Candy corn, Lincoln Logs and the Happy Meal: Chicago’s a great place to be a kid, and it’s also responsible for some of the most enduring contributions to childhood.
These classic building block come courtesy of Chicago’s most famous architectural bloodline. John L. Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright, invented the logs in 1916 and trademarked the name “Lincoln Logs” in 1923. The name is not a nod to Abraham Lincoln, but rather to his father, whose middle name was Lincoln.
These toys for budding architects were invented in 1913 by Charles Pajeau, an Evanston stonemason. Pajeau took his inspiration from (where else?) his kids, who played with pencils, sticks and empty spools of thread. He designed basic wooden parts could be assembled in many different ways, and the Toy Tinkers Company was born. The toys went plastic in 1992, losing a bit of their charm but ensuring that, unlike their wooden cousins, Lincoln Logs, Tinkeryours will be around for a while.
Deep-dish pizza is the ultimate kid’s food: big, delicious and fantastically, hopelessly messy. And Chicago’s signature food goes back to Pizzeria Uno, which invented the saucy dish in 1943. Today, dozens of companies lay claim to the city’s best Chicago-style pizza. Are you a Gino’s East family or a Lou Manatti’s loyalist?
The single biggest cause of once-a-year stomachaches (right behind Easter Peeps), candy corn has its bright yellow roots firmly in the Windy City. Emil Brach, the son of German immigrants, opened a candy factory in Chicago in 1904. Brach’s Confections’ first product was caramels, but it quickly moved on to the orange-and-yellow kernels. The company is now headquartered in Minnesota, but the original Chicago factory was the set for Gotham Hospiatl in the 2008 film The Dark Knight.
It’s the centerpiece of any halfway-decent carnival, and its roots go back to the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893. There was a tremendous amount of ego surrounding the fair, much of it aimed at outdoing the 1889 Paris Exposition, where the Eiffel Tower was unveiled. Enter George Ferris, sadly not a native Chicagoan, who designed the 45-ton wheel that carried some 38,000 daily passengers more than 260 feet into the air. After the fair, the wheel was rebuilt in Lincoln Park, where it remained until it went to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair, though a modern (much smaller) wheel sits at Navy Pier today.
Along with candy corn and Christkindlmarket, bikes are another magical byproduct of Chicago’s German immigrant population. The Schwinn Bicycle company was founded by German-born Ignaz Schwinn in Chicago in 1895 and fueled the bicycled craze that quickly swept America. Bicycle sales fell during the Depression, but in the 1960s, Schwinn, still an industry leader, put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, on rebranding the bike. It focused much of its attention on child models, and thus was born the childhood dream of pink bike with streamers, a basket and a bell that continues to infatuate youngsters.
OK, so this isn’t technically a childhood toy, but it makes possible all sorts of kid fun. Kids make mess, mom vacuums mess up in seconds, kids live to crumble cookies all over the carpet another day. And it all goes back to 1869, when Chicagoan Ives McGaffey patented “The Whirlwind,” the first hand-pumped vacuum cleaner. St. Louis actually produced the first motorized version, but Chicago still holds claim to that first patent. A related invention is the electric washing machine, which made its debut in Chicago in 1910 and forever changed the mom-versus-grass-stain balance of power.
The McDonald brothers hail from California, but the golden arches as we know them today are the brainchild of Roy Kroc, who opened the ninth McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines in 1955. He later bought out the McDonald brothers, took the company public and the rest is happy meal history. Fun fact: the 1000th and 2000th McDonald’s both opened in Des Plaines.