A Field Trip to the Chicago History Museum!

History was my favorite school subject throughout my childhood and teen years but in Arkansas we didn’t have access to institutions like the Chicago History Museum for our field trips. Curiosity about previous eras and how people lived in the past is one of reasons I’m a collector and wearer of vintage. Recently my passion for vintage fashion, history and art came together in the form of the Chicago History Museum’s Charles James “Genius Deconstructed” exhibition of his couture pieces. Unfortunately there were no photos allowed in the exhibition so I overcompensated by taking photos of the rest of the museum. The museum’s permanent collection is housed on two floors of a building located in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, a few blocks from Lake Michigan and the Lincoln Park Zoo.
Maranda organized the field trip and we went with our friends Nicole of Bombshell Shocked, Xza Louise and Dena. Of course the History Museum seemed like the perfect setting to get decked out head to toe in vintage and we all put on our finest for the day. Dena dubbed us “The Posse of Well Dressed Ladies”, it has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

We all happened to be wearing bright, springtime colors despite the 40-degree temperature (now it’s 80 in Chicago, so odd!). Nicole is wearing an amazing novelty print skirt featuring feathers. Maranda is wearing a 1980s does 1950s skirt in pink, her signature color.


The walls of the lobby are dotted with neon and metal signs from defunct Chicago businesses.


Mobiles made of old street signs hang from the lobby’s ceilings. I’m not sure if these were street signs or actually used on a street car or El (our elevated subway system) car.


The Modern history of Chicago begins with The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that burned over 3 square miles of the city and killed hundreds of people. The fire is one of the reasons most of Chicago’s homes and buildings are made of brick (including my 1920s apartment building) and it also contributed to our building boom at the turn of the century.


One of the displays I remember the most vividly are the objects that were altered by the fire including coins, bolts and marbles fused together by the extreme heat.


Cookies preserved in ash.


A mass of glass marbles melted together and a children’s egg toy.


Chicago was a city of industry, factories and department stores. Early industry included candy factories, beer breweries and cattle stockyards/meat production.



A creepily awesome Victorian chair incorporating steer horns.


Chicago was home to two World’s Fair, the first was the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, held just 20 years after the great fire. The first ferris wheel (a replica shown above) was presented for the first time at the Expo. Each of the cars on the ferris wheel would accommodate up to 60 people each!


Choo, choo! I’m posing with a coal burning train engine above. Maranda is peering out from its window below.



Several of the museum exhibits were interactive, including this early version of an El subway car made of wood. Our modern cars are made of metal with plastic seats and are much smaller.


The girls taking a rest in the El car. Left to Right: Nicole holding Xza’s son Atticus, Xza Louise and Maranda.


Maranda & I hanging out on the surprisingly roomy El seats.


Candid photo of Nicole and Atticus.


An elaborate lace covered gown from 1908.


Detail of the gown, looks like something Rose would have worn in Titantic.


A gorgeous antique Jewish wedding ring in an exhibit discussing immigration patterns to the city.


An early portable typewriter.


Antique telephone that required cranking before use!


Of course we all drooled over the elaborate, sculptural hats. I’ll take one of each please.


Jeweled bees buzz around a velvet hat in the shape of a bee hive.



1920s bathing suit and accessories. Chicagoans have been flocking to the shores of Lake Michigan in the summer for over a century.



A whole room was dedicated to our second World’s Fair, the Century of Progress International Exposition of 1933. The lighted wheel was likely a part of a carnival ride present at the fair.

Yes, I would like to wear a 1930s draped floral rayon dress on my trip to to the fair.


Actual tickets from the World’s Fair. House of Tomorrow, Streets of Paris and The Irish Village all seem pretty tame but then you see the Freak Animal Show, the Midget Village and most disturbing of all, the Torture Show.


Chicago has a rich history of architecture including the Prairie Style pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. While his domestic structures are well known, I hadn’t seen much of his furniture in person. He designed the throne-like chair above and the sewing table below.



Silver pieces in the Arts and Crafts style made by The Kalo Shop, a silver workshop (founded and run by women!) based in Park Ridge from 1900-1970.


Chicago also had a hand in pioneering industrial design and New Bauhaus style art led by Laslo Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design (now part of IIT). The Modern steel bar cart and chair feature clean lines and an emphasis on manufactured materials (in this case chrome and vinyl).


Intricate metal grillwork in an abstract design, I believe this was once belonged on an Adler & Sullivan building. Unfortunately a large percentage of the buildings they designed were torn down in the 1970s before they received landmark status.


A wall of showcases displayed some of the many inventions that were created and produced in Chicago over the years.






Yes, Schwinn bicycles are from Chicago too! I took this photo from my friend Jacob who is a Schwinn fanatic. Of course he fixated on the catalog page that is barely visible in the background of the photo.


Surprisingly Crate & Barrel, the now ubiquitous retail chain of housewares and furniture, got its start in 1962 in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. It was started by a couple in their 20s who were inspired by the clean, Modern lines of European imports. Their name was actually derived from the packaging of their products (came straight from Europe) that they also used to merchandise their first stores. The silverware above and the glass carafe below were some of the first items sold in the Crate & Barrel store.



Of course Chicago has its racy side too. Somehow I skipped over the Prohibition/gangster/mafia exhibits but The Playboy exhibit caught my eye. While the Playboy enterprise is now based out of Los Angeles, the magazine and club got its start here in Chicago during the 1950s and ’60s.


An original Playboy bunny outfit from the 1960s. The costume was tiny and did not look comfortable!





Political buttons from the 1960s and 1970s.


The giant swan boat pays homage to the neighborhood surrounding the museum, the boats glide across the pond in the Lincoln Park zoo. Nicole & Maranda had fun pretending they were in the pond.

I’ve never actually been in a swan boat on the water before, this simulated experience might be the closest I get.


Of course it wouldn’t Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without our iconic food including deep dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches and everyone’s favorite, the Chicago style hot dog! No, we don’t put ketschup on our hot dogs! We drag ours “through the garden” meaning we pile the toppings high– a traditional Chicago hot dog is served in a poppyseed bun with neon green relish, yellow mustard, chopped raw onion, picked sport peppers, tomato slices and celery salt. YUM. In the children’s section there was an oversized Chicago hot dog with removable condiments.

Xza Louise poses with her son Atticus in the hot dog above.


Maranda posing in her properly dressed hot dog.


I’m getting cozy with a tomato slice in the hot dog.

After 2 hours in the museum we emerged into bright sunshine. Maranda snapped a few quick outfit photos for me before we dashed off to dinner/drinks in Wicker Park. I decided to celebrate spring and wear a floral crown and a ’50s swirl decorated with a novelty print of flowers and vegetables.


1960s Swirl dress: Beacon’s Closet, Brooklyn (Park Slope location)
1960s floral crown/fascinator: Indiana junk shop
Vintage jewelry from estate sales
1980s Rothschild coat: Village Thrift, Logan Square


Besides living in Chicago for almost 5 years (I moved here in 2007 from Los Angeles), my family has a connection to the city. My paternal grandparents grew up in the Northern suburbs of Chicago and lived here until 1945, when they moved to Pasadena, California during the Post-WWII sunbelt migration. I’ve actually visited the movie theater in Park Ridge where my grandparents had their first date! My father was born in Chicago but he grew up in California. It’s funny how families end up coming around full circle, as I’ve now adopted the city as my own.

Does your town/city have its own history museum or society? What kind of connection do you have to the place where you live now versus where you grew up?

Comments 0

  1. I adore musuems, in fact I have plans to go to the British Musuem in a few weeks. The great thing about London is that most of the museums are free! Although the Tower of London has to be my favourite historical place in my city!

  2. Our museums are more the colonial style being that Williamsburg is our claim to fame. I love that bicycle with the roses on the seat! We are planning on bringing our son to visit Chicago to come to the Field museum for the DINOSAURS! So maybe pre-historic fashions?

  3. HOT DOG! You really look cute in that bun!

    That was such a fun day! I loved seeing the pictures again.

    I think that light up swirly thing was from the old Comiskey Park (but I could be wrong) I think the only way to know for sure is to say that is definitely from Wrigley and see who shows up to sucker punch me 🙂

  4. i have to admit i've only been to the CHM a few times for evening events, but never explored the museum itself! WOW.

    i already have plans to see the Charles James exhibit; looking forward to checking out the rest of the museum as well!

    ps – did your grandparents have their first date at the Pickwick?! i love that place!

  5. this was so sweet! really enjoyed the photos and the commentary. I work behind the scenes most of the time and this was a great reminder of just how much I enjoy Chicago history and the delights one can find in the galleries. Thank You!

  6. So much neat stuff! I love to see bits from the World's Fair. Your dress is so super cute. It seems like a lot of great vintage clothing hails from Beacon's Closet. I'll have to check it out one day when I'm around those parts. I've only visited Chicago a few times, but you've convinced that I have so much more to see. p.s: I got a kick out of seeing you pose in the hot dog bun.

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