The Sporting Life: Stories from Chicago Collections archives

Amateur Hour

Amateur athletes showcase their skills everywhere you look in Chicago, from classes for children to bicycle commuting to fundraising runs organized around the city. Chicago is an active city and it shows in our citizens. This page features a sampling of images from Chicago Collections of our amateur athletes, but is nowhere near comprehensive. For more images we suggest you check out the links at the bottom on the page to look at more resources in EXPLORE Chicago Collections.

Classes and Competition: Childhood Sports

Classes and activities to keep children active are well-represented in our collections, especially in the robust history of settlement houses, boys and girls clubs and other social service agencies in Chicago. This first image is from the Off-the-Street Club, Chicago's oldest boys and girls club, located on Chicago's west side. John McMurray founded the Club in 1898, which still operates today in West Garfield Park. This 1947 image depicts two young boys in boxing gloves sparring with instructor assisting. Settlement houses like the Off-the-Street Club were integral parts of the Progressive Era in Chicago during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of the earliest and most famous examples of a settlement house was Jane Addams' Hull-House. Places like Hull-House and the Off-the-Street Club offered classes to children as part of their mission to educate and socialize residents of the city, often focusing on lower-income populations without much access to educational resources. While many of these organizations still exist, the philosophies of education and assimilation espoused by settlement houses has shifted over time.

Along with settlement houses, the Chicago Park District also facilitated activities for children, including city-wide marble tournaments. This image from 1958 shows the winners of a contest in Garfield Park. Thousands of children competed in city-wide tournaments in the mid-twentieth century and city champions went on to play in regional and national competitions*. Popularity waned, however, and the Park District ended their sponsorship of the tournaments in the mid 1960s*.

Students of all ages have fun practicing their skills. In our Image Gallery see a Chicago Park District gymnastics troupe (also featured as our cover image), a unicyclist and pickup football at the Illinois Institute of Technology and intramural pushball and inline roller hockey at Loyola University Chicago. More information about sports on college campuses can be found in the Academics and Athletics.

Charity Runs in Chicago

Chicagoans participate in amateur sports well past school age, and our two beautiful zoos provide a perfect opportunity for amateur running and fundraising. You can see the longevity of recreational runs in Chicago, starting with the running boom in the 1970s that led to established races at Lincoln Park Zoo, like this image of the starting line at the 1984 WLS Run for the Zoo race*. The tradition continues in the 2015 image of the Brookfield Zoo Fun Run, showing some of the more than 2400 runners rounding the corner by the bison. Interestingly enough, if the bison were allowed to participate they would soundly defeat all the amateur humans, since bison can run up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour. Even faster humans tend to top out around 16 miles (25.75 kilometers) per hour.

In the Club

Club sports abound in Chicago, covering activities as diverse as running, archery and rowing. The Lincoln Park Lagoon, also known as the “North Lagoon,” is a 13.37 acre stretch of open water created after Olaf Benson’s plan in 1887 as the first part of the Lincoln Park landfill.  The lagoon is banked by concrete, surrounding turf grass and trees and a running path along the west bank.  Rowing clubs like those shown on the postcard here​ use the Rowing Lagoon in the early mornings. Chicago's historic lagoons are man-made bodies of water that provide habitat for birds, crayfish, dragonflies, turtles, frogs and fish; they also support native vegetation along the shoreline. Chicago's rivers and lagoons have long been sources of recreation for rowers, and sometimes for spectators - the prize for a 5-mile rowing course along the Chicago River in 1858 was $1,000! Rowing was generally not as lucrative as that particular race, but it has remained a popular pastime for both colleges and clubs in the city.

Everyday Chicagoans gamely participate in amateur sports all year round. In the Image Gallery below, you can see examples of Chicagoans taking boat rides, bowling, rowing and participating in archery. Our famous (but not necessarily athletic) Chicagoans also lent their caché to sporting activities. These images are also in the gallery below, and many are discussed in more detail in Famous Faces.

Learn More

There is more information about amateur athletes in EXPLORE Chicago Collections, as well as collections generally about Sports and Recreation and Leisure.

Sources consulted for information on this page not linked above and sources for further reading:​Please note that starred resources (*) are available online through ProQuest Historic Newspapers, a subscription database. For access, you can visit or email one of our member institutions, many of which have a subscription. Many public and academic libraries across the United States also offer access to this database.

Image Gallery

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  1. Two boys in boxing gloves sparring at the Off-the-Street Club
  2. Garfield Park (0204) Events - Marble tournaments, 1958
  3. Lincoln Park color postcard of lagoon rowing crew