Published from June 1926–April 1935, The Chicagoan is a tiny footnote in magazine history, noteworthy mostly for its intentional mimicry of The New Yorker. By highlighting its literary and artistic greatness, the title attempted to counter Chicago’s thuggish reputation established by Al Capone and co. with reviews of music, art, and drama as well as editorial comment, cartoons, and snappy dispatches on local events unashamedly borrowing the format of The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town.” But the home-grown title lacked The New Yorker’s edge and avant-garde sensibility; with hit-and-miss writing aimed (too obviously, perhaps) at “high-society folk” churned out by a revolving door of editors and writers, the magazine never managed to take off.
The most entertaining part of the magazine for readers today are the pages filled with spoofs of the editors’ own anxieties about Chicago’s notorious criminal reputation—that, and the stunning collection of cover artwork. Every month, striking Art Deco lines depicted the windswept city—flapper girls with scarves waving like flags and skyscraper lights reflected in the lapping waves of Lake Michigan took The New Yorker’s house style and translated it for a Midwestern context. Martin J. Quigley, the publisher, made an early assertion that “Whatever Chicago was and was to be, The Chicagoan must be and become.”
Succumbing to the Great Depression in 1935, the title closed with little notice, never acclaiming the distinct international success it was striving for. Few copies survived, but thanks to the efforts of Neil Harris, a University of Chicago Professor Emeritus of History, the university library’s near complete collection of the magazine is available on a searchable database. Browsing through reveals a beautiful yet brief chapter in the history of early 20th century American illustration, and it uncovers the names of numerous overlooked talent working in the city at the time.
You can find images of the sophisticated and fashionable, as penned by The New Yorker regulars like cartoonist H.O. Hoffman and Keith Don Musselman. Clayton Rawson will be a less familiar name, even for mag junkies; he was a mystery writer and amateur magician who moved to the city from Ohio in 1929 and made his living from illustration.
The Chicagoan covers also reveal the day jobs of several Chicago-based artists prominent during the 20s and 30s. For example American trompe-l’œil still-life painter Aaron Bohrod created artworks for the magazine after his years studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. For his artistic career, Bohrod painted views of a broken-down city and its working class, but for The Chicagoan he was commissioned to imagine breezy scenes of frolicking and stylish city-dwellers.These lofty illustrations are Utopian in nature—covers of The Chicagoan were canvases for projecting a vision of what life in the city could be like. Whether or not you agree with its fanciful outlook, the fantastic pictures would have emblazoned shabby streets as they lined magazine stands.