Finery and Progress: Chicago-Kent’s Best Businesswoman

On a hot day at the end of July, 1921, Mrs. Alice Rosseter-Willard hurried to the home of her friend. There, on a couch in a secluded corner of a sleeping porch, lay Bertha Baur, newly widowed. Alice approached and offered her hand to the grieving woman. “Never have I dreamed that one could lose so much of life and happiness, and still live on,” Bertha said. Outside, her fifteen-month-old daughter Rosemary toddled on the lawn, under the watchful eye of a caretaker. On tiny, unsteady limbs, the child stepped carefully through the grass, arms outstretched, reaching uncertainly for hands to guide her.

Liquid carbonic machine, c. 1895

Liquid carbonic machine, c. 1895

Jacob Baur, head of the Liquid Carbonic Corporation, had died earlier that week, on July 19, 1921. He was known as the man who made the first “carbonator,” a machine which produced flavored sodas by mixing fruit syrups and carbonic acid gas. The machine won the medal for industrial achievement at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and by the early 20th century, Baur’s carbonators were being sold to every brewery, drugstore, and bottling factory, with plants across the United States. At the height of his success, he met Bertha Duppler, another local success story, and the two were quickly married. Bertha settled into the couple’s home at 126 Lake Avenue in Highland Park, and Jacob continued to run the first successful liquid carbonic company in the Midwest.

Fulfilling the traditional role of wife and mother was something both delightful and surprising to Bertha. In 1870, she was born Bertha Elizabeth Duppler in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, the daughter of poor German immigrants. She remembered her childhood as a happy one, but the family was very poor, and Bertha’s youth was marred by the loss of her mother when she was nine. Bertha revealed her drive to succeed when she graduated high school and, at seventeen, secured a job as a secretary to the president of the Midland railroad in Indiana. Several months later, there came an opportunity for Miss Duppler to travel to Chicago to act as a secretary for the Republican National Committee. Friendly, ambitious, and voracious for good books and entertaining experiences, Bertha fit perfectly into young, political Chicago society. Her work at Republican headquarters was noticed, and soon she was employed as head secretary to the city’s postmaster. In 1906, Bertha enrolled in night classes at Chicago-Kent so she could keep her position in the postmaster’s office. “Why am I taking up the law?” she said to the Chicago Daily Tribune, “I am providing myself with something upon which to fall when the political winds change their direction and I find myself without a job.”

Bertha Duppler, Class of 1908 Composite

Bertha Duppler, Class of 1908 Composite

Pragmatic and unyielding, Bertha was not one to bow to convention if it meant she couldn’t enjoy the kind of life she wanted. She had decided quite early on that she wanted her adult life to be as far as possible from her poor childhood, and had slowly but surely climbed the ladder of employment to provide herself with the things and experiences she desired. She served as a secretary to three successive postmasters, graduated from Chicago-Kent in June of 1908, and was admitted to the bar later that year. The Tribune hailed her as the highest salaried woman employed by the federal government, calling her “the patriot of the post office.” During his tenure, Postmaster Fred Busse was injured in a railroad accident and confined to his home. Bertha seamlessly stepped in and assumed his duties until his return. She remained an integral part of the postmaster’s office until the Friday before her wedding, a fact which the Chicago Tribune found to be nearly inconceivable, as evident in the headline: Soon a Bride; Still Works. Weeks before, the announcement of her engagement to the wealthy Mr. Baur read that Bertha would “give up” business to be wed. In the simpering, saccharine tone so often reserved for public discussion of women’s lives in that era, the Tribune remarked that “Cupid came forward with his theory.”

"Gives Up Business to Wed," Chicago Daily Tribune, October 13, 1908

“Gives Up Business to Wed,” Chicago Daily Tribune, October 13, 1908

"Soon A Bride, Still Works", Chicago Daily Tribune, November 19, 1908

“Soon A Bride, Still Works”, Chicago Daily Tribune, November 19, 1908

If it was, in fact, Cupid’s theory that Bertha Duppler, now Bertha Baur, should settle down for good and give up her success in the working world, his theory was proven false. As it happened, Bertha’s only escape from staring into the chasm of loneliness she’d found after the death of her beloved Jacob was to go back to work. Her decision to step into his role as president and acting head of the Liquid Carbonic Corporation was swift and serious, and was reported along with his obituary in many trade publications. She worked through her grief and was a great success: she doubled the worth of Jacob’s initial investment, opened the first foreign plant, and eventually sold her stock in the company for $4 million in 1926. A Tribune article dubbed her “Chicago’s best businesswoman”, and she capitalized on her success in business by stepping back into the realm of politics.

"The ABCs of Politics for Women," by Bertha Baur. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Acc. 2014.03.

“The ABCs of Politics for Women,” by Bertha Baur. IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives, Acc. 2014.03.

As early as 1916, Bertha was a firm and outspoken believer in a woman’s right to vote. That year, on a rainy day in June, she marched in the Chicago suffrage parade alongside such luminaries as Jane Addams, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Janet Ayer Fairbank. She remained a devoted supporter of women’s suffrage until the right was won in 1919. Seeking to educate and interest women in politics and independence, she authored pamphlets for the modern woman on topics of voting and finance, and gave free lectures at the LaSalle Hotel. She ran a spirited, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign for mayor of Chicago in 1922. In 1926, she ran unsuccessfully for the Republican congressional nomination on the “wet ticket” for the repeal of the Volstead Act. She ran unsuccessfully again in 1936, but served as a delegate to Republican National Conventions beginning in 1932. She was chairman of the Women’s Finance Committee and president of the Women’s National Republican Club of Chicago. She was chosen Republican National Committeewoman for Illinois in 1928, and remained a committee member until 1943. She attended national conventions without fail, always in a hat with elephants on it. She was the official hostess for the 1944 and 1952 Republican National Conventions in Chicago. She was one of the delegates sent to the third congress of the International Chamber of Commerce in 1925, and later attended the fourth in 1927 and the fifth in Amsterdam in 1929, where she was the only woman delegate.

Bertha Baur casts her first vote in 1919. Chicago Tribune historical photo.

Bertha Baur casts her first vote in 1919. Chicago Tribune historical photo.

In 1908, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Bertha’s views on women and business were somewhat non-traditional. “I see no reason why business women should not have a social and intellectual life,” she responded to a line of questioning about what we now call the work/life balance. While her later life was busy with politics, it was also the life of a sparkling socialite. She was the member of countless clubs and associations, and was the first and only woman for a time to be admitted to the Hamilton Club. She held parties and teas for Chicago’s important guests, including Queen Marie of Romania, and was received by Queen Mary in 1930. She appeared at several costume parties wearing the heavy brocade dress of Queen Caroline of England, who died in 1821, purchased from the Chicago Historical Society. She was known for giving early dinner parties so that she could change into a second set of fineries and leave for another engagement. Ever the philanthropist, the poor girl from Wisconsin-turned millionaire shared her wealth by funding an orphanage, and continued in her social work to educate and inform women.

Bertha Baur in one of her many elephant hats. Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0080527.

Bertha Baur’s life made an impact on Chicago. A woman who saw no need to do as popularity dictated, she came far by relying on her own intelligence and skill in business. She rescued herself from the earth-shattering injury of loss by returning to her success in a man’s world, and generating more of it. Her grandson fondly remembered her suffragette’s spirit, saying “she taught me that women were smart, and did things. So later in life, I never had to pretend to welcome women’s liberation. I assumed it, and worked for it, and for things like it.” The little girl from a poor family got herself to exactly where she wanted to be, by doing the one thing she knew she could do: work. She did just that up until her death in 1967.

Never again would a headline about Bertha Baur read “Gives Up.” Chicago’s best businesswoman was quite unable to do so.

Bertha Baur was one of 23 women to be profiled in the 2013 Chicago-Kent College of Law Archives exhibit “Girls Want to Study Law.” 

Resources

“Bertha Baur’s Bubbles.” Time Magazine, 9 August 1926.

Bull, Bartle. “A Woman of Substance.” Women on the Web, 15 April 2011.

Chrucky, Serhii. “The Last Days of Washburne.” Forgotten Chicago.

“Gives Up Business To Wed.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 October 1908: 11.

McCormick, Mike. “Historical Perspective: Jacob Baur still recognized as ‘Father of the Soda Fountain’Tribune-Star, 3 July 2010.

Rosseter-Willard, Alice. “Our Own Lady: A Sketch“, 1931.

“Soda Fountain Man Dead.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 21 July 1912: 5.

“Soon A Bride; Still Works.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 November 1908: 9.

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