Bertha Palmer

“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus…is the fact that the general government has just discovered women.”

Bertha Palmer, patron of the arts and political activist, 1849-1918

Known as the "Reigning Queen of 19th Century Chicago High Society" Bertha Palmer is remembered for her tremendous contributions to arts and culture in Chicago. 

She had strong leadership qualities, too: During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 she successfully petitioned to have a “Women’s Building” added to celebrate their contributions to the city. Through the Chicago Women’s Club, she organized a strike of female factory workers, and lobbied for fair treatment of women in hospitals, prisons and poorhouses. 

Born to a wealthy Catholic family, Bertha Palmer moved to Chicago from Kentucky at age six. She met her future husband, Potter Palmer, when she and her mother were shopping at his dry goods department store. They got engaged when she was 22, he 44. Her husband would go on to become a prominent land baron and hotelier.  

The Palmers were known for making the Gold Coast neighborhood fashionable, building what was at the time the largest home in Chicago. They entertained lavishly and often, and she is often credited as having invented the brownie when she instructed her kitchen staff at The Palmer House hotel to make chocolate cakes, but smaller. 

She was known for her Paris art shopping sprees, and in what was a bold move at the time, built an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, and Renoir. Upon her death, it was bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago, in one fell swoop rendering the city a world-class art destination.


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