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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Title: Chicago Fire Medal, 1872
Date: 1872
Medium: Bronze
Dimensions: Diameter: 2 inches (5.1 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Janet Marqusee, Class of 1952, and John E. Marqusee, Class of 1951, for the Frank and Rosa Rhodes Collection
Object Number: 94.007.243
This medal commemorates the Great Chicago Fire, which burned from Sunday, October 8 to Tuesday, October 10, 1871, killing hundreds and destroying roughly four miles of Chicago. It was one of the largest disasters of the 19th century. The exact cause of the fire is still debated today.

This medal was made by the U.S. Mint.

William E. Barber (1807-1879) was born in London and learned engraving from his father, John. He worked as die engraver in London before immigrating with his family to Boston in 1852. He was hired by Gorham Company as a die engraver for ornamental embossing of silver plate. Barber was hired as the assistant engraver at the United States Mint in Philadelphia in 1865 and was promoted to head engraver in 1869.

Medallic art is a type of small-scale sculpture. The tradition of making medals is rooted in the portrait medal tradition that became popular in the Renaissance. The process of striking medals began in the 17th century when it surpassed the older method of casting. Striking is a method where a metal die (with a design in relief) is essentially stamped, with great force, onto a blank piece of metal. This technique can rapidly produce multiple copies. The invention of the engraving machine for die sinking and casting in the 19th century allowed artists to concentrate on medal designs rather than the actual engraving and cutting of the die. The pantograph machine allowed artists to render medals in a larger size in wax, clay or plaster before reducing and engraving them later mechanically. Two dies are made for each medal, one for each side (unless the medal has only one side.)

The obverse of the medal displays an angel holding a torch and sword in flight over Fort Dearborn, a United States Military Fort built on the edge of the Chicago River in 1803. A large portion of the Fort was destroyed in a fire that occurred in the 1850s and what was left of the outer walls was later completely destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.

The reverse features a phoenix, a mythical sacred bird that lives as long as five hundred years and is then ignited by the sun’s rays. After the flames consume its body, another phoenix emerges from the ashes.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.