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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
2 ounces gin
1 tablespoon simple syrup
About ten fresh mint leaves, muddled into cocktail shaker
3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice
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.
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.
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.