The Chicago Blues Sound of the Maxwell Street Market

The IDHH contains some content that may be harmful or difficult to view. Our cultural heritage partners collect materials from history, as well as artifacts from many cultures and time periods, to preserve and make available the historical record. Please view the Digital Public Library of America’s (DPLA) Statement on Potentially Harmful Content for further information.


In recognition of Black History Month, the IDHH would like to highlight the vibrant history of the black musicians of the historic Maxwell Street Market, the birthplace of Chicago blues. Between 1916 and 1970, six million African Americans moved from the rural Southern United States to the more urban Northeast, Midwest, and West in the Great Migration. Bringing new life to industrial cities like Chicago, one of the many areas in which these new Chicagoans landed was that of Maxwell Street, part of the Near West Side of the city. A bustling residential district, Maxwell Street first appeared on a city map in 1847 and over the next 75 years would become an increasingly diverse neighborhood, earning itself the nickname “Ellis Island of the Midwest”. By the 1920s, the area’s residents were predominantly African American, and these new migrants brought with them the sound of blues music. 

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Maxwell Street became known as a place where black musicians could be heard by the greatest number of people as shoppers browsed the wares in the open-air market or inside stores. These street musicians played the acoustic blues of the South, but soon realized that amplification was needed so that they could be heard above the din of the noisy market. Setting up near storefronts, they began to play a blues music using electric guitar and the harmonica, both heavily amplified, often to the point of distortion. Over several decades, the featuring of these instruments and the blending of musical genres gave birth to an electrified, industrial blues, later coined, “Chicago Blues.” Made famous by black musicians on Maxwell Street such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley, Chicago blues would find mass appeal through Chicago blues record labels like Chess Records and have a significant influence on early rock musicians like The Rolling Stones. 

Here are a few of our favorite items from IDHH collections featuring the music of the famous Maxwell Street Market:

Maxwell Street Market. August 1915. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Aerial view of the Maxwell Street Market. July 1945. Photographed by Americo Grasso. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Jazz with junk. 1959. Photographed by Clarence W. Hines. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Magic show on Maxwell street near Newberry Street. Man pointing in forground. 1966. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
African American man in straw boater hat on Peoria Street, east of Maxwell Street. 1966. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Gospel musicians near Maxwell Street. circa 1971. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Woman in white playing the tambourine, on Peoria Street east of Maxwell Street. n.d. Photographed by James Newberry. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.

Want to see more?

Visit the IDHH to view even more images of the Maxwell Street Market and explore items related to African American history and culture.

Welcome to Dixon, the Petunia Capitol of Illinois

Nestled along the picturesque Rock River in northwestern Illinois, the city of Dixon bears a fascinating history in the early nineteenth century as a fledgling outpost in the newly incorporated state of Illinois. Established in 1828 by Joseph Ogee, who operated a ferry along the banks of the Rock River, the city would take its name from a “Father” John Dixon after coming to the area in 1830 and purchasing the ferry operation from Ogee. With its advantageous position on the Rock River for trade and commerce, the settlement prospered from the abundance of the significant waterway and quickly grew into a thriving community. 

Fifty years later, the thriving city of Dixon saw the creation of Dixon College, a private college that operated with a teacher-training institution, the Northern Illinois Normal School. Dixon College advertised itself as an institution that taught “practically everything” and offered courses in such subjects as civil and electrical engineering, typewriting, and law. Though Dixon College closed around 1914 after only 35 years, the city of Dixon has a number of attractions that keep visitors coming to the area year after year. Designated the “Petunia Capital of Illinois” by the Illinois General Assembly in 1999, the city holds an annual Petunia Festival every summer featuring a parade, carnival, and fireworks show. In preparation for the festival, volunteers and citizens plant thousands of pink petunias along main streets, such as Galena Avenue with its iconic Dixon Arch. 

The IDHH is pleased to welcome the Dixon Public Library to the IDHH and feature their collections with this Highlights post. Here are a few of our favorite items:

Beautiful Galena Avenue Dixon, (the petunia city), Illinois. 1960. Photograph by Ralph-Lois Pierce Studio. Dixon Public Library. Dixon History Documents and Photographs. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Petunia lined Galena Avenue. 1980. Photograph by Ralph-Lois Pierce Studio. Dixon Public Library. Dixon History Documents and Photographs. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Dixon Theatre. 1922. Photograph by Brooks Photo. Dixon Public Library. Dixon History Documents and Photographs. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Dixon College Main Building sepia photograph. n.d. Dixon Public Library. Dixon College. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Eighth Annual Commencement of the Scientific Class 1889. 1889. Dixon Public Library. Dixon College. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Dixon College Staff. 1881. Dixon Public Library. Dixon College. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.
Illinois Central crossing Rock River, Dixon, Ill. 1907. Photograph by E.C. Kropp. Dixon Public Library. Dixon History Documents and Photographs. Courtesy of the Dixon Public Library.

Want to see more? 

Visit the IDHH to explore even more items from the Dixon Public Library.