Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo

Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo

by John A. Jakle

ISBN: 9780252036828

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Calendars/Arts

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

PART ONE Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Metropolis

As the nation's boom metropolis, Chicago was a major tourist attraction, and a major source of pride to its residents. "Greetings from Chicago" was a thought, if not an actual phrase used, resonating with all the many postcards sent and received from the city early in the twentieth century. The caption on the novelty card in FIGURE 12 reads in part: "Chicago, Miracle City of the Age in little more than 100 years, grew from a village of a few log cabins to the fourth largest city on the globe." The French had borrowed the word "Che-cau-gou" from native parlance, applying it to the river that, by short portage, strategically connected Lake Michigan with the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. It was a foul-smelling, marshy world of wild leek and skunk cabbage. Chicago's population exploded from some 4,500 people in 1840 to more than 1.7 million in 1900 (with another 400,000 in its suburbs), growing at a rate of some 75,000 each year. The metropolis stretched for more than twenty-five miles along Lake Michigan, and inland away from the lake upwards of twelve miles. "Here, midmost in the land," penned the novelist Frank Norris, "beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America." Chicago was spoken of in superlatives: "Call Chicago mighty, monstrous, multifarious, vital, lusty, stupendous, indomitable, intense, unnatural, aspiring, puissant, preposterous, transcendent—call it what you like—throw the dictionary at it!" exclaimed the travel writer Julian Street.

Chicago's official motto became "I will," although the city founders had originally adopted Urbs in horto (city in a garden) in acknowledgment of the fecundity of the surrounding prairie hinterland. The descriptor "Windy City" became popular in the twentieth century, referencing not only the gales that sometimes raged off of Lake Michigan, but also the ballyhoo with which Chicagoans tended to boast of their city. Postcard publishers played to boosterism, relying on an array of pictorial conventions in doing so. Preferred viewpoints and compositional conventions repeated over and over again in the city's postcard art. For example, distanced views that emphasized the grand while obscuring the menial, especially the untoward, were favored, presenting visual "tableaus" by which the city might be understood and remembered.

Nothing distanced the city better than a "bird's-eye view." "If you look at Chicago from the air," wrote journalists John and Ruth Ashenhurst, "you will see how it is divided into segments by the railroad lines which converge upon its central district, cutting great gashes through the city's roofs like the fingers of a hand or the ribs of a fan. Contrasting with these are the twin ribbons of the Chicago River diverging outward to the northwest and southwest from the fork, half a mile west of the lake front." The view in figure 13 is out over the Chicago River just west of the lakefront, the array of skyscrapers along North Michigan Avenue disrupted by the river, with the avenue's bridge as a focal point. It was there—the site of Fort Dearborn—that, a century earlier, Chicago had its start as a city. "The city has a surprising beauty," journalist Graham Hutton observed. "The beauty shines through all of its grime, the dirt of hard work. I have stood many a time, of a fall evening or in the depth of terrible winters, on the Michigan Avenue Bridge and looked west to see the girders of the many bridges over the Chicago River and the skyscrapers and the sunset beyond; and I have wondered why a Midwest school of painting did not spring up here."


Following the fire of 1871, State Street became the city's principal retail street, and thus the symbolic center of downtown. FIGURE 14A shows a view taken about 1925 south along State Street, with the eye directed to architect Louis H. Sullivan's celebrated Schlesinger and Mayer Department Store (later Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company), located at what was claimed to be "The Busiest Corner in the World." The caption reads: "It is said that more people pass this corner in 24 hours than any other spot in the world." A sense of linear perspective, exaggerated through the visual compression of a telephoto lens, is enhanced by the photographer's attention to composition. Carefully integrated are the streetcar tracks, the streetlights, and the building facades, which, in elbowing one another, appear to recede in the distance. Although the camera was slightly elevated, the view that is communicated here is essentially what a pedestrian would have seen from the sidewalk. It was the kind of view by which people early in the twentieth century tended to know cities: the open vista of a street with building facades obliquely viewed in passing. A sense of movement is implied, with the viewer pulled into the scene as an active onlooker.

The view in FIGURE 14B, taken a decade earlier, is looking in the opposite direction, showing the street less congested but the sidewalks equally packed. State Street was the shopping artery that Chicagoans knew best, and the one that visitors invariably sought out. Its imagery was iconographic, standing not just for the thoroughfare itself, but for the city as a whole. Pictures such as this taught not only what Chicago looked like but how it ought to be looked at and remembered. They helped set the city apart as a distinctive place.

People moved on the public way. Sidewalks also had to provide space for those who stopped to linger, if only to browse a store's display windows (FIGURE 15). The prospect of the open vista in movement was important, but so was the sense of refuge that being at rest implied. By stepping through a doorway into a store, a pedestrian could escape from the "madding crowd." Building fronts were designed to attract attention and thus invite people inside, marking them as desirable destinations. At S. H. Knox's Five and Ten Cent Store, a large sign, easily readable even from across the street, stretched the length of the building's facade. Merchandise displayed in the large windows was suggestive of what was offered inside. Entry was made by two large doors, both reinforced by secondary signs. Such places, defined at the scale of the store, could be found all along State Street. They were what the street was all about. Places might be thought of as behavior settings that nest in landscape. They are variously centers of interest toward which people are potentially attracted, or indeed from which they are repelled, according to their needs and intentions of the moment. Of course, the street itself was also a kind of place, but one that postcard photographers pictured and interpreted more at the scale of landscape.

Department stores were especially important for women, particularly the wives and daughters of upper-middle- and upper-class families who could afford the time and the money to shop in these places of enhanced aesthetic appeal and heightened safety. But they were also important to the working-class women who hired on as sales clerks. Despite long hours and often difficult working conditions, young women of the lower classes flocked to clerking and clerical work that offered a kind of "white-collar" or middle-class respectability. Marshall Field's (FIGURE 16) treated its customers grandly: "Give the Lady What She Wants" was the store motto, and that included not just linen handkerchiefs, kid gloves, boxes of chocolates, and bottles of perfume, but everything imaginable in the way of millinery, clothing, home furnishings, appliances, and even groceries. Marion Louise Wineman described Chicago's "Ladies' Mile" at the close of day:

The Bell in the clock of the Boston Store Tolls sweet on the evening air, For homewending stenos and clerks galore, And a few hundred thousand or maybe more Weary shoppers from Field's and the Fair.

"Of course we visited Marshall Field's," Julian Street emphasized. He was escorted by an assistant manager in and out of "baffling doors and passageways" from the public parts of the store, where goods were sold, to areas very much "behind the scenes." They went "through great rooms full of trunks, of brass beds, through vast galleries of furniture, through restaurants, grilles, afternoon tea rooms, rooms full of curtain and coverings and cushions and corsets and waists and hats and carpets and rugs and linoleum and lamps and toys and stationery and silver, and Heaven only knows what else," he wrote. Marshall Field's even had its own telegraph office and post office. The store occupied two separate buildings, which were added to incrementally over several decades. Both of the main sections faced State Street, each centered on a large interior atrium. In figure 17, one of those atriums is decorated for the holiday season. It was topped, like its twin, by a Tiffany glass mosaic backlit by a skylight. A dramatic multistory space, it effectively oriented customers as they worked their way up or down, floor by floor, through the store. The building's decor carried classical implications both inside and out: from the huge Ionic porticos at the State Street entrances, through the columned arcades of the atriums, to the columns used as ceiling supports on virtually every sales floor.

Like other department stores along State Street, Marshall Field's had multiple basements (figure 18). There was a bargain basement for remaindered goods offered at discounted prices. Lower down was where new merchandise arrived, and where customer purchases were packaged for delivery across the city, or for shipment across the Midwest or even nationwide. Farther down still was much of the equipment used to distribute electrical power, water, and heat throughout the building. Each of the two buildings in which the store was housed had its own heavy metal frame. Weight was carried down through steel columns to caissons driven deep into the ground. Postcards routinely pictured what needed to be seen in a city, but some, such as this card, also depicted what most people would likely never see, but needed, nonetheless, to visualize and thus understand. Such cards played to the American penchant to know how things worked. They were also meant to impress people with the progress and technical sophistication they showed.

A sixty-mile system of freight tunnels beneath the streets of Chicago's downtown was completed in 1909 (FIGURE 19). Its narrow-gage electric railway, with some 132 locomotives and some 3,000 cars, connected major downtown buildings, coal being the most important cargo carried in, and ash, from boilers and furnaces, the most important thing carried out. But the package freight was also significant; Marshall Field's sub-sub-basement, for example, was directly connected to a tunnel so that customer purchases could be quickly shipped out. Not only did the tunnels speed delivery, in that freight bypassed the street congestion above, but they also substantially reduced that congestion. An estimated 5,000 truck trips were thereby eliminated daily. With the trains operating ten hours a day, there was, on average, one train moving every minute. The tunnels were six feet wide and seven and a half feet high, and made of steel-reinforced concrete "12 inches thick all around." No other city had such a system.

"With your eyes peppered with dust, with your ears full of the clatter of the Elevated Road, and with the prairie breezes playfully buffeting you and waltzing with you by turns, as they eddy through the ravines of Madison Avenue, or Adams-street, you take your life in your hand when you attempt the crossing of State-street, with its endless stream of rattling waggons and clanging trolley-cars." So wrote the English visitor William Archer. And so it was, he thought, with virtually every street in the Chicago Loop. "New York does not for a moment compare with Chicago in the roar and bustle and bewilderment of its street life," he claimed. The need for underground freight haulage was readily apparent in postcard views such as FIGURES 20A AND 20B. On downtown streets, the clatter of horses' hooves, the grind of metal wheels on the pavement, the ring of cable car and streetcar bells, the blare of auto horns, and the shouts of teamsters, peddlers, and newspaper hawkers combined to create an almost unbelievable din. Additionally, there were the odors of horse manure and auto exhaust. In the winter, especially, there was coal smoke. Of course, those were things that, although not seen, were sensed, aspects of place that could only be implied from pictures.

Chicago had been very much a "walking city" through the 1860s, with most people conditioned to getting places on foot. Mass transit made it even more so, except that some commuters and shoppers rode into the city to walk. Poor drainage prompted the raising of street levels and, of course, the paving of both streets and sidewalks. Tracks were laid out midstreet along which horse-drawn omnibuses could run. The granting of transit franchises was integrally linked with city politics, especially with the coming of cable cars in the 1860s and then electric trolleys in the 1890s. Much corruption in city government hinged on payoffs received from private transit interests. Chicago's first elevated transit lines, placed in operation in 1892 with steam engines, were joined in a loop around downtown in 1897, which led Chicagoans to refer to the downtown area as "the Loop" (FIGURE 21; see also figure 4). The system was electrified a year later under the direction of transit mogul Charles T. Yerkes. The "el" was an important part of the downtown spectacle; trains passed overhead every two minutes on average during rush hours. In addition, twenty of the city's steam railroads provided passenger service to outlying suburbs. For habitual riders, the railroads discounted or "commuted" ticket prices, thus giving rise to the term "commuter."

During the el's construction, prefabricated pieces of the massive superstructure were hauled to the city center, stacked along the intended rights-of-way, and then raised and bolted together, not unlike a gigantic erector set. Because of the shadows it cast on the streets below, as well as the dust and dirt constantly dislodged by passing trains, real estate development along Wabash, Lake, Wells, and Van Buren Streets was modest, with most of the city's tall office buildings built on streets away from the elevated lines. Through the 1920s, Wabash remained a street of older, low-rise buildings that housed furniture and piano stores as well as carriage and bicycle shops. "Only a block behind the bright facade of Michigan Avenue," essayist Christopher Morley observed, "you come to the dense and gloomy regions of the Loop. Sometimes in its darker shadows, under the L trestles and where the trolley tracks are set in slippery pink stone chosen for skidding surface, the word Loop seems hardly constricted enough. It might almost be Noose." There, he added, Chicago seemed older than any part of New York. Indeed, it was more like London.

The first subway opened in 1945 and ran under State Street, the busiest of the city's north-south elevated lines being reoriented to it (FIGURE 22). A second subway opened under Dearborn Street in 1951. Postcard views of the new underground transit lines spoke clearly of modernity through technological progress. Things were certainly brighter and cleaner there, although perhaps not as picturesque as street-side. In 1947 there were still some 3,500 streetcars, augmented by more than 1,000 buses. But within a decade, the trolleys were gone; buses were thought to be less disruptive of traffic (they were not, after all, restricted to rails at center street), safer (they could pull to the curb to let passengers on and off), and cheaper to operate (in an era of cheap gasoline). Despite the automobile's popularity, Chicago remained a mass transit city, which helped sustain the Loop's viability as an office district through to the twenty-first century.


Excerpted from "Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo" by John A. Jakle. Copyright © 0 by John A. Jakle. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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