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10 Books That Capture Chicago In The 50s

Picture of Karla Sullivan
Karla Sullivan
Updated: 24 October 2016
As the largest city in the Midwest, Chicago in the 1950s had its rewards with the first McDonald’s franchise opening, owned by Ray Kroc in the suburb of Des Plaines, as well as the 1959 White Sox Pennant. Having the largest streetcar system that was initially run by horses, Chicago saw the last of its 3,100 cars close during this decade. Post-war baby boomers were born and middle class families prospered in the 1950s. However, the decade also shared poor public housing options, and many will never forget the devastating Our Lady of Angels fire that would forever change emergency management in schools throughout the world.

The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues Of Community In America

Author Alan Ehrenhalt meditates on the belief that a sense of real community existed in the 1950s and that this has somehow become lost today in The Lost City. The decade brought a sense of responsibility in terms of moral and economic beliefs. He reveals that it was the rising importance of the freedom of choice that limited this powerful and emotional representation of community in the 1950s and kept the idea of the American family intact.

© Basic Books

© Basic Books

Chicago in the Fifties: Remembering Life in the Loop and the Neighborhoods

From Tony Bennett singing at a Fenger High School sock hop to celebrities dining at the elegant Pump Room, this book by Neal Samors and Michael Williams describes it all. It shows how things were, from life in the neighborhoods to restaurants, sports, movies, television, and even including recollections from Hugh Downs, Mike Wallace and the late Ray Rayner. The amazing Riverview Amusement Park is detailed along with an interview with Hugh Hefner about the founding of the Playboy Magazine.

A Raisin in the Sun

A play by Lorraine Hansberry, the story shares family experiences in the Washington Park subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood where an African American family tries to better itself, but still faces constant turmoil. This is the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, and the play was nominated for four Tony Awards in 1960. A film version of the play was released with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.  Ruby Dee won the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actress, and Poitier was nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

© Vintage/Rep Rei edition

© Vintage/Rep Rei edition

Trumbull Park

A wonderful novel that truly characterizes the black housing projects in the 1950s and chronicles how living in Trumbull Park meant dealing with racial violence, Trumbull Park was written by Frank London Brown and published by Northeastern University Press. It is an emotional and well-written novel that is a passionate portrayal of how the race riots shattered lives. Frank London Brown lived in Chicago at the age of 12 and was educated at Roosevelt University and the University of Chicago.  

© Northwestern University Press

© Northwestern University Press

Letting Go

Phillip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus, won the 1960 US National Book Award for Fiction, but his subsequent books are equally important.  Set in the 1950s in Chicago, New York and Iowa City, Letting Go concerns the lives of three characters that struggle as they deal with the social restraints of the decade. One spent time in the Korean War, and a couple suffers from society’s ignorant views of their Jewish-Christian mixed marriage. Characters are confronted with other issues that include abortion, divorce and adoption.

© Random House

© Random House

Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?

Author John Powers  published the novel, and it has been adapted into a Broadway musical and screenplay. The novel was published in 1975 and has been extremely popular for theatergoers.  The novel is a great story of eight Chicago children and their Catholic education in the 1950s. Of course, many were truly taught that patent leather shoes with young lady’s school uniforms really did show the unspeakable. Before Broadway, the novel was adapted into a musical at the Forum in Summit, Illinois and grossed more than $600,000, which was a record for a local show.

© Loyola Classics

© Loyola Classics

To Sleep with the Angels: The Story of a Fire

For Chicago families and even those throughout the country, many will never forget the horrifying true story of one of the deadliest fires in December of 1958 at Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago.  David Cowan and John Kuenster relate a traumatic true story of the events leading to the fire that took the lives of 92 children. To Sleep with the Angels is an extraordinary book that depicts a working-class neighborhood in the 1950s and how this disaster changed fire standards through American schools . Each year, Chicago remembers the survivors and gives tribute to those who were killed. December of 2015 marked this tragedy’s 57th anniversary.

© Ivan R. Dee

© Ivan R. Dee

White Collar Girl

A well-written historically accurate novel of a female journalist and her struggles to survive in a man’s world which is 1950s Chicago, White Collar Girl is a must-read. Even when the protagonist, Jordan Walsh, has connections to esteemed writers such as Ernest Hemingway, she fights for survival as a working girl in 1955. Renee Rosen is also author of DollFace and What the Lady Wants. Renee is a Chicago writer who completed her first novel when she was 17.

© NAL

© NAL

Shattered Sense of Innocence: The 1955 Murders of Three Chicago Children

In 1955, three Chicago boys were found murdered on the Northwest side of the city, and authors Richard Lindberg and Gloria Jean Sykes tell the tragic story while offering an intimate account of the community at the time.  Shattered Sense of Innocence describes the poor police investigation and law enforcement errors which pointed to two suspects who were never considered.  The book is a strong narrative of political concerns and a great historical read for those who want to learn about the decade.

By Karla Sullivan