More Chicago Objects

Although my book Chicago in 50 Objects was published in 2021, I haven't stopped investigating and collecting artifacts related to Chicago history. On this page I'll describe some of the items I've found since the book came out. Please return once in while to see what's new (or what old thing is new).

Riverview Souvenir Glass

If I knew three years ago what I know today, I would have included this glass in Chicago in 50 Objects. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Chicago was the birthplace of the modern amusement park.

No, that wasn’t Riverview, which came a little later. It all began with a colorful chap named Paul Boyton (1848-1924), or “Captain Boyton” as he was known to millions. At the start of his career, Boyton was called the “Fearless Frogman” as the inventor of a kind of buoyant rubber suit that enabled him to swim impressively long distances, such as when he splashed across the English Channel in 1875. Boyton traveled through Europe and the United States, drawing large crowds to his aquatic exhibitions. He performed in Chicago in 1886. Something about the Windy City appealed to the Captain and he settled there permanently in 1888.

The fun-filled Midway Plaisance, the entertainment portion of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (a.k.a., the “White City”), switched on a light bulb in Boyton’s brain—the idea of creating an enclosed fun-filled space with an admission charge. The result: America's first modern amusement park, “Paul Boyton's Water Chute,” which opened in 1894 at Cottage Grove Avenue and 63rd Street, not far from the recently defunct Midway Plaisance. It was such a triumph he took the idea to Brooklyn, NY, where his Sea Lion Pak started the growth of Coney Island as an entertainment hub. He also opened Water Chutes parks in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

Amusement parks had existed long before Boyton. London’s Vauxhall Gardens, for example, opened in 1661. But these pleasure spots featured such diversions as beaches, picnic grounds, fireworks shows, outdoor cafes, dancing, and shooting ranges. Boyton was the first to offer mechanical attractions, which are now the raison d’etre of amusement parks, which makes him an important innovator, indeed, a giant of American popular culture. Where’s the Boyton postage stamp?

Boyton closed Chutes Park in 1907 due to a complicated consolidation of Chicago streetcar lines that led to his property being foreclosed. But by then, however, a larger park, Riverview, had been in business for three years.

Chicago became the amusement park capital of America, as Riverview grew into the largest in the country. While Coney Island featured three parks, Chicago had no fewer than five—more than any other metropolis.

Riverview lasted from 1904 to 1967, so a Chicagoan would pretty much have to be past 60 to remember it. But a lot of Chicagoans are past 60 and pictures of Riverview on Facebook get a lot of likes. Riverview had a great fun house (Aladdin’s Castle), a terrifying parachute jump, a 70-horse carousel (it survived and is at Six Flags Over Georgia) and a lot of roller coasters (many aficionados think the “Bobs” was the greatest ever). And they also recreated Boyton’s water chutes. Because so many people went to Riverview, souvenirs are easy to find and most are not expensive. This glass cost me 20 bucks ($31.15 with shipping and tax). But I’ve seen vintage posters and signs in the $250-700 range.

Left: "Fearless Frogman" Captain Boyton flies the stars and stripes around the world. Center: An ad for Boyton's Water Chute Park. Right: Boyton's Chutes in action.

Below: Images from Riverview.

Milwaukee Avenue Polka LP

Chicagoans are proud of the styles of America music that came out of the Windy City: jazz, gospel, electric blues, house. But the list doesn’t end there. There was a time when polka music was so popular in Chicago that polka was on TV.

“It’s Polka Time” featured Stan Wolowic and his Polka Chips. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Chicago's role as a center for polka has been exceptionally significant throughout the twentieth century.” Chicago is home to the International Polka Association (IPA) Hall of Fame and Museum (S. Archer Avenue).

It seems there are three main styles of polka in the United States: Slavic, Germanic, and Tex-Mex. Probably the major Slavic style is Polish-American and a subgenre of Polish-American is known as “Chicago Style.” This type of ensemble relies on clarinet, button-box accordion, and trumpet and has a kind of 20s jazz flavor, using extensive improvisation. Władziu (“Li'l Wally”) Jagiello, Eddie Zima, Marion Lush, Eddie Blazonczyk, and Lenny Gomulka are the names that come up when Chicago-style polka is discussed. The guys on this album are almost defiantly Chicago/Polish with their roots in what was once the heart of Chicago’s “Polonia," where Milwaukee Avenue was the unofficial Polish Main Street (or Broadway).

The musicians are John Krawisz, Joey Czmiel, Greg Helton, Jerry Jendreas, and Jimmy Okrzesik. The album, which is copyrighted 1983, was recorded at Sound Impressions, Inc. in Des Plaines, although the company that produced it was Bel-Aire Record Co. at 1740 West 47th Street, which, I was surprised to discover, is still in business and still selling polka records and hosting polka events ( A few of the songs are “Pod Mostem Polka,” “Chubby Mama Oberek,” “Night Shift Polka,” and “Life in Chicago Polka.” I haven’t heard the music because I don’t have a turntable!

But the importance of polka music is not the main reason I added this record to my collection of Chicago artifacts. I use it as a symbol of Chicago’s Polish community, which for many decades had a huge presence in the city. Although Chicago was a very German city in the 19th century, by 1930 Poles were the largest ethnic group. The lure of the suburbs lessened their presence after World War II, but many aspects of Polish culture remain. Newspapers never fail to remind readers to buy their paczki on the day before Ash Wednesday.

A personal footnote on polka music: I found an article in the Hammond Times of August 9, 1939 about a polka contest to be held at Black Oak Springs, Indiana, the following Sunday The contest was run by the Lake County Lithuanian Democratic League, whose president just happened to be my grandfather John Gustaitis. Although Lithuanians sponsored the competition, the Times said my grandfather "has invited other national groups of the region to the outing and these may decide to challenge the claims of superiority for Lithuanian Polka dancers. In any event, Gustaitis said today, everybody will have a good time." The winning couple turned out to be June Evanseck of Gary and Albert Vinick of East Chicago. I'm pretty sure both were Lithuanian, so you might think the judges leaned just a little bit in their favor, but the three judges were not Lithuanian: Joseph Jacobi was president of the Lake County Hungarian league, Harry Anthony was president of the American Hellenic Club (Greeks do the polka?), and Stanley Nackowiak sounds Polish to me.

Here's a newspaper photo. My grandfather is on the right and the tall man second from left was my uncle (married to my mother's sister). I wonder where that trophy is today.

In any case, it demonstrates that not only Poles did the polka.

Handyhot Electric Toaster

In the 1920s and 1930s, Chicago companies were at the forefront of bringing modern Art Deco “streamlined” designs into middle-class homes. According to one historian of industrial design, Chicago, “more than any other city, became the center of invention for the kitchen.”

This stylish 1934 toaster from the Chicago Electrical Manufacturing Co. is a representative example. Other examples of Art Deco–styled appliances from Chicago include Streamliner radios, electric fans from the Edgar T. Ward Company, “combined” telephones from the Automatic Electric Company (the sender and receiver were at the ends of a single piece held in one hand), Hotpoint toasters, and Hamilton electric calendar clocks, all of which are now highly collectible. In 1930, Chicago-based Sunbeam Products introduced the Mixmaster, one of the most enduring kitchen appliances. Its ingenious interlocking beaters, the inspiration of a Swedish immigrant designer named Ivar Jepson, made the device an immediate success. As for modern radios, several Chicago firms led the way in their design. The Operadio Corporation, founded in 1922, produced what most historians agree was the first portable radio, and in 1930, Chicago’s Galvin Manufacturing Corporation introduced the Motorola radio, which was so successful the company eventually changed its name to Motorola. The Zenith Radio Corporation had a massive manufacturing facility on South Iron Street, where the company turned out many Art Deco–styled radios. Finally, in 1933 the huge Chicago-based bicycle maker Schwinn adopted the new style and began making streamlined bicycles.

This toaster, known as a “Handyhot,” model AEUB, was the work of the famed industrial designer Jean Otis Reinecke (1909-1987). It’s made of chromium-plated metal, painted metal, Bakelite, and electrical components. An identical model is on permanent display in the Modernism Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Decorative Arts, Textiles, and Sculpture). It shows that not everything in a museum is necessarily valuable. I paid $38 for it ($50 with shipping and tax). But it's a coveted item, nevertheless. I displayed it at the "Deco Reveal" event hosted by the Chicago Art Deco Society and it was a big hit.

According to the dedicated researchers at the Made in Chicago Museum, Chicago Electrical Manufacturing Co. was founded around 1902 by one Samuel George Arnold. By the late 1920s the company president was an electrical whiz named Edward S. Preston, who was born in Belleville, Illinois in 1884 and became president of Chicago Electrical Manufacturing in 1926. The company’s first factory was at 2817 S. Halsted St., but in the 1930s it moved to a bigger facility at 6333 W. 65th Street. Eventually, the firm came under the control of Errett Lobban Cord (1894-1974), a half-genius, half-huckster whose Cord Corporation, founded in 1929, was a holding company controlling more than 150 businesses. Car fans are fond of his super-luxury Cord automobile, which was made by Cord’s Auburn Automobile Co. in the 1930s. Chicago Electrical Manufacturing Co. made a variety of products but was especially successful with its “HandyBreeze” electric fans. Chicago Electrical Manufacturing was sold to the Silex Corporation in 1953. In the mid-1930s, Reinecke established his own design company and in 1952 he became president of the Society of Industrial Designers. His most prominent design was the desktop Scotch Tape dispenser, which is now everywhere.

The seller of this toaster claimed that it works, but there’s no way I’m plugging it in.

Princess Pat Cosmetics Tin

It was in the 1920s that American women first began to become major users and buyers of cosmetic products. In 1927 they spent nearly $2 billion on cosmetic products, more than Americans spent on electric power, and some 7,000 types of cosmetics were for sale. Chicago companies were very much involved.

Although lipstick had been available since the late 19th century, it became fashionable only with the invention of the swivel-up lipstick tube in 1923 and the publication in popular magazines of photographs of lipstick-wearing movie stars like Clara Bow with pouty Cupid’s bow lips. Another women’s item that became the rage was the compact—a small mirrored case containing face powder. Some of the most stylish compacts were made by the Elgin American Manufacturing Company in Elgin, Illinois, and today they are decidedly collectible, especially the ones with Art Deco designs. The necessity of make-up spawned both a new profession and a new word—beautician.

As in so many other fields, Chicago became a major supplier of cosmetic products. Two companies that developed into heavyweights with headquarters in the Windy City were Helene Curtis and Alberto-Culver. Another Chicago company prominent in the beauty business was Maybelline, which is still in operation, although now based in New York. This small cosmetics tin (just 1-1/8 inch in diameter) comes from another big Chicago cosmetics firm, although it no longer exists.

There was an actual “Princess Pat,” although her real name was Frances Berezniak and she was born in Russia in 1888. Her story and the story of her company can be found on the Made in Chicago Museum website. The family emigrated to Chicago in 1895 and shortened their surname to Berry. In was in Chicago that Frances married Max Martin Gordon, whom she had met when both were studying pharmacy science and chemistry at Northwestern. They teamed up and used their technical skills to enter the rapidly growing cosmetics industry.

It was in 1919 that the pair introduced their “Princess Pat” perfume, named after Princess Patricia of Connaught, who was then a celebrity much in the news. It was a success, and soon the Gordons expanded the Princess Pat line into other products, such as lipstick, face powder, and rouge. Understandably, Frances became identified with the “Princess Pat” character and by the 1930s was going by the name Patricia Gordon. She became so well-known that she had a radio program called “Patricia Gordon: Beauty Editor of the Air,” The company had a large factory at 2709 S. Wells St. Max Martin Gordon died in 1955, Princess Pat followed him five years later, and the company went out of business.

German Singing Group Pin

This pin once belonged to a member of a Chicago-based German singing group named Schillerliedertafel. This ensemble was what was called a Männerchor, or men’s chorus. As far as I can tell, there are no Männerchor left in Chicago, although the Windy City does possess a mixed choral group called the German-American Singers of Chicago. However, a few Männerchor remain elsewhere in the Midwest (Elmhurst, Fort Wayne, Columbus, Pittsburgh). A liedertafel (literally, “song table”) is also a men’s singing club, so pretty much the same as a Männerchor. This one was named after the German poet/playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), who is probably best known today as the author of the poem “Ode to Joy” that provided Beethoven with the text for the choral final movement of his Symphony No. 9, a melody known to many people otherwise unfamiliar with classical music. The statue of Schiller in Lincoln Park is one of Chicago’s finest public sculptures.

I use the pin as a symbol of Chicago’s large and influential German heritage much like the polka record symbolizes the Poles. There is not a lot of physical evidence left, but Germans were once the dominant ethnic group in Chicago by far and even today their numbers are large. In February 2014 the Chicago public radio station WBEZ reported that 204,510 people in Chicago identified themselves as being of German ethnic origin. This was a greater number than those who reported being Irish (199,294) or Polish (182,064). But in 1900 the city’s German population numbered some 470,000—one out of every four Chicagoans had either been born in Germany or had a parent who had been born there. The German community made its presence known with its beer gardens and parades and other public activities, ranging from excursions to picnics to gymnastic presentations to carnivals to masquerade balls to Christmas bazaars (Chicago still has one of these—the downtown Christkindlmarket) and, of course, men’s social clubs/singing groups.

A survey taken in 1908 found that German immigrants were the top-ranked ethnic group in the United States. Only ten years later they were near the bottom. What happened? World War I.

One of the most significant effects that the First World War had on Chicago was that it smothered its German culture. The German community did not go away; it went underground. In World War I, Germany, once so admired, was now the enemy and the Kaiser was probably the most detested man alive. Where once, in the 19th century, Germany was admired as a land of poets, musicians, and philosophers, it was now acquiring the reputation that still haunts it as a land of rigidly efficient soldiers. Many Americans justified World War I as protection against German militarism, and this explanation would be repeated in World War II. One of the best known manifestations of anti-German hysteria was the renaming craze. German shepherds were now “police dogs” or “Alsatians,” dachshunds became “liberty hounds,” hamburger became “Salisbury steak,” German measles were renamed “liberty measles,” and sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.” Renaming also affected place names. In Chicago the name of the Germania Club was changed to the Lincoln Club, the Bismarck Hotel became the Randolph Hotel, the German Hospital became Grant Hospital, and the Kaiser Friedrich Mutual Aid Society was renamed the George Washington Benevolent Aid Society. Chicago streets that underwent name changes were Berlin, Hamburg, Coblentz, Lubeck, and Rhine. What is now Eleanor Street was then Cologne Street; Bismarck Place became Ancona Street and Frankfort Street became Charleston Street.

During the war years, any German or German descendant in the United States was the target of suspicion—either as anti-American, or, worse yet, a spy or traitor The German inhabitants of Chicago understandably kept a low profile. Many Germans decided it was safer to have an English-sounding name, and thus Schmidt became Smith, Guttmann became Goodman, Mayer became Mayor, and Griescheimer became Gresham. In August 1918, Harry H. Feilchenfeld, general manager of the Chicago Piggly Wiggly stores, petitioned a circuit court judge to have his name changed to Harry H. Field.

Whereas 191,000 Chicagoans had identified themselves as German in 1914, the 1920 census reported only 112,000 doing the same. It wasn’t due to a mass outflow of Germans from the city, it was due to thousands of people growing ashamed of their ethnic heritage and choosing to identify themselves differently. As historian Melvin G. Holli expressed it, “The war damaged German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural institutions beyond repair.” And historian Frederick C. Luebke has written that by the mid-20th century “The Germans as a group had disappeared, completely assimilated into mainstream America.”

A couple of German restaurants still exist in Chicago The Steuben Day parade has been held every year since 1966, and the Dank Haus German American Cultural Center (1959) continues to promote German language and culture, but Chicago’s Germania is a faded shadow of what it once was. I personally witnessed some of the decline. In the late 1960s, a bunch of us guys enjoyed hanging out at a celebrated German restaurant called Zum Deutschen Eck 2914 N. Southport Avenue to drink beer, eat schnitzel, and sing along with band (management supplied diners with printed lyrics—in German). There were other German establishments in the area. We also would drink beer at the Schwaben Stube and a liquor store had a wide selection of German white wines. There was even a German movie theater. One of my friends had lived in Germany for a year or so and was adept in the language and he talked me into going to see a film. I even remember the name – Das Wirtshaus im Spessart – although I didn’t understand half of it. All these places are gone. The closing of Zum Deutschen Eck on January 9, 2000, was especially lamented.