Palmer 1927-1928 Interviews

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Interview Archive Background

These interviews were conducted under the supervision of Vivien M. Palmer by University of Chicago graduate students in 1927 and 1928 as part of their course work in urban sociology but also as the “free labor” for putting together an ambitiously planned historical and demographic database on Chicago local communities, probably the first in the nation. The interviews conducted and the written summaries demonstrate varying levels of research capability among the students. Since the information was delivered orally, personal and place names are sometimes spelled phonically and the particular dates cited may be approximate.

This material was intended to be further refined and cross-checked for inclusion in a work entitled “The Social History of Chicago Communities,” which apparently was never produced in that form. A prospectus of that name was put together by Vivien Palmer for submission to the University of Chicago’s Local Community Research Committee, which financed this innovative work. The prospectus contains an index, methodological overview, and one very detailed sample case study of the North Center community area. That sample case study brings together all the historical and quantitative elements of the “Chicago School’s” ideal type of sociological survey as outlined in detail in Palmer’s 1928 publication “Field Studies in Sociology: A Student’s Manual.”

While the intended publication was not produced, the interview and quantitative data gathered in 1925-1930 were used as the basis for the first of the series of benchmark volumes entitled The Chicago Local Community Fact Book, which was published after every U.S. Census from 1930 to 1990. The Fact Book provides a brief written overview of each of the 75 “natural areas” (now 77) into which in the 1920s the University of Chicago research team divided the City of Chicago. In addition to the community area-wide data, the Fact Books provided census and other socio-economic information by census tract – the University of Chicago also having undertaken the tract-level definitions used first in the 1920 and 1930 censuses.

Vivien Marie Palmer was part of one of the first generation of systematic urban sociological researchers in the United States. Born in 1894 on Chicago’s north side, she was the child of immigrants – an engineer father born in Sweden and an English mother. She did undergraduate work in sociology at the University of Chicago, went to Columbia University for a master’s degree, and in 1924 returned to the University of Chicago as a research director working under Professor Ernest W. Burgess on projects funded by the Local Research Committee. After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1932, she went on to develop sociology and survey research programs at several colleges, ending her career at the University of Miami, Florida. She died in Miami in 1978.

For further background, see “The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research” by Martin Bulmer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

Place Names Used in the Interviews

A developer, John Lewis Cochran, gave the name Edgewater to the largely vacant lake shore land east of Broadway (then Evanston Avenue) he purchased in 1885-1888, which was bounded by Foster on the south and Devon on the north. He and the other developers who joined him in purchasing land between Broadway and Clark Street to the west in the 1888-1892 period continued to attach the Edgewater identifier to their subdivisions, capitalizing on the familiarity and upscale image Cochran had established through extensive newspaper and billboard advertising.

In the western part of the community between Clark and Ravenswood, the three neighborhood place names (from south to north) came from an early subdivision (Summerdale), a cemetery established in 1859 (Rose Hill) and a customary name based on topography (High Ridge). These neighborhoods all had stations on the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad (later renamed the Chicago and North Western) paralleling the west side of Ravenswood, which was completed in 1855. Rose Hill (originally Chittenden), opened in 1855 and was the first station out of downtown Chicago and for some time the only stop between downtown and Evanston. The neighborhood identified as Summerdale extended from Bryn Mawr on the north to about Winnemac on the south and between Clark on the east to at least Ravenswood on the west.  The Summerdale station was on the east side of the tracks just north of Foster.


–prepared by Marsha Holland, November 2013


The oral histories were retyped from the original manuscripts by Marsha Holland.