Famous Chicago Firsts

  • 1851-Zipper
  • 1858-Open heart surgery
  • 1869-Vacuum cleaner
  • 1873-Farm silo
  • 1887-Softball game
  • 1889-Dishwasher
  • 1937-First US blood bank
  • First Oscar Meyer
  • Diet carbonated soda
  • Carnival concept
  • Introduction of the
    hamburger to the
    United States
  • US commemorative
    stamp set
  • US Postal Service
    picture postcards
  • US Mint offered its first commemorative coins

Chicago Product Brand Firsts

  • Aunt Jemima Syrup
  • Cracker Jacks
  • Cream of Wheat
  • Juicy Fruit gum
  • Pabst Beer
  • Shredded Wheat


The name “Chicago” derives from the French version of the combination word of the Miami and Illinois Native American Tribes, shikaakwa, meaning “wild onion” or “wild garlic.” Chicago, known today as the “Windy City,” has a rich history dating back to the 1780s when Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, revered as the “Father of Chicago” built a farm at the mouth of the Chicago River, a national historic landmark now located at Pioneer Court.


In 1830, James Thompson surveyed the land to plot the town of Chicago when the population was less than 100. In 1834, the first commercial schooner, the Illinois, arrived from Sackets Harbor, New York, a sign of the Great Lakes trade that would benefit both Chicago and New York. The rich farmlands of Northern Illinois attracted Yankee settlers including skilled workers from Europe, especially Germans, English, Swedes, Dutch and Irish. By 1840, the population reached over 4,000. Completion of the first rail line to Chicago was in 1848 and in the following years, with additional railroad construction, Chicago became a major hub for East Coast and West Coast railroad lines. This allowed Chicago to become the nation’s trans-shipment and warehousing center in 1860, becoming home to catalog shopping as Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck and Company who made use of the transportation lines to ship all over the nation. Moreover, with the advent of the refrigerated rail car there was a market in meatpacking and the regional centrality of the city’s Union Stock Yards.

Great Chicago Fire Photo

By 1857, Chicago’s population grew to 90,000.

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire killed 300 people and devastated the city due to wood being the primary construction material.

In 1885, the Home Insurance Building was the first building to use structural steel in its frame giving it the title of the first skyscraper. Demolished in 1931, the site is now occupied by the LaSalle National Bank Building.

Columbian Exposition photo

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, was held at the present location of Jackson Park along Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. There, electricity was introduced to the public and patrons could ride the first ever Ferris wheel which, until recently, was the largest ever built. The Exposition drew 27.5 million visitors and is considered among the most influential world fairs in history with a wide-ranging impact in art, architecture, design and technology.


The African-American population increased from 44,000 to 233,000 between 1910 and 1930 during the great migration from Southern states. Consequently, they brought their musical heritage with them, King Oliver leading the way. Louis Armstrong, a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and protege of King Oliver, became a mainstay in Chicago and helped to usher in the Jazz age. The Race Riots occurred in 1919, resulting from ethnic tensions and competition for employment with established European immigrants.

Joe King Oliver photo
photo - Race Riot 5 policemen and one soldier
photo - Mugshot of John Dillinger


The 1920s brought notoriety to Chicago with its infamous gangsters, including Al Capone, “Bugs” Moran and John Dillinger. Al Capone, of the South Side Italian gang, was believed to have been behind the notorious Saint Valentine's Day Massacre in Lincoln Park, when seven of Bugs Moran's Northside Irish gang members were shot in the head in a fight over prohibition booze. John Dillinger, whose gang robbed two dozen banks and four police stations and who escaped prison twice, was gunned down by the FBI in the alley next to the Biograph Theatre in 1934.

illustrated poster from the Chicago World's Fair in 1933


In 1930, the Adler Planetarium opened through a gift from local merchant, Max Adler, becoming the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. The world’s largest commercial building, Merchandise Mart, was built for Marshall Field & Co. covering an area of 4.2 million square feet. The Century of Progress Exposition took place in 1933 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of Chicago.


The 1940s decade saw newer change including the organ installation at Wrigley Field, the first deep dish pizza, the first air-conditioned office building occupied by Wrigley corporation and the first daytime TV soap opera, “These Are My Children,” broadcast from Chicago’s NBC.

McDonald’s Museum photo


In the 1950s, Hugh Hefner starts the Playboy publication at 6052 S. Harper Street, the Chicago Cubs sign their first black player, Ernie Banks, the first McDonald’s restaurant franchise opens and the Second City Comedy showcase was founded on North Wells Street in a former Chinese laundry.

Willis Tower


In the 1960s, the first of the Playboy Clubs opened in Chicago. In 1968, during the Democratic Party Convention, bloody confrontations between police and demonstrators who were protesting US military involvement in Southeast Asia took place. In this same year, rail service begins in the Dan Ryan Expressway median, or “up the middle,” as they put it. This marks another transit innovation made in Chicago - the first expressway/freeway median rail service ever - now commonly used in cities all over the world.


The formerly named Sears Tower, the Willis Tower is a 113-story, 1729 foot skyscraper that held the title as the tallest building in the world, surpassing the World Trade Center towers in New York upon its completion in 1974. It held this rank for nearly 25 years. Chicago’s 1st (and only) woman mayor, Jane M. Byrne, took office in 1979.

Oprah Winfrey's famous signature


Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, took office in 1983. In 1986 the self-titled multi-award winning talk show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, begins production and has the highest rating for shows of its kind in history. Oprah has been ranked the richest African-American of the 20th century, the greatest African-American philanthropist in American history, and was once the world’s only African-American billionaire.

Barack Obama photo


In the 1990s, the first game and opening ceremonies of the first World Cup Soccer championship in the United States were held in Chicago and the 148-foot Ferris Wheel - recalling the 1893 original - was erected at the renovated Navy Pier.


In 2009 Barack Obama becomes the first African-American US president and is also the only US president from Chicago.