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chicago history museum

Some Chicago History

Chicago History Museum

The Chicago History Museum quickly became my favorite museum in all of Chicagoland. I knew so much about the history within its confines already, but it was something entirely different when experienced with interactive displays.

Located way up on the Northside of the city, which took a good 40 minute bus commute, was this fantastic place- the Chicago History Museum. In celebration of July 4th, the museum was admitting residents for free, but on account I was a rare non-resident visiting that beautiful and low-key Monday, the museum folks decided to also admit me for free. Off to a good start, I made my way to the facility’s first room dedicated to the overview of Chicago history and where I became lost in a world of 1930’s dioramas. They were painted with such detail, and the figurines were so lifelike, I thought I was experiencing the history of that era firsthand.

“The Chicago History Museum first displayed them in 1932 to show how Chicago grew from a few buildings on the shore of Lake Michigan into one of America’s more important cities. At the time, dioramas were considered a new exhibit technique, borrowed from natural history museums. The dioramas show key people, events and places from Chicago’s early years. No other Chicago History Museum artifacts have been on display in that building longer than the dioramas.”

Throughout the facility’s three floors were some of my favorite exhibits to date:

  • “Lincoln’s Chicago” where I learned about what Lincoln did during his many visits to the city and how after his assassination, his tributary parade and corpse in casket traveled to Chicago for a final viewing by the people who loved and supported him. The viewing took place in 1865 at the City Hall Courthouse on May 1. Lincoln was brought to Chicago by train just two weeks after his assassination. An estimated 120,000 people viewed his body at the courthouse over the next day and a half. That same courthouse also had a bell in its bell tower that sounded the alarm of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 until the building itself was destroyed.;
  • “Vivian Maier’s Chicago” where I learned about my favorite street photographer’s urban adventures during which she captured the likes of 1920’s thugs fighting at bars during midnight and the idyllic snowy parks blistered with intercity homelessness during Chicago’s frightful winters;
  • “Facing Freedom in America” where I learned about the First March on Washington in the early 1940’s. The movement protested discrimination in government hiring practices and segregation in the armed forces and was organized by Asa Philip Randolph, who was a Civil Rights Movement leader. He called off the proposed march after Franklin D. Roosevelt banned discrimination in government hiring and established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Two decades later, avtivists returned to Randolph’s vision marching for jobs and freedom in Washington, D.C. in 1963.;
  • “Chicago: Crossroads of America” where I learned that Chicago, formerly known as Checagou, was the home of Native Americans for about 10,000 years; long before any European explorers arrived. “When the European explorers eventually did make their way to what would become Illinois, they discovered that several Indian groups were moving through or living in the Chicago region, including the Miami, Illinois, Ottawa, and Potawtomi. Many of these tribes intermarried and inhabited the same territory; they called it “Checagou” – the Miami and Illinois word for the wild onion plant that grew in the marshes along the lake. The native peoples were part of a vast trading network that extended from Canada to the Gulf Coast and the West. Even after European explorers and settlers arrived, American Indians still played an important role in the development of the region, both in cooperation and conflict with newcomers. The influence of American Indians can still be seen in Chicago today.” For example, Chicago has many diagonal streets. Many of these roads, such as Clark St. on which the museum resides, were originally Indian trails, well-worn by centuries of use by native travelers.

I also read about the Union Stock Yard which made Chicago the meat capital of America.

“A 160-acre complex, the Union Stock Yard, supplied nearly 50 meatpacking plants around its perimeter. A feat of engineering that opened on Christmas Day 1865, the stockyards could house over 100,000 animals in more than 2,000 pens, all adjacent to Chicago’s rail lines. Rail access to livestock and far-flung markets enabled the stockyards to flourish for decades. After World War II, however, the stockyards became obsolete. The growth of interstate trucking stimulated the decentralization of the meat industry. After handling more than a billion animals, the Union Stock Yard closed its gate in August 1971.” A fantastic book that tells all bout the Union Stock Yard and from the perspective of a Lithuanian immigrant with his hope in the “American Dream”, is Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.

I highly recommend.

Another bit of history I learned, regarded the first Ferris wheel.

“Chicago’s World Fair designers wanted to feature something new at the fair to rival the spectacular Eiffel Tower, the icon of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. George Ferris, inspired by the bicycle wheel, invented the 264-foot tall Ferris wheel with 36 passenger cars, each holding 60 people. The Ferris wheel at the Midway offered awesome views and helped cement Chicago’s reputation as an innovative and imaginative city. The twenty-minute ride of the Ferris wheel cost 50 cents; as much as admission to the entire fair.”

And, in particular, there was this small bit of the exhibit dedicated to the Chicago flag. In 1917, Chicago had a two-star flag. The red stars represent the Great Fire and the 1893 World’s Fair. The two blue stripes signify the north and south branches of the Chicago River, and from top to bottom, the white stripes represent Chicago’s North, West, and South Sides. In 1933, the city added a third star that would continue the tradition of only representing the city’s most formidable events – the third star signifies the grand Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933-1934. In 1939, the city added yet another star, this time to commemorate the massacre of Fort Dearborn (an edifice that no longer exists). But an interesting concept of the Chicago flag is that its original designer, Wallace Rice, left plenty of room for the city to add more stars, if ever there be another “formidable event”. And so, Chicagoans have considered adding a fifth star for the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series in 2016 after a 108-year wait (btw, the city dyed the Chicago River blue on this winning day), or for the discovery of Chicago in 1673 by Joliet and Marquette, or for the beginning of the atomic age at Stagg Field. Nothing has been decided… yet.;

  • “The Secret Lives of Objects” where I learned of the precious and often obscure lives of some of the most insignificant objects I ever laid eyes on… like scraps of paper that somehow determined the fate of the nation and once belonged in the journal of King Henry IV, or a sliver of metal that once was part of a larger door hinge of Mrs. O’Leary’s farm that housed the suspect cow who knocked a kerosine lantern to the ground and caused the Great Chicago Fire in which 300 Chicagoans would die and from which 100,000 became homeless.;
  • and “Making Mainbocher”, which was probably a most special exhibit to me because I enjoyed it with a most amusing epiphany. In 2016 I made a great friend who has since become a most valued mentor to me. At a banquet for work, she was wearing a lovely black gown with a unique neckline I wasn’t sure to forget. Of course, I approached her and complimented her dress, to which she replied, “Why thank you, it belonged to my mother. It’s a Mainbocher.” Which, I didn’t know what or who the hell that was, but I faked it and said something like, “oh, how nice.” Well, on this very trip to Chicago and at the museum I fell in love with, I saw this gown again, but this time in the sketchbook of one of America’s most famous designers- Mainbocher! I texted my friend with a photo of the sketch asking if I had indeed made the connection and lo and behold, I did! How strange this world! During the 1930’s, Mainbocher Couture had introduced many new styles, including the strapless gown, sleeveless cocktail dress and cinched waist. But even more, I learned that Mainbocher also donated his time to the United States Navy and in 1942 designed a complete line of uniforms for its new women’s auxiliary. He used textiles such as navy blue worsted wool paired with a blue cotton blouse.

And then the day was complete. My feet aching, my heart inspired, and my mind spinning with questions, I finished the day with a solo ride back to my hostel. Museum day was probably one of the best days and it reminds me how much I love history. Our world has been designed by such miraculous beings, after all.

Oh yeah, the city sells a City Pass for about 100 dollars which gets you into five of the most favorite and famous museums and tours of Chicagoland (which can all price individually at a much higher fee than $100). But another reason for the City Pass is it guarantees to expedite your wait time in lines, which turned out to be a lie… trust me. I had to wait in line with everyone else. So, the bang is in the bucks you save with the City Pass, not with your time.

Chicago Skydeck 360 & John Hancock Observatory

I also paid a visit to the Chicago Skydeck 360 at the former Sears Tower (now called the Willis Tower, but Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower), and the John Hancock Observatory. These are some of my most favorite shots to and there. P.s. The John Hancock building displays the Skystone Time Capsule, which was raised to the 100th story summit of John Hancock Center on May 6, 1968 – the day the building’s steelwork was complete. Sealed inside were a number of artifacts, important to the building and the city when the John Hancock Center took its place in the Chicago skyline. Among the items enclosed within were:

  • A congratulatory letter from (then) Chicago Mayor, Richard J. Daley, to the President (at the time) of the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company, owner-developer of the Skyscraper;
  • A triangular section of the Eiffel Tower;
  • An official insignia of the Chicago Bears football team;
  • A baseball signed by the 1968 Chicago Cubs;
  • And a personal space suit insignia carried by Chicago-born astronaut Eugene A. Cernan on his 1966 orbital flight and “space walk”.

Read about my other Chicago adventures here: Friday Night in Chicago , A Day in Downtown Chicago , Chicagoland’s Museum Campus & 4th of July in Chicago

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