Past Time



To its owners it was “The Eighth Wonder of the World … The Acme of Mechanical Science,” and even if those claims seem a little inflated, the Great Historical Clock is undeniably a wonder. It was built by Roland Hurlburt, a Boston carpenter who apparently was enchanted by a similar monumental clock he saw at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Working with his son, he completed it around 1884, and probably exhibited it at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.Read more »


The outdoor electric-light spectacular that transformed cities all over the world was born at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, where a single lighted column glowed with no fewer than four thousand incandescent lamps. By 1900, fifteen hundred incandescent bulbs had been hung on the narrow front of the Flatiron Building in New York City to form America’s first electrically lighted outdoor advertising sign. After that, incandescent signs began to flicker on across the country.Read more »

Said Chicago’s Al Capone:“I Give The Public What The Public Wants…”

What the public wanted, it seemed, was a vice and bootleg business netting sixty million dollars a year-and many gangland funerals

The newspapers called him Scarface, but the sobriquet did not safely bear repeating in his presence. It was Mister Capone instead, or Big Al; or, among trusted lieutenants of his palace guard, “Snorky,” a street word connoting a certain princely elegance. The elegance was mostly in cloth, in expensive suits from Marshall Field, silk pajamas from Sulka, the upholstery of the custom Cadillac that was said to have cost more than twenty grand in 1920’s dollars.

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Spalding’s Austrian Baseball Tour.

Albert Spalding’s middle name was Goodwill, which seemed fitting in 1888 when the baseball impresario and sporting goods king decided to take the game on a grand tour to parts of the world as yet unexposed to the glories of the American national pastime. His own Chicago White Stockings and an All America team drawn from both professional leagues would play exhibition games around the globe.Read more »

An Immodest Proposal: Nikita To Adlai

In early January, 1960, Adlai E. Stevenson received a puzzling telephone call at his Chicago law office from Mikhail A. Menshikov, the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Stevenson, who had been the unsuccessful Democratic nominee for President in 1952 and 1956 and was still titular head of the Democratic party, had stated more than once—although some of his friends were not convinced—that he did not intend to run for the Presidency a third time, in 1960.

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The Transcontinental Railroad

What it was like for the first travelers

I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steamwhistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world… BridginRead more »

Dark Carnival


In 1973 Michael Lesy published perhaps the most unusual Ph.D. thesis of all time under the title Wisconsin Death Trip . In this strange and controversial book he selected some two hundred of the thousands of photographs taken in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, by Charles Van Schaick between the years 1890 and 1910, and presented them along with clippings from local newspapers. The clippings were brief, mordant accounts of murder,.Read more »

Michigan Timber

An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state

The book from which the following excerpt is drawn is to be published later this month by W. W. Norton O” Company; it is one of a series of bicentennial state histories being prepared under the aegis of the American Association for State and Local History.

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“...As Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”

Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had

In the decades before the First World War he was the most dynamic, persuasive, and at the same time the most lovable figure that American Socialism had produced. He hated capitalism but could hate no man. Hoosier-born, he combined in his gangling person a rural nativist populism and the class-conscious zeal of the urban foreign-born worker.Read more »

Maple Leaf Rag

“It is needless,” wrote his publisher, “to say anything of the writer of ‘Maple Leaf,’ ‘Cascades,’ ‘Sunflower’ or ‘Entertainer.’ You know him.” But this black genius died penniless and all but forgotten

Scott Joplin, riding high in the early flush of his success, wrote the jaunty words on the preceding page for a song that he fashioned in 1904 from his sensational piano rag hit of 1899. And “The Maple Leaf Rag” was all that he claimed; it changed his life, and it changed American music. Read more »