Chicago History Museum

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Chicago River Bridges

Fri, 09/26/2014 - 08:53

In his Author! Author! blog series, Museum president Gary T. Johnson highlights works that draw on our collection.

Patrick T. McBriarty. Chicago River Bridges. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press (2013).

The specialist will appreciate the definitive account of each Chicago River bridge (including the bridges that have been replaced), and the wider public will appreciate the reflections on the role of bridges and the impact of their design and engineering on urban life. For those interested in Chicago history, this is a must–read, and the author’s insights should be of interest to any student of architecture and urban history.

> Read more about and purchase this book

> Learn more about Patrick T. McBriarty’s research and works

> Discover more about bridges in Chicago

> Museum members will have a chance to hear Patrick T. McBriarty speak about bridges at the Members’ Meeting in November!

Fixing More than Teeth

Mon, 09/22/2014 - 09:36

Curator Joy Bivins explains why these dental tools aren’t as intimidating as they appear.


Syringe, mirror and probe, dental model, and color scale used by Dr. Charles Williams Sr. in his practice, mid–twentieth century. Gift of Dr. Charles Williams Jr., 2002.267. ICHi–68430

Few people enjoy a trip to the dentist or the sight of dental tools, but these objects have a story to tell. They belonged to Charles Williams Sr. (1901–90), a pioneering Chicago–based dentist who treated patients at offices on the city’s South and West Sides. Dr. Williams’s practice spanned multiple decades, but his career began at a time when racial discrimination was routine. Williams worked to end that discrimination and open doors within his professional field.


Testimonial program, 1958. Dr. Williams served in every office within the National Dental Association and as president from 1958 to 1959. ICHi–69727

Charles Williams was born in Hobson, Alabama and earned his dental degree from Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee in 1924. Along with Howard University, Meharry was one of the few institutions of higher learning dedicated to training black dental and medical professionals. Shortly after completing his education, Williams began his Chicago practice, caring for patients and offering specialized, hard-to-come-by training to black dental technicians.


Profile of Dr. Charles Williams Sr., 1990. ICHi–69724

In addition to his dental practice, Williams was active in the National Dental Association (NDA), the leading professional organization for black dentists. As a NDA leader, he was instrumental in beginning the fight to end the American Dental Association’s racist practice of denying membership to African American dentists. That fight would not be complete until the mid–1960s. After his death in 1990, his son, Dr. Charles Williams Jr., who also practiced dentistry in Chicago, donated hundreds of his tools and pieces of equipment to the Chicago History Museum.

> Learn more about Meharry Medical College’s groundbreaking dental program

> Discover more about the historic National Dental Association and early black dental professionals

> Read a NPR story on the ADA’s apology to black dentists

> Explore the Unexpected Chicago archive

> Support the Museum’s collection

Nailed It: Chicago Commons Map, 1910

Thu, 09/11/2014 - 15:59

DePaul University students Burton Cann, Bristol Cave, Kristen Gayer, Hannah Woodford, and Elise Zerega researched an unusual map from 1910 for this entry in the Museum’s People and Places blog series. They were students of the Museum’s archivist, Peter T. Alter, as part of DePaul’s public history program.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, community leaders in major cities sought to resolve many social, political, and economic problems associated with urban living. Their efforts came to be known as the Progressive Movement. Some Progressive reformers addressed social justice issues by settling in struggling urban areas and establishing social settlement houses in those neighborhoods, as Jane Addams did with Hull-House on Chicago’s Near West Side.  From these community centers, the reformers worked with their neighbors to address unemployment, poor public education, poor sanitation, domestic violence, and many other issues.

Graham Taylor, a colleague and friend of Addams, founded the Chicago Commons settlement house in 1894, about a mile northwest of the Loop. Taylor and the Chicago Commons staff worked with the people of this industrial and immigrant neighborhood, now known as the River West and Noble Square neighborhoods. To understand a neighborhood and its needs, reformers like Taylor strove to learn their surroundings, which often led to mapping a lot of districts. In 1910, the Commons staff crafted a unique map of wood, small nails, and paper. This cartographic creation has survived over a century and is part of the Chicago Commons Association Records in the Museum’s archival collection.



Chicago Commons nail map, 1910. All photographs by DePaul University students.

The settlement workers wanted to take an inventory of the neighborhood’s assets, so the map includes public and private schools, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, public parks, and other local institutions. The mapmakers also included aspects of the neighborhood that they wanted to reform, so they mapped certain local businesses, such as saloons and billiard parlors.  Unfortunately, some of the information regarding the map’s content has been lost over the years. By closely studying the map, though, we can imagine that the numerous nails represented various clients of the Commons and immigrant groups in the neighborhood. Through this map, Taylor and his staff gained a clear understanding of the community to gauge its progress and identify problem areas.

Over the past one hundred years, the area represented by the map has changed dramatically. The city has renamed streets called Austin and Centre to Hubbard and Racine, respectively. The construction of the Kennedy Expressway in the 1950s cut directly through the community, forcing many residents to relocate and drastically reshaping its geography. Despite citywide changes, Chicago Commons still exists as an organization and continues to carry out its mission of working with its neighbors.


Former site of Chicago Commons, near Northwest Side, 2012.


North Carpenter Street near the former site of Chicago Commons, 2012.

Dan Valliere, executive director of Chicago Commons, explained to us that strategic relocations have helped Chicago Commons stay true to Taylor’s goals—to serve where help is most needed. The Commons now has locations throughout the city, including the West, South, and Northwest Sides. “[Celebrating] our history,” Valliere said, “…remind[s] us of our original mission and keeping that mission alive even as we change and evolve.”  Archivist Peter T. Alter often brings out this map for public and members’ events, as it is probably his favorite piece from the Museum’s over 20,000 linear feet of archival material.

> Learn more about Chicago Commons’s history

> Read more about Chicago Commons today