Sleigh-ing it in Chicago

Chicagoans greeted 2018 with the coldest New Year’s Day on record, with a high of 1 degree, and wind chills of -35 degrees. The frigid day was part of a cold snap that tied for the record of the longest periods of bone-chilling temperatures.  Whether we struggled this month to keep warm in our homes, trudged to work in Michelin Man-esque parkas, or huddled in our heat-blasting cars on frozen streets, we had it a bit easier than our forebears.

Or did we?

Records show that none of the top ten coldest days in Chicago occurred before 1900. Sure, there was snow in the good old days, but blizzards such as we saw in 1967, 1999, 2011 and 1979? Nothing remotely like them. And, although our current modes of transportation are generally safe and keep us cozy against the elements, many Chicagoans in the 19th century had a most magical way to get from place to place, or even to race:  Sleighs.

Sleighing Ilustration 2

Sleighs line a Chicago boulevard – 1890s

Not only did people use their sleighs to get from Point A to Point B, they actually had fun doing it. Can we say that, as we tailgate the minivan doing 25 in the passing lane during a snowfall?  Are we able to breathe in crisp, wood-scented (and horse-scented) air instead of car exhaust?  Can we marvel that we are being transported courtesy of a beautiful living being instead of an engine?

Chicago elevated sleigh-riding to an art form, and like many forms of great art, sleighing was not for the masses. Sleighs were not cheap, particularly one padded in the softest of leather. Sleighs were modeled after those from the most snowbound nations, including Scandinavia and Russia.  While Swedish and Danish varieties were fairly utilitarian, those modeled after pre-Revolution Russia were lavish in their use of furs for seating and blankets. A typical lap blanket might be made with fur from wolves, minks, tigers or bears. Tails were attached to the blankets as a decorative touch. Popular sleigh colors in the 1890s included sea green and deep red. A top-notch sleigh could cost at least $800, or around $20,000 in 2018 dollars.

Single Sleigh

Hedonism: A sleigh for one.

The quality of horse was also a huge consideration, especially if racing was involved. It was noted that millionaire Philip D. Armour preferred a pair of sleek roans to power his Victoria. The wealthy John Dupee preferred bays, while George McLaughlin insisted upon a thoroughbred trotter.  A team of well-matched horses could easily fetch $2,000.00.

Sleigh Horses

A perfect pair dwarfs their sleigh.


Sleighing attire was significant, not so much from a fashion perspective, but for sheer warmth. Gentlemen might wear heavy coats in Persian lamb, bear, raccoon or sealskin. Ladies would don similar furs, and perhaps keep a ribbon tied around a high-necked collar. Hats, if any, were sleek, small, and pinned in several places. A big, floppy number would gather snow, attract the wind, and invariably fall off its wearer into a mass of slush.

A Chicago Tribune article from 1898 warns readers of the symptoms of the “Sleigh Face Epidemic,” which coincided with the onset of a snowstorm.  Per the article Sleigh Face was as potentially fatal as Bicycle Hump and Appendicitis, the former still a relative novelty.  Sleigh Face, however, was a much more expensive ailment. Symptoms included a wide-open mouth, eyes fixed dead ahead, and a flushed face. The article genially suggested that of the 1,750,000 residents of Chicago, some 1,749,000 would be glad to come down with this exclusive sickness.

Sleighing People

Chicago citizens suffering from Sleigh Face, 1898

The primary sleighing venues in 1898 were places like Drexel Boulevard, the Midway Plaisance, and, more recently, Lake Shore Drive and Lincoln Park. On Sunday afternoons, after attending church, spectators would gather to watch sleighs of every kind fly across the icy streets. It must have been like witnessing an impromptu gathering of Dodge Hellcats, Maseratis, Ferraris and Lamborghinis — all featuring real horsepower.

Sleigh Ride, Midway Plaisance

Sleighing on the Midway Plaisance.

Not all sleighs were treasured, however. The Chicago Tribune recounted the demise of a sleigh used by Napoleon in a trip from Moscow to Paris. The sleigh and its elaborate harness had been a gift from the legendary leader to a Silesian man in exchange for a small coach. The Silesian’s descendants, the Gansels, landed in Chicago, along with the sleigh.  However, upon the death of one of the Gansels, his widow took an ax to the relic because she was “tired of seeing it around.”  One can only speculate as to whether the widows’ descendants considered taking an ax to Mrs. Gansel once the realized the value of what she had chopped up for firewood.

Napoleon's Sleigh

The slaying of Napoleon’s sleigh.

By the early 1900s, sleighing had declined in popularity. The debut of the automobile resulted in sleighs being considered antiquated. Young people, once among the biggest proponents of sleighing, were now fascinated with exotic, expensive horseless carriages. A 1905 Chicago Tribune report lamented on the fall of the sleigh, citing a strike among drivers, and the catastrophic fire at the Iroquois Theater as detriments to a local economy once favorable to the potentially costly sport.

Perhaps you can still hear it on quiet snowy nights in the middle of Lincoln Park or Washington Park: the crunch of hooves on ice, the grind of metal blades, the sudden joyful noise of sleigh bells, horses snorting clouds of spray. Perhaps, if we are so fortunate, we may be treated to visions of long-gone sleighs and their riders.


Chicago’s Golden Age of New Year Celebrations


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All Chicagoans love a party, and what better excuse is there than to ring in the New Year? Whether it’s a quiet dinner with friends, watching the fireworks at Navy Pier, or at a grand hotel gala, a New Year’s Eve celebration is a tradition that has lived long and well in our city.

NYE ca. 1900

I’ll have what she’s having, as long as it matches my dress.

Let’s start with the early days of Chicago, when most entertaining was conducted at home. According to the insightful book, Fabulous Chicago, New Year’s celebrations topped the social calendar. It was a time for young gentlemen to call on lovely ladies in a faultlessly arranged ritual. Calling cards abounded, and were counted at the end of the day in certain neighborhoods to assess the girls who had attracted the most suitors. During the first years of Chicago’s social existence, serving alcoholic beverages was considered “fast,” and was only conducted by Southern transplants. Needless to say, the parties hosted by those born south of the Mason-Dixon line were celebrated for their jollity.

NYE Calling Card

A New Year’s calling card from Mr. W. T. Clark.

As Chicago entered the Gilded Age, parties became considerably more sophisticated. Always cognizant of trends and fashions being set by their peers in New York, Chicago’s social leaders began to throw blockbuster parties.  Champagne flowed, oysters perched atop ice in silver trays, and bands played in ballrooms and orchid-bedecked conservatories. The most amazing party of all was that hosted by the Marshall Fields on January 1, 1886. Their Mikado Ball raised the bar incredibly high for any subsequent entertainment. The champagne cocktail gained in popularity during the Gilded Age.  Here is an original 1887 recipe, courtesy of the Bar-Tender’s Guide.

1 lump, sugar
1-2 dashes, Angostura Bitters
1 small ice cube
Fill goblet with sparkling wine, stir with a spoon, and serve with a thin, twisted slice of lemon peel.


NYE Champagne Flowing

The bubbly ran a delicious, undammed river through Chicago New Year’s festivities until shortly after New Year’s Day, 1919. On January 17 of that year, the Volstead Act, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” went into effect. Prohibition reared its dry, ugly head.

NYE Prohibition

The most hated sign in America.

However, instead of encouraging America to quit drinking, the Volstead Act served to fuel the thirst. Chicago, being on the shores of Lake Michigan, was more fortunate than many other major cities, as tons of illegal booze floated in from Canada. And too, by the dubious grace of characters like Alphonse Capone, Chicago was well-connected in the hooch market.

NY Lady 1920s

A 1920s lovely enjoys her bubbly.

The quality of New Year’s celebrations in the 1920s depended probably more significantly than at any other time upon one’s level of affluence. Chicago’s very rich built and stocked capacious wine cellars well before 1919. Or, they established meaningful relationships with trustworthy bootleggers.  Chicago’s less wealthy citizens were not so blessed.  “Bathtub Gin” was literally made in the same place where one scrubbed off the day’s grime. A filthy room could accommodate a still or a primitive wine-making facility.  Drinks with names like the Hanky Panky, Bee’s Knees and the post-hangover Corpse Reviver were born.

NYE Prohibition Drinks

Prohibition-era cocktails: Truth in advertising.

While champagne was still the drink of choice on New Year’s Eve, gin began to grow in popularity due to its ready availability; unlike bourbon and better wines, gin required no aging.  In fact, a gin cocktail that has experienced a well-deserved revival has its roots in Chicago: The Southside Fizz.  A favorite of Al Capone and his pals, this drink offers a fresh, biting flavor:

NYE Southside Fizz

Chicago’s own Southside Fizz.

2 ounces gin
1 tablespoon simple syrup
Club soda
About ten fresh mint leaves, muddled into cocktail shaker
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Ice cubes
Place all into cocktail shaker, and shake for about ten seconds. Top with more mint leaves, and serve over a large ice cube.

Did Guy Lombardo, whose Auld Lang Syne will forever be associated with New Year’s Eve, ever play in Chicago? According to Lombardo’s niece, Gina Lombardo, the answer is a resounding yes. Per a December 31, 2012 USA Today article, Lombardo was a devoted friend and fan of the legendary Louis Armstrong. The two performed at Chicago’s Granada Cafe. Lombardo wanted to treat his friend to a meal after a performance, but the restaurant manager forbade the presence of Armstrong in his dining room. Lombardo immediately threatened to quit the act and take Armstrong with him.  Armstrong had his dinner.

Chicago partied hard on December 5, 1933, the day that Prohibition officially died. A grand age of celebrations began. Bars were packed, and the new age of drinking offered a host of celebratory options for Chicago’s great restaurants and hotels.  Names like the Empire Room, Boulevard Room, Chez Paree, and Panther Room evoke memories of the Big Band Era. For the coolest jazz, the North Side had its Green Mill.  The South Side claimed the Club DeLisa.

Although the Great Depression lingered through most of the 1930s, it was still possible to celebrate in style, as depicted by this elegant couple at the Drake Hotel.

NYE Drake 1940

A Lady of the Camellia – and Jungle Red nails.

As Chicago entered the World War II years, New Year’s Eve celebrations were a bit different. Rationing prevented ample supplies of many foods and beverages.  Many of the city’s young men were overseas, and those who were in town partied at the USO. Because of Chicago’s strong connections with the entertainment industry, the USO was often the hottest place in town on New Year’s Eve. Patriotic stars and singers went all out for the men and women in the military.



A marine and his queen ring in a New Year.

New Year’s celebrations of the 1950s and beyond need their own story. So for now, dress up, break out the bubbly, be of joy, hope and love. Make the resolutions after January 1. For now is a time to simply be happy.  See you next year.

NYE Cocktail Pendant

Champagne Cocktail pin by Oscar de la Renta.

Chicago’s Ultimate Window Dressing: Christmas at Marshall Field’s

Whether your family arrived in Chicago in the 1850s or last year, it’s almost certain you have one thing in common: A love for the windows at the store on State Street formerly known as Marshall Field’s.  Many of us who have been in this city for quite some time still can’t bring ourselves to refer to it as, well, the “M-Word.”  Although credit must be given to the New York-based retailer for preserving the Walnut Room, Frango Mints, and yes, the magical window displays. Getting to State Street, whether by car, El, bus, commuter train or on foot might be one of the few times each year that die-hard suburbanites or out-of-towners traipse into The City to engage in a beloved ritual. You know it will be crowded, that you will have to wait your turn to inch up to the windows, and that the line for the Walnut Room will be beastly. But somehow, you find the patience because after all, this is the holiday season, and this is one of the few experiences that you simply cannot capture online.

Great Tree, Walnut Room

The Great Tree in the Walnut Room, 2017

1940s Window

Marshall Field’s Christmas window, 1940s

It is hard to imagine a holiday season in which the windows and their bewitching designs did not exist. Were it not for technological developments that yielded large, durable plate glass, department stores would not have one of their most compelling marketing tools, let alone sufficient daylight to permeate their huge spaces. Not until the late 1800s did the manufacture of plate glass allow for a product that could provide for virtually wrap-around window displays. Once this became available, retailers realized the vast potential of windows and the space just inside them to promote the new, the stylish, the best they had to offer.

Marshall Field possessed the vision and work ethic behind what became one of the most successful department stores in the world. He also knew how to hire the best in the business. Harry Selfridge, the one-day owner of the legendary London emporium bearing his name, was a junior partner at Field’s when, according to the book, Give the Lady What She Wants, he became aware of the extraordinary window displays seen in a Creston, Iowa store.  Selfridge obtained the name of the designer, and one Arthur Fraser instantly became Marshall Field’s window genius.

At the time of this writing, red has re-emerged as an It Color for fall and winter fashion.  Red was also enjoying a surge in popularity in 1897, so much so that Fraser decided that six of Field’s windows would succumb to what was then called the “Red Epidemic.” Some windows featured voluptuous silks, others displayed decadent gowns. One window touted red laces, trims, wraps, hats, and – gasp – petticoats.  Shoppers were smitten, and Marshall Field’s windows became a merchandising miracle.

With a huge merchandising budget in hand, Fraser designed hundreds of the most spectacular window displays imaginable. When Field opened its new building in 1907, its windows became a focal point.

Early Christmas Shoppers
Shoppers enjoy the view at Field’s new store, ca. 1907
Field's Windows 1910

Fraser’s love for classic design shows in his windows, 1910

Field's Art Deco Holiday Windows, 1920s

Field’s Art Deco holiday windows

Field's Toy Department, 1930s

Field’s toy department, 1930s

Fraser understood the joyful impact of Christmas, especially on children. He started to showcase Field’s unprecedented variety of toys in the store’s windows. The displays worked wonders for sales, and a window-shopping tradition was born. The practice of holiday window dressing continued into the early 1940s when there was a significant change.  For the first time ever, Field’s created a unified holiday theme that extended through every window on State Street.  The windows told a story that would change every year.  And every year brought more crowds from all over the Midwest to see the mesmerizing displays. The creator of this marvelous YouTube video brings Field’s to life with scenes from Christmases past.

Crowds at Field's Windows, 1950s

Crowds gather to see Marshall Field’s windows, 1950s

Other retailers knew how to harness the magic of Christmas.  One of competitor Montgomery Ward’s advertising men dreamed up a certain character known as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.  Rudolph, and the catchy song that bears his name, became an instant classic.  Looking for its own Christmas mascot, Field’s marketing team created Uncle Mistletoe, and later, Aunt Holly. “Born” in 1946, Uncle Mistletoe was a huge hit with customers. He even had his own television show that ran during the holiday season for four years.  He hasn’t changed a bit, as seen by a 1953 Golden Book and his presence in the windows under Macy’s ownership.


Although Macy’s took ownership of Marshall Field’s in 2006, the chain has seen to it that the windows continue to fascinate Chicagoans. Enjoy more windows!

Field's Windows 1969

A young girl gazes at the windows in 1969.

Field's Windows 1940s

A 1940s family trims a tree.

Field's Windows

Dolls and reindeer create a winter fairyland.

Field's Windows 2017

A young lady writes a letter to Santa in Macy’s 2017 windows.


The Second Mrs. Field: The Fabulous Delia Caton

A Chicago belle from a wealthy founding family marries a dashing sportsman from another prominent family. While living on Prairie Avenue, once known as one of the city’s most enviable addresses, she becomes acquainted with her neighbor.  The gentleman is married to a woman of beauty, intelligence and strong character, but the marriage has been foundering for years. Divorce is unthinkable, given the social stature of the parties involved. The gentleman? Marshall Field.  The lady he came to love? Delia Spencer Caton.  That she was at least a close friend and eventual wife of the legendary retailer is impressive. The rest of her history, often ignored, is amazing.

Delia Caton

Delia Spencer Caton, by George Peter Alexander Healy

The portrait of Delia in her younger days reveals a lovely, self-confident woman wearing an exquisite and expensive gown. The dress seems to have been composed of many yards of ruched silk, with a lace-overlaid skirt. Delia’s hair is intricately curled in delicate ringlets. She wears earrings, a cameo choker and two gold bracelets. Her hands feature three rings. A nosegay is strategically placed at a low neckline. She is not thin, nor is she overweight.  Her face must have been the most intriguing element for Healy to capture, and those who had sat for him included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Daniel Webster, Franz Liszt and Henry Clay.

When Healy painted the portrait of Delia before his death in 1894, he saw a woman who was much more than her elaborate clothes and jewels. She may not have been an impeccable beauty, but she had a compelling, beguiling presence. She appears to have a bit of flesh below her chin. Healy recorded shadows below her large, expressive eyes. With her arms crossed before her as a gentle guard against those who might intrude, Delia looks like a substantial woman who has come to know quite a bit about life.  Shielded in her gorgeous clothing and jewelry, the perennial armor of a wealthy woman, she is forever beyond any basic needs, but she seems to inform the artist that there is so much more to her than her fantastic facade.

Delia Spencer married Arthur Caton in 1876.  Arthur has been described as a Chicago lawyer, sportsman and clubman.  The son of one of Illinois’ first state Supreme Court justices, Arthur studied and practiced law.  Having inherited his father’s huge estate in Ottawa, Illinois, Arthur’s love for golf, as well as breeding horses and dogs, overcame any obsession he might have had for poring over statutes and dealing with demanding clients. That he was known as a “clubman” might suggest that he may have spent more than a few long nights at the Chicago Club toasting to his fortune.

Marshall Field, on the other hand, possessed little more than a silent yet pervasive brilliance that led him to become one of the richest men in the world.  He was so reticent that, according to Arthur Meeker’s wonderful book, Chicago With Love, he was reluctant to make a speech, as was expected, at one of the Catons’ grand dinner parties. When Delia realized her beloved friend was in danger of committing a social faux pas, she promptly “sprang to her feet and said: ‘Mr. Field just wants me to remind you that the White Sale starts next Monday’.”  What an amazing display of social panache, empathy and humor!

Arthur Meeker was the son of one of the first principals of Chicago’s Armour & Company. Although he did not choose to follow his father in the hugely successful meatpacking organization, he became a steadfast chronicler of society.  His legacy includes memoirs of his parents’ vibrant social life, and of their friendship with Delia. Meeker indicated that the Catons had no children: “Always an advantage to an aspiring leader of fashion – and so were able to devote all their time and money to entertaining their friends in their big, elaborate house on Calumet Avenue.” He that his mother “always declared that nobody ever gave such wonderful parties as Delia Caton. Their success was certainly principally due to the astuteness and personal charm of the hostess.”

Given the chilly atmosphere in his own home, Marshall Field must have been driven like an impeccably attired moth to the light and levity at Delia’s events.  Meeker states, “I do not know when Marshall Field first became intimate with the Catons. What is sure is that he fell in love with his friend’s wife years before he was able to marry her. Unhappy at home, he needed just such a resourceful and sympathetic woman in his life as Delia Caton.”  Writing in the early 1950s, Meeker went on to say, “Nobody now alive can tell whether she loved him in return. The gossip of the day cast the worst light on the affair; it was even absurdly asserted that an underground tunnel connected the Caton house on Calumet with the Field house on Prairie, which was just in front of it, or just back.”

Meeker confirmed the restrictive social codes of the day when he wrote, “In the Nineties, divorce was unthinkable: they had to wait for him (Arthur Caton) to die, which, distressingly, he didn’t do until 1904.”  Even the circumstances of Caton’s death are open to interpretation. It was reported he died suddenly, unexpectedly, at a New York hotel. Rumors of suicide abounded. In any case, Delia was free to marry the now-widowed Marshall Field.

Delia Field

Delia Caton Field, around the time of her marriage to Marshall Field

The marriage license acquired in London in 1905 indicated that Delia was 46 years old, 24 years younger than her 70-year-old fiance.  The pair married at St. Margaret’s Church in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony was quiet, and attended only by a few friends.  The newlyweds’ happiness was short-lived.  Marshall Field died in 1906. He was playing golf in a foursome that included his nephew, his secretary, and Robert Todd Lincoln and shortly after succumbed to pneumonia. It is said that the shooting death of his son, Marshall Field, Jr., allegedly at the fabled Everleigh Club brothel, also contributed to his demise.  Field’s estate was valued at $65 million. After bequests to his daughter, grandchildren and the Field Columbian Museum, Delia was to receive a tax-exempt $1 million, as well as the Field mansion on Prairie Avenue.  Lest it be interpreted that this comparatively small portion of her husband’s estate would leave her wanting, Delia also inherited from her husband and father-in-law’s substantial estates.

Unexpectedly single, Delia was free to pursue her own joys. She left Chicago, and purchased an Italianate mansion in Washington, D.C. that came to be known as the Pink Palace.  There, she hosted one of the earlier salons of the Nation’s Capital, taking her flair for entertaining to even higher social levels.

Pink Palace Washington DC

Delia Caton Field’s “Pink Palace”

That Delia continued to exert her vitality in later years is evidenced by this portrait, provided courtesy of Chicago’s Newberry Library.  Although she is clearly well beyond middle age, she is presented as an attractive, even sexual being. In contrast to the Healy portrait of her in her youth, Delia now invites the view to come closer.  Her hands are no longer crossed before her waist. Instead, one hand appears to caress her neck while the other dangles casually.  She plays with a long string of pearls that in an earlier age would be arranged perfectly over her bodice. Part of her left breast is scandalously exposed. Delia’s hair shows touches of gray, and her face is married by a few wrinkles. However, her knowing gaze is unchanged.  She continues to be a vibrant, highly attractive woman.

Delia Caton Field, Older Years

Delia in later years.

Delia was not just any well-bred, wealthy lady of her time. She had lived long and well. She had endured an imperfect marriage, with her entertainments being her greatest joy. When she finally married the man who had adored her for years, she became his widow within months. Delia died in 1937, leaving an underappreciated legacy as one of Chicago’s greatest social luminaries.


















The Other Mrs. Field (and she didn’t make cookies)

From his ascent from store clerk to one of the richest men in Chicago, Marshall Field chose as his first wife Nannie Douglas Scott, the bright, vivacious daughter of a prosperous Ohio iron master.  She was visiting Chicago when, through friends, she became acquainted with the ambitious yet shy young merchant. She charmed the quiet, methodical man, who eventually went out of his exacting routine to court her during her stay. As Nannie boarded the train back to Ohio, the normally reticent Field, who approached every aspect of his life with succinct trepidation, impetuously jumped aboard the rail car. As the train puffed, lurched and chugged into life on the iron rails, Field stumbled out a proposal of marriage to Nannie.  Although shocked by her beau’s impulsive act, particularly in front of the other passengers, she immediately accepted. His bravado then extinguished, Field disembarked at the train’s next stop, and walked back to work.

Marshall and Nannie Field bore three children. Their first, Louis, died in infancy. Marshall, Jr. and Ethel were raised with the trappings of Gilded Age wealth, living in a Richard Morris Hunt-designed mansion at 1905 Prairie Avenue.  The residence, the first in Chicago to be completely wired for electricity, set Marshall Field back some $2 million in 1876. In 2017 dollars, constructing the home would have cost nearly $44 million.

Nannie Field

Nannie Field with children Marshall, Jr. and Ethel

Over the years, Marshall and Nannie Field became social luminaries. Philanthropists. Legendary entertainers.  Models of propriety.  One problem, however. They just did not get along with each other. It is not known when or why the marriage began its descent from the 28 Shop to the Bargain Basement (neither of which were technically part of the store during those times).  However, according to the juicy book, Chicago by Stephen Longstreet, it soon became common knowledge that “Mrs. Field led Marshall Field a hell-on-earth life.”  Longstreet wrote, “Their loud, excruciatingly shrill battling scenes (even before the servants) were really something no good society would expect of them; so violent, such malice. The Fields began to spend increasing amounts of time away from each other. Nannie developed a fondness for the South of France. Apart from occasional buying trips abroad, Marshall spent most of his time in Chicago, running his store and tending to his charities.”  A divorce would have been unthinkable, especially for one of Chicago’s most stellar couples.  A separation, necessitated by social obligations and propelled by wanderlust? Much more acceptable.

While Nannie was figuratively or literally away, Marshall began to enjoy the company of his neighbors. One neighbor in particular caught his eye: Mrs. Delia Spencer Caton, a beautiful, statuesque woman whose kind, outgoing nature made her a favorite society hostess. The daughter of one of the founders of the Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett hardware firm, Delia was married to Arthur J. Caton, whose father, John Dean Caton, who was one of Illinois’ first chief justices of the state Supreme Court.

Delia Caton

Delia Spencer Caton

The Catons were one of Chicago’s most distinguished pioneering families. Early in his legal career, John Caton opened Chicago’s first law office 1833. He is said to have been the trier of the new Cook County’s first-ever jury matter. As a Supreme Court justice, Judge Caton heard many cases presented by a young attorney named Abraham Lincoln. Of Lincoln, Judge Caton said, “The most punctilious honor ever marked his professional life. His frankness and candor were two great elements in his character, which contributed to his professional success.”

Judge Caton eventually purchased several hundred acres in Ottawa, Illinois and his three children spent many of their early years at the family’s farm. Judge and Mrs. Caton built a 29-room Queen Anne home on the property.  The home served as a place of enjoyment to the extended Caton family, as well as the prominent Sherill family, of which Mrs. Caton was a member. The beloved home passed to his only son, Arthur, when the judge died in 1895.

Caton House, Ottawa

The Caton residence, Ottawa, Illinois

A fascinating 2005 book entitled The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge includes diary entries from Catherine, the niece of Delia Caton Field. The entries which range from 1902 through 1908, include many references to Delia and her husband. Catherine wrote, “Aunt Dell kept up the traditions of the house, even to the lavish Caton breakfasts, and the Ottawa potatoes — sliced fried potatoes in rich cream. We drove through the parks in an old buckboard or a buggy, the deer scattering before us. In Judge Caton’s time there had been three parks, the first devoted to domestic deer, the second to another species, and the third to elk. I remember as a little girl peeping though a small opening in the high stockade fence to see the elk leap a deep ravine. Long before these happy days in the Ottawa of 1903 the elk had been sold by Uncle Arthur to the zoo in Hamburg, Germany.”

Arthur Caton was educated in the law, but spent a considerable amount of time engaging in his interests, which included golf, polo and horse racing. He bred horses and dogs in his Ottawa farm.

Delia Caton Field 2


It is not known when Marshall and Delia became more than friends. There were rumors that they were lovers for nearly 30 years.  According to The Chronicle of Catherine Eddy Beveridge, “They traveled together, socialized together, and moved in the same social circles … Field’s relationship with Delia was so intimate that the existence of a subterranean tunnel connecting their homes was rumored.”  Delia sometimes traveled to Europe with Marshall Field without Arthur accompanying them. Per The Chronicle, “So often a haven for Americans seeking greater sexual freedom and privacy, Europe spared Delia, Mr. Field, and Arthur invasive scrutiny.” Chicago author Longstreet sought information about the liaison from many sources. One described the liaison as “lechery without levity.”

Delia Caton Field 1

Delia Caton in an exotic tableau.

When Nannie Field died in France in 1896, Marshall was finally freed from his tempestuous marriage. Delia was still wed, but that was apparently a small impediment to the affair. There was also talk that Arthur Caton was aware of his wife’s infidelity and he too may have sought company outside of the marriage.  Sadly, his health began to decline when he was in his early 50s.  He died November 18, 1904, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The cause of death was inexact. Some said he succumbed to liver failure. Others ascribed the demise to peritonitis. However, according to an Ottawa, Illinois Times story, Arthur may have committed suicide after having played second fiddle to Marshall Field for much too long.

Arthur Caton Obit 4 11-19-04

The Duchess, the Devil, the Innkeeper’s Wife


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May 1, 1893:   It was good to be king.  Or, in this case, it was good to be Daniel Burnham, who chaired the Board of Architects. On this day, a not remotely little plan he conceived three years prior was about to become electrifyingly real.  He and a few of his Prairie Avenue neighbors, Marshall Field, George Pullman and Philip D. Armour, had organized the world’s biggest block party: The Columbian Exposition. Of course, the friends had to pass the hat to get a little startup money. By the time Chicago had prevailed over New York, Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, the Prairie Avenue luminaries and their contemporaries had raised $10 million to host the Exposition in their back yard.

By May 1, the costs had exceeded $28 million.  Burnham’s treasured business partner, John Wellborn Root, had suddenly died early in the planning stages. Famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted transformed some 600 acres of ungainly, swampy grounds in Jackson Park into a fairyland, complete with stately promenades and graceful waterways. A magical Beaux-Arts city of elaborate buildings clad in snow-white stucco slowly rose from the imaginations of Burnham and his team of the world’s most distinguished architects.  Standing in stark contrast to the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago that had not fully recovered from the 1871 fire, the White City, as it came to be known, would captivate the millions who passed through it. By the time construction was complete, the 14 principal structures contained 63 million square feet of floor space.

Aerial View, World's Fair

Aerial view of the 1893 Columbian Exposition

On May 1, Opening Day, President Grover Cleveland arrived to do the honors with Mayor Carter Harrison before more than 100,000 spectators.  He flipped a lever, thus awakening the dynamos that would power the spectacle. Some 120,000 light bulbs began to glow.  The Fair literally burst into a most luminous life.

World's Fair at Night

All aglow: The World’s Fair at night.

During the six months of the Fair’s existence, some 27 million people came to visit. That translates to roughly 25% of the U.S. population at the time. This is an amazing statistic given the relative scarcity of transportation and the nation’s predominantly agrarian culture. But come they did: on the New York Central, the Michigan Central, and the Santa Fe. They arrived on horseback, by coach. Most stayed for a few days, marveled at the exhibits, discovered Juicy Fruit gum, gobbled the new dessert treat, “brownies,” purchased souvenirs and went home.

Some visitors came from far away. Chicago considered itself honored to host dignitaries from all over the globe. One of the most prominent groups affiliated with the Columbian Exposition was the Board of Lady Managers, one of the earliest female organizations officially recognized by the U.S. Congress. Chairing the Board was Bertha Palmer, half of one of Chicago’s first Power Couples. A well-educated lady of the South, she proved to be a brilliant match for department store and hotel magnate Potter Palmer. She was revered in her own town, but her star was just beginning to shine on a worldwide basis.  And so it came to be that she received not just ingratitude but insults from one of her prized guests at the Fair.

Chicago society was clearly flexing its collective muscle when it secured one Maria Eulalia Francisca de Asis Margarita Roberta Isabel Francisca de Paula Cristina Maria de la Piedad, otherwise known as the Infanta Eulalia of Spain, as a visitor.  What better way to commemorate the good judgment of Queen Isabella to send Columbus on a voyage than to have a present-day representative of the Spanish crown show up at your block party?


Feeling the joy: The Infanta Eulalia.

Bertha Palmer 2

The “Innkeeper’s Wife.”

The denizens of Prairie Avenue and Chicago’s other elite enclaves went beyond their already lavish entertainment machinations to wow the Spanish royal. However, the Infanta was famously not impressed with the Windy City’s luminaries.  While Chicagoans were accustomed to snubs, they did not take kindly to Eulalia’s catty reference to Mrs. Palmer as a “lowly innkeeper’s wife.”  While the Infanta would write socially insightful books later in life, she was not at her best in 1893.  Bertha Palmer was too graceful at the time to have publicly  commented upon the Infanta’s having married her first cousin, a union that would have inspired present-day critics with whoops of infantile glee.

Mrs. Palmer would exact revenge when on a visit to Paris some years later, she was invited to a reception for the haughty Eulalia.  According to Stephen Longstreet’s wickedly funny book, Chicago, Mrs. Palmer declined to attend, reportedly saying, “I cannot meet this bibulous representative of a degenerate monarchy.”

Speaking of degeneracy, another element of the Fair piqued the ire of Mrs. Palmer even more than the haughty Spaniard: The Streets of Cairo. This most successful exhibit on the Midway featured Javanese women capable of never-before seen abdominal gyrations. In other words, belly dancers made their wiggly debut in Chicago, delighting millions of Fair attendees. Mrs. Palmer was infuriated, but the concession was wildly popular.

Beyond the dreamlike ambience of the White City, even beyond the views from the new Ferris Wheel, was a killer who would thrive in the crowds and prey upon young female visitors. The best way to learn about the dark side of the gleaming Fair is to read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City.  Rumored to be a future Martin Scorsese film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, its protagonist is, for obvious reasons, Daniel Burnham. Until the publication of Devil, few knew much about the antagonist, H.H. Holmes. A New Hampshire ne’er do well who came to Chicago to pursue a career in dubious medicine, Holmes bought himself a building in Englewood, near the fairgrounds. He dubbed the structure “The World’s Fair Hotel.”  Holmes operated a pharmacy on the ground floor, but the upstairs rooms contained architectural features that would have astounded even Burnham. Holmes configured the rooms to incorporate secret passages, tiny spaces, and a chute that would swoop dead bodies to the basement with its conveniently installed kiln.

Holmes appeared to be a reasonably good-looking man, so much so that he was engaged to at least two women. He tortured and slaughtered countless more. Thanks to the kiln, it was easy to dispose of them.  In addition to having committed murder, Holmes engaged in insurance fraud. While involved in the latter malfeasance, he was arrested in Philadelphia. Detective Frank Geyer, while investigating Holme’s financial crimes, dug a bit deeper into Holmes’ past. Geyer was horrified to discover that the imprisoned Holmes was also a mass murderer. Some estimates place the number of Holmes’ victims at 200. The odious Holmes was hanged on May 7, 1896 in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison.

By the time the Fair ended on October 31, 1893, Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated by a would-be seeker of office. A smallpox epidemic swept through Chicago.  And, shortly after the visitors had gone home, the Ferris Wheel and midway disassembled, the last remnants of popcorn swept off the streets, the Fair caught fire.  Many of the main buildings were destroyed.  Only one of the glorious structures still stands: The Palace of Fine Arts, although today it is known as the Museum of Science and Industry.  The only building constructed with every known method of fireproofing, to protect precious works of art, withstood the flames of 1893.  When Chicago played host to the World’s Fair in 1933, the Museum had been reclad in Indiana limestone. This imposing yet beloved structure will serve as long as time permits as a reminder of the long-gone White City.




They Made No Little Plans: The Influence of Prairie Avenue on the 1893 Columbian Exposition – Part II

Almost 20 years after it was annihilated in the Fire of 1871, Chicago had achieved the impossible: Its civic leaders fought, finagled and funded it to become the host city of the 1893 World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition. With the influence of Prairie Avenue residents Marshall Field and Philip D. Armour, as well as Cyrus McCormick, Charles T. Yerkes and Gustavus Swift, Chicago prevailed over Washington, D.C., St. Louis, and archrival New York City.  Chicago’s wealthy and powerful helped to confer world-class status upon their city.

Now, they had to build the Fair so the world would come.

The designated location of this stupendous event left many in disbelief. There was no room within the city itself to construct a fairground of such magnitude. Chicago had just risen from the ashes not long ago, and no one at the time could have anticipated the city would one day be in the running for a World’s Fair.  Additionally, the city had grown at such a fast pace that traffic congestion plagued the downtown area.

The place deemed to have the most potential for a World’s Fair sat some seven miles to the south of Chicago’s business center. To the east was the shore of Lake Michigan. To the west was a gloomy series of bogs and marshes that would have to be drained. The landscape, known as Jackson Park, seemed devoid of inspiration and bucolic charm.

Jackson Park Before the Fair

Jackson Park before 1891

Prairie Avenue resident Daniel Hudson Burnham had been designated as Director of Works for the Columbian Exposition.  Since having designed a home on Prairie Avenue for John B. Sherman early in his career, Burnham had come a long way. He had become acquainted with and then married Sherman’s daughter. With his new wife, Burnham moved into the residence he created for his client. He designed four other homes on Prairie Avenue for prominent Chicagoans.  He partnered with John Wellborn Root, a Georgia native with a genius for architecture.  The firm of Burnham & Root then designed the Montauk Block, an engineering marvel that stood rock-solid in its bed of concrete and steel.  This revolutionary foundation was unheard of at the time, and Burnham and Root pioneered it in Chicago.

Burnham and Root

Daniel Burnham and John Root, Chicago’s legendary architectural partnership

John Root was ensconced in planning the World’s Fair designs with his partner. He had also summoned a number of the foremost architects of the United States to participate. On January 15, 1891, the 41-year-old architect had welcomed at his home several East Coast architects who were working with him on the Fair. Later that night, he developed severe chills that quickly led to full-blown pneumonia. Despite the efforts of the doctor who tried everything within his power to save his famous patient, Root died within hours. According to the Chicago Tribune, Burnham is said to have yelled, “Damn, damn, damn!” upon hearing of the untimely death of his business partner and dearest friend.

Before Root’s death, he helped assemble a dream team of architectural talent, including Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, Stanford White, William Mead, William LeBaron Jenney, Henry Ives Cobb, Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Solon Beman. Philanthropist Bertha Palmer chaired the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, and insisted that the Woman’s Building be designed by a woman. Sophia Hayden of Boston won the commission. Frederick Law Olmsted, responsible for the gracious serenity of New York’s Central Park, was called in to create a wonderland out of a South Side marsh.

Woman's Building Poster

Poster for the Woman’s Building

In what must have been a nearly impossible effort to achieve consensus, the Who’s Who of architects agreed upon a neoclassical design for most of the Fair’s structures. With their domes, columns and legions of arches, the buildings would reflect the loftiest of ancient ideals, with what was then considered representative of Greco-Roman architecture.  Marching adjacent to each other along a highly stylized – and newly created – lagoon, would be structures representing Administration, Agriculture, Electricity, Horticulture, Fisheries, Machineries, Manufactures/Liberal Arts, Mining, and Transportation. All were painted in the same color, giving the Fair the nickname of the White City. An army of seven thousand men labored for two years on creating a fairyland from a bog, and making dreamlike temples rise from it. The Fair would boast a Peristyle collonade, Court of Honor and a Grand Basin. A statue of The Republic stood watch in regal style over the event. A fantastic fountain conceived by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies was believed to have been the largest in the world.

Columbian Exposition

Court of Honor

Culture and civilization aside, the Fair needed other attractions to generate visitors of every level of society. The Midway Plaisance served as an antidote to the intensely idealistic inspirations propounded by the main buildings. Built on the Midway was a huge, astounding wheel that carried passengers as it slowly turned on an axis. George Washington Gale Ferris’ incredible creation generated revenue from some 1.4 million passengers during the nearly four months it was in operation. Other gyrating amusements, to the consternation of the Fair’s organizers, drew crowds: belly dancers were one of the Midway’s most popular exhibits.

First Ferris Wheel

The Ferris Wheel at the Columbian Exposition

With the buildings and exhibits in place, the Fair was ready to welcome visitors. Who visited? Who was inspired? Who was murdered? All in the next installation.


They Made No Little Plans: The Influence of Prairie Avenue on the 1893 Columbian Exposition – Part I


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Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.


Daniel H. Burnham, circa 1890

This timeless quote is from Daniel Hudson Burnham, the legendary Chicago architect and urban planner.  Burnham is the author of the Plan of Chicago, a masterful 1909 text that, among other things, helped ensure that Chicago’s miles of lakefront were not only beautiful, but functional and accessible to all. Burnham was also the visionary behind an event that would establish Chicago once and for all as a world-class city, commercial juggernaut, and cultural mecca: The 1893 Columbian Exhibition.


John B Sherman Home, 2100 S. Prairie Avenue

Like many remarkable Chicagoans profiled in this series, Daniel Burnham was a denizen of Prairie Avenue. One of his first architectural commissions, shared with business partner John Wellborn Root, was a grand home at 2100 S. Prairie Avenue. The fledgling firm of Burnham & Root designed the mansion for John B. Sherman, one of the founding members of the Union Stockyards. While the home was under construction, Burnham met and married Sherman’s daughter, Margaret. At the outset of what would be a long and happy union, Burnham came to live in the house he built for his eventual father-in-law.  Sherman became an avid supporter of Burnham & Root, using his many business connections to generate commissions for the growing firm.

During his time on Prairie Avenue, Burnham made many friendships with Chicago’s elite. His ties to the city’s most wealthy and powerful citizens gave him an edge when the city vied for a most prestigious prize: Hosting a World’s Fair.

There has not been a World’s Fair in the United States since 1984. The last Fair, hosted in New Orleans, entered into bankruptcy before its six-month run ended. More than one generation of Americans has never attended, and perhaps never will attend, a World’s Fair. Remnants of 20th century Fairs, such as New York’s Unisphere and Seattle’s Space Needle, are camp icons. It is easy to forget that World’s Fairs were once huge, heavily attended spectacles, showcasing technological innovation and, if the backers were lucky, generating significant profits.

The first World’s Fairs were mainly industrial exhibitions. Between 1798 and 1851, Paris hosted eleven such shows. Other countries began to take notice. Always one to engage in one-upmanship with its rival nation, Great Britain decided to host its first exhibition on a scale that would dwarf anything France had thus far accomplished. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole organized the bombastically titled Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.  The Great Exhibition, now recognized as the first World’s Fair, was housed in a fantastic mega-greenhouse that came to be known as the Crystal Palace. The 1851 London-based event helped to solidify awareness of Britain’s industrial and technological leadership. It was also hugely profitable: Its surplus of what would be more than $22 million in 2017 was used to build several museums, including the Victoria and Albert.  There was even enough leftover money for a trust to fund industrial research grants. The trust is still in existence.

Crystal Palace, London

The London Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace

The United States did not host a major exposition until 1876, when the Centennial Exposition opened in Philadelphia.  Four years in the making, the event contained some 200 buildings and drew more than 10 million visitors. While it did not achieve a profit for its investors, the Centennial Exposition established the U.S. as a formidable source of manufactured goods. It ultimately enhanced the nation’s viability by helping to spur the growth of exports.

Stereopticon View Memorial Hall Philadelphia

Stereopticon image of Memorial Hall, Centennial Exhibition, 1876.

Following the success of Philadelphia, it was time for another World’s Fair.  This one would commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New York and Chicago initially vied to host the exhibition. It soon became evident in the timeless “pay to play” scheme of things that only New York and Chicago possessed the necessary financial muscle to host an event of such magnitude. Although Chicago was only some 20 years beyond the 1871 fire that devastated the city, its resurrection was rapid and spectacular. It was, defiant of any odds, a formidable contender. The eyes of the nation focused upon the two great cities: New York, America’s locus of power, longtime financial center, versus aggressive, new-monied Chicago. The U.S. Congress would be the final decision-maker of the Exposition’s venue.

In New York’s corner stood deep-pocketed giants such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan and William W. Astor. In Chicago, however, a few Prairie Avenue neighbors were not about to back down: In an early display of refusal to concede to Second City status,  Philip D. Armour and Marshall Field used their considerable wealth to put Chicago forward. Other major players included Gustavus Swift, Cyrus McCormick and Charles T. Yerkes. Chicagoans of every income level pledged whatever they could to ensure their town would be the next location of a World’s Fair.  New York was still the predicted host until a last-minute funding surge of several million dollars orchestrated by Chicago financier Lyman Gage turned the tables. Congress decided: Chicago would host the 1893 Columbian Exhibition.  And Daniel Burnham would have some very big plans to make.

To be continued.


Prairie Avenue’s Best Kids’ Party Ever: The Imaginary Birth of Mrs. Field’s Mikado Ball

For those of you who are parents, you no doubt have among your acquaintances that one family that is compelled not just to raise the bar on the “Wow” factor of their children’s parties, but to blast that old bar into the stratosphere. You may think the Best Kids’ Party Ever competition is a relatively new phenomenon.  You would be wrong.

For this entry, we are going to take a bit of creative liberty as to how a certain Prairie Avenue family decided to put on the Kids’ Party of All Kids’ Parties.  The cast of characters includes Marshall Field; Nannie Field, his wife; Marshall Field, Jr., age 17; Ethel Field, age 12; and their cook.


Marshall Field Residence at 1905 S. Prairie Avenue

Sometime in the autumn of 1885 in the parlor of 1905 South Prairie Avenue:

Mr. Field (because it is unimaginable that anyone, even his wife, would have called him “Marshall”): “Well, Nannie, have you started making the guest list for the children’s tree-trimming party?”

Nannie:  “Um, about that, dear.  You do know we have been having tree-trimming parties since Junior and Ethel were toddlers.  Don’t you think it’s getting a bit old?”

Nannie Field

Nannie Field with children Marshall, Jr. and Ethel

Mr. Field: “Why, no. Everybody likes tree-trimming parties. The smell of fresh pine, the gingerbread houses, the hot chocolate, Christmas carols, the butler ready to clean up the broken ornaments. What else could we want? And besides, even if we served nothing but cold tea, all the neighbors would send their kids anyway. And we could serve that candy that cook of yours, what’s her name, Frances, makes.  Fran, go get us some of those mints.”

Cook: “Fran go do this. Fran go do that. If I had a buck for every time I heard “Fran go,” I’d be rich.”

Nannie: “Father, I think we need to shake things up a bit this year.”

Mr. Field: “Okay, this year, we’ll go all out: I’ll send the butler to the Jewel. He can pick up Armour hot dogs, burgers, Jay’s Potato Chips, Berghoff Beer, Green River, and Twinkies.”

Nannie: Turns pale.  “Nothing against old Philip D., dear, but have you read The Jungle?”

Mr. Field: “Then how about we get Portillo’s to cater? Italian Beef and Cake Shakes? Or Giordano’s Deep-dish pizza? Uno? Malnati’s?”

Nannie: Sniffs in high indignation.

Mr. Field: “So we get a clown. While walking to the store today, I saw this performer on State Street. Orange hair and a big red nose.  A real bozo.”

Junior: “Ah, no, Pops. Television won’t be around for about 50 years, and then, there’s that John Wayne Gacy thing.”

Mr. Field: “Right-o, my boy.  No clown.  So then we’ll have sleigh rides. We’ll rent a bowling alley.”

Ethel: “Daddy, noooooo!”

Mr. Field: “We can book that band, the Rolling Stones.”

Junior: “What, they’re still performing at their age?”

Mr. Field: “Maybe I’ll ask that bright young Mr. Selfridge at the store to come over and decorate our windows.  Put a plastic Santa, a leg lamp, and a statue of my Uncle Mistletoe right here in this window facing Prairie.”

Nannie: “Decorate windows? That’s absurd! Whoever heard of such a ridiculous idea? Who in their right mind would be remotely interested in looking at the Field’s windows?”

Mr. Field: “Uh, yes, dear.”

Nannie: “This year, I’m thinking opera.”

Junior: “What the …”

Mr. Field: “You mean we get a few of Teddy Thomas’ students over at Orchestra Hall to come over so they can come over and warble a few arias? Splendid idea.”

Nannie: “Not exactly.  Remember when we saw The Mikado last month?”

Mr. Field: “Um, maybe. I slept through most of it.”

Nannie: “Well, that’s just what you get, Mister. You’re going to see it again.”

Mr. Field. “Okay, if I must.”

Nannie: “The costumes. The sets. The works. The stage lights. The orchestra.”

Mr. Field: “Shall I order tickets?”

Nannie: “Tickets, schmickets.  We’re having it here.”

Mr. Field: “Um, what?”

Nannie: “The Mikado. We’re going to  have it here, right in this house. The whole shebang.”

Mr. Field: Gulps. “But Nannie…”

Nannie:  “Nannie nothing. I’m tired of that Bertha Palmer upstaging us with her wacky paintings she keeps buying from those myopic French guys. And what’s with George Pullman dedicating an entire town to himself?  And Philip Armour getting into all the best restaurants in town by calling himself the Sausage King of Chicago. No. It’s time we do something. We’re going to have the party to end all parties!”

Mr. Field:  “I need a drink.”

Junior: “Hey, great idea, Pops. Let’s net some butterflies at the Everleigh Club!”

Mr. Field:  “Watch it, buster.”

And so it came to pass that Nannie Field organized what would be known as the most spectacular children’s party Chicago has ever seen. Her husband spent an estimated $75,000.00 (more than $2 million in today’s dollars) on what became known as the Mikado Ball. It is not known as to whether Nannie used an event planner, but the January 1, 1886 party would raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded of socialites.

The Chicago Tribune gushed, “There was such a bewildering mass of rich and costly stuffs that no detailed description could well be given.” Let’s start with the spotlights. Yes, spotlights. This was when incandescent lighting was still considered exotic and dangerous.  The Fields had the lights placed along several blocks of Prairie Avenue so the guests could make their way.

Once people had arrived at the mansion, they realized with delight that it had been transformed into a Japanese palace. Where the main entrance used to be was a huge copy of one of the sets from the original New York production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved Mikado. Inside, the Johnny Hand Orchestra played from a miniature pagoda.  Costly doors inside the home were removed and replaced with beaded curtains. Electric lights glowed inside silk lanterns. Satin tapestries covered the walls.  Bronze and porcelain sculptures were ordered especially for the event.

Having previously established that no Chicago eateries would cut the mustard for this occasion, Nannie had delicacies shipped via specially equipped railroad cars from New York’s exclusive Sherry’s restaurant. Silver and china from the legendary establishment accompanied the food. The Fields commissioned British artist Paul Whistler to design the party favors, which included peacock feathers, satin sashes, silk flowers and miniature lanterns. Little feet trod across antique Oriental rugs. Live Japanese cherry trees in full bloom graced the ballroom.

Mikado Ball 1

Alice Keith, Ethel Field and Florence Otis

She built it, and they came: Some 400 teens and children of the nation’s elite arrived not just from Chicago but from New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati.  In an age when the term “politically correct” had not yet entered the American lexicon, the Chicago Tribune described the attendees as “Happy Young Japs.” Dressed in kimonos, obi sashes, and clasping fans, the children danced, ate, and were photographed in their Far Eastern finery.  In taking pictures of the guests, society photographer Steffens performed a feat which, in 1886, was virtually unheard of: He used his camera at night.  No daylight, no studio.  He took photographs in a darkened house, and he developed them. And the results were beautiful.

Parents were also welcome at the fete, but many declined to attend and instead presented at the more sedate reception Nannie held the following afternoon.  Immediately after the reception, the decorations came down, the mansion’s doors were reattached to their hinges, and the Field residence looked the way it did just a few days ago.  Was it all a dream?  Or was it the kids’ party for the ages?



The Other Ladies of Prairie Avenue

With its population skyrocketing in the 19th century, Chicago became home to many professions, including the world’s oldest one. As Chicago was still in many ways a frontier town, it was fairly easy for all kinds of vice to flourish in the face of law enforcement.  Chicago’s Levee District, with boundaries from Eighteenth Street to the north, Twenty-second Street to the South, Wabash to the east and Clark to the West, offered dubious pleasures of every imaginable variety.

The Levee District was several blocks away from Prairie Avenue, home for some 25 years to Chicago’s elite. While the captains of business would not have frequented places with names like the “Bucket of Blood” or engaged temporary residence at the hotels on “Bedbug Row,” some of them had a fancy for other establishments conveniently located at the southern end of the District.

Levee District Map

Chicago’s Levee District encroached precariously toward Prairie Avenue.

The Everleigh Club and Vic Shaw’s “resort” were the preeminent brothels in Chicago, with Shaw’s business existing on Prairie Avenue for a time. The Everleigh Club was founded by sisters Ada and Minna Simms from Kentucky. Both married, both badly. Finding themselves newly divorced, they were fortunate to have inherited some $35,000.00. They established a bordello in Omaha, and doubled their investment within two years. Chicago loomed ahead for the ladies, who decided that an upper-crust sporting house was exactly what was missing in the rowdy Levee District. They changed their surname to Everleigh as an affectionate nod to their grandmother, who would close her correspondence with “Everly yours.” It is probably a good thing the grandmother was everly departed when Ada and Minna founded their houses of ill repute.

Minna Everleigh


Ada Everleigh










Minna Everleigh

It was only in business for eleven years, but the Everleigh Club became a thing of wonder, perhaps even for those who detested prostitution. Located at 2131-2133 South Dearborn, the Club occupied two mansions. The sisters fitted the 50 rooms with exotic themes, such as the Japanese Throne Room, the Mirror Room, the Silver Parlor, and the Grand Ballroom. A piano purportedly worth $15,000.00 served as an alternate source of entertainment. A full cooking staff prepared gourmet meals for the Pullman Palace Buffet. A bottle of champagne cost $12 in an era when an entire meal could be had for fifty cents.  Beer and hard liquor were not on the menu, which seems rather undemocratic when the entrance fee alone was $50.00.  Libations and ladies would set a patron back at least another $50.00. Even with hefty payoffs to the police, the Everleigh sisters were capable of netting some $120,000.00 per year.


The Everleigh Club, in early days (left) and prior to its 1933 demolition (right).

The 30 ladies of the Everleigh Club were referred to as “butterflies,” and Ada and Minna accepted no mere moths. Girls had to be at least 18 years of age, have an attractive face and figure, and it was necessary that they wore evening gowns exceptionally well. The girls had regular physical examinations, and were required to be conversant and reasonably well-read. The club became famous for the rakish custom of drinking champagne from a slipper when, during a special performance for client Prince Heinrich of Prussia, one of his aides poured the bubbly into the fallen shoe of a fallen woman.

E Club Music Room

Everleigh Club’s Music Room

Other famed clients of the “resort” included actor John Barrymore,  authors Ring Lardner and Theodore Dreiser, and Marshall Field, Jr. Rumors persisted for years that the young Field had been shot at the Everleigh Club, and then carried back to his Prairie Avenue mansion.  A 1905 edition of the Chicago Tribune described how servants heard a gunshot, and that Field managed to call for help. Despite the aid of Chicago’s best surgeons, Field died of what the Tribune termed an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot wound.  Six weeks later, Marshall Field, Sr. was dead.  He had been in failing health for quite some time, and the untimely passing of his son no doubt hastened his demise.

Everleigh Club Blue Bedroom

If these walls could talk: The Blue Bedroom at the Everleigh Club.

The “parlor house” death of another prominent Chicagoan, Nat Moore, was as wild as his last night alive.  The 26-year-old married man was the son of the president of the Rock Island Railroad.  According to a 1949 Chicago Tribune story, Moore was known to inject himself with a 14-karat gold hypodermic needle. On one of his many nights seeking pleasure at the Levee, he first visited the Everleigh sisters, and netted one of his favorite butterflies, Katie. Young Moore, having partaken of drugs and alcohol before his arrival, was soon asked to leave the dignified establishment. Katie was infuriated, especially when the Everleigh sisters accused her of being in contact with a drug peddler. Katie promptly took her business to Vic Shaw’s, where Moore had also relocated after having been ejected by the Everleighs.

Sometime during that night, Nat Moore died at Vic Shaw’s establishment. The next day, a mystery caller contacted Minna, informing her that Moore’s remains were about to be transplanted to the Everleigh Club. Horrified at the prospect of a corpse in her house, not to mention one of a society figure, Minna sent an emissary to Shaw’s. After tense negotiations, Shaw had a tavern owner friend call the police, who calmly assigned the death to a heart attack.  The mystery caller turned out to be Katie, whose loyalty to the Everleighs extended beyond her dismissal.

Although the Everleigh sisters adored publicity – they even had a brochure printed of their over-the-top grandiose house – they were eventually forced to close. Shaw’s house lasted somewhat longer, as did other less elegant brothels. After at least one stint in prison on narcotics charges, Shaw lived until 1952 in a crumbling mansion at 2906 Prairie Avenue with a dog, cat and parrot. The remaining bordellos started to become notorious havens for drug use, as well as for prostitution. When police raids started becoming increasingly frequent, Chicago’s vice lords hired a young thug to operate a buzzer system, whereby the girls would be herded into underground tunnels until the raids were over. The young thug’s name? Alphonse Capone.