City of the Century: Chicago History Classics

A history book that reads like a novel? Well, not quite, but when anybody asks for a readable history of Chicago, I recommend City of the Century.

It has a plot. Chicago started the 19th century as a vague far western destination meaning perhaps wild onion, perhaps bad smell or perhaps something else. It had one or two Native American villages and a few log cabins. By 1900, Chicago had a population of 1,698,575. It was the second largest city in the U.S. and fifth largest in the world.

City of the Century has subplots: the rise of the railroads, the fight against disease, the stockyards and many more. The author tells the story of 19th century Chicago largely by collecting first person accounts, i.e. eyewitnesses to the events that occurred. Like the Lakeside Classics, the subject of a previous post, these eyewitness accounts add an immediacy and excitement that is lacking in many histories.

With over 500 pages of small text, you will be reading City of the Century for a while. However, it is well suited to reading a section at a time. Being a librarian, I read the 130 additional pages of endnotes first. You can also consider it the abridged reader's version of the 3,000 page Andreas' History of Chicago—the Chicago classic discussed in my last post. They cover much the same time period.

Unfortunately, nobody has done anything like this for the 20th century. Pierce's History of Chicago, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis and Chicago, Metropolis of the Mid-continent are all worthy additions to a Chicago history shelf, but none are quite as fun to read. Perhaps The Third Coast, Chicago's One Book One Chicago selection, which looks at Chicago as a 20th Century cultural force, is the best book to read after City of the Century.

You can check out City of the Century at many Chicago Public Library locations and it is readily available as a new or used book. This post is part of a series on Chicago History Classics.