Answer Man

Lots of hot air about how Chicago got its nickname ‘Windy City’

An aerial view of Chicago, Illinois, nicknamed the “Windy City.”
An aerial view of Chicago, Illinois, nicknamed the “Windy City.” Pixabay/Creative Commons

Q: In a recent answer, you mentioned in passing that Chicago’s “Windy City” nickname did not evolve from the White City amusement parks that had become popular across the nation after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Which leaves the question: Just how did the nickname arise?

Robert Arndt, of Belleville

A: Ask a half-dozen historians this question and you’re liable to come away with a half-dozen answers.

The weather. Intercity feuds. Bombast from loquacious politicians. A fight over a world’s fair. Etc. Etc.

Boy, talk about windy.

As it turns out, the answer likely lies in some combination of these theories. What was originally a selling point to draw people to the city wound up being used against it by jealous rivals. And it may have been cemented by a battle royale over who was to host that 1893 exposition.

In reality, Chicago is not particularly windy meteorologically speaking. Its average annual wind speed of 10.3 mph ranks well behind any number of cities, including Blue Hill, Mass., (15.2), Dodge City, Kan. (13.9) and Amarillo, Texas (13.5), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But that didn’t stop Chicago in the 1800s from talking up the allure of balmy summer breezes off Lake Michigan to attract new residents. As early as April 7, 1858, the Chicago Daily Tribune may have used the term for the first time, according to an extensive search by amateur New York word sleuth Barry Popik:

“An (sic) hundred militia officers ... condemned to air their vanity and feathers only for the delectation of the boys and servant girls in this windy city.”

But, of course, Chicago’s attempt to lure new people to the city did not stop with the weather.

“Perhaps even more important is early Chicagoans’ boosterism,” wrote Jonathan Boyd in “The Encyclopedia of Chicago.” “Boosters’ arguments emphasized the superabundance of their locale’s natural advantages and the inevitability of its pre-eminence, boasting that in fact they had no need to boast. Such was the ‘windiness’ of Chicagoans, as they sought to secure investment, workers, and participation in projects of national scope such as the building of railroads and the provision of Civil War matériel.”

This smugness rubbed many the wrong way, especially in Cincinnati. In the early 1840s, Cincinnati had earned the nicknamed “Porkopolis” because of its prominence in the meatpacking trade. But in just a few years, Chicago surpassed Cincy and, in 1862, claimed the nickname Porkopolis for itself, according to Popik. Then to add insult to injury, the Chicago White Stockings joined the National Association of Base Ball Players in 1870 to do battle with baseball’s first openly all-pro team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.

Soon, references to “wind” had nothing to do with the weather as the cities’ newspapers traded constant barbs.

“Anna still lives,” the Cincinnati Commercial reported in 1866. “She lectured about $200 worth to the flatulent people of that windy town (Chicago).” Then in 1867 the Chicago Republican countered with a story touting how 14 Chicago companies boasted sales of $2-million-plus versus four for Cincinnati. “The Cincinnati Commercial intends to be very severe when it calls Chicago a ‘city of wind,’” it wrote. “How would Cincinnati like a trade wind of that sort?”

But it was the baseball rivalry that may have produced the nickname’s first official usage.

“Only the plucky nerve of the eating-house keeper rescued the useful seats from a journey to the Windy City,” The Cincinnati Enquirer reported May 13, 1876. “Witness these scraps the day after the Whites lost to the Athletics: There comes a wail to us from the Windy City,” the Chicago Tribune added on July 2, 1876.

Still, some continue to attribute the name to New York Sun editor Charles Dana. In 1890, as the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas approached, New York and Chicago were in an intense fight to land the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. After eight ballots Chicago was chosen, much to the chagrin of those in the Big Apple.

According to urban legend, Dana had written, “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.” It’s a good story that may have helped fix the nickname in people’s minds, but the first reference to the quote was in a 1933 copy of the Chicago Tribune, making it unlikely that Dana ever wrote it.

By that time, Chicago had proudly accepted the nickname, which apparently had come full circle, according to this from the Nov. 20, 1892, Freeborn County Standard of Albert Lea, Minn.:

“Chicago has been called the ‘windy’ city, the term being used metaphorically to make out that Chicagoans were braggarts. The city is losing this reputation, for the reason that as people got used to it, they found most of her claims to be backed up by facts.

“But in another sense Chicago is actually earning the title of the ‘windy’ city. It is one of the effects of the tall buildings which engineers and architects apparently did not foresee that the wind is sucked down into the streets. Walk past the Masonic Temple or the Auditorium any day even though it may be perfectly calm elsewhere, and you will meet with a lively breeze at the base of the building that will compel you to put your hand to your hat.”

Today’s trivia

In what language was the first Bible printed in America? The year was 1663, and the language wasn’t English.

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1890, the Pasadena Valley Hunt Club decided to celebrate the winter beauty of Southern California by hosting a Tournament of Roses Parade and sports competition every New Year’s Day. But just three years later, its plans hit a snag: New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday. How could they have a parade without upsetting the horses hitched in front of churches along the route, thereby potentially disturbing the services inside? So in 1893 organizers decided to postpone the festivities until Jan. 2 — a Sunday tradition that has continued ever since (including this year).

BONUS: The first written reference to something resembling a parade float may come from Greece in about 500 B.C., when a statue of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, fertility, theater, etc., was taken from his temple in a “festival car” pulled by two men, according to a history of floats. The procession apparently helped celebrate the opening of a new play and was done to gain approval from the god and, perhaps, the theater critics.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer