Chicago had 30,000 people in 1850. It was becoming a big city. Folks here were getting sophisticated. Women were even buying spittoons so their husbands didn’t spit the tobacco juice on the floor any more.
And on July 29th, the world knew that Chicago wasn’t just some backwater little village. An opera company had come to town!
Well, it wasn’t exactly an opera company. It was actually four professional singers who’d been performing in Milwaukee, a real backwater little village. Still, this was an actual opera. Opera was big news in 1850.
In New York, P.T. Barnum was paying Jenny Lind – "The Swedish Nightingale" – $1,000 a night to perform. Chicago’s first opera didn’t have Jenny Lind. But the local promoters were crafty enough to choose one of her biggest hits for their first show, at Rice’s Theatre. The opera was Bellini’s La Sonnambula.
Four singers are not enough for an opera. As a result, the Chicago cast was filled out with local amateurs. A few of them had good voices, most of them didn’t.
Life magazine had a photographer with a distinctive family album. Each year he'd take a picture of himself with his daughter, starting on her first birthday. This went on for something like 40 years. It's a remarkable document of the process of human aging.
Today I'm posting a small album on the aging of a city — five photos, covering 106 years. The location is Milwaukee Avenue at Ashland, looking northwest. There was no grand plan involved in taking these pictures.
The monument at 2701 South Damen Avenue honors Father Jacques Marquette, the first European to reside in Chicago. I’ve talked about Marquette in an earlier post. Now let’s look at what the plaque on the monument tells us about a different time — the time in which the monument itself was built.
That would be the year 1930. On the plaque, this date is rendered at the bottom left as “Anno Domini MCMXXX.” Of course, using Roman numerals on our public structures was once common. Perhaps the builders thought the numerals had some magic power, guaranteeing that their own efforts would last as long as the Colosseum or the Arch of Constantine.
Just above the date are the names of two people. Here we have a politician — the mayor — and one of his appointees, the head of the commission that actually built the monument. Nothing unusual about that.
But look at the first line, the name of the man being honored. “James Marquette.” For some reason, they’ve Anglicized the good father's personal name.
Ever get bored riding the "L"? Tired of texting, or talking on the phone, or reading the paper, or daydreaming? Want to just look out the window and watch the city go by?
A century ago there wasn’t much to do on the train except read the paper or look out the window. That’s why there was an "L" floral contest in 1910. The idea was to get the people along the line to spruce up their property.
Two years before, the Tribune had partnered with a fertilizer company to select Chicago’s best front porch garden. The new contest was sponsored by the Northwestern Elevated Railroad, one of the city’s privately-owned transit companies. Northwestern’s service covered the modern Brown line, and the Red line north of Belmont.
The contest was open to all outdoor floral displays visible from the Northwestern tracks. Five judges from the Industrial Club had been riding around in a special train to inspect the entries. On this date 102 years ago – July 23, 1910 – the winners were announced.
Northwestern did not skimp on the prizes. First place in any of six categories was worth $50, close to $1200 in today’s money.
How well did you find your way around 1961 Chicago?
Both pictures were shot from the platform at the Howard Street "L" station. Though there has been a great deal of land clearance and rebuilding in the surrounding area, this particular block looks much the same after a half-century. Thankfully, a few trees have been added.
The Howard Theatre — identifiable by the vertical ". . . WARD" in the 1961 photo — closed many years ago. The auditorium itself was gutted, but the 1917 building facade has been preserved.