Featured Museum: History, Chicago-style

There are three things that I remember from my 4th grade Chicago history class: Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire, I got an A+++ on my Fort Dearborn model, and “Chicago” was a Native American word for “bad smell”. In 4th grade, that was pretty funny. However, I’ve since learned that the Native American word is actually “Checagou” and more closely translates to “wild onions”. It’s also debatable about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. But I really did deserve the A+++ on the Fort Dearborn project. OK, my parents helped me… a lot. On my last trip to Chicago, I decided to see how much more I could learn at the Chicago History Museum.

Chicago History Musuem

The Chicago History Museum

Chicago has a rich history that goes beyond my faded 4th grade memories, one that tells of a range of events and cultural influences that are tragic, uplifting, ground-breaking, controversial and even very cool. The Chicago History Museum (until 2006 known as the Chicago Historical Society, founded in 1856) takes you back in time through the city’s early days to the present as it experienced disasters, crises, achievements and growth.

The museum has much detail available in exhibits with interactive displays, audio and video presentations, artifacts, and educational materials. It wouldn’t be possible in this post to adequately describe the permanent and special exhibitions or the people and events that shaped the city in any detail. Hopefully, these few highlights will give you an idea of what to expect in a visit to the museum, which is something I highly recommend when you’re in Chicago.

Was Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow to Blame?

Mrs. O'Leary's Cow's Bell

Bell Worn by Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow

Is it true that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern in the barn? Investigations afterwards proved that the fire did start at O’Leary’s farm, but historians are not so sure that the cow was to blame. Whether it’s true or just urban legend, it has made for a good story all of these years. Ironically, the O’Leary home was spared from the devastation of the fire. Also interesting is something I learned from my Chicago fireman father — the current Chicago Fire Academy is located on the site where the O’Leary home stood. How cool is that?


Century of Progress Exhibition

The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 was set in Jackson Park and celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America. Many new inventions, such as the Ferris Wheel, were introduced at the exposition and innovative architecture and landscape designs created for the fair are still admired in Chicago today. Forty years later in 1933, Chicago hosted another international fair, A Century of Progress International Exposition, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the city of Chicago. The fair, held on 427 acres along Lake Michigan just south of downtown showcased how business, science and government could create a better future. During a time of economic crisis, this was a big success and popular with the public. In addition to featuring modern advancements and predicting future developments, there were plenty of rides, entertainment, and concessions. My mom and aunt talked often about the thrill of attending the fair as young girls.

First "L" Train

First “L” Train

Built in 1892, ‘L’ Car No. 1 was in the first fleet of steam-powered rail cars on Chicago’s elevated railway and carried passengers between the Loop and the fairgrounds at Jackson Park. It was in operation until the 1930s, so its highly probable that my grandparents and mother rode in this very car at some point since that’s on a route they would have taken. I appreciated a little quiet time on board to think about that.

Bad Boys

Gangland Chicago

That’s right — Chicago gangsters were not fictitious characters created for movies. Notorious criminals like Al Capone gave Chicago a reputation as a dangerous city where the gangsters, not the law, were in charge. But even Al Capone was eventually brought to justice.

Good People

Hull House

Jane Addams’ Hull House

Hull-House was founded in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr as a social settlement that offered cultural and educational programs to new immigrants and the urban poor. I was sorry to learn that after so many years of providing services such as child care, domestic violence counseling and senior services, the Jane Addams Hull-House Association recently closed because they could no longer meet the demands for their services. The Jane Addams Hull-House Museum still operates and is located in two of the original settlement house buildings at 800 S. Halsted Street.

Periods of Crisis

Chicago Police Helmet

Chicago Police Helmet, 1968

1968 was a year of turmoil and violence with the riots that followed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and occurred during the Democratic Convention when protesters from around the country convened in Chicago to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. As the engineer of Engine #1 in downtown Chicago, my dad was called in for extended duty during those crises. I don’t think I realized at the time exactly how much danger he was in driving through the downtown streets and battling blazes in that chaotic environment. Much has been reported about these events, the actions of police and protesters, and the consequences. The museum has resources and artifacts available for looking deeper into these and other turbulent chapters in Chicago’s past.

Wait ‘Til Next Year

Wait 'Til Next Year

Wait ‘Til Next Year

Chicago is a big sports town and fans will enjoy the memorabilia in this section of the museum. When I lived in Chicago I was an avid Bears fan, even during some of the roughest patches for the team, I loved to watch the late Walter Payton (“Sweetness”) and other greats at Soldier Field a few times. My family comes from the South Side of Chicago where the White Sox rule, but many a Chicagoan has felt the sting of yearly disappointments for the Chicago Cubs. But they’re loyal fans and end the seasons with the adage, “Wait til next year!”

Here’s the Beef

Hog Butcher For The World

Hog Butcher For The World

The Chicago stockyards were the largest meat producer in the nation during the Civil War and its dominance grew even stronger during the latter part of the 19th century. This was largely due to the city’s central location which made it a major center of transportation. Other industries flourished as well.

Second City? Second to None

Whether it’s music, comedy or other performing arts, Chicago has long held a top spot. The Second City comedy and improv troupe has produced big stars over the years and is still performing in Chicago and around the country. The museum pays tribute to entertainment and broadcasting in Chicago with a wide range of musical instruments, posters and other artifact displays.

Since the 1920s, Chicago has been a capital of jazz and blues. There are many clubs today featuring local talent as well as national headliners. Before Lincoln Avenue became a trendy place to hang out, I lived on a stretch of that street north of Fullerton Avenue that had one of my “smoke-filled room” jazz haunts, Ratso’s (no longer there), and folk music venues. Great blues clubs were also nearby. I could often hear the music from Ratso’s and other clubs while in my apartment just a few doors away. The Back Room, still operating on Rush Street, was another favorite jazz place of mine.

Although the museum’s replica of a club isn’t quite the real thing, the exhibit provides some ambiance and the background on Chicago’s jazz and blues heritage is worth the time.

Jazz and Blues Club

Chicago Jazz and Blues

Historic Object(ification)

Playboy Bunny Suit

Playboy “Bunny Suit”

Hugh Hefner founded Playboy Magazine in Chicago in the 1950s and opened the first Playboy Club there in 1960. No matter how you might feel about the man, magazine or institution, Playboy is part of Chicago history. Bunnies working in the clubs wore “bunny suits” like this one on display with bunny ears, collar, cuffs and cottontail.

But there is so much more to examine and explore at the Chicago History Museum, so check it out when you’re visiting the Windy City. If you go:

The museum is located at 1601 N. Clark St. There is a parking lot one block north at LaSalle and Stockton with a discounted rate for museum visitors with validated ticket.

There’s a café next to the Chicago History Museum’s gift shop which looked quite nice, but I recommend that you experience some of the city’s delicious pizza, Mexican Street Food or other local favorites.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

37 thoughts on “Featured Museum: History, Chicago-style

  1. Mary @ The World Is A Book

    What a very interesting museum! I like how it covers so much of the city’s varied history. Good to know about Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. 🙂 That L train looks in excellent condition. One of my friends in Chicago does the The Second City improv and loves it. Thanks for these great Chicago trivia.

  2. jenny@atasteoftravel

    What a great little museum to learn all about Chicago. I learnt so much for your descriptions. Chicago is a great city- we were only saying the other day that we should probably go back there soon as it has been a while since our last visit. If we do I’ll certainly pop into the museum!

  3. Becca@R We There Yet Mom?

    What a great post – I loved Chicago when I took the kids in 2010 – but I wish we had made time for this Museum. It sounds fantastic (and looks). I just love that the Academy is on the O’Leary farm too -how fitting. Thanks for showing us this great place – it will be on our list to see next time we visit.

    Thanks for linking up too!

    1. Cathy Post author

      There were a lot of activities there for kids. Right now there’s a special exhibition about Chicago & Magic which I bet they would have liked, too. There was even a magician doing card tricks.

  4. Lisa

    What a great museum – will definitely keep it in mind for our next visit to Chicago! Emma and I went on a river cruise when we were in Chicago earlier this month and our guide was a young girl whose surname was O’Leary and whose family has been in Chicago for generations. She told us not to blame her family for the fire that a newspaperman had made up the cow story! 🙂

  5. Leigh

    Wait till next year sounds like the rallying cry of Toronto Maple Leaf fans.
    There’s a lot to Chicago that people don’t know about and you are doing a terrific job showing some of the cities gems that are under the radar. I haven’t been in years but I LOVED the Art Museum. It’s interesting how we can see are parents with fresh eyes as we get older. It sounds like your father is a brave man.

  6. jan

    Hi Cathy, I confess to knowing not much about U.S.A. I have only been to New York. But I have learned a lot of things about Chicago. Love the music clubs, and seeing the old train. Fancy Play Boy originating there! Nice to hear about a city from a local.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Next time you’re in the USA, try to put Chicago your agenda. You won’t be disappointed. Of course, NYC is an awesome city, too.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I guess that’s right, Marcia. Those people wouldn’t like to travel through Gilroy, California certain times of year when the smell of garlic and onions fills the air.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Hey thanks, Laurence. Isn’t that the truth? How are we possibly going to see everything we want to see? Just have to keep trying. 🙂

  7. Sophie

    Such an interesting – and quirky – museum this. Also, funnily, your mention of Mrs O’Leary reminded me of when I was an exchange student in the USA where teachers were called by their surnames. Difficult to remember sometimes 🙂

    1. Cathy Post author

      That’s an aspect of the CHM that I really like — diversity of exhibits from serious historical information and artifacts to the quirky and fun stuff.

    1. Cathy Post author

      The train car is in excellent condition. Compared to the inner city trains you see nowadays (in any city) they really were nicely appointed.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Definitely check out the museum if you have time. As Laurence mentioned above, there’s so much to see and do in Chicago, it’ll be hard to decide what to do first.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I know, we often don’t even think about what a name might have meant originally. The translations can be very interesting sometimes.

  8. Pola (@jettingaround)

    Yes, Chicago IS a fantastic place for both blues and jazz. I’m a regular at Green Mill and love checking out other little clubs (recently some great places on the South Side as part of the annual jazz tour). And I wish the L trains has as much room nowadays as the first ones did!

  9. Turtle

    Everyone always talks about how great Chicago is. I was only there for 24 hours and wasn’t overly impressed but have always thought the city deserved a bit more time. Thanks for the tips on what to check out next time I’m there!

  10. Pingback: The Faces and Places of my 2012 Travels

  11. Susan Nelson

    It appears I need to keep my feet planted in my own country for a time. I have never been to Chicago or anywhere east of there. Your article shed light on the many dimensions of this old city. Gotta go…bucketlist! Thank you for the enlightenment, Catherine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.