Chicago’s illicit pleasures, circa 1893 | WBEZ
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Dynamic Range

Reissued city guide explores Chicago’s illicit pleasures circa 1893

The first Ferris Wheel, erected for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, was just one of many diversions available to fairgoers. (Library of Congress/American Memory Collection)

Recent clashes over casino expansion in Illinois make it easy to forget that gambling was once a leisure staple in Chicago.

Not in today’s slot machine heavy, Horseshoe Casino extravaganza sort of way, of course. In 1890s, Chicago gambling took place in back alley saloons, tony parlors and other dens of sin. (And, depending on how you looked at it, at the Chicago Board of Trade. One observer wryly cautioned readers that buying futures was “just another way to lose one’s money betting against the house.”)

That admonition is just one of many offered up by the anonymous author(s) of Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of the Americas, an 1892 guide to Chicago’s entertainment nooks and crannies offered to tourists and travelers who flocked to Chicago by the hundreds of thousands for the World’s Columbian Exhibition. Beyond gambling, the book warns male visitors to steer clear of lecherous, short-term golddiggers, in a chapter titled “As to Adventuresses,” and encourages tamer pleasure-seekers to visit some of the city’s earliest museums.

The original pressing of Chicago by Day and Night was lost to history, obsolete by the time the fair ended. But the book has now been resurrected by Northwestern University Press, along with explanatory annotations by Bill Savage, a senior lecturer at the school, and Paul Durica, a newly minted University of Chicago PhD who offers whimsical walking tours and reenactments through his series Pocket Guide to Hell.

Savage and Durica have collaborated prior to this, on a Nelson Algren-themed bar crawl and other events. And while Savage concentrates on 20th century history, Durica’s an expert on the 19th century. So when he was pressed by acquisitions editor Michael Levine, Savage agreed to write the guide’s introduction – but only if Durica was on board to help.

Durica said they decided to annotate the original book as well because it was “a document of the moment.”

“We’re 120 years removed,” he said. “A lot has changed.”

Those gambling dens, and other houses of pleasure? Gone, Durica says, the victim of the 1894 global economic crash. “Places oriented around leisure and sensual pleasure went out of business,” he said. “They were some of the first things to fold.”

Felled, but not forgotten. Hear Durica and Savage tag-team a reading from their chapter on gambling in the audio above.

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Bill Savage and Paul Durica spoke at an event presented by the Newberry in May of 2013. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.

Robin Amer is a producer on WBEZ’s digital team. Follow her on Twitter @rsamer.

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