Breathtaking skyline with never-ending Lake Michigan views, freakishly unpredictable weather, sports-hungry locals. . . these are some of the obvious well-knowns about Chicago. But what about the lesser-known or the forgotten facts? From super helpful or delicious inventions to fascinating Chicagoans, here’s a Chicago history lesson to share with the family.
1. Chicago got its name from the French translation of the Native American word shikaakwa, known in the plant world as allium tricoccum. Which is a reference to the wild garlic that grew in abundance in the area. Yikes! Anyone have a mint?
2. How about some gum? While gum has been plentiful for thousands of years, the first to sell it flavored and packaged the way we know and love was Chicago-based Wrigley’s. The originals being Wrigley’s Spearmint and Juicy Fruit in the 1890s.
3. When we get one of those beautifully clear days in Chicago, shoot to the top of Willis Tower (Sears Tower to the loyalists) and you can see Lake Michigan and 4 states: Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana. Hi-de-ho, neighbors!
4. The Ledge at Willis Tower’s Skydeck is the highest observation deck in the United States, standing 1,353 feet in the air and extending 4.3 feet from the Skydeck.
5. The L train travels at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour and carries over 800,000 people per day.
6. Kids likely never heard of Josephine Cochrane, but their lives are made easier by her existence. Frustrated that her circa 1600 heirloom China kept getting chipped while being hand-washed, she threw her brains into developing a cleaning mechanism that used water pressure and was safe on dishes: a.k.a. the dishwasher. Thank you much, Josephine!
7. Our city’s skyline wouldn’t be the same without the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. Designed by George Washington Gale Ferris to rival the majesty of France’s Eiffel Tower, the first Ferris Wheel in the world debuted December 16, 1892, as part of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. While the original was destroyed by dynamite in 1906, we get to enjoy Navy Pier’s nod to the wheel’s original Chicago roots.
8. Speaking of the Eiffel Tower, a time capsule at the top of the building formerly known as John Hancock contains a piece of the Tower.
9. This lil tidbit is for the parents. Pabst’s Blue Ribbon used to be Pabst’s Best Select, until it won an actual blue ribbon at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In a show of marketing genius, Pabst’s started selling their bottles with silk blue ribbons attached and the name PBR stuck.
10. The Chicago World’s Fair is the gift that just keeps on giving. You know that zipper on your pants, your jacket, your backpack? Came from the Chicago World’s Fair and was originally called a “clasp locker”. Glad they went with zipper.
11. Okay, maybe don’t share this one with the kids, but Chicago was also home to the first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, and he opportunistically used the Chicago World’s Fair to lure his victims by building a hotel with sound-proof rooms. We recommend reading Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City for all the fascinating details and a healthy dose of Chicago history.
12. Not only is Barack Obama the first African-American President in U.S. history, he was also previously an Illinois State Senator who laid roots with his family in the Hyde Park neighborhood.
13. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed over 17,000 buildings and 2,000 square feet and many locals like to hold on to the utterly tall tale that it was caused by Catherine O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern in her barn. But the fact is, the true cause has never been determined.
14. At the point of the Great Chicago Fire’s origin now appropriately sits a training facility for Chicago firefighters and a bronze sculpture entitled Pillar of Fire.
15. As a show of sympathy and kindness for the Great Chicago Fire, Londoner A.H. Burgess suggested England present a free library to Chicago. The first Chicago Public Library opened January 1, 1872, in a circular water tank that survived the fire at the southeast corner of LaSalle and Adams Street and consisted of 8,000 books. Cheerio, England!
16. Grant Park, a.k.a. Chicago’s front yard, is home to big-time notables Millennium Park, Buckingham Fountain, Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum Campus and plays hosts to some of our most-attended fests. It was named after the 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, who along with former President Lincoln, led the Union Army to a victory over the Confederates in the American Civil War.
photo: Manne1409 via Pixabay
17. The centerpiece of Grant Park, Buckingham Fountain, uses up to 15,000 gallons of water per minute and runs Apr.-Oct. Visit after sunset and you’ll be treated to a spectacular light and music display that runs every hour on the hour.
18. Many a joke is made about the longevity of a Twinkie. But, did you know, they were invented right here in Chicago in 1930? They were first filled with banana cream, but that was replaced with vanilla flavor during WWII when you couldn’t slip on a banana peel even if you wanted to because of the scarcity of the yellow fruit.
19. A researcher at Schaumburg-based Motorola was the first to successfully develop the cell phone. The first brick-sized phone weighed close to 2 1/2 pounds and 10 hours of charging bought you 30 minutes of talk-time. Next time your kids complain about how fast their devices lose power, drop that little info nugget on their brains.
20. Born in the Lakeview neighborhood Jane Bryne became the first female elected to the office of Mayor in the U.S. in 1979, at a time when Chicago was the 2nd largest city in the country. Absolute legend!
21. Chicago Bulls mascot “Benny” the Bull is one of the longest-tenured and most recognized mascots in sports history, getting his name from Ben Bentley, the Bull’s first Public Relations Manager and Stadium Announcer.
22. The Chicago River runs right through the city and is one of the reasons Chicago is of geographic importance, as it is a link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. It has a place of honor on the Flag of Chicago represented by two horizontal blue stripes. It’s also a feat of civil engineering, as the direction of its flow was reversed in 1900 in attempts to protect the city’s water supply.
23. African-American Chicagoan and physician, surgeon and medical researcher Charles Drew worked with Red Cross on critical discoveries around blood transfusions and played a major role in developing the first blood banks and blood plasma programs.
24. My bologna has a first name, O-S-C-A-R! German immigrant, Oscar Mayer made his way to Chicago and laid the groundwork for one of the most well-known names in the food industry on the near-northside. And, blessed the USA with hot dogs, the super dope Weinermobile and the longest-running tv commercial to-date that starred a 4-year-old singing about bologna. Just don’t forget to ALWAYS forgo the ketchup on your hot dog, please.
25. Not only did Chicago gift the world with the hotdog, but we’re also responsible for deep dish pizza. Thanks to Pizzeria Uno for your contribution to the history of deliciousness.
photo: Palmer House Hilton
26. The beloved brownie was invented in Chicago at Palmer House Hilton. And, good news! We have the recipe.
27. M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E! The pioneer of American animation who holds the record for most Academy Awards won by an individual at 22, Walt Disney, was born in the Hermosa neighborhood.
photo: Field Museum courtesy of Maria Chambers
28. The Field Museum is home to SUE, the most complete T-Rex skeleton in the world. And, SUE recently got a new home at Field to help make room for Máximo. At 122 feet across and 28 feet tall, it’s modeled after a titanosaur (the largest animal that ever lived) excavated in Argentina. Fun tip: If you go to the 2nd story of the Field, you can snap a selfie with the remarkable Máximo.
29. Lake Michigan is the 3rd largest of the Great Lakes (when measured by surface) and the only Great Lake located entirely in the U.S. It touches 4 states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan and is sometimes referred to as the “third coast”, behind Atlantic and Pacific Coasts.
30. Chicago has a ton of nicknames (some of which highly annoy the natives): The Windy City, Chi-Town, City of Big Shoulders, The Second City, The White City, The City That Works—just to name a few—but our favorite name to call it is: HOME! (Insert block of cheese emoji.)
— Maria Chambers