Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West



The Pequod Review:

Nature's Metropolis explores the economic relationship between the city of Chicago and the western United States in the mid-to-late 1800s — and especially how each facilitated the growth and development of the other. William Cronon looks specifically at the flows of commodities including grain, lumber, and meat, and shows how Chicago was uniquely situated between the economically-powerful Northeast and the resource-rich Western states. The city of Chicago was also at the forefront of technological advances including elevator warehouses, rail network construction, and the formation of well-developed markets to trade commodities, all of which helped the city become a commercial hub:

The changes in Chicago’s markets suddenly made it possible for people to buy and sell grain not as the physical product of human labor on a particular tract of prairie earth but as an abstract claim on the golden stream flowing through the city’s elevators.

Chicagoans began to discover that a grain elevator had much in common with a bank — albeit a bank that paid no interest to its depositors. Farmers or shippers took their wheat or corn to an elevator operator as if they were taking gold or silver to a banker. After depositing the grain in a bin, the original owner accepted a receipt that could be redeemed for grain in much the same way that a check or banknote could be redeemed for precious metal. Again as with a bank, as long as people were confident that the elevator contained plenty of grain, they did not need to cash the receipt to make it useful. Because the flow of grain through the Chicago elevators was enormous, one could almost always count on them to contain enough grain to “back up’’ one’s receipt: the volume of the city’s trade in effect made receipts interchangeable. Instead of completing a sale by redeeming the receipt and turning over the physical grain to a purchaser, the original owner could simply turn over the receipt itself. The entire transaction could be completed — and repeated dozens of times — without a single kernel of wheat or corn moving so much as an inch. The elevators effectively created a new form of money, secured not by gold but by grain. Elevator receipts, as traded on the floor of ‘Change, accomplished the transmutation of one of humanity’s oldest foods, obscuring its physical identity and displacing it into the symbolic world of capital.

The elevator helped turn grain into capital by obscuring and distancing its link with physical nature, while another new technology extended that process by weakening its link with geography. In 1848, the same year that Chicago merchants founded the Board of Trade, the first telegraph lines reached the city. 

By the late 1800s, Chicago would in some ways become a victim of its own success, as it began to face competition from other cities:

By combining with the railroads to open so large a market for so vast a region, it had encouraged the human migration, environmental changes, and economic developments that produced other great cities — Minneapolis, Omaha, Kansas City, Denver — which could in turn supply urban services to their own emerging regions. The nearness of these cities to western markets gave them the same sorts of advantages that had allowed Chicago wholesalers to compete so effectively with eastern merchants not much more than a generation before.

To make matters worse, growth had hidden costs that also diminished Chicago's competitiveness. Diseconomies of scale began to hamper enterprise in Chicago, so the very market concentration which had earlier been the city's proudest boast became its greatest problem. Chicago had once immensely benefitted from being the meeting place of eastern and western railroads. With the two sets of lines arriving in the city in different stations on opposite sides of town, passengers moving between east and west had no choice but to get off one train, travel crosstown to a different station, and get onto another train to continue their journey... By the 1870s, the high cost of renting railroad cars and elevator storage in Chicago was encouraging shippers to consider alternative routes for their grain and other products.

As these anecdotes show, Cronon's book is focused on the role of systems and institutions (rather than individuals), an approach that some reviewers have criticized. But this seems to me a feature of the book rather than a drawback, and one that more historians should consider following. This is an outstanding work of economic history and urban development.