And who doesn’t?
It’s often remarked that Chicago doesn’t make anything anymore. The city, in addition to being the “hog butcher to the world” and lumber hub between east and west, was throughout its history a major industrial city, drawing workers from around the world to its factories and warehouse, creation dotting the riverfront and radiating into the neighborhoods. Now we’re more known for finance and startups and the normal “transforming city” type businesses. And that’s fine. It’s imperfect, and even cruel, as the city’s new wealth is incredibly uneven. But to say that Chicago is not better off than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, after old man Daley did everything he could to keep Chicago from adjusting to new realities, would be a lie.
That said, there does feel like something has been lost. Into that void comes the Made In Chicago Museum, a new site exploring the things that Chicago used to make. Full disclosure: the site’s creator and collector, Andrew Clayman, is a very good friend of mine, who introduced me to my wife, and who is the best damn shortstop a softball pitcher could hope to have behind him. But I’m promoting this because it is awesome. My friends do a lot of stupid shit that I never write about. It’s a celebration of industry, both high and low, from the most useful to the most ephemeral and whimsical.
Even that stuff, though, stands out because it is long-lasting. Clayman doesn’t just collect and take pictures of old ice skates, clocks, scales, tins, and other gee-gaws and doo-dads. He celebrates a history of manufacturing. On each page there is a history of the company tht made these items, and as much as possible, the people that worked there.
Let’s take this Ice Skater Sharpener, made by FW Planert and Sons in 1910.
Patented in 1910, this metal clamping device was used to keep an ice skate secure while its blade was sharpened. The manufacturer, F.W. Planert & Sons, was one of the “The Big 3” in the Chicago-dominated ice skate industry of the early 20th century. The other two, family rivals Nestor Johnson and Alfred Johnson, were also headquartered on the Northwest side.
Did you know that Chicago used to dominate the ice-skating industry? Or that there was rivalrous Big 3? I certainly didn’t! Throughout the piece, Clayman talks about Planert, his business, and the people that worked there. He’s dug up archival pictures from newspapers, because, throughout the life of a city, nearly everything has been covered.
One of the cooler parts is that for every manufacturing plant, he tells what is there now (in the case of Planert, it is the trendy Cotton Duck, a restaurant in the extremely hip and foodie-oriented Ukranian Village neighborhood.
It’s sort of elegiac. I’m old enough to remember when Ukranian Village felt sort of rough. It wasn’t, but comparable to the neighborhoods we usually hung out in, it had some hard edges that gave you a glimpsed hint of the city before the great transformations of the 90s and 2000s, of the hard city of Algren and Terkel. Even now, the huge gilded churches remind you that the neighborhood has a history, that it isn’t just a name, that it is where an ethnic group found comfort and solace and work in a new and confusing country.
That works has faded, and the neighborhood is entirely disconnected from the idea of being “Ukranian” in any real sense. Most residents probably barely connect it with the Ukraine, the place. It’s just a name. And that’s fine: cities change. The toil that consumed lives fades into blurry pictures and hardly-understood designations. Factories that defined whole existences become transient restaurants waiting for the next food trend to shut them down.
Into that comes Clayman’s project, which reminds us that these neighborhoods, these streets, these cities, and yes, these anachronistic and old-looking products were all created by people, who devoted some or all of their one short and difficult live to make them. It isn’t romantic; these were hard lives. But they were real lives. There is a weight on every page, a lived weight, which in its own way is a cry against the weightless nature of our new disconnected economy.