The Ripple: Why is Chicago called the Windy City?

Sammi Boas and Lily Cohen

Chicago is well-known as the Windy City, but where does the nickname come from? The origin of the phrase is widely disputed, but ultimately goes back to Chicago’s politics and rivalries. 

SAMMI BOAS: Why is Chicago called the Windy City?

PERSON 1: Because it’s windy.

PERSON 2: It was originally founded by John J. Windolin.

PERSON 3: The gnats at NU fly around so much it gets windy.

PERSON 4: Because the wind absolutely gusts me over.

PERSON 5: I don’t remember but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have to do with the fact that it’s actually windy, like, for real.

SAMMI BOAS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas.

LILY COHEN: And I’m Lily Cohen. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast exploring the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community.

SAMMI BOAS: Chicago has many nicknames: the Second City, City of the Big Shoulders, Chi-town. But none of those are as famous as the Windy City. 

LILY COHEN: The moniker makes appearances all over the city. To name a few, Windy City Smokeout is a country music festival, The Windy City Times is a newspaper covering the Chicago LGBTQ+ community and Windy City LIVE is a Chicago morning talk show. 

SAMMI BOAS: But where does the name Windy City come from? 

LILY COHEN: The easiest answer would be that the wind coming off of Lake Michigan makes for a windy atmosphere. But in our search for the true reason, we discovered that the origins of the name actually have nothing to do with weather, and everything to do with politics.

SAMMI BOAS: Many historians think the name comes from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 — the first World’s Fair hosted in Chicago. This World’s Fair was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. 

PATRICK MCBRIARTY: There was a pretty fierce competition between a variety of cities in the United States to host that World’s Fair. There were meetings held, I believe, in New York. Where then it was reported that the, I guess, bombastic politicians or boosters of Chicago were so outspoken that Chicago was tagged with this moniker of the people from the Windy City, you know, that we were all blowhards about how great Chicago was and, you know, New Yorkers of course didn’t think much of Chicago and sometimes they still don’t, as part of the flyover states.

LILY COHEN: That was author and bridge historian Patrick McBriarty, He’s also a co-host of the Windy City Historians, a podcast about the history of Chicago.

SAMMI BOAS: That year, St. Louis, Washington, D.C. and New York City all competed to host the 1893 World’s Fair. The main competition was between NYC and Chicago, the largest and second-largest cities in the U.S. at the time.

LILY COHEN: Charles Dana, the publisher of the New York Sun at the time, was a strong advocate for New York hosting the Fair. In 1890, Dana allegedly said, “Don’t pay any attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a World’s Fair even if they won it.” 

SAMMI BOAS: But researchers have never managed to find Dana’s original article that included this quote. Chicago was ultimately chosen because of its railway system and central location.

LILY COHEN: Barry Popik, an etymologist, took a trip to Chicago when they were celebrating the World’s Fair around 1994. While there, Barry visited the Chicago History Museum. Interested in the origins of words and phrases, he asked the tour guide about the origin of the phrase. The tour guide didn’t know the answer. So, Barry began researching the Windy City question himself.

BARRY POPIK: So the first thing I did was I went to the obvious source, which was the Dictionary of Americanisms. What’s the first citation? 1887 from the Louisville Courier Journal. And I said, wait a minute, 1887? They were bidding for the World’s Fair in 1889. That was two years later. So it has nothing to do with the World’s Fair. It was not coined by this guy. So I knew within seconds that the whole Windy City story was completely wrong.

SAMMI BOAS: Barry went to the New York Public Library, where they have a lot of newspapers on microfilm, to investigate further. But they didn’t have the Louisville Courier Journal. So, he checked out the Chicago Tribune, which was then called the Chicago Daily Tribune, and found a citation from 1886.

BARRY POPIK: And it says, people are calling us the Windy City. We don’t know why, we don’t deserve it. And then I got a clue that it’s from Cincinnati. And I found a lot of citations from Cincinnati.

LILY COHEN: Barry found citations from The Cincinnati Enquirer from the 1870s that used the term “Windy City” against Chicago in a derogatory way.

BARRY POPIK: For Cincinnati, those people in Chicago are windy. Cincinnati was a rival city of Chicago. They were both called Porkopolis — Cincinnati had the name Porkopolis. Later, Chicago took the same nickname, Porkopolis. They were rival cities. You don’t think about it now that Chicago being a rival of Cincinnati, but at the time they were, and it was a very big thing.

SAMMI BOAS: In the 19th century, Chicago was a city on the rise, trying to prove itself. It was incorporated as a city by the state in 1837, making it newer than rival Cincinnati.

PATRICK MCBRIARTY: Through that late 1800s, early 1900s, Chicago is probably much more trying to compensate for its really dirty, you know, swampy, West town characterization that Easterners might give it, and also fight its way into becoming what eventually became the second-largest city in the United States, surpassing St. Louis and Philadelphia and some other cities like that. I got the sense that, you know, Chicagoans would probably be a little more aggressive or maybe defensive throughout those periods.

LILY COHEN: Despite its underdog status, Chicago was growing quickly. Over the course of the 1860s to the 1880s, Chicago grew from a city of around 110,000 people to one of more than 1 million residents, making it the largest city in the American Midwest and third-largest in the United States.

PATRICK MCBRIARTY: Early on in the 19th century, Chicago was fighting for its place in the United States and in the world to be recognized. So I think there was probably a much stronger push and more boosterism for Chicago at that stage, particularly after trying to recover from the Fire of 1871 and rebuild the city. And it is pretty remarkable that then only a couple of decades later Chicago ends up holding a World’s Fair, that becomes known as probably one of the greatest World’s Fairs ever. So that gives a fair amount of pride.

SAMMI BOAS: Chicago wanted to host political conventions as a way to bring people and money into the city. The first presidential nomination convention Chicago hosted was a Republican convention in 1860, where Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois native, became the Republican nominee. Between 1860 and 1996, Chicago hosted 14 Republican presidential nomination conventions, 11 Democratic presidential nomination conventions and one Progressive Party Assembly. Thus began Chicago’s relationship with politics and politicians. 

LILY COHEN: Dick Simpson is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a former alderman of the city from 1971 to 1979 and a two-time Congressional candidate in the 1990s. He has a unique personal relationship with Chicago politics and offered some historical context for the way some of those politics came to be.

DICK SIMPSON: Back in 1871, the first of the political machines was built under a crook politician named Michael Cassius McDonald and machine politics became the hallmark of Chicago ever since. 

LILY COHEN: For those of you who may not know, a political machine is a political organization led by one person or a small group that controls enough votes to maintain power over the government in a city, county or state. 

DICK SIMPSON: Early it was divided into different fiefdoms and both the Democratic and the Republican Party. After the Great Depression, or during the Great Depression, it became centralized in the Democratic Party under Anton Cermak, perfected under Richard J. Daley and transmogrified again under Richard M. Daley.

SAMMI BOAS: Richard J. Daley became mayor in 1955 and stayed in the position until his death in 1976. He contributed to the city’s urban renewal projects and highway construction, but also received backlash, especially from Black voters who grew frustrated with racial segregation in housing and schools.

LILY COHEN: Richard M. Daley — the son of Richard J. Daley — became mayor of Chicago in 1989. Richard M. Daley opened Millennium Park and planted trees around the city. But under his leadership, the city’s budget deficit grew. This led to the privatization of government operations, including parking meters, which drew criticism. 

SAMMI BOAS: Now, Richard J. Daley is cited as the leader of the last political machine in the United States.

DICK SIMPSON: Chicago is essentially the epitome of American politics. It shows its racial biases more clearly. It shows machine politics. It is built as an example of often what is good about American politics and frequently what is bad about American politics so it’s an exemplar, or an extreme case, as they say in the social sciences.

LILY COHEN: But not all hope is lost for the Windy City or the American political system. While Chicago’s messy, or as some might say, “windy,” political history encompasses so much of what is wrong with politics today, it also offers potential for change.

DICK SIMPSON: Chicago is a harbinger of what might be possible in American politics that is a rebirth of democracy. The election of Lori Lightfoot and a more progressive city council is one example of beginning to come to terms with both our racist and unsavory machine politics history, and hopefully it’s a new wind blowing across Chicago.

SAMMI BOAS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Sammi Boas. 

LILY COHEN: And I’m Lily Cohen. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by me, Lily Cohen, and Sammi Boas. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey. 

Email: [email protected], [email protected] 

Twitter: @BoasSamantha @LilyyCohenn 

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