“The Chicagoan” magazine–1926 version

In 1974 I was a graduate student in History at the University of Chicago. Poking around the Regenstein Library one day, I came across bound volumes of a 1920s magazine titled The Chicagoan.

September 10, 1927--getting ready for Dempsey vs. Tunney

September 10, 1927–getting ready for Dempsey vs. Tunney

I was intrigued. The first issue of The Chicagoan was dated June 14, 1926. In format and attitude it was an obvious rip-off on The New Yorker, which had arrived on the scene about a year earlier.  Decades before the term was coined—incidentally, by a New Yorker writer—Chicago was already exhibiting its Second City Syndrome.

I found contemporary articles about contemporary Chicagoans. I delved into the movie listings for forgotten cinema palaces. I discovered a dismissive review of a soon-to-be theater classic, “The Front Page”—the reviewer referred to it as “Chicago’s latest ordeal by drama.” I immersed myself in the editorials. I especially liked the artwork, both on the cover and throughout the magazine itself.

I eventually read every issue of The Chicagoan from cover to cover.  I even found it helpful in writing my doctoral dissertation.  Then I forgot about it.

November 23, 1929--also the cover of the Harris book

November 23, 1929–also the cover of the Harris book

Some years later, Professor Neil Harris also discovered the old magazine volumes, and he knew what to do with them. The result is a wonderful coffee-table book titled “The Chicagoan”—A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age. Among the treasures in it is a complete reprint of the issue of July 2, 1927.  The book faithfully captures the flavor of a magazine that faithfully captured the flavor of an era.  I heartily recommend it.

The Chicagoan died in 1935, a victim of the Depression. In the decades since, other local-themed magazine have come and gone. Though not as flashy as The Chicagoan—and therefore, not suitable for translation into coffee-table books—each of them also gives a feel for its particular time.  I’ll be looking at a few of them here.


Then and Now, Around the Town

Another photo group from the “Where in Chicago/There in Chicago” quiz.

1947--Wells Street @ Polk, view north

1947–Wells Street @ Polk, view north

2012--the same location

2012–the same location

1944--Roosevelt Road @ Halsted, view west

1944–Roosevelt Road @ Halsted, view west

2012--the same location

2012–the same location

1940--Milwaukee Avenue @ Augusta, view northwest

1940–Milwaukee Avenue @ Augusta, view northwest

2012--the same location

2012–the same location

1939--Clark Street @ 9th Street, view north

1939–Clark Street @ 9th Street, view north

2013--the same location

2013–the same location

How To Help the Economy (10-22-1930)

The economy was bad and growing worse.  People were losing jobs.  Business owners were scared about the future.  The government was clueless.

That was Chicago–in 1930.

Twelve months before, the Stock Market had crashed.  Now the nation was feeling the ripple effect.  Unemployment had reaching 8.9%.

A private group named the Illinois Free Employment Service was trying to help.  Some days over a thousand jobless men came in looking for work.  Most of these applicants were manual laborers.  Many white-collar workers had also signed up, saying they’d take anything offered.

As for women, they might find opportunities in domestic work.  “Surely there are [people] who could afford maid service,” one counselor declared.  “Perhaps even for half days, to help out these women who sit here day after day with desperation in their hearts.”

For those who couldn’t find work, there was the Goodfellows Fund.  An alliance of local social agencies was collecting money to buy food, pay rent, or keep utilities operating for the city’s 75,000 needy families.  The Tribune was picking up all the administrative costs.

On this same day, the University of Chicago was hosting a major conference on business conditions.  The 45 invited headliners included leaders of the country’s biggest industries, magnates with names like Chrysler, Rosenwald, Insull, and Zukor.  About 1,000 members of the general public were also present.

The conference members agreed that the current slump was caused by a surplus of manufactured goods.  That resulted in lower prices.  Then companies had to lay off workers–which only made things worse, because now those unemployed people had no money to spend.

To grow a healthy economy, the federal government should relax its hold on business.  “The anti-trust laws corrected one extreme but brought about another,” one CEO said.  “What is desired by all legitimate business is stability, rather than waves of prosperity and depression.”

There were already enough laws on the books to protect the public interest, another exec claimed.  All that business wanted was a fair set of rules.

Those were some of the things Chicagoans were talking about in 1930.  Two years later, at the depth of the Great Depression, unemployment reached 25%.  The economy would not fully recover until after World War II.


Water Tower Place (10-20-1975)

Remember 1975?  What, you don’t?  Well, let me tell you about Chicago in 1975.

The center of the city was dying.  People were moving to the suburbs.  Offices were moving, factories were moving, all kinds of businesses were moving.

Stores were moving, too.  Woodfield had been open a few years.  Now it was mobbed.  Indoor shopping malls were the way of the future.

If downtown Chicago were going to survive, we needed an indoor shopping mall.  We didn’t want to wind up like Cleveland, or St. Louis, or Detroit.  But where could we put a whole mall near downtown?  Then somebody got the idea–a vertical indoor shopping mall!

And that’s how we got Water Tower Place.


It was a whole unified concept–a 74-floor highrise with 260 condos, a Ritz Carlton Hotel, and the vertical shopping mall.  The shopping mall took up the first eight floors.  The anchor stores were Marshall Field’s and Lord & Taylor.

Water Tower Place cost $150 million.  It took three years to build.  Meanwhile, Marshall Field’s started buying up antique jewelry, silver, pewter, and furniture–storing it in a warehouse, just to have it ready for the grand opening.

So now it’s 1975.  The stores were supposed to open at 10 a.m., but people were already lining up by 8.  Then they threw open the doors.  The first 2,000 women were each given a rose as they entered.  I don’t think the men got anything.

Most early indoor malls had been simple, just a big warehouse building partitioned into stores.  Water Tower Place was on Michigan Avenue, so they had to make it look special.  They had marble floors and walls, and chandeliers, and glass elevators around the atrium, and so on.

Well, the people came in, they saw these rich surroundings, and they went “ooh!” and “ah!”  And then they spent money.  You go into rich surroundings, and pretty soon you start acting like you’re rich, too.

Some of the stores in Water Tower Place hadn’t been finished, and they missed the grand opening.  Yet people were coming by the thousands.  This shopping center was going to be a huge success.

So in the last 39 years the center of Chicago has been revitalized.  And now it takes forever to get there, and it’s crowded, and it costs a fortune to park.  But would you rather live in Cleveland or St. Louis or Detroit?


Then and Now, Morgan-Pershing


1946--Morgan Street @ Pershing, view north

1946–Morgan Street @ Pershing, view north

2014--the same location

2014–the same location

The 1946 photo captures some overflow from the Union Stock Yards. At one time Chicago’s yards were the largest such facility in the world. Except for a few blocks in the southwest corner, they occupied close to a full square mile–Halsted to Ashland, Pershing to 47th Street.

After decades of declining business, the yards closed for good in 1971. Today the land is an industrial park, perhaps not so colorful, but certainly more pleasing to the nostrils.






Mr. Selfridge in Chicago

Evanston’s own Jeremy Piven has been starring in the TV series “Mr. Selfridge,” the story of the American expat who founded the icon London department store a century ago. The show occasionally mentions Selfridge’s years “back in Chicago.” Let’s look at those.

Born in 1858, Harry Gordon Selfridge grew up in Jackson, Michigan. His father abandoned the family a few years later, and Harry left school at 14. He worked in a bank, in a furniture factory, in an insurance agency. Always he impressed his bosses with his energy, his intelligence, and his imagination.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Harry Gordon Selfridge

He came to Chicago in 1879 with a letter of introduction to merchant prince Marshall Field. Field put him to work as a stock boy at $10 a week. By 1883 he’d moved up to a junior executive position in the retail department.

Almost immediately, Selfridge clashed with the store’s traditionalists. Rather than merely supplying a product, his idea was to make shopping a recreational experience—what we today call “retail therapy.” That meant aggressive marketing and all-out promotion. Field himself was naturally conservative, but Selfridge convinced the big boss to give his methods a try.

Selfridge increased advertising five-fold and launched a series of “special sales.” Merchandise was hauled out from behind high counters and placed on tables for easy browsing. Window displays became elaborate. A bargain basement was opened. Then came a ladies’ tearoom.

There was always something new. Selfridge could usually be found on the sales floor, checking every little thing, or lending his ear to the shoppers. He worked his staff hard, but he worked himself harder. When he had criticize a subordinate, he did so privately, and that was appreciated.

And since most of the innovations worked, Field was pleased. In 1887 he made Selfridge retail general manager. Two years later, “Mile-a-Minute Harry” became a junior partner.

Marshall Field's in the 1880s

Marshall Field’s in the 1880s

Selfridge wore his prosperity well. Always immaculately dressed, he changed clothes two or three times a day. Most mornings a barber came to his office to groom him. He brought his mother to town from Michigan, installing her in his posh North Side apartment.

In 1890 he married Rosalie Buckingham, a society debutante from the Buckingham Fountain family. The ceremony was held at the Central Music Hall, with a fifty-voice chorus providing the music. The couple later built a vacation villa on Lake Geneva.

Marshall Field sales continue to grow during the 1890s. Though the later part of the decade saw a severe recession, the economy rebounded. Now annual profits passed $1.5 million.

Still, Harry Selfridge was restless. He’d always wanted to run his own store. In May 1904 he cashed in his $1 million of company stock, rounded up backing for another $4 million, and bought the Schlesinger & Mayer store on the southeast corner of State and Madison, a block south of Field’s.

Mr. Field himself was not thrilled by Selfridge’s departure. He wished Harry luck in a perfunctory manner, then went about his business. Afterward he grumbled, “Now we’ll have to get another office boy.”

H.G. Selfridge & Co. staged a lavish grand opening in June. By the middle of July Harry realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew. He was severely undercapitalized. Fortunately, Samuel Pirie of Carson Pirie Scott was looking for a State Street location, and Selfridge sold the building to them—at a nice profit, too.

Harry spent the next few years playing golf. In 1909 he opened his London store. From that point on, we’ll turn it back to Jeremy Piven.


A Chicago Fire Legend

As we all know, today is the 143rd anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire.  The house at 2121 North Hudson Avenue is at the center of the tale.

The fire started on the Near South Side. Pushed on by strong southwest winds, it burned through downtown, jumped the river, and continued moving north. Nothing in its path seemed safe.

By the second evening the fire had passed Center Street (Armitage). Here the buildings were fewer and farther apart. On Hudson Avenue, the only house was a little wooden cottage belonging to a policeman named Richard Bellinger.

The Fire Area

The Fire Area

As the fire approached, Bellinger was determined to save his home. He tore up the wooden sidewalk, then collected all the water he could, in whatever bucket or bottle or cup was handy. Then he waited–but not for long.

Sparks from the fire started to hit the house, and Bellinger quickily doused them. The fire kept coming, Bellinger kept pouring water. He ran around the four sides of the little cottage, he climbed on the roof, he dropped back to the ground. Wherever the flames lit, Bellinger was there to put them out.

He grew tired. He lost track of time. But he was winning. The fire around him was almost gone. And then–he ran out of water!

Was all his hard toil for nothing? All he needed was a bucket or two more! Oh, cruel twist of fate!

But wait! Bellinger remembered the barrel of apple cider in the cellar. He told his wife to draw some of the cider into buckets. And with this bit of liquid, the valiant policeman was able to extinguish the remaining flames, and save his home.

The Triumph of Policeman Bellinger became a part of Chicago folklore. It was even reprinted in school textbooks. On October 8, the anniversary of the fire, teachers would march their classes to the cottage on Hudson Avenue, and tell the story of how it had been saved by cider. Besides the Water Tower, this little frame house was the only building that had survived the disaster.

Officer Bellinger's Cottage

Officer Bellinger’s Cottage

Then one day in 1915, a little old white-haired lady appeared at the door of 2121 North Hudson Avenue. It was Mrs. Bellinger, come back to visit the old homestead. She was invited in and looked around. Then she began to reminisce about the events of forty-four years before.

Yes, she said, her late husband had worked mightily to save the house. After the fire, they had sheltered 21 people in the tiny cottage. However, that cider business had been invented by some reporter with an over-active imagination.

“We did have a barrel of cider in the basement,” Mrs. Bellinger declared. “But we didn’t use it because we were able to get enough water from the dugout across the street.”

That destroyed one myth. And more recently, historians have determined that at a couple of other wooden cottages on Cleveland Avenue also came through the fire. So the Bellinger house is not even unique as a survivor.

But it still makes a damn good story.




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