A Sketch of 1920s Uptown


Advertisements touted Uptown as a city unto itself. Yes, it was just one neighborhood within the far larger city of Chicago. But if you lived in “The City called Uptown Chicago,” you had everything you needed right there.1

“Nothing is lacking in Uptown Chicago,” one ad said.2 “Nowhere else will you find a community quite as complete as Uptown Chicago. One could live quite satisfactorily within its borders and never step beyond them. Though but a section of a city, it has in itself every accessory of a city—delightful places in which to live, dozens of smart and utilitarian shops, great churches and strong banks, and every imaginable form of entertainment. Life is lived at its best in Uptown Chicago.”3

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 12, 1927.

This 1927 advertising campaign, sponsored by the Central Uptown Chicago Association, said the neighborhood was the “Shopping Center of a Million People.”4

And while Uptown was accessible by elevated trains and streetcars, the business group’s ads emphasized the neighborhood’s ample parking for automobiles: “There’s parking space for your car, wide sidewalks to walk upon without being elbowed or jostled, frequent and speedy transportation if you’d rather not shop from your car, and cheerful courtesy wherever you go. And, of course, some of Chicago’s finest restaurants and dining rooms if hunger assails you while you shop.”5

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 29, 1927.

One ad asked: “How much do you really know about Uptown Chicago?” This ad suggested that it was hard to grasp everything that was going on in this booming neighborhood: “Like the three-ringed circus of our youth, there is so much to Uptown Chicago that one visit but whets the appetite for many more. The shops and shows, the restaurants and tall hotels, and now the colorful beaches—all these are a delight to dweller and visitor alike in Uptown Chicago.”

And the association seemed to think that Uptown could just keep on growing: “Uptown Chicago wants more of both—more folks to live in its famed apartments, more visitors to enjoy its metropolitan life. It is the greatest of the many cities within the city of Chicago—come and learn why.”6

Many of the Chicagoans who chose to reach Uptown by automobile drove on Sheridan Road. So, it’s not surprising that the corner of Sheridan Road and Wilson Avenue was such a hive of activity.

In that era—before Lake Shore Drive was extended and landfill expanded the parks along the shoreline—Sheridan was the North Side’s major lakefront thoroughfare. “Autoists” enjoyed taking drives on the road, with its views of Lake Michigan.7 (If Al Capone really did commute between his Rogers Park apartment and his mob’s South Side joints circa 1921, then he may have driven through this intersection many times.)

Wilson Avenue looking east from Broadway. A50269. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

A similar view, looking east down Wilson Avenue from the CTA platform in 2024.

Wilson Avenue was an important stop on the elevated train lines. East of the el station, Wilson was a bustling street from Broadway to the lake. “A slight observation would make one imagine that no staid residents cared to live thereabouts,” Chicago Daily News editor Henry Justin Smith wrote in his 1931 book, Chicago: A Portrait. “But all kinds of people go there.”8

The area around Sheridan and Wilson was a “land of streaming lights,” according to Smith. Shining signs declared: “Three-room flats. … Installment furniture. … Chop suey. … Life on credit.” Vying to compete with all of this commerce, churches displayed their own large-lettered placards, but passersby mostly ignored the religious messages and kept on walking.9

A recent view of Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road.

The North Shore Congregational Church stood at the southwest corner of Sheridan and Wilson. Back in 1911, when this formerly rural area was transforming into an urban neighborhood, the church had hosted a “mass meeting of indignation,”10 where residents complained about an invasion of “beach rowdies.”11 At that time, the church’s pastor, the Reverend James B. Ainslie, bemoaned the “positively shameful” conditions—such as the women who “exercised all their cleverness in the art of smiling in an effort to attract my attention” outside Tom Chamales’s saloon (where Chamales later opened Green Mill Gardens).12

Twelve years later, Ainslie was still observing young women on the streets outside his church, with their flashy clothes and makeup, but he seemed to be a bit less judgmental. “There are a number of light-headed young girls who really are not immoral but according to modern methods they put a great deal of powder and rouge on their faces to attract attention,” the minister remarked.13

Vigilance associations were keeping an eye out for prostitution in Uptown, as well as the neighborhood’s many “kept women.”14 According to sociology student Harold Charles Hoffsommer, women who seemed to be prostitutes were right out in the open. “The visitor in the Wilson Avenue District is generally impressed with the number of apparently immoral women with which he comes in contact while walking along the street,” he wrote in 1923. “It is true that many of these are soliciting trade from the streets.”15

Edwin Balmer. Portrait by James Montgomery Flagg, Indianapolis Times, 1923. Wikimedia.

The title character of Edwin Balmer’s 1925 novel That Royle Girl—an attractive stenographer16 “barely twenty years old”—knows that she will be “accosted” by men whenever she walks at night near her home, in the vicinity of Sheridan and Wilson. “As men loitered by, she knew exactly what to do,” Balmer wrote. “She went on with the same lilt in her step, neither gazing at the men nor making a point of avoiding them. She merely showed them that they were out of her mind; and they were.”17

According to Smith, this stretch of Sheridan Road was “frequented by youths with no obvious business, couples yawningly in search of new amusement, girls in garish costume, women of blasé aspect, leading poodles equally blasé.” At the same corner, Chicago Daily News journalist18 Ralf Gall reported seeing “people with nothing to do but stand in the orange hut solemnly drinking orangeade.” The pedestrians he saw on Sheridan Road included “fellows and girls; men and wives, greybeards and their mamas.”

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 19, 1927.

As Gall watched, couples gazed at the clothes displayed in shop windows along Sheridan Road. “Easter hats are out, displayed on the heads of futuristic wax models,” he wrote. “… Dresses, frocks, and ‘formals.’ Purple—Lord, what purple! Red, like salami sausage. Blotting paper green. Banana yellow. Oodles of machine lace, and sweat-shop beading and embroidery. That riding habit—‘who says a girl can’t wear a derby?’ And that golf outfit—m-m-m-m!”19

The neighborhood’s biggest and most popular hotel was at the northeast corner of Sheridan and Wilson.  “The Sheridan-Plaza, … with its commodious public rooms, is becoming the rendezvous for the smart North side society for dining and dancing parties,” the Daily National Hotel Reporter noted in August 1921.”20

Smith described the big crowds of people coming and going every day in Uptown. “Observed superficially, they seem mostly young,” he wrote. “They are brisk, up to the minute, well enough dressed; in some cases, too well. It is a little over-wide a generalization to designate them, in a mass, as devotees of the delicatessen, the sandwich shop, the chop-suey parlor, and the beauty salon. Yet many of them must be, or there would not be such flourishing industries of that sort at the chief bright-light centers.”21

In 1922, a national magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, mentioned “the Wilson Avenue district, which buys silk stockings for its ankles before ever it pays its kitchenette rent.” This reference appeared in a short story by Ida M. Evans, an Iowa native who’d lived in Chicago. In the same story, she also described a couple on a Sunday outing, motoring “through the rush and glitter of the Wilson Avenue district.”22

Just as the elevated train line sparked Uptown’s original development, transportation continued to fuel the neighborhood’s growth. Open in 1900, the original Northwestern Elevated line took passengers from the Loop as far north as Wilson Avenue. Starting in 1907, the company’s trains used tracks at ground level to reach Evanston. By 1922, a new set of elevated created a faster connection with suburban Evanston.23 In 1923, some 12,000 to 15,000 passengers were using the Wilson Avenue station each day. A station at Argyle Street handled 4,000 daily passengers. And a new station at Lawrence Avenue attracted 2,500 daily passengers within a month after opening in 1923.

The Northwestern Elevated Company had been reluctant to build a station at Lawrence, since it was only two blocks away from Wilson Avenue, but business owners pressured the railroad to add the stop. Unusually, the Lawrence station handled as many passengers on Sundays as it did on weekdays. “This may be attributed to the unusual amusements found in this part of the city,” Hoffsommer wrote.24

To handle the growing number of train riders, another new station was built at Wilson Avenue in 1923.25

The Peter C. Stohr Arcade Building. Trolley Dodger.

Designed by architect Arthur U. Gerber, it replaced the Peter C. Stohr Arcade Building, a 1909 structure by Frank Lloyd Wright.26

Uptown Station in 1923. Chicago Transit Authority photo.

Commuters and visitors also came to Uptown via the Chicago Electric Surface Lines’ streetcars, Chicago Motor Bus Lines, the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Electric Railway. And, of course, automobiles.

The conjunction of Sheridan Road, Montrose Avenue, and Broadway was Chicago’s third-busiest spot for traffic in 1923, with a daily circulation of 160,000. That included 83,000 automobiles, 31,000 pedestrians, 23,000 people in buses, 22,000 people riding in surface cars, and 2,000 people transferring between modes of transit. 27

In comparison, 120,000 people passed through the corner of Broadway and Wilson Avenue every day. That intersection had fewer automobiles and buses going through it, but more pedestrians—an estimated 42,000.28 Several years later, 50,000 people were counted passing the same corner in one day.29

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1927.

Many of those people at Wilson and Broadway were heading to see movies or concerts or go shopping.

“It has been stated that the Wilson Avenue District has a greater number of amusement places than any other like area in the world,” Hoffsommer wrote.30 “… In keeping with the number of theatres in the district there is also a large number of food shops, cafes and lunch rooms, not to mention the Chinese chop suey houses and one automat. So rapid are the business changes in this district that it is scarcely possible to keep up with them.” 31

Uptown’s tobacco dealers reported that cigarettes accounted for 44 percent of their sales were cigarettes, while cigars were 32 percent. The neighborhood seemed to be ahead of national tobacco trends: At the time, cigar and cigarette consumption in the United States were roughly equal, but cigarettes would overtake cigars by the end of the decade.32 Meanwhile, Uptown’s tobacco dealers said that women smokers were a “considerable portion” of their customers.33

Uptown’s theaters attracted people from the neighborhood as well as other moviegoers from all around Chicago. As of 1923, the neighborhood’s movie houses included:

Clark, 4533 North Clark Street—1,050 seats
De Luxe, 1141 West Wilson Avenue—1,033 seats
Pantheon, 4642 North Sheridan Road—2,298 seats
Riviera, 4752 North Broadway—2,100 seats
Lakeside, 4730 North Sheridan Road—998 seats
Wilson, Wilson Avenue and Broadway—1,000 seats34

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1927.

The biggest movie palace of them all, the Uptown, was coming soon. (More about that in an upcoming chapter.)

The Riviera (built in 1918) was attracting 40,000 moviegoers each week, selling out some shows.35 And when people came to see movies in Uptown, they often went shopping, too.

“It is a well-known fact among business men that if they can persuade people to ‘window shop’ they are well on the way toward getting some for their trade,” Hoffsommer observed. “Wilson Avenue merchants have been awake to this, and nowhere in the city will one find more beautifully decorated windows to greet the outgoing crowds from the theatres than in the Wilson Avenue District.”36

Local merchants noticed that business dropped off whenever the Riviera was showing an unpopular movie.37

Harold Charles Hoffsommer. Ancestry.com.

Hoffsommer, a 24-year-old student of German ancestry, had grown up on a farm in central Kansas. He would go on to a career as a sociology professor, teaching at Auburn University in Alabama as well as Louisiana State University.38

His Northwestern University thesis about the Wilson Avenue District provides a detailed snapshot of the neighborhood in 1923. Hoffsommer proved himself to be a diligent researcher, though his spelling was lousy—and he sometimes allowed his prejudices to taint his observations. He often sounded like the era’s moralist reformers, who were panicked by rowdy behavior on beaches and late-night dancing in cabarets.

Hoffsommer believed that a “better class” of people attended movies at high-class theaters such as the Riviera and Pantheon. “These people then are of the window shopping variety and are a great asset to the community,” he wrote.

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 22, 1927.

He contrasted those supposedly high-class moviegoers with the people frequenting Green Mill Gardens, Marigold Gardens, and the Arcadia, a dance hall at 4444 North Broadway. At all of these places, “the amusements are slightly doubtful,” Hoffsommer said. “It is only necessary to stand outside one of these places at one or two in the morning and note the occupants as they leave in taxis and to observe their general demeanor to conclude that they are certainly in no frame of mind to think rationally along business lines.” Surely, he didn’t expect them to go shopping at 2 a.m. Rather, he seemed to be moralizing—showing his disapproval of licentious behavior.39

But the shop windows did seem to attract the young folks who were out for a night on the town. Ralf Gall described a scene outside a jewelry store on Broadway in Uptown—possibly Wolf’s Jewel Shop, located in the Green Mill building, or maybe another one nearby.

“Boys in dogskin coats smoking dollar pipes; hatless, hoping to be mistaken for college men,” Gall wrote. “Girls in high-heeled slippers, fur jackets, fur coats (they starved themselves for those coats, perhaps) in Russian boots, in light colored galoshes. They stand before the jewelry store near Broadway, and arrange themselves at the glass. They stand before the music shop farther down, and do the same thing. They hesitate at the gift shop—‘Well, what’s it to you?’”40

One of the neighborhood’s ads boasted: “The shops of Uptown Chicago hold everything you could possibly need or desire. In them you can find everything from thread to automobiles—find them in unhurried, uncrowded comfort. And you’ll not pay a cent more than you’d pay anywhere else.”41

Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1927.

People came from all over Chicago to visit Uptown’s beaches. The neighborhood business association’s advertisements called Uptown “Chicago’s Summer Blessing.”

These ads touted Uptown as a place to cool off during hot summer weather: “On its beaches one can defy the heat, and in its cooled theaters and ballrooms one may laugh at the heat.”42

The ads seemed to allude to one of Chicago’s meteorological features: Temperatures are often cooler by the lake. “Drive, or ride on car, bus or ‘L’ in refreshing lake breezes,” one ad suggested.43

(At this time, the lakeshore was roughly where DuSable Lake Shore Drive is today; when that road was extended north through this part of Chicago in the early 1930s, landfill moved the shoreline farther east. For more about that, see Chapter 6.)

Clarendon Beach, circa 1914. A50388. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

Owned by the city, Clarendon Beach was Chicago’s largest and best equipped beach at the time,44 capable of holding more than 10,000 people at a time. It had an attendance of 575,000 in 1922.

Three women at Clarendon Beach in 1921. DN-0073283, Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum.

Clarendon Beach in 1921. DN-0073295 (left) and DN-0073292 (right), Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum.

The neighborhood also had a privately owned facility, Wilson Avenue Beach.45

“If it be summer, along the beaches from north to south, Lawrence avenue, the old Wilson beach, Clarendon, Buena avenue, Hogan’s alley, boys and girls arrive from all over the North Side in cars,” Gall wrote. “Or, if they live in the furnished rooms of the Wilson avenue district, they walk along the streets in bath-robes. … Boys and girls light fires and sit around them, occasionally chirping up in sentimental song. A piece of roofing-iron keeps off the wind. Driftwood is flung on. The sparks fly. … The lake, with its curl of white, rolls dark and dreamlike before them.”46

Wilson Avenue Beach, circa 1914. A50369. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

In Balmer’s novel That Royle Girl, the 20-ish female protagonist visits the beach at the end of Wilson Avenue just after midnight on a Saturday night: “Bath-houses, benches and swings, the beach and the water all were deserted on this calm, October midnight. The moon tipped them with glistening gray and they stood quiet for their silvering, except the water which flecked duller and brighter as it lapped its complaint at the shore. Joan Daisy relaxed in dreamy reverie, gazing to the south along the shore line which crept out and out in its long, leisurely curve under the moon and twinkled with the night-lights of millions of people asleep. Here and there were gleaming spots where many persons were still awake and dancing and clapping their hands for an encore each time the music ceased.”47

Wilson Avenue Beach, circa 1910s. VO235B. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

Wilson Avenue Beach, circa 1910s. VO1758. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

In his thesis, Hoffsommer echoed the moral concerns that some local residents had raised about the neighborhood’s beaches a decade earlier: “On the Clarendon beach there are very many of the type who wear their bathing suits only for appearances. There is a certain degree of immorality developing around any bathing beach of size, and conditions here are not much worse than the average.”

Hoffsommer also seemed to show a streak of anti-Semitism, offering this observation: “The attendance at Clarendon beach is made up of a very high percentage of Jewish people. Then many outside people of a low moral caliber are attracted there because of the ill reputation which the beach has acquired.” Was he suggesting that the presence of Jews explained why all these supposedly immoral outsiders decided to visit the beach? Hoffsommer asserted that these outsiders “feel no responsibility for the good name of the community and are constantly endangering the good name of the beach and of the community in general by their loose actions and words.”48

As a factual matter, it’s questionable whether Clarendon Beach truly had “a very high percentage of Jewish people,” whatever Hoffsommer meant by that. Jews were around nine percent of Chicago’s population in that era, and while it’s true that some lived in Uptown, the Jewish population was more heavily concentrated on the city’s West Side.49

Meyer Levin, a Jewish author from Chicago,50 mentioned Wilson Avenue Beach in his 1937 novel The Old Bunch, which takes place in the 1920s. When Levin’s characters—Jewish teenagers from the West Side—consider going to Wilson Avenue Beach, one of them exclaims, “All the shlumpers go up there! It’s a regular ghetto.”51 In Yiddish, a shlumper is an unkempt or slovenly person. A loser.52

A drawing showing an aerial view of Uptown from an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 12, 1927. 

Hoffsommer was also alarmed by the fact that many of Uptown’s residents lived in apartments—more than 90 percent, according to his estimate.53 Hoffsommer worried that Uptown’s young people were less likely that they’d get married or have children because they were living in isolation and paying high rents.54 “The average size apartment in this district is probably about four rooms and rents for $90 to $100 per month,” he wrote. (Adjusted for inflation, that’s roughly $1,600 to $1,800 in today’s dollars.)

Hoffsommer continued: “The rearing of children under conditions where space and food are so high priced soon becomes a matter of cold blooded financial consideration. In this district there is a great deal of what is known as ‘respectable poverty.’ By this is meant white collar workers who are not receiving high wages but who have a social status to maintain far in advance of their income.”55

Uptown was Chicago’s leading neighborhood for divorces and spousal desertions, according to a study by a Chicago sociologist. Based on a tally of divorce decrees from 1919 and domestic relations court cases heard in 1921, the Wilson Avenue District was the Chicago neighborhood with the highest per capita rate of family breakups: 68 per 10,000 people, including 64 divorces and four desertions. That was more than twice the citywide average of 25. And it was far higher than the rates for other North Side neighborhoods: Bowmanville, 14. Ravenswood, 14. Rogers Park, 14. Edgewater, 19. Lakeview, 17. Lincoln Park, 27.56

The sociologist who compiled this data, Ernest R. Mowrer, said the Wilson Avenue District was one of Chicago’s “emancipated family areas”—places with a lot of rooming houses, kitchenette apartments, and residential hotels. “The so-called ‘emancipated’ family feels itself freed from the conventions which have been the anathema of feminism,” Mowrer wrote. “There are no children; relations with the neighborhood are casual or of the ‘touch-and-go’ sort; the interests of both husband and wife lie outside the home; both are employed for the most part, though not necessarily.”57

Uptown Hotel. D704. Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

According to Mowrer, married women without children felt restless with all of their free time, so they sought out “commercialized recreation.” And then, when they went out on the town, “Indiscretion easily follows, and the so-called ‘triangle’ situations develop where a man and a woman meet without knowing or caring whether or not the other is married.”58

Uptown’s “citizens, who are young, breakfast in cafeterias, lunch at automats, dine in gardens or at cabarets and hotels where is dancing,” Edwin Balmer wrote. “Man meets girl on the boulevard and courts her in a taxicab and in the dark of motion picture theaters. A hotel room makes a home; a mansion is an apartment of one room, two or three, with bed built in a door, kitchenette in a cubby and the whole rented, with precarious delightfulness, for three months or, recklessly, for six.”59

Uptown was the sort of place where Chicagoans with “monotonous and irksome” jobs went for “play activities” during their leisure time, Mowrer said. The typical man chose “highly stimulating” activities, as “compensation for the dull hours he spends in the factory and in the office,” he wrote.60

As far as the question of why young people weren’t getting married, a single 29-year-old Uptown man offered this explanation to Hoffsommer: “The girls are becoming worse all the time. One calls at the apartment, talks to her through the speaking tube and by the time one gets upstairs she has her coat and hat on ready to go out to a movie or somewhere. She cannot entertain you in the house with the other members of the family and one hasn’t adequate place for getting acquainted.”61

In the Wilson Avenue District, sociologists “observe a center of fragile domesticity, of married couples both members of which earn pay-checks, of women in defiant independence,” Henry Justin Smith wrote. “Children are relatively few. Both husband and wife have their main interests outside the home. The families thus emancipated live, and prefer to live, in rooming-houses, in kitchenette apartments, in residential hotels. Over the portals of any number of the buildings of old Buena Park one sees signs offering such miniature ‘homes,’ sometimes with emphasis on the presence of ‘sleeping-rooms,’ and often adding, as a great inducement, ‘shower-baths.’”62

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 3, 1927.

A 1928 story explained how a middle-aged woman ended up in Uptown, seeking the sort of excitement that she’d failed to find in her marriage. It’s hard to tell if this story is fiction or truth or an embellished version of the truth. It appears in a guidebook for detectives: Crime Detection by F. Dalton O’Sullivan, a private detective who had offices at 800 North Clark Street.63

The book offers the story as an example for how detectives should write a report: “This is a report of a case in which an attractive woman, although forty-nine years of age, vamped and won the affections of a young and somewhat sophisticated bachelor in the sporty Wilson Avenue district of Chicago. Because of his neglect of business and lack of visible means of support, his office had an investigation made of his habits…”

But the some of the story’s geographical details are clearly incorrect. For example, it refers to the “Pantland Theater” around the same spot where the Pantheon Theatre was. And it quotes this woman talking about the Obregon dance hall—was that actually the Aragon? Did the publisher change some of these names to protect the identities of the people under investigation? Or was he simply being sloppy with details? It’s hard to say. In any case, it’s difficult to believe this woman said everything the report claims that she did. And yet, however dubious this story is, it’s still a fascinating example of how people perceived Uptown in the 1920s.

The detective noted that the woman spent long hours visiting the young man’s room at a boardinghouse near Sheridan Road. The sleuth followed the couple as they went to theaters and stopped to eat at a sandwich shop on Wilson Avenue. “They are known there to the help as the ‘egg eaters’—because they always eat eggs,” he commented.

When the detective finally spoke with the woman by telephone, she explained how she’d fallen in love with the young man. “I had heard of the beauty and the liberty of the Obregon, the new public dance hall,” she supposedly said. “In such a place of wild abandon romance and adventure ought to run rife. I concluded to venture. Imagine a woman whose charms have grown mellow beneath two score and nine summer suns standing in maidenly meditation peering out from under a red hat into the youthful faces of creation’s alleged lords assembled there—the youths came and viewed me as though admiring a faded flower or contemplating an ancient painting—none cared to absorb sweetened frost, and passed on.

“I did not despair, for I realized that in every assemblage there is a Romeo. Not long had I been a guest in this place of privilege when the Subject approached me and requested a dance,” she said, referring to the young man who was under investigation. “For the balance of the evening he hovered near, and finally took me home. An appointment was made for the following evening—when we were to prove up—he who he was, and I who I was. Proofs being satisfactory, a series of meetings followed which naturally resulted in friendship, protestations of admiration—to say nothing of love divine.

“I was never away from home at night before, but this ardent young knight swept me off my feet. It was good to be admired and appreciated after all my years of neglect. I found this young man interesting and absorbing, but destitute as to money.”

The detective writing this report (“Operative 5-A”) viewed the woman and her extramarital May-December romance scornfully, commenting that she’d “deliberately brought dishonor upon herself, her sex and the man whose name she bears.”

As for the man under investigation, the detective remarked: “The lad is an expert in making the hearts of women go pitty-pat.” And yet, Operative 5-A also noted: “The Subject is a fledgling and in the hands of a mature woman who knows just when to weep and when to swear, and how and when to exhibit her nether extremities; he is like a milk-fed chicken in the hands of a French chef—tender and soft.” Ultimately, the detective condemned the man for neglecting his duties at his job so that he could woo this older woman. And he blamed the woman for creating the situation: “She is the tempter, not the victim.”64

Detail of an Uptown Chicago advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1927.

Uptown’s population had doubled between 1910 and 1920, nearly reaching 45,000. (For this analysis, I created a database from Ancestry.com’s 1920 census pages for the area between Clark Street and Lake Michigan, extending north from Irving Park Road to Foster Avenue. My results lined up closely with the data in the University of Chicago’s 1920 census study.)

Uptown had an unusually high number of females; they were 54.1 percent of the neighborhood’s population. In comparison, the U.S. population was 51 percent male, and the overall city of Chicago was 50.7 precent male.65

Uptown also had a lot of single people. The U.S. Census Bureau kept track of this statistic nationwide by reporting that 60.6 percent of females over the age of 15 were married.66  But in Uptown, only 50.1 percent of females in this age group were married.

Uptown had far fewer children than most places. The age distribution in Uptown was different from the typical pattern across the United States, which was a young country at the time: People under the age of 20 made up 41 percent of the U.S. population. But in Uptown, children and teenagers were only 18 percent of the neighborhood’s inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Uptown had an unusually high number of people between the ages of 20 and 39—they were 48 percent of the neighborhood’s residents. In contrast, this age group made up 32 percent of the U.S. population.67

Reflecting its large number of apartment buildings and hotels, Uptown had 7,778 roomers, boarders, and lodgers, making up 17 percent of the population. They lived among Uptown’s 12,000 family households; 89 percent of these families rented their apartments or houses. Homeowners were a small, elite group in the neighborhood. According to University of Chicago researchers, Uptown was one of the Chicago neighborhoods with the lowest percentage of homeownership.

“Thousands of them come from small towns,” Henry Justin Smith observed, describing how many of these people would live in Uptown apartments for a brief time before finding more spacious accommodations somewhere else. “Meantime there are always enough new-comers or confirmed apartment-dwellers to keep janitors busy,” Smith added.68

Around 17 percent of Uptown’s residents were immigrants. This was smaller than the percentage for the overall city—at the time, 30 percent of Chicagoans were foreign-born.69 But many of Uptown’s residents were children of immigrants: 46 percent had a foreign-born father, and 42 percent had a foreign-born mother.

No single group of immigrants was dominant in Uptown: roughly 3 percent of the people were born in Germany, and 2.7 percent in Sweden. Dozens of other countries were represented. Uptown also had residents from all 48 states and the District of Columbia. Not surprisingly, the largest group was people born in Illinois, who were 39 percent of the neighborhood.

The neighborhood was 99.4 percent white. The only minority residents were 231 Black or mulatto people (as the census called them); 25 Chinese; 16 Japanese; and two Mexicans. Nearly half of Uptown’s nonwhite residents—86 Black people and 13 Chinese—lived on just one block, the 4600 block of North Winthrop Avenue. Another 60 Black residents lived in the homes of various white people, working for the families as servants, maids, or cooks.

Many of the neighborhood’s Chinese worked in restaurants or laundries; the Japanese mostly worked in restaurants. Three Chinese cousins (Sun Ning, Ning Chin, and Suey Chin) lived together at 1136 West Argyle Street, on a street that would later become one of Chicago’s most prominent East Asian enclaves.

Census takers jotted down people’s occupations, but the answers have so many spelling errors and variations that it may be impossible to come up with anything like a precise tally. Like the rest of Chicago, Uptown had residents who worked in factories, but the neighborhood seemed to be dominated by people in service jobs and white-collar office work. Many worked as clerks, salespeople, secretaries, and stenographers. Their employers included department stores, clothing shops, railroads, automobile companies, newspapers, advertising agencies, accounting firms, restaurants, schools, and governmental agencies.

Uptown had a sizable contingent of people in the arts, including at least 222 professional musicians, 50 actors and actresses, 15 people in the movie business, 10 authors, one playwright (Howard Barnes), and one ventriloquist (Frank Meighan).70

Northside Sunday Citizen, October 31, 1926.

The Northside Sunday Citizen bemoaned the fact that thousands of “unchaperoned girls” were rooming in Uptown. “Rooming house matrons inform me that an amazing percentage of them have no visible means of support,” a reporter for the local weekly newspaper wrote in 1926.

This writer offered a typical scenario for how young women ended up living in Uptown and spending their nights with various men: “When little Jenny decides to live her own life and departs from the farm at Plopville she inevitably bobs up in the Wilson district. She meets Sally who is proficient in bumming meals and has managed so far to keep one jump ahead of desk sergeants, hotel keepers, and playful business men. What Sally doesn’t know could be written on the back of a postage stamp. In a short time Jenny, the understudy, is playing leading parts, and another worry is passed on to that guardian angel who is designated to watch over all little girls alone in the big city. They may be little but I’ve never known one to be alone for any length of time.”71

But another article on the same page of the Citizen declared: “Wilson Is Not Typical Red Light District.” This story suggested it was inevitable that such issues would arise in a growing neighborhood with so many transient residents:

“These roomers will live somewhere and it has been Wilson’s fate to provide a home for them. Restaurants, rooming houses, and a certain class of hotel thrive under these conditions. … These lodgers are transient birds. They jump from one place to another but generally in the same neighborhood. This characteristic is a source of great annoyance to the rooming house managers and hotels.”

The writer of this article described the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to deal with prostitution in Uptown: “Raids are common and in the year hundreds of girls are picked up from the street. If they cannot show legitimate connections in Chicago and are not living at home they are sent down town for a medical examination. The results of these medical examinations are horrifying. Probably the most pathetic side of the situation is the age of the girls taken into custody. Kids that should be in school and under parental care, walking the streets for a pick up, booze, roadhouse, and the eventual culmination.”72

Sheridan Plaza advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, March 6, 1921.

The neighborhood’s lodging options included the 500-room Sheridan Plaza Hotel, which advertised itself as place where people could live for extended stretches of time. This form of “permanent hotel residence” was an alternative to apartments.73 When the hotel opened in April 1921, a room and bath for two persons cost $100 to $130 per month ($1,700 to $2,200 in today’s money).74 A few months later, the hotel cut those rates, suggesting that two people could pay $45 each to share a room. That bill covered more than just the room: The hotel also paid for guests’ electric lighting, laundry, cleaning, window washing, telephones, and storage of their valuables.75

Marshall Field & Company provided many furnishings for the hotel’s guest rooms, which had “portable” telephones, writing desks, metal waste baskets, and steam heat controlled by thermostat, among other amenities. Every guest room had its own bathroom; 20 of the hotel’s 500 rooms had shower baths. And each hallway had ice water and a drinking fountain.76

Sheridan Plaza Hotel. R84959, Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, Newberry Library.

“The public rooms of the hotel are at your disposal—the music furnished by the hotel orchestra is for your enjoyment,” Sheridan Plaza boasted in an ad. 77 Hotel Monthly magazine said the grand lobby was “one of the most strikingly handsome rooms in America, its vaulted ceiling thirty-three feet high, and its architectural lines a masterpiece.” The spaces overlooking this lobby included “a musicians’ gallery.”78

Sheridan Plaza guests could conveniently dine in the hotel’s restaurant, where a table d’hôte luncheon cost 75 cents and dinners were $1.25. Cheaper food was available in the hotel’s self-service Narcissus Grill, open from 6:30 a.m. to midnight. “Meals will be ready at any time you desire,” the hotel said.79 With a seating capacity of 210, this cafeteria was serving an average of 2,500 meals a day in 1921.80

And living at Sheridan Plaza made it easier for people to entertain their friends, the hotel said: “Here you can entertain your friends at a moment’s notice, without thought as to whether enough has been provided or whether it will suit.”81

Not everyone could get a room at Sheridan Plaza. “The choosing of the clientele is most carefully done—references being required in all instances—so that the high standard of the hotel will always be faithfully reflected by its guests,” the hotel explained in an ad.82

In spite of the Sheridan Plaza’s claims about carefully curating its tenants, the hotel made headlines with a scandalous episode in 1926: A “pretty blonde seamstress” said five men associated with a real estate company had trapped her inside a room for a “wild” party that lasted several days, strapping her with belts to a davenport and severely beating her. The 23-year-old woman was hospitalized with bruises and blackened eyes after this “orgy,” as a newspaper headline called it. The men faced criminal charges, but then the case was dismissed when the woman married one of the men she’d accused of brutality.83

And yet, Sheridan Plaza promised “an atmosphere of quiet dignity,”84 while hyping its proximity to all of Uptown’s attractions. “It is convenient to the shops and theatres—to the parks, bathing beaches and bridle paths—and to the social life of the North Side,” the hotel said. “And it has every convenience for the business man or woman as well as persons of leisure.”85 The rooms on the upper floors had views of Lake Michigan,86 and the Daily National Hotel Reporter noted that “the kaleidoscopic panorama of Sheridan road can be enjoyed to the utmost from the windows of the main dining room.”87

In That Royle Girl, Balmer described the streetlights going dark at midnight at the corner of Sheridan and Wilson, as the lights illuminating store windows also switched off. “Hotels were left agleam; and the wide windows of a resplendent refectory glowed with the tints of shaded lights upon its many gay tables where midnight couples eyed one another over sherbets and cakes and chocolate,” he wrote. “The fires of a grill flickered upon a further pane. Young men emerged from, and others vanished into, suddenly discovered doorways. Dance music beat its moaning measure.”88

Ralf Gall offered another description of the scene after midnight in that vicinity: “People without overcoats hurry into the eat shop on Clarendon avenue. They buy ham, dill pickles, cream, and a half pound of coffee. Goin’ to be a little party up in Eddie’s room. … High school kids just from a dance crowd into the waffle shop, where white-jacketed fellows are frying waffles right in the window. … Throngs pour out of the great dance hall. Pumpkin-colored cabs block traffic. Coppers cuss.”89



1 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 12, 1927, 48.

2 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1927, N5.

3 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1927, N5.

4 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 12, 1927, 48.

5 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 19, 1927, 41.

6 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 26, 1927, 14.

7 Harold Charles Hoffsommer, “The Development of Secondary Centers Within Metropolitan Cities: ‘The Wilson Avenue District,’ Chicago” (master’s thesis, Northwestern University, May 19, 1923), 36–37, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/ien.35556034986190?urlappend=%3Bseq=81%3Bownerid=13510798902020560-101.

8 Henry Justin Smith, Chicago: A Portrait (New York: The Century Co., 1931) 220, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uiuo.ark:/13960/t4sj2j66h?urlappend=%3Bseq=274.

9 Smith, Chicago, 220–222.

10 “‘Protect Women From Thugs,’ Cry of Aroused Citizens, Who Will Hold ‘Safety Meeting,’” Chicago Examiner, June 11, 1911, 3.

11 “Pastors Assail Beach Rowdies,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 12, 1911, 3.

12 “Mayor May Revoke Permits to Beaches,” Inter Ocean, June 21, 1911, 12.

13 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 89.

14 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 88.

15 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 89.

16 Edwin Balmer, That Royle Girl (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1925), 10, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/osu.32435005378526.

17 Balmer, That Royle Girl, 3.

18 Jennie Stoltz, Jennifer Jude Stoltz Family Tree, accessed April 15, 2024, Ancestry.com.

19 Smith, Chicago, 221–222.

20 “Chicago Local Notes,” Daily National Hotel Reporter, August 20, 1921, 4.

21 Smith, Chicago, 220.

22 Ida M. Evans, “The Voice of Blanche Perkins,” Saturday Evening Post, June 17, 1922, 18, 71,  https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.319510014591729?urlappend=%3Bseq=326%3Bownerid=13510798902501116-330; “Ida M. Evans,” Wikipedia, accessed February 15, 2024, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ida_M._Evans.

23 Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Landmark Designation Report: Uptown Square District, October 6, 2016, 19; “Northwestern Elevated (1893-1924),” Chicago-L.org, accessed April 15, 2024, https://chicago-l.org/history/chron_north.html.

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25 Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Landmark Designation Report: Uptown Square District, October 6, 2016, 19.

26 “Peter C. Stohr Arcade Building,” Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, accessed October 11, 2023, https://flwright.org/explore/peter-stohr-arcade-building.

27 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 36–37.

28 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 38.

29 Smith, Chicago, 220.

30 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 68.

31 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 81.

32 Karen K. Gerlach, K. Michael Cummings, Andrew Hyland, Elizabeth A. Gilpin, Michael D. Johnson, and John P. Pierce, “Trends in Cigar Consumption and Smoking Prevalence,” National Cancer Institute, Cigars: Health Effects and Trends. Tobacco Control Monograph No. 9. (Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute. NIH Pub. No. 98-4302, February 1998), 22, https://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/sites/default/files/2020-08/m09_2.pdf.

33 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 80–81.

34 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 70.

35 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 68, 71.

36 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 68.

37 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 71.

38 kdkche, Taylor Family Tree, accessed October 16, 2023; World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918; U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-2016; 1920 U.S. Census, Kansas, McPherson, Battle Hill, enumeration District 0066, sheet 5A; 1930 U.S. Census, Alabama, Lee, Auburn, enumeration district 0012, sheet 8B, Ancestry.com. “Personals,” Opelika-Auburn (AL) News, January 24, 1936, 4; “Today’s Program,” Chattanooga (TN) Daily Times, April 2, 1938, 2.

39 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 68–69.

40 Smith, Chicago, 221.

41 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, June 19, 1927, 41.

42 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1927, 49.

43 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 7, 1927, 6

44 Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Landmark Designation Report: Uptown Square District, October 6, 2016, 12.

45 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 72.

46 Smith, Chicago, 222.

47 Balmer, That Royle Girl, 5.

48 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 3.

49 Irving Cutler, “Jews,” Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/671.html.

50 “Meyer Levin,” Wikipedia, accessed February 14, 2024, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meyer_Levin.

51 Meyer Levin, The Old Bunch (New York: Viking Press, 1937), 288–289, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.$b610327?urlappend=%3Bseq=308%3Bownerid=9007199272329935-310.

52 “Shlump,” Jewish English Lexicon, accessed February 14, 2024, https://jel.jewish-languages.org/words/1630; Victor Mair, “Schlump Season,” Language Log, March 21, 2015, https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=18298. Cited source: Harkavy’s 1910 Yiddish-English dictionary.

53 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 82.

54 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,”  82.

55 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 86.

56 Ernest R. Mowrer, Family Disorganization: An Introduction to Sociological Analysis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), 116–119, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015012860659?urlappend=%3Bseq=142%3Bownerid=13510798884300720-144.

57 Mowrer, Family Disorganization, 111.

58 Mowrer, Family Disorganization, 156–157.

59 Balmer, That Royle Girl, 2–3.

60 Mowrer, Family Disorganization, 155.

61 Hoffsommer, “Wilson Avenue District,” 85–86.

62 Smith, Chicago, 222.

63 “Doubt Cast on Woman’s Hall Murder Story,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 2, 1926, 1.

64 F. Dalton O’Sullivan, Crime Detection (Chicago: O’Sullivan Publishing House, 1928), 496–499, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.31951001572374d?urlappend=%3Bseq=512%3Bownerid=113532604-524.

65 U.S. Census Bureau, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920, Volume III: Population, 1920: Composition and Characteristics of the Population by States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922), 15, 40, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/volume-3/41084484v3ch01.pdf.

66 U.S. Census Bureau, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920, Volume IV: Population 1920: Occupations (Washington: Bureau of the Census, 1923), 692, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/volume-4/41084484v4ch07.pdf.

67 U.S. Census Bureau, Fourteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1920, Volume II: Population, 1920: General Report and Analytical Tables (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922), 154, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/volume-2/41084484v2ch03.pdf.

68 Smith, Chicago, 219–220.

69 U.S. Census Bureau, Composition and Characteristics … 1920, 40.

70 Author’s analysis of 1920 U.S. Census Bureau pages for Chicago Ward 25, enumeration districts 1444 through 1481, Ancestry.com; Ernest W. Burgess and Charles Newcomb, Census Data of the City of Chicago, 1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931), 106–109, 612, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/umn.31951p01104667o?urlappend=%3Bseq=126%3Bownerid=114364795-134.

71 “Morals Probe of Wilson Ave: Sheridan a ‘Pick Up’ Paradise,” Northside Sunday Citizen, October 31, 1926, 1.

72 “Morals Probe of Wilson Ave: Not All Stray Girls and Hard Working Cops,” Northside Sunday Citizen, October 31, 1926, 1.

73 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 22, 1921, part 9, 3.

74 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 3, 1921, part 9, 4.

75 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1921, 5.

76 “The Sheridan-Plaza Hotel,” Hotel Monthly 29 (July-December 1921), 36.

77 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1921, 5.

78 “The Sheridan-Plaza Hotel,” Hotel Monthly 29 (July-December 1921), 28–29.

79 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1921, 5.

80 “The Sheridan-Plaza Hotel,” Hotel Monthly 29 (July-December 1921), 34.

81 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, September 1, 1921, 5.

82 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 24, 1921, part 9, 5.

83 “Get Warrants for 5 on Girl’s Charges,” Chicago Daily News, March 11, 1926, 3; “Quiz Realty Men on Girl’s Attack Story,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 11, 1926, 1; “Realty Men Out on Bonds After Orgy With Girl,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 12, 1926, 6; “Dundas and Irene Make Bow in Court,” Chicago Daily News, July 7, 1926, 5.

84 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, March 13, 1921, part 8, 1.

85 Advertisement, Chicago Daily Tribune, May 22, 1921, part 9, 3.

86 “Chicago Local Notes,” Daily National Hotel Reporter, April 21, 1921, 4.

87 “Chicago Local Notes,” Daily National Hotel Reporter, April 18, 1921, 4.

88 Balmer, That Royle Girl, 1–2.

89 Smith, Chicago, 221–222.