The term “Chicagoland” is part of the region’s DNA. You’ve probably seen it plastered on car dealership billboards or grocery store coupons. Maybe you’ve even heard the weatherman refer to “sunny skies across Chicagoland.”
There’s no New York-land or Boston-land, so why does the Chicago metropolitan area have its own unique name?
It turns out this has been a question on the minds of many Curious City listeners. To learn more, we looked at the origins of this term, how its meaning has changed over time and the media mogul — or Colonel — behind it all.
Where did the term “Chicagoland” come from?
Many people associate “Chicagoland” with television commercials and advertisements, but there was a time when the word brought to mind the Chicago Tribune.
In the 1920s, the Tribune’s publisher, Robert R. McCormick — or Colonel McCormick, as he was known — was a larger-than-life media mogul. While there’s debate over whether or not he actually coined “Chicagoland,” McCormick can be credited with adding it to the popular vocabulary to describe the region.
McCormick wanted to tie a familiar voice to “Chicagoland.” So he commissioned James O’Donnell Bennett, a distinguished novelist who was also well known for his war reporting, to write a series of articles documenting his travels in the Chicago region.
That’s how the word made its first appearance nearly 100 years ago in the July 27, 1926 edition of the Chicago Tribune. Across the front page was a story by O’Donnell Bennett titled “Chicagoland’s Shrines: A Tour of Discoveries.”
In the articles, O’Donnell Bennett spoke highly of the communities he visited: the restaurants, the entertainment and the scenery. He wrote about places such as Dubuque, Iowa; Holland, Michigan; and Moline, Illinois under the banner of Chicagoland. Soon enough, residents of places like Peoria and Kankakee wanted to be included, and wrote to the newspaper asking O’Donnell Bennett to visit their hometowns, too.
But the term was not embraced by everyone. A 1926 Tribune editorial quoted a woman from Nauvoo, Illinois who did not want Nauvoo associated with Chicago. According to Peter Alter, the Gary T. Johnson Chief Historian and Director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History at the Chicago History Museum, the author of the editorial essentially dismissed Chicago by saying, “It’s far away, it’s corrupt and it’s violent.”
Nevertheless McCormick was determined to instill a sense of civic pride in Chicago residents and to elevate the city’s profile.
“New York was [thought of as] the city of culture and Chicago was the city of business, and McCormick didn’t like that concept,” explained Jeffrey Anderson, director of the Glen Ellyn Historical Society and the former historian of Cantigny Park, McCormick’s former estate. “[McCormick] had artwork printed in the Tribune, so people could cut it out, frame it and put it in their homes. [He implemented] lots of ways to bring culture and the world to the residents of Chicago.”
By positioning Chicago’s newspaper — and, by proxy, the city itself — as a cultural hub, McCormick hoped residents of nearby cities and towns would want to be associated with it, all under the banner of “Chicagoland.” And this in turn might lead to an increase in the Tribune’s readership. So the use of “Chicagoland” was in part a business strategy by McCormick, according to Alter.
“Robert R. McCormick was really looking to say, ‘Okay, if Chicagoland encompasses pretty much Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, then that’s all of the places that should be reading the Tribune,’” Alter said.
How has Chicagoland’s meaning changed?
Back in the 1920s, “Chicagoland” covered a whole swath of the Midwest.
But as other Midwestern cities grew and developed their own local newspapers, they were no longer considered part of Chicago’s orbit. That’s part of the reason the area we consider “Chicagoland” shrunk.
At the same time, Alter theorized that the suburbanization of the Chicago area following World War II meant that the city’s suburbs remained decidedly under the Chicagoland umbrella. People who grew up in the city began moving to the suburbs, but they kept reading the newspaper their parents read.
Today, we generally consider “Chicagoland” to mean a smaller and denser area of the city and suburbs. Depending on who you ask, it may also encompass Northwest Indiana and a small portion of southern Wisconsin.
“Chicagoland” in media
Today, you’ll still find “Chicagoland” used in Chicago Tribune articles and hear it on WGN broadcasts. But you’ll be somewhat hard-pressed to find it in publications not associated with Tribune Media.
Here at WBEZ, there’s an unwritten rule that it’s preferable to use “the Chicago region” or “the Chicago area” instead of “Chicagoland.”
According to Torey Malatia, former WBEZ CEO and current CEO of the Public’s Radio in Rhode Island, he once got legal advice to stop using “Chicagoland” to prevent litigation by the Tribune Media Company. He told WBEZ staff to avoid using it.
“Chicagoland” is not currently under copyright, and when we asked the chief legal officer for Chicago Tribune Media Group if there ever was a copyright on the term, she said she wasn’t sure.
Still, the term is used frequently by advertisers and brands that strive to appeal to consumers beyond the immediate city. Car dealerships, for example, love to use “Chicagoland.”
While Chicagoland’s current use may have become divorced from its original meaning, perhaps Colonel McCormick would still be proud to see that the term itself has stood the test of time.
Marie Mendoza is WBEZ’s podcast fellow.