Bessie Louise Pierce: Remarkable author's 'A History of Chicago'

Historians in the News

Bessie Louise Pierce, born in 1888, lived life her own way. And Chicago is better for that.

Never married, she devoted herself to scholarship, first in the field of education as an Iowa high school teacher and professor at the University of Iowa. Then, in midlife, she moved to the University of Chicago where she wrote "A History of Chicago," the definitive account of the city's first years.

That magisterial, three-volume history, begun in 1929 and completed in 1957, has been a touchstone ever since for anyone writing about early Chicago. It was also a pioneering work in academia, the first scholarly study of a large American city.

Excluding appendixes and indexes, the three books cover 1,395 pages -- and Pierce (pictured at right) wrote all 1,395 by hand.

"I'm not sure I ever saw Bessie type," says Perry Duis, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and one of the last of dozens of research assistants who worked on the project with Pierce over a four-decade period.

Long out of print, "A History of Chicago" is being published next Saturday for the first time in paperback by the University of Chicago Press. The first book, subtitled, "The Beginning of a City 1673-1848," sells for $35. The others -- subtitled "From Town to City 1848-1871" and "The Rise of the Modern City 1871-1893" -- have $39 price tags.

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