An elevated train passes along the upper deck of the Wells Street Bridge, while a street car rumbles along the lower deck and pedestrians amble southward. (Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress)

To Buy a House in the Jungle

Every once in a while, when I’m reading something wholly unrelated to work, I come across the most interesting insights into property ownership.

A scene from Chicago in 1906, the same year Sinclair’s seminal book was published, showing hustle and bustle on the Wells Street Bridge. (Chicago Daily News/Library of Congress)

This week I’ve been wading through the terrifying, foul-smelling world of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The book is a muckraking (and I mean that in the best sense of the word) look at the meatpacking industry of Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century. Not even a third of the way into the book, I find the immigrant family I’ve been following through the harrowing process of settling in Chicago’s Packingtown neighborhood are screwing up the guts to buy a home. They’ve only been in America for something like a week, they can’t speak English, and they’re already counting up the downpayment. The process is fascinating; I recommend reading the whole thing (you can access it for free online at the Gutenberg Project; the whole home-buying storyline begins in chapter four). But I wanted to share with you a portion that occurs after they buy the place and begin “feathering their nest” in chapter five. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve bolded the parts I loved:

They had bought their home. It was hard for them to realize that the wonderful house was theirs to move into whenever they chose. They spent all their time thinking about it, and what they were going to put into it. As their week with Aniele was up in three days, they lost no time in getting ready. They had to make some shift to furnish it, and every instant of their leisure was given to discussing this.

…The next day they went to the house; and when the men came from work they ate a few hurried mouthfuls at Aniele’s, and then set to work at the task of carrying their belongings to their new home. The distance was in reality over two miles, but Jurgis made two trips that night, each time with a huge pile of mattresses and bedding on his head, with bundles of clothing and bags and things tied up inside. Anywhere else in Chicago he would have stood a good chance of being arrested; but the policemen in Packingtown were apparently used to these informal movings, and contented themselves with a cursory examination now and then. It was quite wonderful to see how fine the house looked, with all the things in it, even by the dim light of a lamp: it was really home, and almost as exciting as the placard had described it. Ona was fairly dancing, and she and Cousin Marija took Jurgis by the arm and escorted him from room to room, sitting in each chair by turns, and then insisting that he should do the same. One chair squeaked with his great weight, and they screamed with fright, and woke the baby and brought everybody running. Altogether it was a great day; and tired as they were, Jurgis and Ona sat up late, contented simply to hold each other and gaze in rapture about the room. They were going to be married as soon as they could get everything settled, and a little spare money put by; and this was to be their home—that little room yonder would be theirs!

It was in truth a never-ending delight, the fixing up of this house. They had no money to spend for the pleasure of spending, but there were a few absolutely necessary things, and the buying of these was a perpetual adventure for Ona. It must always be done at night, so that Jurgis could go along; and even if it were only a pepper cruet, or half a dozen glasses for ten cents, that was enough for an expedition. On Saturday night they came home with a great basketful of things, and spread them out on the table, while every one stood round, and the children climbed up on the chairs, or howled to be lifted up to see. There were sugar and salt and tea and crackers, and a can of lard and a milk pail, and a scrubbing brush, and a pair of shoes for the second oldest boy, and a can of oil, and a tack hammer, and a pound of nails. These last were to be driven into the walls of the kitchen and the bedrooms, to hang things on; and there was a family discussion as to the place where each one was to be driven. Then Jurgis would try to hammer, and hit his fingers because the hammer was too small, and get mad because Ona had refused to let him pay fifteen cents more and get a bigger hammer; and Ona would be invited to try it herself, and hurt her thumb, and cry out, which necessitated the thumb’s being kissed by Jurgis. Finally, after every one had had a try, the nails would be driven, and something hung up. Jurgis had come home with a big packing box on his head, and he sent Jonas to get another that he had bought. He meant to take one side out of these tomorrow, and put shelves in them, and make them into bureaus and places to keep things for the bedrooms. The nest which had been advertised had not included feathers for quite so many birds as there were in this family.

Let me know if you have any favorite fiction that addresses the real estate industry. I’m always looking for an excuse to read!

Meg White

Meg White is the multimedia web producer for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]realtors.org.

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