A Prairie Avenue Christmas



By Melissa Ehret



                                                                                   –Christmas Tree, late 1800s

If the holiday season was embraced with joy by Chicagoans in the late 19thcentury, it was elevated to an art form by the residents of Prairie Avenue.  With families such as Philip D. Armour and Marshall Field as neighbors, it could be safely assumed that one’s holiday tables would be laden with the finest food, and that exceptional gifts would be placed under the tree.

Since so much of the land surrounding Chicago was still undeveloped, Christmas trees were never in short supply.  Affluent families would often purchase the most stately spruce that could be accommodated under their parlors’ high ceilings. Families loved to adorn their trees with ornaments made of gingerbread, fruit and nuts, as well as garlands strung with popcorn or cranberries. Glass ornaments started being mass-produced in Germany during the 1880s, and it is likely that Chicago retailers started importing the sparkling new baubles concurrently. Trees were lit with small candles that were affixed to tree branches.  Buckets of water or sand were placed closely to the trees in case a candle’s flame ignited the tree.

Speaking of fires, imagine having lost family members, homes and most of the city in what was the conflagration of 1871. Then, consider how Chicago’s citizens rose, Phoenix-like, to rebuild their beloved town.  It must still have seemed miraculous during Prairie Avenue’s heyday in the 1880s and 1890s for Christmas shoppers to be able to wander through palatial department stores such as Marshall Field & Company, Carson Pirie Scott, the Fair, and Schlesinger & Mayer. Department stores were held in reverence, at least by their advertising departments, as evidenced by this ad from the early 1900s:




This well-dressed family enjoys a day of shopping in Chicago’s busy streets.

Holiday attire, especially for the ladies of Prairie Avenue, was beyond the comprehension – and comparative budgets – of the average Chicagoan. This dress, now at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, was produced by a team of seamstresses at Marshall Field’s establishment. It would have been perfect for a Christmas celebration.



                                                                               –Gown created by Marshall Field & Company

Charles Frederick Worth was the couture darling of the late 19th century. Only a handful of Chicago women would have been able to afford one of his creations, but here is a sampling of Worth gowns that make today’s Ugly Christmas Sweaters wither in comparison:





And what good was a Worth gown without the appropriate accessories?  Again, it was Marshall Field & Company to the rescue.



A Prairie Avenue child would have found delight in presents under the tree.  Gifts included a range from the simple (marbles, jacks, rolling hoops), to dolls and dollhouses, tin soldiers, and toy train sets.

A lucky child might have received a puppy. According to the American Kennel Club, the most popular dog breeds of the era included Saint Bernards, English Setters, Cocker Spaniels and Beagles.



A Persian kitten, then relatively exotic, would have been a sweet gift.

The book of the catLondon,Cassell and company, limited,1903.http://biodiversitylibrary.org/item/77491

One of the most high-tech gifts for people of all ages was a stereopticon, or “magic lantern.” A primitive version of the ViewMaster toy, the stereopticon was a hand-held viewer that contained two lenses arranged to produce a multidimensional view of the slides placed behind them.



                                                              —Stereopticon viewer with slides

Places of worship played a major role in the development of the young city of Chicago. Many faiths were represented in the area. They provided essential goods and services for the needy, as well as venues for Chicago’s elite to socialize.  Many Prairie Avenue families, including the Armours, Pullmans, and Cobbs, attended services at Second Presbyterian Church at 1936 South Michigan Avenue.  Arthur Meeker, Jr., son of a prominent Armour executive, used Second Presbyterian as a backdrop for a social encounter in his 1949 novel, Prairie Avenue.  In one chapter, Meeker’s young protagonist, Ned Ramsay, spotted a friend seated with her mother in the family pew, observing the practice of the wealthy in purchasing or renting pews for their exclusive use.  Second Presbyterian and its extraordinary architecture still thrive, as is evidenced by this recent Classic Chicago Magazine article.



Grace Episcopal Church, a popular venue among Prairie Avenue residents, stood at the corner of Eighth Street and Wabash Avenue from 1859 to 1914 when it was destroyed by fire. It was soon rebuilt, and its most modern building continues to be a vibrant faith community.



One of Chicago’s first synagogues, the Sinai Congregation, was located at the corner of 21st Street and Indiana Avenue. The building featured Moorish-inspired architecture from the legendary team of Adler and Sullivan. Sinai was, and continues to be, one of the most socially progressive congregations in the Chicago area.  The Near South Side’s Catholic families, including the countless Irish immigrants who served as maids, cooks and coachmen on Prairie Avenue, attended Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church at 911 S. Wabash Avenue. Old St. Mary’s, founded in 1833, continues to serve as a place of worship and education for South Loop families.

Few could outdo the people of Prairie Avenue in terms of holiday feasts. Christmas dinners would last for hours, from the aperitifs to the postprandial port. Roasted turkeys, geese and pigs were often the main courses.  The Prairie Avenue Cookbook, available at the Glessner House Museum (1800 S. Prairie Avenue), is a fascinating resource for 19th century social history, customs and family recipes that have been modified for current use.  According to a not-updated sidebar menu, “the Christmas turkey should be cooped up and fed well some time before Christmas.  Three days before it is slaughtered, it should have an English walnut forced down its throat three times a day, and a glass of sherry once a day.  The meat will be deliciously tender, and have a fine nutty flavor.”  Cooks were no more merciful to the other birds: “In selecting a goose or duck … take hold of the toes and pull them apart. If the web separates easily, it is young; but if it requires any great amount of physical force to separate, lay it to one side … ‘tis an old fowl, and you will reap no profit from its purchase unless you are keeping boarders.”

Things changed. Prairie Avenue ceased to be a fashionable residential location by the 1920s. Many of the elegant homes have been demolished, and skyscraper apartment buildings stand in their places. The invention of the automobile forever altered Chicago’s thoroughfares. Suburban housing developments replaced farmland as they marched toward the state’s borders.  But some things remain the same as ever: The sun rises magnificently over Lake Michigan, shedding a pink glow over the mosaic of ice caps. Brutal winter winds still roar through the Loop’s skyscraper canyons. The holiday windows at Marshall Field’s (as many Chicagoans still refer to the store purchased by Macy’s in 2006) continue to delight people of all ages. Christmas trees and menorahs continue to light the snowy nights. Children still look for Santa in the midnight starlit skies over Chicago.  We all hope for peace.  We all believe in a better world.