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Motivating Student Research about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with a WPA Life History

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This post is by Lee Ann Potter, the director of the Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives office at the Library of Congress.

The Great Chicago Fire happened one hundred fifty years ago this month, and in the October 2021 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article features an oral history of a man who experienced it first hand.

Map of area of Chicago by the lake from 1874 showing the area where the Great Chicago fire took place.
The City of Chicago, showing the burnt district.. Currier and Ives, 1874

Sometime in 1937 or 1938, Mr. Hyman Bernstein of Chicago, Illinois, participated in an interview with Hilda Polacheck, a writer employed by the Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA). Polacheck produced two versions of Bernstein’s life story, both titled “Pack on my Back,” and submitted them to the American Life Histories effort of the Federal Writers project. One was 12 typed pages, and one was 10. Both accounts included colorful descriptions of certain episodes of Bernstein’s life, and each featured three pages dedicated to his memories of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.

Front page of the Chicago Tribune October 11, 1871
Portion of the front page of the Chicago Tribune 10/11/1871

His recollections of the night of the fire included the weather, the time of year, the location of the fire, the speed with which the flames spread, and the sound of the fire bells ringing, as well as images of people trying to save their belongings. He also recalled theories about how the fire started and song lyrics, and he credited the fire as the event that led to his life as a country peddler.

Bernstein’s account was recorded more than six decades after the fire. The article in Social Education suggests that inviting students to compare and contrast the two versions may help them consider the benefits and shortcomings of relying on firsthand accounts recorded decades after an event for reliable information. Doing so may also prompt an interesting exchange about how a primary source is defined, and perhaps the role of an editor.

In addition, Bernstein’s memories of the Great Chicago Fire may speak to students in personal ways that motivate their desire to learn more. The details may drive their curiosity about “what really happened.”

To encourage this, we suggest asking pairs of students to choose one version of Bernstein’s life history and to focus on the section about the fire. As one student reads it aloud, the other student can write down what part of the story they would like to know more about. After students reverse roles, and compare the elements they wonder about, they can select one or more element to research.

The article identifies related resources available from the Library of Congress to spark further research, including:

Finally, we suggest that as students find information to answer their questions, teachers can encourage them to share their findings—not just the information, but the sources. If they find conflicting information, encouraging them to explore the differences and determine strategies for validating sources and corroborating evidence is a great next step!

If you engaged your students with these or related activities we invite you to share how it went.



  1. What wonderful narratives! Motivating indeed!

    In the prompt for students to consider the benefits and shortcomings of relying on firsthand accounts recorded decades after an event for reliable information, an interesting dimension of these two sources are that they are from ONE story, and ONE listeners’ retelling of that story, but that the listener retold it TWO times.

    The writer, Hilda Polacheck, put in different details from the same original interview in each of the two typed accounts. To highlight the variability introduced by the creation of the narrative (as a separate factor than the passage of 6 decades), students can think about how they themselves might write up their notes from an interview differently if they did it two times. They might even write up the notes from their research on a historical event slightly differently, featuring different details, if they wrote it up for two different classes, or two different times in the semester.

    These sources make a great prompt for so many possible lessons on research and primary sources.

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