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Naming the Windy City
For many years, I have believed that Chicago received its nickname The Windy City as a consequence of its bidding war for the 1893 World's Fair. However, recently Barry Popik, a word-sleuth and consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, has made me aware that the name had been applied at least a decade earlier in many newspapers and may have originated from weather considerations.
Popik claims the title was self-bestowed as Chicago attempted to promote itself as a summer tourist destination, in reference to its refreshing lake breezes that provided relief from the hot summer weather (more on this below). He has also provided references to show that the moniker was used in newspapers as early as the 1880s. Popik claims the World's Fair origin is an urban legend, created in part by the Chicago Tribune.
Before I look at the nickname's possible origins prior to the World's Fair bid, let me give you the story that I previously believed to be true.
During the 1889-1890 bidding for the World's Fair of 1893, Chicago advocates put on a rather long-winded presentation and campaign to win approval. The choice narrowed down to Chicago, New York, Washington and St Louis, and the competition before Congress among these cities was fierce and at times ugly. (The world's fair of 1993, known as the Columbian Exposition, was intended to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in America, but was actually held in 1893, a year later than had been planned.)
During the campaign, The New York Sun editor Charles Dana wrote in reference to Chicago's lobbying tactics: "Don't pay attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a world's fair even if they won it." This editorial has been widely credited with popularizing the Windy City nickname.
My source for the above information is Chicago Days, complied by the Chicago Tribune staff with additional backup from the Chicago Historical Society website.
While Dana did call the city windy in that piece, he was, it now appears, by no means the first. Thanks to the detective work of Popik, we have evidence of earlier newspaper references to Chicago being called the Windy City prior to The New York Sun editorial. Although Dana's editorial may not have created the nickname, perhaps it gave The Windy City renewed energy.
According to the Chicago Public Library website, Chicago's popular nickname is due to the "loud and windy boosterism" of Chicago promoters, but actually originated more than a half century earlier than the Fair bid. In the early part of the Nineteenth Century, Chicago promoters travelled the length of the East Coast loudly promoting Chicago as an excellent place to invest. Their Eastern detractors claimed they were full of wind, referring to the "Bag of Wind" coming from the Chicago promoters.
There are several sources that indicate Chicago was called the Windy City much earlier than 1890. David Wilton's Word Origins cites Mathew's Dictionary of Americanisms, published over 50 years ago, with an 1887 quotation of Windy City in reference to Chicago.
Barry Popik has discovered a linking of the city and nickname in a headline on the front page of the Cleveland Gazette for 19 September 1885, reporting on several news items from Chicago under the headline: "From the Windy City." For the nickname to be well known in Cleveland indicates that by 1885 it was a well-established title for Chicago and familiar to most readers.
Popik had previously found this 11 September 1886 reference in the Chicago Tribune that may indeed point the nickname toward Chicago's weather, though not in the way we now understand the term.
"The name of 'Windy City', which is sometimes used by village papers in New York and Michigan to designate Chicago, is intended as a tribute to the refreshing lake breezes of the great summer resort of the West, but is an awkward and rather ill-chosen expression and is doubtless misunderstood."
Chicago was once known as Garden City -- its Latin city motto was and is Urbs in Horto, "city in a garden" -- which was perhaps an attempt to rid itself of the known fact the city was built on a former, rather odorous swamp. The shift from the old nickname to the new appears to have taken place in the middle 1880s.
Popik also found a citation in the Louisville Courier-Journal in early January 1886 which connects the wind off Lake Michigan and Chicago. And he found a rhyme in PUCK (a then-popular New York City humour magazine) written about 1871 that included the words "windy old town of Chicago." He adds 1885 and 1886 references in the baseball magazine Sporting Life to Chicago as the "City of Winds" and the "Windy City."
There still remains a degree of confusion on the meteorologically based use of the term Windy City because its original connotation is somewhat at odds with current thinking. Our negativity-based social conscience subconsciously links the word wind and its various forms with unpleasant thoughts. Wind conjures thoughts of windchill, wind warnings including hurricane and tornado, storminess and damage. To us today, the nickname "Windy" would be a derogatory one. But if we place ourselves back into the Nineteenth Century, and even early Twentieth Century, "windy" can take a quite positive spin.
The writings of Hippocrates connected weather and health, and in several passages he extols the virtues of wind on good health, and condemns windless sites as sources of disease. Jumping ahead a couple millennia, in the urban landscape of the Industrial Revolution, cities were well known for their rather malodorous air, the result of industrial activity, coal and wood burning for heat and power, animal stockyards, and road traffic fuelled by horse and ox power. I have read that the advent of the automobile helped solve a rather difficult and disgusting urban problem: dead and rotting horses lying in the streets of many large cities, not to mention their "tail" emissions.
Steady winds would blow all that odour away, provide natural summer air-conditioning and even lessen mosquito and other insect pests. If the wind came off a pristine, clean source area such as Lake Michigan, all the better. Today, wind is a nuisance to most; yesterday, it was a valuable natural resource. No wonder Chicago revelled in the nickname: The Windy City rather than trying to downplay it.
So there is an accounting of the earliest references to Chicago as a "Windy City." I am now well convinced that the nickname originated well before Charles Dana used it in his editorial. However, I am still unsure as to weather, oops, whether it originally emphasized Chicago's entrepreneurial spirit or its distinctive weather conditions, perhaps it was both together. Perhaps, this essay will help fuel some lively cracker barrel or rain barrel debates across the Chicago region, bringing back the memories of Irv Kupcinet pioneering talk shows to older Chicagoans.
My thanks to Barry Popik for expanding my horizons. Having been born in Chicago, I had hoped that there was a meteorological connection from the city to the Weather Doctor beyond those incredible thunderstorms.
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