The Sporting Life: Stories from Chicago Collections archives

Environmental Recreation

Chicago's motto is Urbs in Horto, or City in a Garden, adopted when the city was incorporated in 1837. Chicagoland's public spaces fully live up to this motto, maintaining an excellent environment for sports, recreation and enjoying the natural world within an urban setting. Even the indoor events depicted here, like the Chicago Horticultural Society Flower Show and the Home Run movie theater baseball game, show that Chicagoans can extend outdoor recreation to indoor pursuits. 

Classes at the Chicago Academy of Sciences

Outdoor opportunities include classes like those conducted by Frank Woodruff of the Chicago Academy of Sciences (now housed at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum). This image depicts Woodruff's bird identification class in Lincoln Park, possibly near the Chicago Academy of Sciences building at Armitage and Clark (occupied by the Academy from 1894-1994). In addition to serving as Academy director from 1896 to 1925, Woodruff was an ornithologist and curator at the Academy and wrote Birds of the Chicago Area in 1907. The Chicago Academy of Sciences published that book and many others, committing itself to education and scholarship. This commitment to education included programming for young students as seen here, as well as continuing education and certification for teachers in order for them to better understand and teach the natural sciences. The Academy started offering regular free lectures in 1907 and opened up a children's library in 1911.

Smooth Sailing in Lincoln Park

Other educational and recreational opportunities for children included boat rides in Lincoln Park. This image, taken between 1908 and 1915, shows families at the South Pond of Lincoln Park preparing for a day of boating, fishing, relaxation and taking in the relative peacefulness of Lincoln Park. While the South Pond is currently a wildlife marsh habitat (converted by the Lincoln Park Zoo and Studio Gang in 2010), for 100 years (1908-2008) it was a recreational area focused on people's entertainment and included swan paddleboats, koi goldfish and carp and the rowboats seen in this image. Its main purpose was accommodating city residents yearning for a peaceful pond experience; now it has transitioned back to emphasizing nature and the local ecosystem first, then human enjoyment and recreation second.

Many other images of recreation in Lincoln Park can be found in the Image Gallery, including rowers in the lagoons and gymnasts and runners at the Lincoln Park Zoo. There are also images of Brookfield Zoo, including runners and Chicago Bears player Dan Hampton. More information about these images can be found in the Amateur Hour and Famous Faces.

Flower Shows at the Chicago Coliseum

Flower shows were another way of enjoying and learning about a controlled version of nature. Before the World Wars, the Chicago Horticultural Society flower shows drew large crowds, gained national recognition and elevated horticulture to a fine arts status by coordinating with the Art Institute and providing educational programming. The Chicago Coliseum, located at 15th Street and Wabash Avenue, hosted the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Annual Flower Shows. These shows brought attention to the need for children to experience gardens and nature. There were many initiatives during the Progressive Era to get children involved in nature and the outdoors. Landscape architects like Jens Jensen and Frederick Law Olmsted designed many urban playlots. Progressive educational programs promoted curricula integrated with nature exploration, like the Woodruff class above. Children’s Gardens as well as Victory Gardens became a focus during the Depression Era and World War II. You can read more about Progressive Era institutions in the Amateur Hour section as well.

The Chicago Coliseum, home to the flower shows, has a storied history in Chicago as an entertainment venue. Charles Gunther originally built its facade to house a museum whose centerpiece was the Civil War Era Libby Prison, moved from Virginia and reconstructed brick by brick in 1889. The museum closed in 1898 and the facade was used to front the new Chicago Coliseum arena, which stayed open until 1971, and hosted a variety of entertainment from sports to music to exhibitions like flower shows.

Baseball on the Big Screen

By the 1930s, even more entertainment venues had opened in Chicago. Of particular popularity were movie theaters, including the ornate movie theater palaces that started opening in 1917 in Chicago. Many of these buildings are still extant, if in danger. The Depression Era saw a boom in movie production as it was a relatively inexpensive means of entertainment. This booklet and game card for "Home Run: Baseball of the Screen," is one item that appears to have been available at movie theaters during the 1930s. We actually know very little about this piece, other than it has a 1936 copyright registration date and the company that patented and sold it, Garden City Novelty Manufacturing Company, was based in Chicago and sold other novelty items like coin-operated machines. If you have more information about this piece or any other pieces in this exhibit, we encourage you to contact us.

Learn More

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

Sources consulted for information on this page not linked above and sources for further reading:

Image Gallery

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This page references:

  1. Boat rides in South Pond, Lincoln Park
  2. Frank Woodruff bird class