Ceres & the Chicago Board of Trade: Women and Industry in 20th Century Chicago

Adding to the height of the 45-story Chicago Board of Trade Building on 141 West Jackson at LaSalle is a 30-foot statue of the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres. The Ceres statue stands holding a bundle of wheat in one hand, and a pouch of grain in the other [1]. She is made up of various aluminum geometric shapes, without any facial features, and her style resembles the building’s Art Deco architecture [2]. There are still some mysteries surrounding the statue that have not quite been put to rest, but one of great significance is: Why Ceres? Pursuing an answer to this question brings to light an understanding of Ceres’s narrative and the implications both past and present of a mythical female figure made to represent power and industry.

TonyTheTiger (own work) [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The statue was sculpted by John H. Storrs in 1930. The artist was born in Chicago and is considered one of the principal American artists to use European and cubist influences in his sculptures. He is sometimes referred to as the “sculptor of the machine age,” foregrounding geometric form and metalwork [3]. Storrs was commissioned to create a sculptural piece for the top of the new Board of Trade Building.

Storrs explained to the Chicago Tribune in 1930 that when he first received the commission, “I had two major points to consider. First, I wanted my work to be in architectural harmony with the building on which it was to stand. Second, I wanted it to be symbolical of the business of the organization the structure was to house.” [4] The modern style of the statue and the use of vertical lines mirrors the Art Deco style of the building. Using the image of Ceres, however, nods to the traditional grain industry. At the time of its construction, the Board of Trade Building was the tallest in Chicago, so Storrs made the choice to simply imply a female figure and included little detail, assuming it would not be viewed up close. The building as a whole is still highly regarded as a great example of Art Deco style and of Chicago architecture in general, and the faceless Ceres statue itself has become an iconic image for Chicagoans [5].

Chicago’s location at the base of the Great Lakes, in close proximity to fertile Midwestern farmlands, combined with the city’s rapid growth and development as a grain hub made it a logical place for a central marketplace: the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT). Founded by 82 Chicago merchants in 1848, the CBOT was first housed above a flour store on South Water Street. As the industry expanded over the next several decades and European buyers began to come to Chicago for grain rather than New York, the CBOT occupied various locations on or around South Water Street. Finally, in 1930, after suffering damage from the Great Fire in 1871 and other financial ups and downs, the CBOT settled at its current location at LaSalle and Jackson [6]. At the time, the 45-story structure commanded the Chicago skyline with the figure of Ceres towering above all.

Daniel Schwen (own work) [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Although Storrs and members of the CBOT may not have considered the tricky power dynamics at play when choosing Ceres as their mascot, this choice is significant to women’s labor history. Women in agriculture have been underrepresented in history and research; and in the case of US-based first-generation women farmers, the representation that does exist needs reevaluating. Today, women are uniquely positioned to create positive change through agriculture. This sentiment is mostly promoted internationally as programs focus on women in “‘developing countries’ who are responsible for 60 percent to 80 percent of food-crop production” [7]. While women in farming and other trades attempted to reclaim the standard narrative about their roles and usefulness in agriculture and trade, the dominant narrative of women as passive participants in agriculture won yet again when the CBOT chose Ceres to represent their industry.

From the National Archives, Identifier: 175539335. Creator: Department of Agriculture. Office of the Secretary. Office of Information. 1925-ca. 1981.

Stakeholders of the CBOT declared Ceres as the example and protector of their industry, prioritizing a mythology of womanhood instead of actual Chicago working women in their narrative. In the early nineteenth century, the geography of and trade around Chicago created an agriculture that was market- and production-oriented. Women were seen as “less scientific, less efficient and less well suited to modernity,” which marginalized their relevance in the contemporary agricultural system [8]. The emergence of social feminism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries empowered women to counteract this and similar narratives via labor movements. The Women’s Trade Union League of Chicago formed in 1904 to combat issues facing working-class women and address the significance women attached to traditional institutions. The relationship between women and institutions as these groups understood it served as the foundation for addressing the needs of working women in Chicago. The Chicago chapter of the WTUL continues to be involved in labor struggles. Today, it benefits from the city’s traditions of labor activism and cooperation among women across classes, both of which prove useful when working with male-dominated institutions such as the CBOT [9]. The narrative of women in trade is shifting, but the old narrative is still tied to Ceres, and she still stands tall at the top of the Board of Trade Building.

The goddess Ceres, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Rural Midwestern women play a small role in farm labor but are idealized in their representation as nurturing and non-threatening. This image is quite appealing to conventional agricultural and industrial groups, not unlike those housed in the Board of Trade Building at the time of Ceres’s construction. Women, especially rural white women, are essentialized as “gentle, virtuous and closer-to-nature,” a notion that is not new or harmless [10]. The narrative around Ceres simplifies a key message for the CBOT, which is that the messiness and grit of agriculture can be boiled down to a faceless, larger than life, industrial mythical figure. This simplification is in some way representative of the industrialization of agriculture, which happened in the 1920s as larger farms utilizing machinery became the standard in farming. Also, Ceres’s placement above all the action seems poignant and slightly unsettling. She is isolated at the top of the former tallest building in Chicago, passively representing an industry whose power and narrative were both largely untouchable for women at the time of her construction and for many decades since.

Karis Blaker, Loyola University Chicago


[1] Bach, Ira J., Mary L. Gray, and Mary Alice. Molloy. A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

[2] Storrs, John Bradley. “Ceres.” The Art Institute of Chicago. Arts of the Americas, January 1, 1970. https://www.artic.edu/artworks/63178/ceres.

[3] Bach, Ira J., Mary L. Gray, and Mary Alice. Molloy. A Guide to Chicago’s Public Sculpture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

[4] Hampson, Philip. “Ancient Goddess in Modern Form to Command City.” The Chicago Tribune. May 4, 1930.

[5] “Ceres by John H. Storrs.” WTTW Chicago, April 17, 2018. https://interactive.wttw.com/loop/art/ceres-john-h-storrs.

[6] Trade, Chicago Board of. “Our History.” CBOT – Our History, 2004. https://web.archive.org/web/20040111141647/http://www.cbot.com/cbot/pub/page/0,3181,942,00.html.

[7] Larmer, Megan. “Cultivating the Edge: An Ethnography of First-Generation Women Farmers in the American Midwest.” Feminist review 114, no. 114 (January 1, 2016): 91–111.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Milkman, Ruth, ed. “Labor organizing and female institution-building: The Chicago Women’s Trade Union League, 1904-24.” Women, Work, and Protest: A Century of U. S. Women’s Labor History. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2012. Accessed November 15, 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.

[10] Larmer, “Cultivating the Edge.

Helping Hands: A Memorial to Jane Addams

The “Helping Hands” memorial to Jane Addams is situated within the Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens near the Prairie Historic District. Louise Bourgeois created the sculpture in 1993 to commemorate the life and works of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and renowned advocate for women’s rights.[1] It is one of the first monuments in Chicago to memorialize a woman.

“Helping Hands,” by Louise Bergeron.[2]

“Helping Hands” is a series of sculptures made from black granite. Each one of the six is in the shape of a hand or hands and rests on a stone pedestal. The monument was originally situated in the Addams (Jane) Memorial Park near Navy Pier, but after being vandalized several times, it was taken down in 2006. After Bourgeois resculpted parts that had been damaged, the sculpture was moved to its present location in 2011, at the behest of the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District.[3]

Chicago was well overdue for a monument memorializing a woman’s contributions by the time “Helping Hands” came to fruition. It makes sense, too, for the subject to be Jane Addams, whose work with the Hull House advocating for women, laborers, and so many others, places her at the center of Chicago’s rich history of advocacy. Indeed, the six carved hands on their pedestals represent the many people Addams helped throughout her life, without thought to race, gender, or occupation, recalling what Addams herself said in her autobiographical notes: “Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand.”[4]

Part of “Helping Hands,” two sets of hands intertwined.[5]

While perhaps not as common as memorializing generals or statesmen, memorializing advocates who cared for and made the world a better place is worthwhile. The symbolism of “Helping Hands” is lovely and evocative, and sitting in the Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens is a suitable context (though the Hull House Museum, located a short distance away, also seems

like it would have been a good choice), even if it was not the originally intended location. It is interesting to note that one of the few monuments to a woman in the city of Chicago is symbolic in its form rather than literal; with so few memorials to women and their work, perhaps “Helping Hands” should be more literal and straightforward. Disassociating Addam’s work from a corporeal form might serve to place the focus on her acts, but when women have so few monuments to them for their actions, it is somewhat unsatisfying. Given her own words, though, Addams probably would have liked “Helping Hands.”

Hands coming together. [6]

Following the removal of “Helping Hands” from its original location at Addams Memorial Park, the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District worked together to find a new location to place the sculpture. The Art Institute commissioned the piece in the first place (and still retains the maquettes for “Helping Hands” in its collection), so the Institute clearly retained the role of a stakeholder.[7] The Chicago Park District is another clear stakeholder, wishing to both beautify the parks it oversees and have monuments that will please visitors to the parks and not cause too much controversy.[8] Given the events of the last couple of years, with monuments coming down due to public outcry, the public itself is a stakeholder in “Helping Hands.”

Remembering the legacies of Jane Addams and Louis Bourgeois. [9]

“Helping Hands” does not court controversy. There is no evidence that the vandalism it experienced while at the Addams Memorial Park was due to objection to its form or what it stood for, but rather that the vandalism occurred because the monument was low-lying in a place that saw a lot of traffic.[10] While the symbolic nature of the memorial may give pause to those concerned about how few monuments there are to women within Chicago, the sculpture itself is not particularly controversial. With all its pieces carved out of black granite, it is difficult to differentiate the differences between the hands, placing the focus solely on the idea of reaching out to help others. While that focus may problematize the “Helping Hands” for a select few, the monument is unlikely to rouse ire the same way a more contested monument would.

The sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, is well-known for making symbolic pieces that depict abstract ideas. Her input about what “Helping Hands” meant to her—Addam’s compassion and willingness to reach out to those who needed help—probably was mostly responsible for driving the narrative surrounding the monument for quite some time.[11] Following her death, it is harder to say who controls the narrative about “Helping Hands.” As the Art Institute commissioned the piece, they undoubtedly do now and did even when Bourgeois was creating the sculpture. The Chicago Park District, too, has a voice in contextualizing the piece, having played a central role in relocating “Helping Hands.” The two institutions that provide commentary, both in the form of a plaque describing the memorial and a digital resource (originally designed to be scanned at the monument, but also available for the general public on Statue Stories Chicago), continue to drive the narrative about this memorial to Jane Addams, and perhaps thus some of the narrative surrounding Jane Addams, too.[12]

Describing and memorializing Jane Addams. [13]

Despite the way institutions have driven the narrative surrounding the sculpture, there is a power to the monument. Not only is it to be hoped that “Helping Hands,” still too new to have made a lasting mark on the city, will do so over the coming years, but that the memorial will spark more memorials to worthwhile citizens of Chicago who are not white or male. Indeed, perhaps the monument, with its decontextualized hands and emphasis on collaboration and reaching out to help one’s community, will inspire more collaboration and more unity. Perhaps it might even provoke questions about who “Helping Hands” truly memorializes and who deserves to be memorialized.

Amber Mear, Loyola University Chicago


[1] Chicago Park District. “Helping Hands.” Last modified July 21, 2015. https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/helping-hands.

[2] “Helping Hands.”

[3] Glessner House Museum. “Helping Hands…That Talk!” Last modified August 10, 2015. https://www.glessnerhouse.org/story-of-a-house/2015/08/helping-hands-that-talk.html.

[4] Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912.

[5]Statue Stories Chicago. “Helping Hands Jane Addams Memorial.” Accessed November 20, 2020. http://www.statuestorieschicago.com/statue-helping-hands.php.

[6] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chicago Park District. “Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens.” Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/chicago-womens-park-and-gardens.

[9] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Waller, Mary. “Jane Addams’ “Helping Hands.”” Last modified February 17, 2019. https://janeaddams.ramapo.edu/2019/02/jane-addams-helping-hands/.

[12] “Helping Hands Jane Addams Memorial.”

[13] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”