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A Chicago Woman's Story, 1871-1966

Ellen Fitzsimmons Steinberg

Publication Year: 2004

Ellen Steinberg’s Irma, painstakingly crafted out of Irma Rosenthal Frankenstein’s voluminous writings, gives us an inspiring and richly rewarding account of the life and times of an active, socially engaged woman who devoted herself to her family and her community over the course of a long and full life. Irma (1871-1966) was born in Chicago—just before the Chicago Fire—of German Jewish parents who had come to the U.S. shortly after the Civil War. Irma attended public schools and the University of Chicago, participated energetically in Jewish women’s and social-welfare activities, raised her family, and published one poem and a small book.

Irma’s journals and diaries were private accounts in which she chronicled the rhythm of her days and the shape of her life. She recorded her thoughts and short quotations from her reading, jotted down her own poems and short stories, constructed dinner-party menus, and wrote biographical sketches of her family. Interspersed among the records of what she did when and with whom are a number of lengthy reflections on Chicago history, her early life, religious beliefs, education, her aspirations, disappointments, sorrows, and successes. She documented her family’s activities during the Chicago Fire, the city’s rebuilding, early educational curricula in the city’s schools, what it was like to participate in the suffrage movement and vote for the first time, the effect of the Great Depression on the middle class, and World War II as seen from her perspective.

In each chapter, Ellen Steinberg has set Irma’s contemporary entries and later memoirs against the context of the Chicago history that Irma knew so well. Irma’s story will fascinate those interested in diaries and autobiography, women’s history, and Chicago history. From a plethora of rich source materials—including over half a million words of Irma’s writings alone—Steinberg has created a seamless, fascinating narrative about a Chicago woman who, although “nobody famous” (in her words), lived a vital life in a vibrant city.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

Irma Rosenthal Frankenstein's journals and diaries were private accounts of the rhythm of her days and the shape of her life. In them, she also recorded her thoughts and short quotations from her readings, jotted down her own poems and short stories, mapped out dinner-party menus, and penned biographical sketches of her family. Interspersed among the records...

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p. xv

I owe enormous thanks to the family of Irma Rosenthal Frankenstein for enabling me to complete this book. Irma's grandson John provided information about her relationship with Carl Sandburg, then put me in touch with his cousin, Ferd. In turn, Ferd gave me Irma's set of Emerson books with her marginalia and commentaries. These books became another rich...

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pp. xvii-xxi

A fairly new picket fence surrounds a certain vacant corner lot in the Hyde Park--Kenwood area of Chicago. The south edge of the property boasts the remnants of a small garden where a few red Darwin tulips and bright blue scilla defy years of neglect. Creeping Charlie and crabgrass have claimed the north edge, while mature pin oaks dot the land at random...

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1. Remembrances of Chicago, 1871

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pp. 1-8

Between 1835 and 1860, Chicago evolved from a small trading post to a military fort to a town with potential. Then, during the 1860s, it developed into what some called the "most American of cities."1 The leap from town to city occurred because Chicago's location, on the shores of Lake Michigan, on the banks of a navigable river, and in the center of the continent...

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2. Recollections of Childhood, 1871--1888

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pp. 9-25

The spirit that . . . made it grow [again] was not made out of desperation. . . . The citizens of Chicago, who had originally come from sturdy New England, from lands beyond the Atlantic, to build for themselves, new lives, were made of sterner stuff than to sit down and weep among the ruins.2...

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3. Reflections on Education, 1875--1891

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pp. 26-42

Irma attended school during a time when educational theories about learning and the practices of teaching--that is, recitation, rote memorization, repetitive practice, group work, attendance at lectures in which certain subjects were taught or principles, philosophies, or theories were outlined--were changing, and taking on a more American tenor.1 Up until...

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4. Grandpa and Emerson, 1876--1898

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pp. 43-52

In our home, before my father had died, we experienced no religious observances[,] for our father and his brothers were among the first of the liberal minded Jews of Chicago. . . . [After my father died] we . . . moved from what had been our parents' home to what was...

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5. Young Love, 1891

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pp. 53-64

In 1953, Irma mused about the summer, more than half a century before, when she had accompanied her mother, brother, and uncle to Atlantic City for a two-week rest cure. Back then, Irma was considered "delicate" and her mother "sickly," and her brother Emil suffered from what may have been a tuberculosis related...

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6. Marriage and Children, 1898--1906

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pp. 65-86

One day in a long, long ago, . . . [Victor] was a young man with whom I was very much in love because he seemed so manly and reliable and intelligent,--handsome too, but not like an Apollo, more like some Rodin statue. I was young too, and slender, and he was in love with...

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7. Children and Learning, 1910--1912

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pp. 87-108

During the first decade of the twentieth century, American cities continued to grow at an unprecedented rate. Many immigrants from Europe and Asia, as well as rural Americans, arrived in urban centers looking for better education and work opportunities. Unfortunately, they often found themselves and their children embroiled in social problems...

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8. Politics, Nature, and Travel, the 1920s

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pp. 109-123

There is a gap in Irma's diaries between 1915 and 1921, and another void after 1921 until 1924, then a three-year break. Irma was busy raising her children, seeing her two girls marry and have children of their own, and taking courses at the University of Chicago, all of which presumably left...

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9. Staying Afloat during the 1930s

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pp. 124-138

On New Year's Day of 1929, the nation looked back at the preceding five years, noting with pride that they had been ones of unprecedented prosperity. Herbert Hoover was the president-elect; workers were earning more than ever before; interest rates were low; factories were churning...

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10. War and Its Victims, 1933--1957

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pp. 139-154

In 1933 and again in 1935, Irma's son-in-law Ferd, a rabbi, traveled to Hitler's Germany to assess the state of affairs there. Following his first trip, he wrote a pamphlet, "Sentenced to Death: The Jews of Nazi Germany." Very few in the United States wanted to believe what he wrote. And why...

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pp. 155-156

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11. Changes, 1950--1966

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pp. 157-179

After the war, America and the returning troops appeared to adjust quickly to peacetime. Men rejoined their families, took up the jobs they had left to serve their country, or enrolled in school under the GI Bill. Many women relinquished their wartime jobs in favor of marriage and...


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pp. 181-215


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pp. 217-220


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pp. 221-231

E-ISBN-13: 9781587294860
E-ISBN-10: 1587294869
Print-ISBN-13: 9780877458944
Print-ISBN-10: 0877458944

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2004

OCLC Number: 66385869
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Irma

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Subject Headings

  • Jewish women -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Biography.
  • Frankenstein family.
  • Rosenthal family.
  • Jewish women -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Archives.
  • Jews -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Social life and customs.
  • Jews -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Biography.
  • Frankenstein, Irma Rosenthal, 1871-1966.
  • Frankenstein, Irma Rosenthal, 1871-1966 -- Archives.
  • Chicago (Ill.) -- Biography.
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