Bertha Honore Palmer, wife of Potter Palmer, was the leader of wealthy socialites in Chicago in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She would have been famous just for being the wife of the richest real estate developer in the city. But her own buisness skills after her husband's death in 1902 were equal to or better than those of many contemporary men. So much so that in just 16 years until her own death in 1918, she doubled the size of her husband's estate from $8 million to $16 million. In constant dollars, that amount would be equivalent to an estate of $214 million in 2006.
Bertha was born on May 22, 1849, in Louisville, Kentucky. Her wealthy family moved to Chicago in 1855. She married Potter Palmer in 1871 when she was 22 and he was 44. She became the leader of society in Chicago through her active contributions to the artistic, cultural, social, and civic affairs of the city.
From 1891 through the end of 1893, Bertha was chairman of the Board of Lady Managers for the Columbian Exposition of 1893. She used her many connections with European aristocrats and nobility to solicit and win special exhibits from 47 countries honoring the work and accomplishments of women around the world. She helped to create The Woman's Building at the fair in Jackson Park where the exhibits were displayed.
Chicago only had about 1.5 million residents in 1893. But the people of the city were very proud of the rebuilding effort that had taken up the previous 22 years since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fair was a celebration of the rebuilt Chicago and more than 27 million visitors came from all over the world to see what the press called "The White City." Bertha Palmer was the unofficial hostess for the fair who entertained royalty and high officials from overseas, many of whom she either knew personally or who knew of her through common social circles.
Two other great legacies of Bertha Palmer were her donations to the Chicago Art Institute and her support for Jane Addams' settlement house at Polk and Halsted called Hull House. She gave a lot of money to Hull House, was a trustee of Northwestern University from 1892 to 1896, and was first vice president of the Chicago Civic Federation. President William McKinley also asked her to be the only woman U.S. commissioner to the Paris Exposition of 1900.
But for Illinois residents today, the greatest visible legacy of Bertha Palmer is the incredible collection of French impressionist art that she left to the Art Institute of Chicago. The paintings were moved from her palatial home at 1350 North Lake Shore Drive on the Gold Coast to the Art Institute after her death in 1918. Paintings by Renoir such as "Two Sisters" and "Woman at the Piano" are among many that are displayed today on the second floor. The Bertha Palmer Collection is one of the principal elements that makes the complete collection of the Art Institue of Chicago one of the finest such collections of art in the world.
Bertha Palmer died on May 5, 1918 at her winter home in Osprey, Florida. She is buried with her husband at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.