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My children grieve over their little treasures and their books, and I cry with them. I saved my baby's portrait and my Mother's and husband's--my silver, my India and lace shawls, and a few silk dresses, my photograph album, and a little jewelry. The above is my stock in trade, and I feel as if my life were beginning again.
Letter of Mrs. Aurelia King
Once it became terrifyingly apparent to Chicagoans that their homes were in the fire's path and that they had no option but to flee, there was still an important decision left to make: what, if anything, could they rescue from destruction? Many loaded their worldly goods in wagons they owned or hired, in several instances never to see these possessions again. Some buried what precious things they could and hoped for the best. Thirteen-year-old Bessie Bradwell carried away her best clothes by putting them on in layers, while her mother Myra donned Bessie's father's Masonic hat, declaring, "Masonry will certainly be an aid at a time like this."
Most gathered up their loved ones, made a hurried selection of keepsakes in these worst of circumstances, and sadly resigned the rest to the flames. Aurelia King rescued family portraits and photographs, along with a few articles of clothing, jewelry, and silver. Myra Bradwell chose her pet bird. Philena Lloyd's father preserved only the Bible he had brought with him when he and his wife moved from Maine to Chicago as newlyweds in the mid-1850s. Harriet Peabody, six years old, ran back into the house to retrieve her doll Bessie. In the heat of the moment, some irrationally clutched an item of no particular personal or financial value. A few lucky ones later recovered treasured objects that they thought were lost forever. Julian Rumsey's servant Christian Larson by chance ran into the stranger whom Rumsey had hired on the spot to cart away his favorite painting. Mary Emily Blatchford was able to ransom her wedding dress from someone who had "found" it, so that her daughter could wear it at her own wedding, as Mrs. Blatchford would again on her fiftieth anniversary in 1908.
Along with Aurelia King, many mourned the personal value of what they had lost. A month after the fire, Anna Higginson sadly observed that she did not grieve over her financial setbacks, but for "my Mother's bible, the clothing & toys of my dead children, all the keepsakes & mementos of a lifetime." William Carter likewise wrote his brother, "The Homestead built by my own hands out of my own hard earnings, is gone--a total wreck. The spot had become endeared to me by many fond associations. It was the first home I could call my own, where my children were born, where I had hoped to live to educate them, where I had welcomed kind brothers and sisters and friends in the past and where I had hoped to do it often in the future.... No other spot will seem like it to me." And a disconsolate Julia Newberry confided to her diary, "Yes the whole North Side is in ashes, literally in ashes, & every memory connected with my home is gone...."
It is not surprising, then, that those few things that did make it through the fire took on a special meaning as symbols of all that could not be saved. Amidst the disorienting aftermath of Chicago's destruction, these mementos offered some reassurance that a fondly remembered past had in fact existed and at the same time provided an anchor in an uncertain future. As the new city arose and the years went by, they became links to the lost world of the pre-fire city.
This was also the case with another kind of fire souvenirs, the burned bits of Chicago that were salvaged from the ruins. These included the ashes and charred debris of familiar landmarks, and also ordinary fire-resistant objects--crockery, tools, a set of marbles--that were often altered in extraordinary ways by the intense heat. Some, like former mayor Julian Rumsey's pocket watch, were burnt almost beyond recognition, but many possess a surprising and haunting beauty, not to mention an imaginative power that is based in their being emblems of the way the fire so profoundly transformed the entire city and the lives of the people within it.
In this enterprising metropolis that had lost so much of its saleable merchandise, the rubble provided an instant inventory for one of the first post-fire businesses, the selling of fire relics. Writing on the fifty-fifth anniversary in 1926, Charles R. Lott recalled that as fifteen-year-old boy he had "plenty of buyers" for the Milwaukee papers he peddled at a premium price of fifteen cents apiece, and that "when the ruins were cool enough I went into business at Madison & Green selling relics that I picked up in the ruins." Within a few weeks someone came up with the idea of turning the Court House bell into souvenirs, and by mid-December it was auctioned off and recast into tiny replicas, commemorative coins, and other objects that became popular collectibles. Perhaps the most curious of the souvenirs was a structure called the Relic House, a colorful saloon and restaurant originally constructed in 1872 out of debris which had been salvaged from the fire.