Jazz Age ‘Chicagoan’ lives again online

The Chicagoan—a Jazz Age magazine fashioned after The New Yorker—enters a new era today as the University of Chicago Library launches a website that makes digitized copies of nearly every issue available online for the first time. Thanks to an agreement with Quigley Publishing, the magazine can be used freely by individuals for research and educational purposes.

Drawing of one of the Art Institute lions with its tongue out looking at a man and his dog

Art Institute lions on the cover of the Chicagoan, dated September 22, 1928

First published in 1926, the Chicagoan came on the scene just 16 months after the initial appearance of the New Yorker and was inspired by its editorial content and design. Fighting stereotypes of Chicago as a city dominated by crime, the Chicagoan promoted its home as a vibrant and sophisticated center of culture.  It sported modern cover art, literary and performance reviews, and other features that “translat[e] into prose and picture the gusto and glamor of this good town”—as its own advertising proclaimed.

The Library’s new Chicagoan website, which reproduces the magazine’s complete run from 1926 to 1935, minus a few missing issues, provides an opportunity to delve into this wealth of material on the literary, cultural, artistic, athletic and social milieu of Jazz Age Chicago. Visitors to the site can browse digitized images of the magazine’s vibrant covers and lively interior pages, can read full issues from cover to cover, or can use the site’s search feature to look for the names, places, or topics of their choice.  Such access will allow scholars as well as general audiences to sample the magazine or to readily discover stories, facts and images of Chicago’s cultural history for a wide range of purposes.  

“As an online, searchable resource the Chicagoan facilitates new avenues of study and the ability to zoom in and out on images, while preserving the original print volumes from excessive handling,” observed Alice Schreyer, Assistant University Librarian for Humanities, Social Sciences, & Special Collections and Curator of Rare Books.

For example, browsers may notice that the Art Institute and its iconic lions are featured twice on the magazine’s front cover.  On September 22, 1928, a standing, cartoonish lion winks and licks its lips at the sight of a bowler-hatted, bespectacled gentleman in a black suit carrying a small white dog.  On July 20, 1929, sun-drenched lions lie sedately on their pedestal in the foreground, while the orange shadow of the Tribune Tower and another of the city’s skyscrapers complete the scene behind them.  Searching for “Art Institute,” one can find, among more than 100 results, a humorous article from August 27, 1927, declaring the “distraught city athrob” over its inability to name the museum’s famous lions. The targets of the humor include Chicago’s politics, religious life, and policing:

From the first hint of the [lion naming] predicament . . . everything from mass-meeting to silent prayer has been tried and tried again.  The first mass-meeting was broken up by the police, who called the assembly a “red” congress and quieted its roars with tear bombs and the shillelagh.  The last prayer meeting dissolved when T. Lucus Piddle said “darn” after three hours of unavailing effort at his counterpane.  Still no name.

A drawing of the corner of the Marshall Field's building with the clock prominently featured and the heads of people standing outside

A Chicagoan cover featuring the clock on the Marshall Field’s building

Those wanting to study coverage of Chicago institutions in the 1920s and 1930s will find a wealth of additional examples. Searches for the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, for Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott, for Soldier Field, Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park yield numerous results. A visitor entering University of Chicago in the search box will uncover more than 100 separate references throughout the 12 volumes of the magazine.  Snippets of text and markers guide the user to the pages where they will find their highlighted search term.

The road from forgotten magazine to rebirth in digital form involved several key individuals and events. Ceasing publication without warning in 1935, the Chicagoan slipped out of its city’s collective memory until the late 1980s, when University of Chicago Professor Neil Harris discovered a nearly complete run of the magazine while browsing the stacks of the Regenstein Library. Fascinated by the Chicagoan’s powerful cover designs, clever cartoons, insightful articles and fanciful art, Harris, now Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and Art History Emeritus, studied the magazine in detail, researched its history, and edited a book, with the assistance of Teri J. Edelstein, that reintroduced the Chicagoan to the world in 2008.

That book, The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age features a lengthy introduction by Harris that explores the magazine’s ambitions and historical context, before presenting carefully selected excerpts of the original magazine and one complete issue. Published by the University of Chicago Press, the book has been hailed as “top shelf” by the New York Times and as “a lush tribute,” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which declared that “Harris does a wonderful job of situating the magazine in the urban cacophony of 1920s Chicago.”

Harris hoped that the book would spark further research into the Chicagoan and its legacy, and the Chicagoan website is designed to facilitate such research. “I’m delighted that a full version of the Chicagoan will now be available online,” he said.  “First, because it offers access to a range of talented artists, critics, and writers. Second, because readers and researchers will have so powerful an index at their disposal. And third, because it relieves me of a guilt trip, having granted just a few of the contributors new life by including them in the book. Posterity can now make its own judgments based on the entire cast of characters.”

Staff members using the Zeutschel scanner in the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library

The Zeutschel scanner in the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library‘s Digitization Laboratory (pictured) was used to scan bound copies of the Chicagoan in a face up position. (Photo by Jason Smith)

The digitization of the Chicagoan was enabled by the generous gift that University of Chicago College alumnus Patrick Spain, BA’74, made in memory of his wife Barbara M. Spain.  Mr. Spain works in the technology industry and founded or cofounded and led four successful Web-based companies: Hoover’s, Inc., HighBeam Research, Newser and First Stop Health. He has been a member of the University of Chicago Library Society Steering Committee since 2004 and is particularly interested in how technologies can make rare and hard-to-access printed material available in digital format to a larger number of people.

The opening of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library’s Digitization Laboratory in 2011 also enabled this work. The Laboratory’s new Zeutschel overhead scanner allowed the Library to scan bound volumes in house, in a face-up position, for the first time. The Zeutschel’s software was able to digitally adjust page images of the bound issues of the Chicagoan to compensate for the curvature at the volumes’ inner margins. This created clear images for readers.

Library staff worked with Bill Quigley, grandson of the original publisher, to secure permissions and with the Center for Research Libraries, the Chicago History Museum, and the New York Public Library to secure scans of issues missing in its collection. The Library is actively seeking the remaining missing issues for digitization and posting on the website, and is interested in acquiring print copies of any of its missing or damaged issues.

While the hunt for the last few issues goes on, researchers and readers around the world are invited to begin their own search for historical treasures among the digitized pages at chicagoan.lib.uchicago.edu. Their investigations will reinvigorate the 20th-century Chicagoan by applying a 21st-century perspective.

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