The on-site archives of the Chicago History Museum are packed with oddities. Need proof? Take Abraham Lincoln’s Victorian beaded house slippers or a drinking water container that doubled as a toilet and was pulled out of a friggin’ fallout shelter in the ’60s. The first official inventory of the institution’s collection is under way, but senior collection manager Britta Keller Arendt estimates that 40,000 to 50,000 artifacts are in storage, many of which were donated. “A lot of times someone’s grandparent has died and they’re going through the basement and find really cool stuff,” says Keller Arendt. Everything the museum holds on to has a connection to Chicago’s past, including furniture from the original Marshall Field’s department store and objects that miraculously survived the Great Chicago Fire.
If it was printed on paper in Chicago, there’s a good chance that you can find it in the three-story library here, which contains more than 23 million objects and documents that date back to the late 1800s. Walking through the stacks, you’ll spot Chicago city directories (the precursor to phone books), theater programs, newspapers, school yearbooks and even menus from long-departed restaurants.
Packed with mannequins in various states of undress and shelves filled with bespoke hats, the museum’s costume room is one of the busiest spots in the building. With a collection of more than 50,000 articles of clothing and textiles, the museum is constantly lending out pieces from its archives, which are filled with things like WWII uniforms, one of Lincoln’s signature top hats and vintage CTA conductor attire. One highlight is a selection of more than 600 hats made by Benjamin Green-Field, a Chicago milliner in the ’50s and ’60s known for his gaudy, outlandish designs featuring bees, swans and clocks—further proof that the Midwest’s sense of style is seriously underappreciated.