18 Things That Chicago Has Given America

Rachel Kuzma/Thrillist

This may come as a shock to some outside the Midwest, but Chicago has produced a heck of a lot more than deep dish pizza, mobsters, and Superfans. While other cities may have tried to pick up where we left off, we’ll always have the proper bragging rights on these 18 innovations. Enjoy those Twinkies.

1. The film industry

Sorry, Hollywood -- we were considered the capital of filmmaking years before film studios began popping up out west. In the early 1900’s, Chicago was home to more film studios and production companies than any other city. The largest film studio in the world at that time was Essanay Studios, which launched Charlie Chaplin’s career. Essanay is notable for creating the Western genre... which, you know, probably made more sense to film out west. Perhaps they should’ve tried to popularize a Mid-Western genre instead? (I’ll show myself out).


2. Mobile phones

If you’ve ever wondered what life would be like without your cell phone, you’ll want to thank Chicagoan Martin Cooper. While working at Motorola in 1973, he created the first handheld mobile phone. After ten years of tinkering, the 4.4lb DynaTAC 8000X was officially launched from Motorola’s Schaumburg headquarters, straight into Zack Morris’ hands.

3. Car racing

The first American automobile race took place in Chicago in 1895. The 54-mile course ran from Jackson Park to Evanston and back, and was won in seven hours and 53 minutes, or about as long as it would take you to walk the exact same distance. Regardless, we’re eternally grateful to the Chicago Times-Herald race for paving the way for an obnoxious number of Fast & Furious movies.

4. The death of disco

Tony Manero barely had a chance to put away his white patent leather shoes before disco began to fall out of popularity. The backlash against disco gave the White Sox the brilliant idea to host an anti-disco night featuring DJs Steve Dahl and Garry Meier. Anyone who brought a disco record to Comiskey was admitted for 98 cents, and the records collected were to be blown up between games. Over 50,000 people showed up to the Disco Demolition, and when Steve Dahl blew up the records, chaos ensued. An estimated 7,000 people ran into the field and began setting fires, ripping up bases, and, well, celebrating the death of disco the way any respectable rock fan would.


5. Disney -- the man, the movies, and the parks

Walt Disney -- who was born in Hermosa -- learned how to draw at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and became a cartoonist for the school paper while attending McKinley High School. Many years later, it is said that Walt Disney dreamed up the concept of Disneyland based on the stories of his father Elias, who worked as a contractor at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

6. The gay rights movement

Founded in Chicago in 1924, the Society for Human Rights was notable for being both first recognized gay rights organization in the United States, in addition to producing Friendship and Freedom, America’s first publication for homosexuals. Although the Society was short-lived, it helped pave the way for the modern gay rights movement.

7. House music

Although Chicagoans can take credit (or blame?) for disco’s demise, we can also take credit for a genre that has its roots in disco: house music. First introduced by DJ Frankie Knuckles at The Warehouse, by the late 1980s, house music had gained popularity around the world, and went on to inspire dozens of other genres.


8. Modern architecture

From building of the world’s first skyscraper in 1885 to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and the world’s tallest building, Chicago has led modern architecture in America. While some may no longer consider the Sears Tower tallest in North America, we disagree. If antennas are your thing, then you may consider New York’s One World Trade Center building the tallest. However, we still maintain that the Sears Tower is the tallest... and we also maintain that it should never be called Willis Tower.

9. America’s first serial killer

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago introduced many wonders to the United States: the Ferris wheel, zippers, the dishwasher, Nikola Tesla’s lamps, a host of popular breakfast foods, and, uh, America’s first serial killer. Like many enterprising Chicagoans, HH Holmes realized that the upcoming World’s Fair was the perfect opportunity to build a hotel on his property at 63rd and Wallace. Unfortunately for his guests, HH Holmes’ structure was more “murder castle” than hotel. The building featured soundproof rooms that were built for the sole purpose of gassing, hanging, suffocating, or incinerating his victims. While the exact number of victims is unknown, it is estimated that he may have murdered as many as 200 people before receiving the death penalty in 1896.


10. Jazz

While we can’t take credit for the birth of the genre itself -- all credit for that goes to New Orleans -- the term "Jazz" was coined by the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1914. During the Great Migration, Dixieland style music was brought to Chicago. Thanks to musicians such as Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Chicago became the epicenter of the swinging jazz scene of the 1920’s.

11. Your 9-5 work schedule

Think being stuck in a cubicle eight hours a day sucks? Imagine being stuck there fourteen hours a day, six days a week. When the Chicago labor movement emerged in 1864, its first order of business was demanding an eight hour work day. The issue was fought for the next twenty years and eventually came to a head on May 4th, 1886 at a little event called the Haymarket riot. While the event caused some industries to decrease their workers’ hours, it wasn’t until 1938 that Fair Labor Standards Act made the eight hour workday a reality for everyone. Well, everyone except lawyers and ad agency employees, that is.  

Flickr/Classic Film

12. Processed desserts

If you’re someone who prefers your sugar with a side of preservatives, then you’ll appreciate the all that the Chicagoland area has contributed to the dessert table: Twinkies, Reddi-wip, brownies, and the invention of frozen desserts, courtesy of Sara Lee.

13. Better-looking cities

Think your city is beautiful? You should probably thank Chicago. The World Columbian Exposition’s “White City” spawned the City Beautiful Movement, inspiring America’s biggest cities to place a greater focus on beautification and urban planning. Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago didn’t just have a positive impact on our city -- it also impacted urban planning throughout the United States.


14. The Playboy Mansion

In 1953 -- way back when Crystal Harris was merely a twinkle in her grandmother’s eye -- Hugh Hefner launched Playboy Magazine out of his Hyde Park apartment. To live up to his magazine’s name, Hefner purchased an 1899 Gold Coast mansion, installed an indoor pool with grotto, bowling alley, and rotating bed, hung a sign on the door stating, ‘If You Don’t Swing, Don’t Ring’, and dubbed it the Playboy Mansion. Playboy Bunnies (and the beginnings of the sexual revolution) were also first introduced to the world at Hef’s Playboy Club on Walton Ave.

15.  Improv comedy

While improvisational theater has been around for centuries, modern improvisational comedy got its start with The Compass Players in Hyde Park in 1955. Several members of the group went on to form The Second City in 1959. In the decades since, The Second City, iO, and Annoyance Theatre have been the launching pad for some of America’s most famous comedians.

Flickr/Joe Terrasi

16. Softball

On Thanksgiving Day in 1887, reporter George Hancock and his pals were looking for something to do while hanging around inside Farragut Boat Club. In a stroke of good, old-fashioned Chicago resourcefulness (OK, probably boredom), our pal George tied a boxing glove into the shape of a ball and yelled, “Play ball!”, officially kicking off the world’s first game of softball. Realizing he was onto something, Hancock developed a 16” ball and shorter bat and laid out the official rules for what was then known as Indoor Baseball.

17. Color TV stations

In 1956, NBC Chicago had become the first all-color TV station in the country. We can also take credit for the first televised presidential debates (Nixon vs. Kennedy in 1960), the first televised soap opera (1949), the first anchorman (Walter Cronkite, 1952) and, uh, Bozo's Circus. We’ll always have Bozo.

Flickr/Matt McGee

18. The Wienermobile

Perhaps the most glorious of all Chicago inventions, Oscar Mayer's Wienermobile was designed by the General Body Company of Chicago. While it was originally created for use in Chicago only, the Wienermobile became so popular that it began wandering further. Today, there are seven Wienermobiles touring the US at any given time. You’re welcome, America.

Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Lisa Chatroop is one of the founders of Chicago-based lifestyle blog DailyUrbanista.com, and the only thing she’s contributed to America thus far is snark. Say hi to her on Twitter: @Chicagoista.