On March 12th, 2016, Chicago held it’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which included turning the Chicago River a cheery shade of green. This longstanding Chicago tradition started in 1962, thanks to a city plumber who discovered that a dye which his company used to detect pipe leaks also turned the river water a bright shade of Kelly green. Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parades, however, are much older.
While St. Patrick’s Day parades started in America as far back as 1737, they began in Chicago as early as 1843. At the time the city’s population consisted of about 8,000 people, which included the Montgomery guard, “a military organization composed almost exclusively of Irishmen.” Chicago’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade, then, was mostly a military affair, with the Montgomery guard in uniform, leading the way for “several hundred [Irish]men,” including one man not from the Emerald Isle: Alex Beaubien, a Frenchmen who had been “the first native born Chicagoan who was baptized by a Catholic priest”—so the Irish “insisted” he march with them as well.
By the 1850s and 1860s, the “demonstration assumed considerable proportions,” with more Irish military guards and new Irish societies—plus many new immigrants—swelling the ranks. These early parades, often led by a man on a horse, started at Haymarket Square and would run towards Michigan Avenue, often until they were “stopped by darkness.” The following decade of 1870-1880, however, saw the parade’s “height of…glory,” with thousands of Irish marching through the city; 1870 alone saw over 15,000 men take to Chicago’s streets.
During the 1800s, these parades were a huge source of pride and honor to the men who participated. “It was regarded as a great honor to be chosen to be grand marshal of the parade,” writes Tribune reporter John Kelley in a 1927 article discussing the city’s early St. Patrick’s Day parades, “and it required no little wire pulling to land the coveted position.” For every man who got to march, though, the parade was a chance to be proud of their heritage and put the idea of the “uncivilized, unskilled, and impoverished” Irishman to rest. The typical participant, according to Kelley, was a man “who would rather march than eat.” He’d spend the morning herding his children to Mass, then rush home to shave, put on a pristine white starched shirt and clean corduroy pants, don his green necktie “which he had worn since time immemorial,” then put on his special hat: “a stovepipe hat which he kept in a bandbox, and no hand but his was allowed to touch it.” After that he’d top things off with a green sash over his left shoulder. Then he’d grab his blackthorn walking stick and head out to the parade, looking “resplendent.” “Ah, there was a man for you, ” Kelley writes, “a man who could march and countermarch all day and be fresh as a daisy when the parade disbanded.” According to a Time article by Mike Cronin, author of The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day, marching proudly not only allowed Irish Americans to “display civic pride and the strength of their identity” while disputing negative stereotypes, but also allowed them to make “a declaration of a hybrid identity,” celebrating their country of origin while adhering to “the values and liberties that the U.S. offered them.” It showed the city that they were there to stay, and proud of it.
By 1901, however, St. Patrick’s Day parades had come to an end in Chicago. This was thanks to a couple factors. For one, the “old timer from the Emerald Isle who would rather go without his dinner than to miss throwing out his chest in the parade” had died off in droves; the 15,000 marchers of 1870 were a thing of the past, and more and more Irish were becoming assimilated into American life. The other reason, however, was much more sobering. As Kelley notes, “as a rule, the weather on St. Patrick’s Day was inclement, but no slush or snow or rain or mud could keep Erin’s son’s from marching”—and the subsequent uptick in pneumonia deaths after the parade in 1901 forced the Roman Catholic clergy to appeal to local Irish societies to end the parades. This ban lasted until the early 1950s, when St. Patrick’s Day became an official citywide celebration again, thanks in no small part to Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Chicago’s Irish population found other ways to celebrate, however. Special masses were held in Irish Catholic churches across the city, and balls, dances, and special banquets featuring patriotic speeches were offered by various Irish societies. One group, the United Celtic American Societies of Chicago, ordered 50,000 “tiny shamrock plants, growing in pots about the size of a quarter,” to grace their banquet tables at their St. Patrick’s Day ball in 1928. That same year saw “shamrock lollipops which looked like sunburned clover leaves” in candy store windows, plus “pigs and pipes and peppermint shamrocks, and rocky green snakes, also harps and top hats–all confections.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wore a “sprig o’ green” regardless of their Irish heritage. According to Tribune reporter Jane Eddington, this was due in no small way to their food: “a surprising number of us not born in, nor descendants of residents of the Green Isle, buoyantly wear the green, give St. Patrick dinners, and play with the shamrock…we honor the Irish because…[they popularized] two of the most popular foods in today’s world—bacon and potatoes.” They “canonized bacon” and “accepted and loved the potato almost 200 years before the English did.” Eddington’s menu suggestions for St. Patrick’s Day parties include many stereotypical Irish dishes, such as cream of potato soup, browned cabbage, roast lamb, mince pies, oatmeal porridge, colcannon, cress salads, Irish stew, sponge cake, and potatoes prepared in many different ways—plus basically anything green, from broccoli to pistachio ice cream.
Here’s a cute vintage recipe for your next St. Patrick’s Day party, paraphrased from the Tribune:
ST. PATRICK’S DAY SALAD (1924) :
1 bunch garden cress
1/2 hard-boiled egg, white part only
1/2 scallion stem (white part only)
- Pile fresh cress on plate
- Arrange “pipe” on top: white part of hard-boiled egg acts as “clay bowl,” while scallion acts as the “stem” of the “pipe”
- Serve with French dressing
1921 also saw Chicago’s bootleggers get in on the act. Frank Noowsit was arrested for “selling ‘moonshine’ colored green” for the holiday; the idea was so popular that Dry agents soon heard about it and had him arrested. Green hooch pales in comparison to Charles Gindvolas and his “snake whiskey,” however: each bottle of his moonshine had a genuine garter snake in every bottle! Besides being a bit of a novelty for St. Patrick’s Day—what with the snake and all—Prohibition agents discovered it was also extremely potent, with “ten times as much kick” as white mule, another type of bootleg whiskey. Gindvolas declared his drink cured rheumatism, could “knock a cold in twenty minutes,” “put…pep into the pepless” and made “an old man of 60 feel like a kid in short pants.” He even had a ridiculous story to prove its strength: “one time I gave it to a pet rabbit and the rabbit started a fight with a bulldog. Yes, sir, that’s some whiskey.”
As the holiday became more widely celebrated across the nation, postcards and greeting cards also became popular. Hallmark first offered them to the public in the early 1920s. You can check out more vintage cards here and here.
Proper St. Patrick’s Day parades wouldn’t officially come back to Chicago until the early 1950s. By 1953, “Irish queens…began reigning” over the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and by 1962 they started dying the river green. After that, it seems the city embraced parades again whole-heartly, bad weather or not.
St. Patrick’s Day may be over this year, but its long, rich heritage in Chicago continues to this day.
Looking for a bit more green? Check out this sweet time lapse video of the Chicago River getting dyed in 2016.