Skip To Content
Chicago: City of the Century | Article

Made in Chicago

Selected list of things that originated in Chicago.

Chicago-Made-in-Chicago.jpg
View of Midway from the Ferris Wheel, Chicago, 1893.


Nineteenth-century Chicago bred innovators in many fields. New technologies, business and labor practices, architecture, language, and even snacks made their debut in the rough-and-tumble city, and these novelties rapidly changed the way Americans lived. Tour this gallery and see a few of the many things that originated in Chicago.

The Big Junction
Railroad-building fever swept America in the 1850s. The era's biggest high-tech industry grew at a blistering pace, attracting young fortune-seekers like Andrew Carnegie. In Chicago, William Butler Ogden saw the railroad as a means to bring more business — and more money —  into town. Thanks to Ogden's vision and persistence, Chicago became the "Big Junction" by 1861— the site where more railroads met than anywhere else in the world.

The Reaper Finds Its Market
Cyrus McCormick invented his "mechanical man" in Virginia in 1831, but came to Chicago in 1847 to be closer to potential customers in the Midwestern farmland. His four-story Chicago factory would mass-produce for decades to come. By 1860, McCormick Reaper Works was making over four thousand reapers a year. Wheat plantings doubled where it was in use, and Illinois became the leading wheat-producing state in the country. McCormick's family joined elite Chicago society; in 1895, his son Harold would marry a Rockefeller, John Sr.'s daughter

The Chicago Board of Trade and the Grain Elevator System
Although the grain elevator was invented in Buffalo, the grain elevator system came into being in Chicago. As the railroads expanded, farmers were able to get their crops from the prairies to the marketplace more quickly and efficiently. More and more sacks of grain piled up in Chicago.

The business clearly needed streamlining; the casualty would be the inefficient, labor-causing sack. In 1857, the Chicago Board of Trade introduced a wheat grading system, so that one farmer's crop could be combined and stored in bulk with another farmer's crop of the same grade. All the loose grain could be mechanically transferred from railroad cars to grain elevators, eliminating the need for laborers to load and unload sacks. The seller would walk off with a warehouse receipt, which he could trade, sell or use as currency in the marketplace. From the grain elevator, a buyer could have his grain transferred directly into a boat to be carried anywhere around the globe. By 1861, Chicago's grain trade had increased to 50 million bushels annually —  a rise of over 48 million bushels in a decade —  supporting the city's boast that it fed the world.

The Futures Market
An unforeseen side effect of the Chicago Board of Trade's new grading standards —  and the spread of the telegraph —  was the emergence of a "futures market" in the 1850s. Feeling newly confident about trading commodities represented as scraps of paper, speculators near and far entered the market simply to gamble. In a dealing frenzy, and with no intent of ever taking delivery of their purchases, they bought and sold contracts for grain to be delivered in the future, based on their predictions for the rise or fall of the commodity's price.

During the Civil War, the Union Army's demand for provisions created a futures market in pork and oats, as well as wheat. Today, the Chicago Board of Trade and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange oversee futures trading in dozens of agricultural and other commodities.

The Slaughterhouse Disassembly Line
Chicago pork packers created a labor-intensive, lightning-fast disassembly line. The Union Stockyards routinely processed 5,000 or more hogs every day, taking just 15 minutes to slaughter each animal.

Hundreds of workers, many of them immigrants performed specialized tasks in the 13-step process: hanging the live hog by its leg, cutting its throat, scalding it, attaching it to a cable, scraping, cleaning, washing, inspection, de-gutting, de-larding, decapitating, splitting, and, finally, chilling.

The Refrigerated Rail Car
Cattle dealer Gustavus Swift had problems delivering his live merchandise to Eastern butchers. So he took an enormous risk, deciding he'd slaughter the cattle in Chicago and ship only the edible parts, chilled.

Refrigeration technology was primitive, but in 1878 Swift commissioned engineer Andrew Chase to design a refrigerated railroad car. Air circulated over ice in refillable bins at the top of the car. As it cooled and became heavier, the air dropped down into the compartment, forcing warmer, lighter air out through ventilators and keeping the compartment cold. Refrigeration allowed Swift to sell his product internationally, transforming the meat business.

The Pullman Palace Car
After the Civil War, Americans travelled everywhere by train. And it was miserable. Passengers grabbed what little sleep they could on uncurtained wooden shelves stacked three high. George Pullman provided relief with his Palace Cars, which he marketed as "luxury for the middle class." The elegantly appointed Chicago Limited — with such amenities as sleeping coaches, first class dining cars, reclining chairs, toilets, barbershops, and libraries — made daily trips between New York and Chicago. For the first time, an ordinary traveler could make the 25-hour journey in comfort, for only a modest fare increase.

“everything but the last breath of the hog"
Philip Armour hated waste. His aim was to use every part of the slaughtered animals in his enormous meat packing business. Armour bought smaller niche businesses that made use of unwanted animal parts dumped into the Chicago River or buried on the prairies. Using what he termed "scientific business methods," he turned hair, hooves, intestines and fat into brushes, glue, casings, and oleomargarine.

Armour's drive to reduce factory waste made him more money, and it also helped clean up Chicago's polluted waterways. Yet in the rush to use everything, in those days before government inspection, some unwanted items — bacteria, dead rodents, sawdust, dirt — inevitably found their way into the processed meat, bringing pollution to the public in another form.

The eight-hour work day.
The labor movement failed in its effort to reduce the average work day from eleven to eight hours at the same pay in 1886. But workers' widespread, vigorous uprisings in that tumultuous year — centered in Chicago — made May Day an international workers' holiday, and brought labor's grievances to a worldwide audience.

A strike at the McCormick Reaper Works led to violence at Square during an anarchists' demonstration on May 4, 1886. In Haymarket's aftermath, Chicago's business elite clamped down hard, attempting to kill off the eight-hour movement. Still, reformers pressed for workers' rights. In 1893, following her investigation of sweatshop working conditions, Florence Kelley succeeded in convincing Illinois to mandate an eight-hour day for women and children workers, and ban children under 14 from the workforce.

“the customer is always right”
Potter Palmer did the unthinkable when he instituted "the Palmer system." He guaranteed his customers a full cash refund on any purchase they found unsatisfactory — no questions asked. By designing his successful dry goods business to appeal to women, treating them to lavish attention and courtesy, and providing free home delivery, he changed the retail business in America. When "Palmer's Palace" opened on State Street in 1868, carriages lined the streets for blocks, as Chicago's affluent citizens turned out to see the expensive and exotic merchandise. His innovative practices had turned shopping from a chore to a pastime.

Mail order
Aaron Montgomery Ward had been a traveling salesman for a dry-goods wholesaler for two years when he developed an idea for a national mail-order business. Although it was not the first mail order business, it was the first business to offer a bountiful variety of items for purchase and delivery, rather than just a select few. The catalog especially served Americans in rural or frontier areas, who had limited access to manufactured products. Ward made his company successful by seeking advice from his customers about which products he should offer, in addition to keeping prices low and quality high. By the 1890s, Ward's catalogs ran to more than five hundred pages, and he received over 15,000 orders a day.

The Vertical City
Two architectural practices, the balloon frame and Chicago Construction, made Chicago the world's first vertical city. Builders using the balloon frame method created a skeleton of two-by-fours covered by wooden siding. First widely used in 19th-century Chicago and still employed today, the balloon frame not only sped up the building process; it also made construction less costly.

The balloon frame was a precursor to a great Chicago innovation: the practice of attaching a façade onto a strong yet light steel frame. Though skyscrapers were born in New York, the method called Chicago Construction, developed by Chicago architects and engineers between 1880 and 1883, provided the basic structural system for building modern steel-and-glass office towers.

“Mickey Finn"
A Mickey Finn, or a Mickey, is a drink secretly laced with a drug, possibly chloral hydrate, to knock out the person who drinks it. Slipping someone a mickey has become a staple plot device in detective fiction and B-movies.

Mickey Finn was a real person, a saloon owner in Chicago's vice district, known as the Levee. But the dastardly deed attributed to him is most likely a myth. As the story goes, after a customer passed out, he would be robbed and tossed into an alley by Finn and his wife.

“There's a sucker born every minute."
Irish immigrant Michael ("King Mike") Cassius McDonald, who ran Chicago's first crime syndicate, is said to have coined this phrase. According to legend, it was his explanation for how he planned to get enough customers for his gigantic, four-story gambling house. This casino-like palace, "the Store," was located close to City Hall, and it provided a gathering place for Democratic politicians as well as unsuspecting gamblers. McDonald obtained the cooperation of the police force, politicians, and an army of skilled confidence men to run his rigged games.

McDonald's criminal activities prefigured those of Al Capone and other Chicago gangsters.

King Mike is also credited with saying, "Never give a sucker an even break."

“Midway"
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted coined the term "Midway Plaisance" for the 600-foot-wide green space that was to connect his South Park along Lake Michigan (now Jackson Park) to another park a mile inland (now Washington Park). The Great Fire of 1871 delayed Olmsted's master parks plan, but during the World's Columbian Exposition Midway hosted various amusements, games and entertainments. Americans adopted the name "midway" to describe the raucous commercial areas of all fairs and exhibitions.

Cracker Jack
Baseball fans still hear the cry, "Get'cha peanuts, popcorn and cracker jack!" in ballparks across the country. Frederick Rueckheim created the sweet treat of popcorn and peanuts coated with molasses for his popcorn stand in Chicago. It was immortalized in 1908 in the song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," and by 1912, a prize could be found in every box.

“Southpaw”
At the Chicago White Stockings' Westside Park, the left hand of a pitcher was on the south side of the park. Finley Peter Dunne, who covered the White Stockings for the Chicago Daily News, coined the term "southpaw" in the 1880s to describe a left-handed pitcher. Dunne's innovative style of reporting, with energetic and colorful play-by-play accounts, brought the game to life for readers who were used to seeing only the box scores.

The Ferris Wheel
The Ferris wheel debuted at at Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition. To outdo the Eiffel Tower, the landmark attraction at the previous World's Fair, designer George Ferris built a 250-foot-diameter wheel on a massive, forty-five-ton axle. Sixty riders per car thrilled to the ascent and descent from the 264-foot pinnacle. "The World's Greatest Ride" was reused at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, then dynamited and sold for scrap metal.

The ride lived on, as amusement park goers of today know. Coney Island entrepreneur George C. Tilyou saw the wheel during his honeymoon at the fair. He ordered a half-size version and brought it to New York, where it became the centerpiece of Steeplechase Park.

Support Provided by: Learn More