History of Chicago Winter and Cold Weather Pastimes

With record cold temperatures, some Chicagoans got lucky and have called it a “snow day.” They’re sipping on hot chocolate in the comfort of their homes. Many are also working from home. And some of us, such as myself, found that the heating in our historic houses doesn’t quite cut it, so we bundled up and trekked to the office all the same. This is Chicago winter. (Always worth noting that winter tours are just like summer tours with Chicago Detours–they’re mostly indoors!)

winter clothes chicago cold
Me and some Chicago winter attire.

With a day of cancelled Metra trains, CTA delays, and businesses closed due to the record cold temperatures, I bet a lot of people are poking around on their computers and killing some time on social media. It’s 2014 and we spend a lot of time on our computers. I’ll admit, I had to post a photo of all this winter fuss.

But what did people do on snow days during winters past? What was life like in the winter in the city of Chicago, let’s say a century ago? On a cold day like today, the entire city would have shut down. The streetcars, trolleys and trains (but not cable cars) would not have attempted to operate. And inside their homes, people would have done exactly what we might imagine: cook, eat, sit by the fire, share stories, read a book, or play cards. People didn’t have North Face gloves. They would not have ventured outside. 1914 was just a few years before radio hit, so that would not have been an option.

chicago boating on ice in winter
Photographer: Chicago Daily News
Source: Chicago Historical Society (DN-0087245)

If it weren’t so cold and just a regular winter day in Chicago, people would head outside to play all kinds of winter water sports, many of them brought over from European immigrants. You could ice fish, ice boat, and even ice dance. While today ice skating happens in eight parks around the city, like Millennium Park, McKinley Park and the Midway Plaisance, back in the day finding a place to go for a spin on frozen ice was about as easy as finding a corner tavern.

"washington park" chicago winter nature
Washington Park in the winter. Photo credit: Amanda Scotese

Let’s look at Washington Park during Chicago winter. In the early 1900s it would have been full of life on a Saturday afternoon. This massive park, which connects to Jackson Park through the Midway Plaisance by the University of Chicago’s campus (which you can tour with us!), had a skate house, skating pond, a special curling pond, and get this – a 35-foot tall toboggan slide. Fun!

You could also take a spin around the park in a horse and carriage, and you would be bundled under wool blankets of course and have straw covering your toes so those wouldn’t freeze. Today, while still very pretty, Washington Park is quite desolate in the winter. Perhaps it’s because everyone is reading on the internet instead of playing outside? We all say “stay warm” all winter long, but how about bundling up for a sledding excursion?

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director of Chicago Detours

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There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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