Note: This article was first published Mar, 2013, and revised in Sept, 2017 – more newspapers are being digitized all the time, making searches for the term more fruitful!
One of the questions I get asked the most is “Why do they call Chicago the ‘windy city?'” And the truth is, I have no freaking idea. No one does, honestly.
Most Chicagoans grow up hearing that it referred to the politicians being full of hot air – sometimes you hear it was specifically due to their efforts to secure Chicago as a world’s fair site, and was spread by jealous New Yorkers. A couple of tour companies seem to be particularly into that angle. And “windy” was certainly a common term for someone who was full of hot air in those days.
In reality, though, the term appeared in newspapers well before then, and seems to have been in common parlance by the 1870s, well over a decade before the World’s Fair bargaining started.
The earliest known mention of Chicago as a “Windy City” came in 1858, in a Tribune article about local youths hoping to be called up to serve in the Utah War, a fight (which ended up having no battles) between the U.S. government and Mormon settlers. It seemed as though they weren’t going to be called up in April 1858, and a Tribune writer said “A hundred militia officers, from corporal to commander, condemned to air their vanity and feathers only for the delectation of the boys and servant girls in this windy city. Soldiers in the army of Utah, a thousand centuries command you to – go to work! That will cool your valor.”
Many articles pinpoint that one as the earliest use of the phrase, but it it’s sort of a false positive, in that he isn’t using it as a nickname or implying that Chicago is known as “the Windy City.” What the heck the author was on about is an open question; it being April, he was probably just using the phrase because it happened to be windy that week, the way one might call Chicago “this snowy city” in January.
The first time I can find it as a nickname is in a Harrisburg Telegraph article from December 5, 1867, when Edward Weston, a popular pedestrian who often made headlines with his long walks, completed a trek from Portland, ME to Chicago. The headline noted that he had arrived in “The Windy City.” The article didn’t elaborate on what they meant, but it’s worth noting that it sure sounds like they were using nickname that was in common parlance.
An August, 1869 issue of the Cincinnati Gazette mentioned that lots of people from Dayton were going to Chicago “to take a look at the windy city.” The St. Louis Democrat used the same term in December of that year.