Ellyn, which will include a cocktail hour at the Palmer House Hotel. If you are interested in joining us, please contact Sue or Margie at The Bookstore at (630) 469-2891, or comment below. 

All page references are to the Signet Classic Paperback Edition, 2009.

1.     Old Wells Street Train Station  

Carrie arrives on the Chicago and North Western train from Wisconsin, which in 1889 would have pulled into the old Wells Street Station at Wells and Kinzie. This station was torn down in 1911 when a new station was built on the west side of the Chicago River. The Merchandise Mart now stands at this location. This scene is where Carrie parts from Drouet and greets her sister Minnie Hanson (p. 9).

2.     State and Lake: Drouet’s Office 

Drouet pulls out a “neat business card” and hands it to Carrie on the train, trying to impress her. As he says in the book: “ ‘This is the house I travel for,’ he went on, pointing to a picture on it, ‘corner of State and Lake.’ There was pride in his voice.” (p. 7)


The Page Brothers Building is a Chicago Landmark that represents the only standing cast iron fa├žade building that was built after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. This may have been Drouet’s building, but if not, it is a good representation of the types of structures standing at the corner of State & Lake in the Sister Carrie era. The Chicago Theater had not yet been built.

3.     Minnie Hanson’s Flat 

Dreiser says that Minnie Hanson’s flat is located at 354 West Van Buren. It is described as a working class neighborhood inhabited by laborers and clerks (pp. 7, 11).The current location of this address is on the east bank of the Chicago River, underneath the Congress Street bridge in the middle of the Lower Wacker construction project.

This address is probably fictional, because the book describes Carrie walking east on Van Buren through an area of “shanties and coalyards” until she finally came upon the river. Dreiser seems to be picturing Minnie’s flat to be several blocks west of the river, possibly in the Halsted Street neighborhood. Later in the book, when Carrie agrees to move out of her sister’s flat, Drouet says he will “come out as far as Peoria and wait for her.” (p. 71). Peoria is two blocks west of Halsted.

“354 West Van Buren” in 2011. Images by Margie White.

4.  Carrie’s Job Search Across the Loop

Carrie’s brother-in-law recommends she start her job search at the commercial establishments on Franklin. She spots a dry goods wholesaler (“Storm & King”) on Franklin, but she chickens out and wanders aimlessly through the Loop. She is said to have walked past Madison, Monroe, La Salle, Clark, Dearborn and State, until she backtracked to apply for a job at Storm & King. They didn’t have any job openings, but they suggested she go apply at the department stores on State Street (pp. 16-20).

Chicago Landmark: Lake-Franklin Group buildings

“As the oldest remaining buildings in the Loop, this commercial block represents a rare example of what downtown Chicago looked like when it rebuilt from the Fire of 1871. These early-Victorian era buildings exhibit many of the distinctive features of post-Fire architecture, including cast-iron columns, incised stonework, decorative window hoods, and arched window openings. Located just one block from the Chicago River, this intact group of "mercantile loft" structures is one of the last remnants of the city's wholesaling district, an area that was integral to Chicago's status in the late-19th century as the world's largest market for grain, lumber, livestock, and provisions. The early occupants of these buildings represent a compendium of period wholesalers: a tannery and leather dealer, a manufacturer of iron and woodworking machinery, a sandstone company, a steam heating company, mitten and hat manufacturers, and a corner saloon.”

5.      The Fair Department Store 

Carrie finally asked a policeman for directions to the department stores of Chicago, and he directed her to The Fair on State Street. It was one of the more modest department stores along what was then called the “Ladies Half-Mile.” Dreiser uses clothing to portray social standing, so when the policeman sent Carrie to The Fair, he had already judged her unworthy of the higher-end department stores like Field’s or Carson, Pirie Scott. He was right. Carrie was enthralled, and found it to be a “showplace of dazzling interest and attraction.” (pp. 21-22)

The Fair occupied nearly every building along the north side of Adams between State and Dearborn. According to Chicago Urban History:

The Fair was one of several major department stores that operated along Chicago's State Street during the early twentieth century and helped transform the city's Loop district into a bustling center of entertainment and leisure. Known for the affordability and practicality of its merchandise, The Fair never attracted the so-called "carriage trade." Instead, it catered primarily to Chicagoans of more modest incomes: middle-class professionals, working-class men and women, and first- and second-generation immigrants. One of the store's most widely dissiminated [sic] marketing slogans promised “ ‘Everything for Everybody under one roof' at a cheap price.”

The Fair, circa 1906. Source: Library of Congress  

6. Jackson & Wells, Near Carrie’s Place of Employment

After Carrie’s disappointment at The Fair, she heads back west along the south side of Jackson Boulevard. She stops to apply at a hat-making shop on Jackson. She then crosses Fifth Avenue (now known as Wells Street) and spots the fictional Rhodes, Morgenthau and Scott, the wholesale shoe company where she is briefly employed (pp. 20-21).

Corner of Jackson and Wells in 2011.
Image by Margie P. White

The McKlintock building in the background
was built in 1896 and was not standing in
Carrie’s era, but would have been there
when Dreiser wrote the book in 1900.

7.   Union Park Church in Ogden Place Neighborhood
In Chapter 10, Dreiser states that “Drouet had taken three rooms, furnished, in Ogden     Place, facing Union Park, on the West Side. . . . The best room looked out upon the lawn of the park. . . . Over the bare limbs of the trees, . . . rose the steeple of the Union Park Congregational Church.” (pp. 90-91)

Union Park Congregational Church was built in 1869, survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and temporarily housed city workers while government offices were being reconstructed. Abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are said to have spoken at the church. Martin Luther King Jr. also addressed the congregation. It was in the news recently when its spire was damaged in the heavy snow and lightning in February, 2011.

       1613 W. Washington, Chicago, Image:

8.   West Jackson Historic District

Although Carrie and Drouet lived on Ogden Place, Ogden Avenue at Union Park is very commercial now. In order to capture the feel of the upper and middle-class neighborhood as it was in 1889, go to the West Jackson Historic District, located on the 1500 block of West Jackson, which is a Chicago Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

West Jackson Blvd. Then (1906)
Source: Unknown

West Jackson Blvd. Now

Images by Margie White

West Jackson homes for sale in 2011 in $700,000-$1 million range.

9. Jefferson Park, Now Skinner Park 

In Chapter 15, Hurstwood writes to Carrie “asking her to meet him in Jefferson Park, Monroe Street.” They met on a “rustic bench beneath the green leaves of a lilac bush which bordered one of the paths.” (p. 142)

Jefferson Park is now known as Skinner Park, and although it is surrounded by the Whitney Young Magnet School, the Chicago Police Training Academy, and the new Skinner Elementary School, it is still a lovely and lively city park with paths, park benches and a playground. 

     Skinner Park “Sister Carrie” Benches 2011, Images by Margie White

More Information

For more information about the locations in Sister Carrie, there is a list available on Goodreads. Very few of these locations exist today, but there are some historical and current images available on the web. Not all of the websites provided are accurate or operational.

# 1.354 West Van Buren (the Hansons' flat). [Fictional]
# 2.No. 29 Ogden Place (Carrie and Drouet's flat). [Fictional]

# 3.Bartlett, Caryoe and Co. (Drouet's employer). Corner of State and Lake. [Fictional] -- this bldg. was at the corner of State and Lake
# 4.Rhodes, Morgenthau and Scott (shoe company where Carrie is employed). Adams and Fifth Avenue. [Fictional]
# 5.The Boston Store. 118–20 State.
# 6.Schlesinger and Mayer. State at southeast corner of Madison.
# 7.Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co. 234 W. Madison.
# 8.The Fair. State, Adams, and Dearborn.
# 9.Sea and Co. 122–24 State.
# 10.Siegel, Cooper and Co. 185–89 Madison.

# 11.Grand Opera House. Clark, near Washington.
# 12.Criterion Theater. 87 Sedgwick.
# 13.McVicker's Theater. Madison, between State and Dearborn.
# 14.Hooley's Theater. Randolph, near La Salle.
# 15.Chicago Opera House. Washington, between Clark and LaSalle.
# 16.Columbia Theater. Monroe, between Clark and Dearborn.
# 17.Avery Hall. Madison and Throop (Carrie makes her acting debut here in Under the Gaslight). [Fictional]
# 18.H. R. Jacob's. Halstead and Madison.
# 19.Standard Theater. 169 S. Halstead.

# 20.Tremont Hotel. Dearborn and Lake.
# 21.Grand Pacific Hotel. Jackson and Clark.
# 22.Palmer House. State, southeast corner Monroe. (Link is a later, 1925 structure)
# 23.Windsor Hotel (Drouet and Carrie dine here before the seduction). Dearborn, between Madison and Monroe.
# 24.Rector's (Hurstwood and Drouet favor this restaurant). Clark and Monroe.
# 25.Hannah and Hogg's (Hurstwood is manager of this resort). Adams, opposite Federal Building.
# 26.Kinsley's Restaurant. 106–7 Adams.

# 27.The Exposition. Michigan Avenue at Adams.
# 28.Michigan Central Railroad Depot (Carrie is tricked by Hurstwood into boarding the train from this depot). Michigan and Lake.
# 29. Union Park Congregational Church, 60 N. Ashland Ave.

Historic maps and buildings in Chicago