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.