It’s pretty well known amongst Chicago History Buffs that the Ferris Wheel debuted on the Midway Plaisance during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The Ferris Wheel, brainchild of Galesburg-born George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., was the result of architect Daniel Burnham’s challenge to build something to rival Paris’ Eiffel Tower, built as the centerpiece of 1889’s Exposition Universelle, celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. On this day in history, October 16th 1892, the Ferris Wheel was given the go-ahead for its inclusion in the Columbian Exposition.
“Make no little plans” Burnham said to a group of architects and engineers at dinner. While eating at Chicago chop house with the same group of architects and engineers Ferris hit on the idea; “I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began to sketch it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and then making a complete turn-in short, before the dinner was over I had sketched almost the entire detail” Ferris recalled in an interview.
There were wooden wheels that had toured carnival circuits, patented designs even, but steel was a considerable upgrade and had the same modernist industrial touch as the Eiffel tower’s steel beams. Ferris, working out of Pittsburgh was known as an engineer experimenting in steel- to make a steel structure like this- that moved,- and transport the 100,000 parts of it a third of the way across the country for reassembly, was a significant challenge. At the time of its creation the 71 ton axel was the largest single piece of steel in the world.
Happy September Y’all. We’re seeing our first 40 degree nights in Central Illinois, and apples are beginning to be harvested. Around Champaign-Urbana, where I’m writing from, hail storms in August significantly damaged the apple crop. One farmer who I talk to at the farmers’ market had ployed to market her hail-damaged apples as “speckled apples”, but this week looked disappointed with just a few lumpy apples.
Here’s two of my favorite pictures in the IDHH from McClean County Museum of History of the over 6,000 taken by Pantagraph photographer Frank Bill in the 1930’s and 1940’s:
“Main Street of America”, Route 66 is probably the most well known road in America. It’s been featured hundreds of times in American literature and film, from symbolizing escape and grief in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath to the backdrop of Radiator Springs just off Route 66 but forgotten after ‘the Mother Road’ (another Steinbeck reference) was bypassed by Interstate 40.
From Illinois, or perhaps most of the country, Route 66 always looks westward- showing the horizon of the spiritual architecture of Americana. This westerly orientation makes sense, when it opened in 1926 as part of the U.S. Highway System, Route 66 began in Chicago and ran diagonally across the state, like a 300 mile asphalt vein through The Prairie State. You can virtually drive the entirety of “Old U.S. Route 66” in about 3 hours on Google Maps’ street view, but you wouldn’t get the full story of Route 66 before it was largely replaced by the speedier and beefier Interstate 55. Items from our contributors at Towanda Area Public Library, Illinois State Library, Illinois State University, and McLean County Museum of History, capture the spirit of Illinoisan Route 66 as it was in the 1940’s.
Like most roads, Route 66 repurposed other roads and trails, laying a new physical and administrative infrastructure on top of historic passages and routes far preceding car culture. In the earliest part of the 20th century, people traveled between Chicago and Saint Louis on the “Pontiac Trail ”- a native trail, turned unpaved stagecoach byway that travelled southwest through Springfield and the St. Louis area. By 1915 it became IL-4, and ran parallel to Chicago Alton Railroad.
The relationship between railroad and road was hot in Illinois. Railroads connected metropolitan areas, small farm towns along the railroads. Towns grew and farmers needed roads to ship their crop. Dirt roads weren’t enough, the roads of Illinois in 1910 were hardly better than the Illinois roads of 1818 according to historian David Wrone. The compact prairie sod was all too vulnerable to the elements; quick to become deep mud that a horse drawing cargo had difficulty picking its way through, and according to Donald Tingley, prompted “automobile pioneers [to store] their machines in the barn until spring. In the summer the mud turned into dust almost as deep.” Motorists, farmers, bankers and cyclists alike began organizing, building associations and committees that sought to advocate for better roads, and investigate solutions. The Tice Road Law of 1913 provided state assistance on roadside improvement for any county which was willing to build and maintain their roads. The Illinois Highway Department integrated a system to connect towns through highways. Illinois’ road story received another push in 1916 when the Federal Aid Road Act was passed, granting Illinois roughly three million dollars between 1917 and 1922.
The newness of these paved roads were politically advantageous for Illinois. Minimal construction meant that the route could open to traffic almost immediately in 1926. The flatness of Route 66 made it a popular truck route. The trucking industry stimulated the local economies it drove through, with small outposts of hotels, restaurants and diners, filling stations, roadside attractions to attract attention for money traveling through.
With the outbreak of World War II, the highway’s importance exploded as a road for military convoys and equipment transportation. Much of the original pavement was still in service but in poor condition from heavy truck traffic. The Federal Highway Defense Act sought to modernize the highway system, make repairs where needed, and establish a strategic highway network in preparation for war.
The Federal Highway Defence changed the roads dramatically. Two-lane highways became four-lanes. Route 66’s past as a long vein of county, windy, country roads, had been central to its character. Landmarks were named after it’s most dangerous parts. Illinois newspapers counted pile-ups, injuries, deaths of travellers. So-called “Dead Man’s Curve” in Towanda– a slim sharp curve, was especially treacherous for speeding drivers from Chicago who misjudged the sharpness they’d have to navigate. New portions circumvented these dangerous parts like these.
When car and tourism culture took off in the 1950’s the kitschy infrastructure had been well established with its legacy of trucking, and the roads were now safe enough to travel with your family in tow.
So, what did the impact of the interstate highway system have on its predecessors? Even while Route 66 was booming with roadside traffic and tourism in mid-1950’s, planning to make it obsolete was already in legislation. The improvements that had been made in the 1940’s to create a strategic highway network of small roads were left in the dust of Eisenhower’s vision for the Interstate Highway System. Inspired by the Reichschautobahn system, Eisenhower saw a fast and safe highway, as critical for economic growth defense, if it was ever needed.
1957. Parts of Route 66 were already being chosen for sections of I-55, I-74, or I-190. Route 66 was travelled less and less, left in increasingly worse disrepair- from over-use and then neglect. The mother road was officially removed from the U.S. Highway System on June 27, 1985. Community efforts have since surged attempting to preserve the highway’s particularity and celebrate it’s off-beat culture that lined rural America for three decades. Cities in Illinois began to register stretches of the route under the Register of Historic Places, citing both the engineering and cultural significance that preceded the interstate and knitted together rural communities alongside the road.
On August 18th 1920, women were finally granted the right to vote in the United States. The Susan B. Anthony-style suffragettes are certainly the most known figures behind the fight for women’s votes, but an entire network of suffragettes across the nation organizing in major cities made the demand clear. The Suffragette movement continued its momentum far into the 20th century with women’s voting advocacy groups such as the League of Women Voters (founded in February 1920) establishing chapters nationwide that continue to fight for people’s participation in elections.
To commemorate 100 years of Votes for Women, here are some of our favorite images of women exercising their right from the McLean County Museum of History’s “Pantagraph Negative Collection”.
In March we made a post about Mary Salome Ott Brand, and her first time at the polls as documented by her son Orson Brand and collected by the Highland Park Public Library.
For more on suffrage visit the IDHH’s holdings here.
My family tells this story about a wedding at a trapeze artist’s house. The bride, the artist herself, had a trapeze installed in her house- an old farmhouse that they connected to the barn after moving it across their property. It was so hot at the wedding that eyeglasses were slipping off of people’s faces- the groom– somebody in investment banking sweat through his clothes and spent the rest of the wedding visibly damp. The pond near their house was alive with snakes trying to both sun themselves and get cool.
It took time for me to actually understand what “wedding season” was- especially as it coincided with tourist season. The political economy of event planning was so foreign. Who doesn’t love weddings? Or even just photos of weddings, including the notalgia and trends in them, group pictures, flowers, wedding cakes. What makes a good wedding? What makes a good wedding photo beyond the traditional framing or poses that seemingly every married couple gets arranged in on their wedding day? Below are some of my picks of wedding photos from our contributors at Sterling Public Library, Cherry Valley Public Library District, Mclean County Museum of History, Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County, and Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park in cooperation with the Oak Park Public Library.
Corn in Illinois will not be ready for harvest for another month, but the opportunity to celebrate our corn heritage is too enticing. It’s a small contribution, and a little bit of a deviation from the theme but this image of excess corn stored outside of an elevator from McLean County Historical Society via the McLean County Museum of History is too good to not share.
A dune of corn kernel surrounds the concrete elevator as less than ideal but temporary storage. Advances in industrial agriculture in the 1950’s and 60’s occasionally created such an abundant harvest that the infrastructure for storing corn struggled to keep up.
In the same way that communities in Illinois revolved around coal, corn also was a community-wide touchpoint that was generously documented by everyday people and journalists. For more on corn in Illinois visit the IDHH.
The past few weeks have been shaky, but it’s truly spring. Although the outdoors are more forbidding than in previous springs, maybe you’ve found things to do around the house that still foster a little bit of that feeling of being in nature. Images from the Lenhardt Library of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s rare books have that perfect balance of spring energy and necessary homebodyness.
If you’ve been gardening, you can see how it and tree pruning was done in the later 16th century.
Or if you’ve taken a different route and are thinking of some retro interior design improvements inspired by early 20th century wood engraving such as these from Rudolf Koch’s Das Blumenbach:
Watching the blooms, so many people have unearthed their sketchbooks and pencils to work on their nature drawing skills in the prairie grasses. Helen Sharp’s 18 volume collection of watercolor sketches could help inspire the beauty, highlight some long-lost technique, or be the outlet for your stir-crazy, competitive spirit.
There are so many floral indulgences in the IDHH .The rare books from the Lenhardt Library are great for browsing with studious intensity, keeping us company while we wait out the storm inside. For everything from Chicago Botanic Garden’s Lenhardt Library in the IDHH click here.
Happy Mother’s Day from the IDHH. We’re a little late on celebrating mothers, but still feel like a tribute should be made. Shelter-in-place has been particularly difficult, and we’re hoping that the distance between you and your loved ones is either not-far, or easily traversed.
To celebrate Mother’s Day we’re highlighting photographs of families of performers, especially mother-daughter performers from Illinois State University’s Passion for Circus Collection. The photographs come from a collection of nearly 10,000 spanning from the 1930’s to the 1950’s from circus across the United States.
Below is just a small selection of performers and their families, mostly mother-daughter aerial and acrobatics acts, but also performers with their spectator, non-circus parents.
Reports from across the country describe the effort of nurses as they continue to care for patients sick with Covid-19 and put themselves at risk. Thousands of nurses have themselves been infected with the virus Covid-19 during the pandemic while caring for patients in hospitals and nursing homes. The Graham Hospital School of Nursing Library collections is the only collection in the IDHH dedicated entirely to nursing and nurse education. It contains 2,000 images and interviews from nurses who trained at the Graham Hospital School of Nursing in the 20th century, as well as images of and information about Graham Hospital, the history of medicine and the Graham Hospital and Canton Illinois community, as well as nursing and nursing education. Below are a few images. Thanks to nurses in Illinois and across the country.
I hope that all the reader’s of the Highlights blog and everyone surfing the IDHH and DPLA are safe. For everything from the Graham Hospital School of Nursing Library on the IDHH click here, or for more on nursing from the rest of our contributors, click here.