Chicago Map Exhibit

Vol. XVII No. 3 - FALL 2006

By: Robert Remer

Why Collect Maps?

Why do we collect anything? Baseball cards? Books? China plates? Frogs? Or maps? Why do museums collect? This collector has an insatiable desire to possess, to touch, to view and to learn about things Chicago. Maps were an adjunct to collecting books on Chicago.

In our family, National Geographic was how we learned to read. Boy Scouts and camping sparked an early interest in figuring out how to get around without street signs – with compass and occasional map. In moments of reflection, I often think I may have had a prior life as a surveyor in the Old West.

It wasn’t until I volunteered to bring some of my maps to the museum that I realized how many maps and map books were filling up our home. My understanding wife Katie gave up the dining room for three months while I emptied closets, bookshelves and the basement – the room was jammed.

What this exercise taught me was how important maps are in art, history and life. Maps record so much about what and where we are, where we want to go and how we live. I hope you too will enjoy these maps and, maybe, you will catch the collecting bug!

About the Exhibit

The maps in this exhibit range in age from 1781 to the future. They have Chicago as their subject, but they serve many purposes. Some are art; some are history; some tell us how to get around; some tell us how and where we live. Maps can tell us many things about Chicago – we even have bordellos and a literary map. The exhibit is organized in the following sections:

Early Chicago

Maps going back to 1781 (before du Sable, Chicago’s first settler) show how little was known about Chicago by some map makers who had little foreknowledge about how great Chicago would become. You will also see the layout of Fort Dearborn and how the Chicago River actually curved down along what is now Michigan Avenue.

Chicago Fire

The Chicago fire of 1871 was perhaps Chicago’s most traumatic event. Meeting you as you enter the museum is a colored map showing the “burnt district.” We also have maps showing the time frame of the fire, post-fire relief efforts and the map that exonerated Mrs. O’Leary’s cow.

World’s Columbian Exposition

In 1893, Chicago showed off its post-fire rebirth and wowed the nation with a fair that remade the map of Chicago, the South Side and Jackson Park forever.

Chicago Underfoot

Chicago’s origin as a transportation hub owes much to the geological origins that go back many millennia and glacial ice ages. Did you know there was once a Lake Chicago? That Blue Island was just that? Did you know that parts of Edgewater were sand dunes for the earlier lake?

Plan of Chicago

The exhibit includes an original copy of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, opened to his proposal for islands in the lake and a dramatic park at the end of Bryn Mawr Ave. Chicagoans were full of ideas for the lakefront – from the end of the 19th century to today.


Chicago is a transportation hub for the Midwest – from its origins as the entry to the Illinois and Michigan Canal to its premier role as an airline center. Transportation is a major topic of the civic conversation over Chicago’s history, whether it be the bike trails of the 19th to the 21st centuries, the underground tunnels or the tough commutes in the early days of the automobile (1925!).


The lakefront defines Chicago as does no other feature. It continually changed, as has its parent city. There is a series of maps from the mid to late 19th century. If you look closely at these maps, you will notice the changes that occurred, particularly as Lake Michigan splashing on Michigan Avenue gave way to Grant Park. The Chicago River and Harbor also served as the focal point for Chicago’s expansionist economy. Today, Millennium Park obliterates much of that history.

How and Where We Live

Among the more modern uses of maps is documenting how the population lives, where they live and how they move around. Newer technology also helps us map the population’s health status. There are samples of maps which track crime, land use, property prices, health trends, parks and recreation patterns; we even have a map of all the places that the famed Chicago author Nelson Algren lived. One author even mapped the bordellos of the infamous South Side Levee district. If there is a human activity, it can probably be mapped.