My birthday last month saw the arrival of The Chicagoan, A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Era by Neil Harris (Thanks Mom and Dad), and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.
One need not be a scholar of magazine design history to know (or at least strongly suspect) that the Chicagoan bears a strong resemblance to The New Yorker of the same era. This similarity extends beyond the appearance of the magazine—both the early New Yorker and The Chicagoan share a certain knowing snarkiness and urbanity that is very appealing. In many ways the parallels make the small differences that much more intense. It’s been some time since I really sat down with the first few volumes of The New Yorker, but my sense is that the Chicagoan has a scrappiness that the other publication lacks; and a fair bit more bluster. The NY magazine predates the Chicagoan by just 16 months, so there was doubtlessly some influence, but some of the parallels are likely due to the similarly urban audiences, a launch in the same (roaring) era, and similar cultural, arts, and journalistic agendas.
Unlike other books about great magazines, which often make the mistake of telling you how wonderful and clever everyone on staff was, this book shows. Hundreds of covers and pages are printed in full size, allowing for plenty of reading, and The Chicagoan is a pleasure to read—full of witty writing and visual treats. The experience is almost like discovering the dusty bound volumes yourself in a forgotten corner of a library basement.
The other thing that differentiates the Chicago magazine from its NY cousin is that it covers some of what turned out to be a very important few years for the city of big shoulders. With the Colombian Exposition, and the increasing prominence of the city as an industrial, shipping and eventually academic center happening concurrently, The Chicagoan documents a city as it was becoming confident of its own importance—The New Yorker was born into a town that was mature in a way that Chicago was not.
The book’s cover: