The Windy City: the nickname that won’t quit


All major cities have a nickname. New York is the Big Apple, Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, Buenos Aires is the Paris of the South. And Chicago is…windy? There really isn’t any misconception about Chicago that bothers me more. Yes, it is often windy, but so is any city situated next to a body of water with skyscrapers creating homemade wind tunnels. Actually, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the windiest cities in the U.S. are Blue Hill Observatory, MA and Dodge City, KS. (Chicago didn’t even make the top 10 list of windiest cities, and Boston was #9!). Phew, we’ve cleared up that mistake right away. As with all ancient myths, the origins of the Chicago nickname is often contended. Here are some of the legends I’ve heard throughout my years as a Chicago resident:

It appears that historically Chicago DID indeed get its Windy City name from being described as having windy weather in the late 1800s. But not in that terrible, cold, wind tunneling through Randolph Street in January kind of wind; instead, Chicago newspaper columnists at the time were referring to the pleasant breeze that comes off Lake Michigan on a hot summer day. Who would have thought? Reportedly Chicago’s Daily Tribune (a previous name of the Chicago Tribune) tried to sell Chicago to the world as a great place for a resort summer getaway to escape the heat in the 1850s. And trust me, breeze was important when a large portion of the city was dedicated to stockyards and meat production. Yuck. Despite the exaggeration of this claim, by the 1880s Chicago’s windy city nickname had stuck. It was even used in other city publications such as the Cincinnati Gazette in replacement of the real name of the Midwestern metropolis.

Though Chicago never became a resort getaway, the nickname traveled to New York where it cemented itself in the mind of Charles Dana, a writer for the New York Times. In the heated battle for the 1893 World Columbian Exhibition) New York City thought they had everyone beat. In the running to host was Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and Washington D.C., but in the end it came down to New York and Chicago. Assuming themselves superior to the Windy City (and the ones that still think so clearly haven’t visited) they were pretty hurt when they lost to the meatpacking capital of the Midwest. It is said that Dana wrote, “Don’t pay any attention to the nonsensical claims of that windy city. Its people could not build a World’s Fair even if they won it.” But build a world’s fair they did and a legendary one at that, marked with industrial progress and architectural success.

Growing up in Chicago, I was always told the nickname stems from boisterous politicians, and many Chicago natives would doubtlessly agree. Many say Chicago was nicknamed “the windy city” because of its politicians who were “full of hot air” and often “long-winded.” As a city historically plagued with scandal, corruption, and a penchant for the mafia, this isn’t surprising to many who know of Chicago’s tumultuous history. Chicago is still often referred to as a Democratic Machine tied down strongly by almost 50 years of constant rule by the Daley’s.

Apparently Chicago also used to have an intense rivalry with Cincinnati, Ohio — who knew? It began with a rivalry about who had the best and largest meat production, and thus who held the name of porktropolis, and continued with a baseball rivalry. The Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings were in costant competition for the title. Articles from the Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1870s refer to Chicago as the Windy City multiple times, once saying “That Windy City. Some Freaks of the Last Chicago Tornado.” That wasn’t very nice…

Reasons why it has stuck:

Ok, again, it could partially be the weather. Remember in our City Orientation article how we told you about the grid system? After the Chicago Fire destroyed most of the city, city planners made that glorious system that made Chicago so easy to navigate. Unfortunately, they also created long wind tunnels that can sometimes be unbearable in the winter cold. Hold on to your hats and umbrellas!

And finally, let’s face it, Chicago politics are still…a little windy.

Tessa McLean

About Tessa McLean

There is just something about that feeling when you have been away — maybe for a weekend, a month, 6 months — and you’re driving into Chicago and that first glimpse of the city skyline appears. It just always makes me smile.

2 Comments

  • June 7, 2010 | Permalink | Reply

    Great article! Thanks for clearing this up – I’d heard conflicting stories re the origin of the windy city tag but never a properly researched piece

  • Just Jazz
    August 19, 2013 | Permalink | Reply

    No mention of the “WIND” instruments, that fabulous JAZZ …….

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