An Age-by-Age Guide to City on Fire: Chicago 1871

The new Chicago History Museum Great Chicago Fire exhibit was created with families in mind.

The Chicago History Museum is marking the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire with its highly anticipated exhibit, City on Fire: Chicago 1871. Designed exclusively for families, City on Fire: Chicago 1871, invites children and adults alike to learn, explore and discover the impact the Great Chicago Fire had on the city and the people who lived here.

But it also is designed to help families talk about the Chicago of today and how some of the same issues then are still relevant today.

The interactive exhibit is divided into four sections: The Wooden City, The Burning City, The Smoldering City and The Rebuilt City. The sections tell a chronological story by taking visitors through events and conditions that led to devastation and recovery and shed light on what life was like in 1871.

The Chicago History Museum worked with the Center for Childhood Resiliency inside Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in creating the exhibit and training of tour guides in each part of the exhibit. A special family guide also has been created to help families get the most out of their experience.

Planning a visit? We’ve rounded up the “must-see” sections of the exhibit by age.

Toddlers (Ages 2-5)

  • Strike a pose and take a selfie by the graphic novel style entry wall.
  • Help put out the fire! Work the 1871 steam pumper: pull the fire plug, connect and aim hoses, pull the brake, shovel coal to load the fire box, turn on valves.
  • See real firefighter equipment from 1871.

Elementary School (Ages 6-10)

  • Will it burn? From straw to coal, guess which everyday building materials from 1871 will burn.
  • Try your hand at washing clothes 1871 style — a common chore kids helped with.
  • Put your observation skills to the test to try to guess what melted objects were before the fire. You’ll get to see everything from pencils and nails to coin banks and cookies.
  • Explore the Fire Safety Today wall to see the lessons learned and advances in technology that keep us safer from fires today.

Middle School/High School (Ages 11-17)

  • Learn how the fire spread so quickly in the physics of the fire video.
  • Get a feel for the devastation the fire caused through historic photographs of what the city looked like immediately following the fire.
  • Consider disaster preparedness and response today. Find inspiration in design thinking projects created by young people and community members across Chicago as they considered how to make a more just and healthier city for all.


  • Use the touch-screen station to explore and talk about the cyclorama painting in depth. This 40-foot-long by 4-foot-wide painting on display includes amazing scenes and stories within it. Looking closely at it helps us all see the enormity of the disaster.
  • Complete an application on the touch screen to see the aid your family would qualify for following the fire. This interactive unpacks the socioeconomic underpinnings that existed at the time of the fire and showcases the complexities of the Relief and Aid Society system and how not all people were treated fairly.
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky
Lori Orlinsky is an award-winning journalist and bestselling children's book author. She is the mom of three little ladies who keep her on her toes.


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