Lessons from Chicago's hottest July ever

Think it's bad now? It could be worse

July 6, 2012

Download Story
Library of Congress
Chicago stockyard workers at lunchtime, 1941.

According to the National Weather Service, Chicago’s temperature during this week's heat wave has only reached 103 degrees still two degrees shy of the all-time record of 105 set on July 24, 1934. So how did the city cope back then?

"Cotton pajamas and mint juleps," said archivist Peter Alter of the Chicago History Musuem.

Alter found newspaper ads touting the wonders of cotton pajamas during the summer of 1934. That same year Chicago hosted the World's Fair where the hottest (or coolest) drink was the Mint Julep.

But for many Chicagoans, sleeping in the park was their only respite from the heat.

"These weren't homeless, or single people," Alter said, "These were whole families who sought relief outdoors."

In fact, the Chicago of 78 years ago wasn’t entirely different from today. The city was suffering a drought, clawing its way out of depression and constantly battling low water pressure from hundreds of open fire hydrants.

But there is one important difference. Back then the city was still dominated by stockyards on the South Side. Alter said that in July of 1934, that meant the city of broad shoulders was more like the city of sweaty armpits.

“You know, on any day in the thirties, even on the coldest day on January, you’re going to smell the stockyards," he said.

It didn’t help that more than 800 cattle handlers went on strike that same month.

"So, you know, you’re going to a Sox game not very far away, you’re not smelling peanuts and crackerjacks in July 1934," he said.

Speaking of baseball, one other difference between now and then?  

The Cubs were perennial contenders for most of the decade.