Charities/Volume 13/Number 10/The Bohemians in Chicago

The Bohemians in Chicago


Alice G. Masaryk

University of Chicago Settlement


Half a century has passed since Bohemians first crossed the ocean, and after a long and dreaded journey and much uncertainty, settled down in Chicago, which was then scarcely more than a large village on the Lake shore in the endless prairie.

To-day, Chicago is the third largest Bohemian city in the world, having about one hundred thousand Bohemians, grouped in several colonies of which "Pilsen"[1] is the largest. Originally, the Bohemians lived on Van Buren and Canal streets where now rushing business life is focused. But these settlers were accustomed to villages and small rustic towns, where they cultivated their fields and lived by their handicraft. Therefore, they soon moved from their first seats near the lake and, when the influx of Jews and Italians into their new quarters began to change the character of the settlement, they moved again. The growth of Pilsen thus began after 1870, and after thirty years shows a certain crystallization of what is typical and characteristic of Bohemian-American life. The other quarters are of more recent date and in many respects bear to Pilsen the relation of colonies to a mother land.

A marked though slight dialect, very common in Chicago, shows that a great number of the people came from the southern part of the kingdom, a district which is poorer than the central and northern parts. Nor is the education in this part as good, for poverty does not send out rays of education, though it absorbs them with craving rapidity.

The reasons for the Bohemian emigration are various. The stormy year, 1848, sent a few pioneers for the Bohemian colony; so did the wars with Italy and Prussia and the depressions that followed. Bad harvests, hailstorms and droughts have been of influence, and the disproportionate land taxes, compulsory military service, and the lack of liberty in the bureaucratic system, are certainly of moment.

The reasons for emigration must ever be strong, for the Bohemians cling to the inherited strip of land, to the cottage they were born in, to the little church on the hill, and the rattling mill on the brook. But when they decide to leave the village or town they were born in, the pain of parting gives life to a new, strong love for the new country, the unknown yet longed-for home. And they come with the intention of becoming American citizens.

Even by a conservative element, the Bohemians are considered desirable immigrants. The number of illiterates is small; in the country districts they make good farmers; they are clever hand-workers in the towns. The last is of special interest for Chicago, and is borne out by the fact that of 9,591 Bohemians who came to the United States in 1902–3, 2,609 were skilled workmen.[2] The United States census of 1900 shows that 75.8 per cent of the Bohemians live in the North-west, which is prevailingly agricultural. Of the Bohemians who came over in 1903 only 1.2 per cent were illiterate—and a proportion exceeded only by the Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants of this year.[3]

The Change which the Bohemians Undergo.

The change the Bohemians undergo in crossing the ocean and settling down in Chicago is a radical one. From the Austrian monarchy under which the Catholic church has been indirectly forced upon them, they come into a republic where freedom of religion is acknowledged. From villages and little, old towns, they come into the rushing city of Chicago. Their inward, often unconscious, store of principles and thoughts, superstitions and prejudices, has to be revised because it has been revolutionized. Sometimes the revision is swept away by the revolution.

What intense mental work it requires to distinguish the wisdom of ages crystallized into tradition from an organic prejudice—faith from superstition. Very, very few can do so much and therefore the hardship, the unevenness of the first generation of Bohemians.

The simple, gentle manners of a Bohemian peasant and artisan have to undergo a period of change through the distrust accorded all strangers and the imitation of those beati possidentes that inherited their traditions and manners from other ancestors. This queer mixture in the period of changing does not raise sympathy in those who, because they see only the surface, cannot understand and therefore cannot love.

The Bohemians at home have a strong family life. A married son or daughter remains under the same roof with the aged parents, who retire into a quiet nook, where they enjoy their flaxen-haired, brown-eyed grandchildren. This trait, though modified, continues in Chicago. On a Sunday afternoon, the Eighteenth street car is filled with families, scrubbed, brushed and starched-up, bound for some festival hall to have a good time.

The Bohemian housekeepers know how to get great results from small means, which is most valuable for the poorer class and shows in the red and glossy cheeks of the children. On the other hand, the heavy food (pork with dumplings, for instance, is very common, and with it the usual glass of beer) produces those of full forms without corresponding strength, so general among the well-to-do citizens.

The Bohemians are capable of being amalgamated quickly. They learn the language easily, they give work for which even under competition, they can demand decent wages; they take an interest in politics.

From the Old Country to the New.What then is the reason for that vigorous Bohemian-American life, which forms a world of its own in the midst of the city of Chicago? A hundred years ago, after a long and dead slumber into which the Catholic anti-reformation (one form of Christianity) put the country, the Bohemian national spirit began to breathe. Like an underground current, that tries to find an opening for its waters and is untiring in the tiresome task of seeking and seeking, so tried the hidden, downtrodden Bohemian nation to find a way to live, and it slowly succeeded.

After the fifties, one streamlet, diverted from the general current, found its way to the United States and to the city of Chicago. The obstacles, the bounds that held in this streamlet were removed. So sudden was the change that the waters which expected obstacles burst out into a jet instead of flowing slowly, running mills and factories. Liberty, longed for by generations of Bohemians, was given to the people here, and the energies of thought and longings pent up in the breast for generations without being examined and modified in the fire of deeds, have compelled a disproportionate display.

In the meantime, the mother stream in the old country found its way more naturally because the movement was slower, the obstacles greater, because those who took part in it possessed the discriminating and radical conversatism of thorough education. The same longings that make the Bohemians in Chicago form endless clubs, which make them free thinkers, distrusting all denominational churches, took a more organic growth in the old country, in development in music, arts and sciences, as well as in economic life.


Two pages, large sheets of the daily paper Svornost lie before me, covered with small print, giving the names of Bohemian clubs, societies, and lodges in Chicago. The Catholic press gives another long list of Catholic lodges, Catholic clubs. This fever for organization is typical of the Bohemians in Chicago. It was forty years ago that the few Bohemian settlers started their first club, the "Slavic Limetree."[4] This beginning was simple, and almost idyllic. "We ought to have a little church for our grandmothers," one of the members suggested a little later. "A church where they could pray their pater noster in peace and then we'll be fixed. If we had a mill on the river I should think that we were in Bohemia."

The grandmothers received their church—no small gift in those times. It cost much enthusiasm and good will. Since that simple beginning, many activities have been at work which have resulted in the social organization—the work of individuals, of masses.

In Religion.About 1876, the watchword was given, "Away with Rome" and against it. The reason for this schism (in practical life petty symptoms confirm laws of history) was that the Bohemians in crossing the ocean gained a larger perspective for the observation of their history; they had come to live in a land where the anti-reformation had not had its triumphs. This new light in which they view our history, makes them cry: "Away, away from Rome!" And the question arises, "Where shall we turn?" To Protestantism? Or are there new unknown harbors for weary souls?

Few turn to Protestantism; the majority seek the unknown harbor of free thinking. Negative destructive work is easier than positive work, and therefore we find among the Bohemians all kinds of freethinking from the dogmatic, which is compressed into the much spoken of Catechism of Freethinkers (catechism of freethinking as possible as dry water!) to that freethinking which is so surprising when expressed by an old, simple woman with a broad brow over which the silvery hair is smoothly parted, who says: "I have my God in my heart, I shall deal with Him. I do not want any priest to step between us." Economic Life.The emigration consists almost entirely of working people of whom it has been shown a large percentage is skilled handworkers. It must be borne in mind that while within the last fifty years, centralization of capital and subdivision of labor have reached an unparalleled height in America, in Bohemia, the old guild system which prevailed for centuries is slowly dying off through the same process. The old settlers, who came forty years ago and filled their stores with home-made goods (in those times one tailor flourished alongside of another on Nineteenth street) look amazed on the newcomers and shake their heads: "The idea of an eight-hour day." "The idea of strikes." The once independent handworkers become foremen in great establishments, cutters in tailor shops, butchers in stock yards, workers in the lumber yards, and a great many become shopkeepers. The middle class naturally dreads the great industrial revolution and hates with equal zest trusts and trade unions. But in the trade union movement the Bohemian workman, like all other intelligent working people, takes a part. And in Chicago, the unions with a Bohemian administration (over twenty in number) have a Bohemian central body.

A large factor in the industrial life is the fact that the Bohemians in Chicago practically have a third generation on this soil, though the first generation is still coming in.[5] Therefore, it is natural that with the great thriftiness of the people and their desire to give their children a good education, Bohemians should be found in different branches of business as well as in all professions. In the home country brewing and the making of beet sugar are two of the oldest industries, and three breweries, founded by Bohemian capital, operate in Chicago, influencing the number of saloons not exactly to the benefit of the population.

The Bohemians have a tendency to own houses and so to have permanent homes. This tendency has been very much helped by the Subsidiary Loan Association. The first was started in 1870, and by 1902 there were over thirty Bohemian loan associations of this kind. Six per cent is the highest rate of interest. Of the officers, only the secretary is paid and the books are revised once a year by a state officer. The system of mutual benefit societies has also taken on large dimensions. Svornost[6] gives the name of sixteen orders, which in Chicago have 259 lodges. Denni Hlasatal[7] gives about thirty Catholic associations and this is far from being a full list. These orders pay sick and death benefits, the business basis of the lodges being combined with a social element.

Politics.In politics, the majority of Bohemians are Democratic; the oldest Republican settlers forming an exception. I have often heard the change from the Republican to the Democratic sentiment explained by the readiness of the Democrats to grant offices to the Bohemians. Another and more satisfactory explanation was given to me by a staunch old Republican. The first Bohemians, who left the bureaucratic Austrian monarchy, joined the Republican party with enthusiasm. During all the years that Bohemians were coming in such numbers, the government was Republican. The government in Bohemia was far from popular and the very fact that the existing administration was Republican made the Bohemians willing to listen to the complaints of Democrats and even to join in these complaints. Cleveland's first administration did not change this point of view as the Democrats did not have a majority in Congress. The number of Social Democrats is growing as among other immigrant nationalities.

The Bohemians in Chicago have three daily papers. The Freethinkers have Svornost. the Catholics Narod, and Denni Hlasatel claims to be independent in questions of faith.[8]

Social Life.The social life among the Bohemians is very much alive. There are dances, concerts, theatrical performances. Since the Columbian Exposition a company of professional actors has resided in Pilsen, who on Sunday evenings play before a full house in the large hall, Thalia.

Besides the tendency to avail themselves of the unaccustomed freedom, other factors enter into the social life, such as the rivalry between the Catholics and Free thinkers, the rivalry of individuals, and the indirect economic interest. A new settler finds customers in the club or lodge he joins. This can be reduced ad absurdum, when, for instance, all the grocers from the district meet in the same club with the same intention. The educational element is of great importance. I was struck by the cleverness and efficiency with which the Bohemian women conduct their meetings. The men gain here a training for political life.

Other than these mutual benefit organizations, you will find all kinds of societies especially among the freethinkers, such as turner (gymnastic) clubs (35), singing clubs (18), printing clubs (7), bicycle clubs (5), dramatic clubs (4) and many others.[9]

The Bohemians are born musicians. "Where is the Bohemian who does not love music?" is a cadence in Smetana's music which says everything. You will find on the West Side many music schools, many violinists and pianists, amateurs, besides the professional musicians who have three unions.

A large park near Dunning, a beautiful garden, is the Bohemian cemetery. Its beginning belongs to the time of the separation of the Freethinkers from the Catholic Church. A Catholic priest refused to bury in the Catholic cemetery a woman who died without a confession, and the Freethinkers resolved to have a cemetery of their own. Like the Catechism of Freethinking, this cemetery proclaims how deeply the roots of Catholic logic and way of thinking penetrated the Bohemian soul. The great pomp with which the dead are buried by Freethinkers belongs to the middle ages, to the shadows of cathedrals. It is touching to watch the pride with which they love this piece of American soil. All the thoughts and memories of their old home, that are so dear to them, seem to be thought more easily and better in this garden of the dead, for something died within them when they left their homes. The pure memory lives as the memory of those who have left them forever and sleep under that velvety grass, under the brightest autumn leaves and the faithful asters. Education.The school to which the rising generation goes is of special interest to the American public. Generally speaking, the Catholics send their children to parochial schools (at least for a couple of years) and the Freethinkers to public schools. There are eight Bohemian parochial schools in Chicago with almost three thousand children. Bohemian and English are taught and they are supported mostly by the parishioners. The Freethinkers have schools either on Sundays, or on Saturday and Sunday — a system which seems to me, if reformed, would answer the needs. If constructed on modern principles of pedagogy, the teaching in these two days (or even one day a week) would give to the children born in America the strength of respect for the land of their parents by making them acquainted with its noblemen and women, and with the Bohemian language in its purity. These schools are supported by the mutual benefit societies, which are represented in ten committees, each of which supports one school, not only providing a teacher, but erecting the school buildings with large halls, lodges, etc. Further, a system of Sunday-schools is developed by the committee for the benefit of Freethinkers' schools.

The parochial scbool system seems to be a system that has to be overcome, the Saturday and Sunday, a system that has to be reformed not in the dogmatic free thinking way, but in a really freethinking and therefore spiritual way.

The best element of the Bohemians in Chicago asked for a public reading-room in their district. After a great manifestation meeting, while we were waiting for a car, I overheard one of the experts use the following sentence: "All this is just the wish of a few people, the majority does not bother." The attendance since has shown the opposite. The first month it was over eight thousand—a number unparalleled at any other station in Chicago. Good books are needed—not to keep the Bohemians a foreign element in the city, but to give them the opportunity to develop fully their own capabilities.

Not all immigrants will learn English and the American public owes something to those quiet, old, working and loving mothers, who are such a gigantic force in the lives of the young Americans—though they remain unseen by an outsider.

We have a proverb: "As you call into the woods, so the woods respond." Do not call through the political campaign and its chicanery. Call in a noble way, Yours will be the echo!


The West was burning in a reddish, golden glow. Broken sentences in English and in the Bohemian tongue rang in my ear. I turned down from Eighteenth street into a small, quiet street. Behind a vacant lot, fresh and green after a recent storm, the silhouettes of the houses, the needle of the slender church stood dark against the burning West.

My thoughts turned to the pale East and took their unrestricted flight. They crossed the ocean that stretched out quietly, the moon threw silver lights into its waves, the gulls went to bed. My thoughts reached the distant shore; they flew over the flat land of Germany, over the fragrant fir-trees on the borderland, the fertile fields of Bohemia; they stood with bewitched step among the old walls of Prague.

The East must be slightly lighting up there; the mist lies over the town; the steps of an early walker resound within the old walls. Over the hundred-towered city the well-known outline of the castle is visible. And the East is growing lighter, lighter.

The Bohemians have a longing for truth, just because they went through the purgatory of lie of others toward themselves—themselves towards others.

This longing is the dowry the land gives to its emigrants.

  1. Pilsen or Plzen lies between Halstead and Western avenues from Sixteenth street out to Twenty-second street. The Bohemians coming to Chicago stop at Pilsen before they settle down definitely. Growing industries (Packing-town) and cheap lots influence the growth of colonies, of which many have a half rural character. There are about nine colonies besides Pilsen; most of them have a Bohemian Catholic parish and a Freethinker's school.
  2. The proportion of skilled workmen among immigrants of 1902·3 was as follows: Irish, 3,273 out of 35,806; Poles, 3.715 out of 82.373; Slovaks, 1,389 out of 34,427.
  3. The Slavic immigration of 1903 shows the following percentages of illiterates: Bohemians, 1.2 per cent; Slovaks, 19.3 per cent; Poles, 27.5 per cent; Croatians and Slovens, 33.1 per cent; Lithuanians. 38.0 per cent. See, H. Schwegel, Die Einwanderung in die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika.
  4. The limetree or linden is the national tree of the Slavs.
  5. There has heen an especially great influx after the great hail storms of a year ago and continued drought of this year.
  6. Svornost, June 26, 1904.
  7. Denní Hlasatel, October 28, 1904.
  8. Politically Denní Hlasatel is Democratic; Svornost more Republican; Narod, independent. The Socialists have a weekly Spravedenost. Furtner, the freethinkers publish, besides a daily paper, two monthly educational papers, two weeklies, one satirical, and the American which appears twice a week. The Catholic Benedictine press publishes a daily paper, a paper on agriculture every other week. The Friend of Children, a weekly, and The Catholic, twice a week. To complete the list of Bohemian journals I must mention The Woman's Weekly, which is run on a co-operative basis. The Methodists in Chicago publish a Bohemian weekly, and the Baptists a little monthly and quarterly paper
  9. Svornost, June 26, 1904.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in 1904, before the cutoff of January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1966, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 56 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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