The Center of It All

Chicago’s Loop in the Early Twentieth Century

No bright-light district in the city of Chicago shined brighter or commanded the attention of more Chicagoans than the Loop, the city’s long-standing retail and entertainment center.

Part of the Loop’s mass appeal was the wide variety of amusements that could be enjoyed there at all hours of the day and night. But there was much more to it than the simple availability of cheap thrills and exciting entertainment. Much of the area’s popularity, particularly with middle-class Chicagoans, stemmed from the complex geographical arrangement of the Loop’s amusements, which influenced how freely Chicagoans of diverse social and economic backgrounds commingled as they went about their nighttime revelries.

Establishments located in the very heart of the Loop, where land prices and rents were highest, catered primarily to women during the day and white, middle-class couples in the evening. Here, along State, Randolph, and Clark Streets, were situated the city’s leading department stores, its largest movie palaces and vaudeville houses, and many of its better night clubs and restaurants.

Surrounding the core of the Loop, on less expensive land situated along streets with above-average pedestrian activity, were numerous discount and specialty retailers, small movie theaters, and high-volume cafeterias. Because of the lower prices charged at such establishments, they attracted a more heterogeneous clientele, including lower-paid Loop office workers, working women, and, in some limited cases, African-Americans. Discount department stores along State Street between Adams and Congress, for instance, were, compared to their counterparts up the street, far less concerned about the wealth and social status of their customer base. They made their profits by selling in volume rather than in catering to Chicagoans willing to pay higher prices for stylish goods and personalized service.

The outer fringes of the Loop were home to the area’s least expensive and most widely criticized amusement activities, including burlesque houses, dime museums, taxi-dance halls, penny arcades, cigar stores, and chop suey joints. Centered along Madison Street west of Canal and State Street south of Van Buren, these so-called “skid rows” primarily attracted male audiences, many of whom lived in nearby budget hotels and worked in the surrounding rail yards. Other regulars included curious teenage boys and university men. Most Chicago women kept clear of the city’s skid rows, fearing unwanted propositions, possible sexual assault, and a bad reputation. Even the dance halls discouraged female customers, instead preferring to hire women to dance with their male patrons. The shape and character of Chicago’s skid rows changed frequently as establishments challenged contemporary standards of morality, became the targets of anti-liquor or anti-prostitution crusaders, and received orders to shut down by the police, often only to be replaced by a similar business a few weeks later.

An intricate web of invisible but widely acknowledged social boundaries criss-crossed the Loop during the early twentieth century and influenced the ways in which individuals experienced its public spaces and amusement activities. One’s class, race, and gender all determined where one could and could not go in safety and comfort. Women, for example, felt far more welcome in the Loop’s department stores than did men, but wealthier women received better service than poorer women at high-end firms like Marshall Field and Company and black women were encouraged to shop in the bargain basements rather than on the main floors. Loop restaurants and cafeterias were also carefully segregated by class, race, and gender. Some restaurants excluded women and blacks altogether, and the prices on the menu helped regulate whether the clientele was predominantly white-collar or blue-collar.

The Loop’s invisible social boundaries also fueled the development of Chicago’s skid rows. Skid rows were nothing more than highly specialized amusement districts that, in contrast to other Loop entertainment areas, catered almost exclusively to men. The removal of promiscuous, male-oriented, primarily working-class, and often interracial amusements to the Loop’s periphery and the creation of a specialized zone of heterosocial, middle-class, white-only amusements in the heart of the Loop was one of the most significant developments in the history of Chicago popular culture. Only with the total or partial exclusion of confirmed bachelors, the poor, and blacks from areas most commonly frequented by middle-class Chicagoans did they have confidence to embark on the project of redefining marital and sexual relations.

Their collective efforts, which State Street merchants and Randolph Street impresarios facilitated in the hopes of economic gain, transformed how individual Chicagoans related to commercialized forms of leisure and recreation. Fading away were the days when parents arranged the marriage of their children and unhappy husbands turned to prostitutes or burlesque shows. All that had become “old-fashioned” in the minds of young, “modern” couples. By the end of the Jazz Age, however, commerical leisure activities had become an indispensible part of the middle-class search for eligible marriage and sex partners. Such couples grew accustomed to meeting one another, “falling in love,” and sustaining their marriages through their mutual enjoyment of male-female leisure activities. And it was the movie palaces, night clubs, and department stores of the newly reorganized Loop that helped them achieve that goal.