Burnham’s “Make No Little Plans” Quote: Apocryphal No More!

Long considered apocryphal, here’s confirmation that Daniel Burnham really said his most famous quote! 

“Make no little plans, they have no magic in them to stir men’s blood.”  This quote from Daniel Burnham, the architect and city planner,  is one of Chicago’s most famous maxims. It’s painted on the walls of a pretty sizable percentage of our tourist attractions. It’s engraved on one pair of my glasses.

The full “maxim” goes like this:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men`s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever- growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

In 1992, the Tribune found that they’d quoted the first line 44 times since 1985 alone (and the usage has increased since then). But they also found that the quote was considered apocryphal! It had first appeared in print on a Christmas card put out by Willis Polk, a Burnham collaborator in San Francisco, six months after Burnham died. It then appeared in a 1921 Burnham biography by Charles Moore without attribution (Moore called it “an oft repeated injunction” Burnham had formulated in 1907), and after that it started appearing in print frequently.

The general sense among experts to whom the Tribune spoke in 1992 was that it was a “compilation” of lines Polk had heard Burnham say over the years. They even cited a letter from Daniel Burnham Jr, in which he said that Moore “assembled the quotation by picking out sentences.” Burnham Jr thought the lines came  mainly from a speech Burnham gave in London in 1910, but said that “I believe my father never used the words in the sequence quoted by Mr. Moore.”

Writers in the 1960s and 70s who claimed to have seen a transcript of the London speech said the famous lines weren’t there. Thomas S. Hines, a UCLA architecture professor who wrote a biography of Burnham in 1974, said, “It’s clearly a sort of anthology of Burnham sayings (that were) probably drawn by Polk from conversations or correspondence with Burnham that are now lost.”

So, it’s been widely agreed that it sounded like something Burnham would have said, but wasn’t an exact quote; it was more like “Play it again, Sam,” “We don’t need no stinking badges,” or “I was born with the devil in me.”  One of those quotes that perhaps gets the spirit right, but isn’t entirely accurate.

Now, one of the fun things in my job is that sometimes I really do get to solve a mystery or rewrite history.

The Chicago Record-Herald article, Oct 15, 1910

In finding a source for another Burnham quote, I ran into a couple of 1910 papers that mentioned Burnham’s speech, quoting some lines I hadn’t seen, and one cited the Chicago Record-Herald as a source. With that clue, I checked out the microfilm reels of that paper from October, 1910, and there it was in the Oct 15 issue: an article entitled “Stirred By Burnham, Democracy Champion” with a pretty complete version of the London speech – ending with the famous maxim.

There are some really good pull quotes throughout the speech, some of which have lines that seem never to have been reprinted. A few highlights:

“Chicago is moving practically and with determination in the matter and hopes to educate the people to demand delightfulness as a part of life and to devise ways of getting it…We do things that would make our forebears think us magicians.”

“Where a town lies near water, keep all the shore for the people. Neighborhood parks are magnificent both from the standpoint of hygiene and the standpoint of moral purity. Those who grow up before the eyes of the community escape those poisonous practices that lurk in secret places.”

Or consider this part, which you could almost write into proposals for a Green New Deal  more than a century later:

“Our city of the future will be without smoke, dust or gasses from manufacturing plants, and the air will therefore be pure. The streets will be as clean as our drawing rooms today. Smoke will be thoroughly consumed, and gases liberated in manufacture will be tanked and burned. Railways will be operated electrically, all building operations will be effectually shut in to prevent the escape of dust, and horses will disappear from the streets. Out of all these things will come not only commercial economy but bodily health and spiritual joy.”

Some of these lines were printed in the Tribune in 1910, but they were more interested in his prediction of smokeless cities, and didn’t mention the famous maxim. The maxim, which came at the end of the speech, was noted more by provincial papers in places like Louisville, Kentucky and Davenport, Iowa – papers that pre-digitization biographers wouldn’t have been checking (the whole article Record-Herald article was reprinted, minus one paragraph about Canadian city planners, in The Quad City Times on October 19 – that version’s been digitized). The 1960s and 70s authors who said the speech didn’t contain the famous lines were probably looking at the Tribune excerpt, and, somehow, never checked the Record-Herald. Honestly, I wouldn’t have blamed them; the Record-Herald generally favored short, punchy articles. Reprinting the bulk of a speech on city planning was a bit unusual for them.

The good news is that the maxim at the end is, word for word, the way Moore quoted it. So we won’t have to repaint the walls of our tourist attractions! The quote is not a compilation or a hodge-podge, but is, in fact, something that was attributed to Burnham in his lifetime, right after he said it.

So here, then, is the original speech that gave rise to one of Chicago’s most famous maxims: “The Development of Cities of the Future,” read to the Town Planning Conference in London, October, 1910 (with a few parts that they figured wouldn’t interest readers summarized).

From “Stirred By Burnham, Democracy Champion” Chicago Record-Herald Oct 15, 1910

 

“My subject is a city of the future under a Democratic government. Some very great men, and among them Herbert Spencer and Lord Macaulay, have predicted the downfall of the American democracy. Nevertheless, having firm confidence in our new mixture of bloods, our new environment, our searching publicity and our growing intelligenge, I cannot doubt that the American democracy will persist. It takes far greater ability to subvert liberty now than ever before since man’s history began, and so I promise permanence to democratic institutions.

“To these is vitally related the future of the cities. Plenary democracies can do what we want them to do. They have full power over men, land and goods, and can always make their laws and execute their purposes. Democratic peoples, when they perceive the value of plans to bring convenience and beauty into the hearts of cities can get such plans carried out.

(Here Burnham noted the achievements in City Planning since the World’s Fair of 1893 “which gave rise to the first plan commission in America,” described work done in the Philippines under President Taft and “that superb young commissioner, W. Cameron Forbes, now governor general of the Islands,” and praised a plan commission in Montreal that had just made Sir William C. Van Horne chairman)

“Sir William is one of the three or four first men in Canada. He is a fair sample of the kind of people who are beginning to think and work for the realization of the new architectural and spiritual era in the great cities of the North American continent. In such men surely this splendid cause has a splendid augury. The most difficult task of all before is that of raising public interest up to the level of definite action. Even this, in my judgement, is not at all impossible.  (this was the paragraph left out of the Quad City Times reprint -ed)

“Chicago is moving practically and with determination in the matter and hopes to educate the people to demand delightfulness as a part of life and to devise ways of getting it. Pessimists abound and have always abounded. To them most of the big and splended things are chimerical. Well, in 1850, there was little street paving in the United States, and not much in London or Paris. There were no great sewerage systems, water systems, gas, electric power and light, street cars, sidewalks or other systems, but all these we have now. We do things that would make our forbears think us magicians.

“Our city of the future will be without smoke, dust or gases from manufacturing plants, and the air will therefore be pure. The streets will be as clean as our drawing rooms today. Smoke will be thoroughly consumed, and gases liberated in manufacture will be tanked and burned. Railways will be operated electrically, all building operations will be effectually shut in to prevent the escape of dust, and horses will disappear from the streets. Out of all these things will come not only commercial economy but bodily health and spiritual joy.

“As the water in generally pure, all that is needed is more economy in its use. Congestion is intolerable in all the great cities in the world and relief is imperitive. It will be found in diverting people in other directions and in changing construction so as to carry more traffic .

“We may expect, in any event, double tunnels under all the business streets and the utmost use of the present street levels by extensive double-decking and many more overhead transportation lines. Some time the rush in the cities may cease, but I see no signs now of its ceasing, and meanwhile crowding must be dealt with. We need systems of passes around the congested districts. We need still more and mainly to diminish the number of people and vehicles using given areas.

“Broadly speaking, the city of the future will not bring to its center any goods not intended for use or consumption therein. At Chicago 66% of the tonnage in and out is not for home use, but for distribution to other places. In view of this fact we designed a general freight scheems for the entire city’s use, with car yards, freight depots and warehouses combined, eight miles from the city, where all trains shall unload and reload.

(Here Burnham described this scheme in detail, and advocateda plan to build more tunnels for transportation, so that transport would not disturb the surface of the street)

“I believe that such a course would be economical both for the public service companies and the city government; certainly it would prolong the life of the street paving and eliminate congestion and a constant source of dirty and disorder. Can it be doubted that the city of the future will operate its cental street system, possibly all its streets, in this manner?

(Burnham then advocated saving more space for parks)

“Do this because of the effect of nature upon citizenship. Other things being equal, a person accustomed to living in nature has a distinct advantage all his life over the purely townbred man. Allure your city denizen to sylvan nature, for it is there he finds the balm his spirt needs.

“Where a town lies near water, keep all the shore for the people. Neighborhood parks are magnificent both from the standpoint of hygiene and the standpoint of moral purity. Those who grow up before the eyes of the community escape those poisonous practices that lurk in secret places.

(There’s some sense that he might have said more here, as they broke in to say he closed with the following:)

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir mens’ blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

 

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