Monday, January 25, 2016

Snapshots in the Windy City

Chicago has long lived in the shadow of New York City. Even its two best known nicknames, Second City and the Windy City, reflect back on New York. It became the Second City when its population became the second largest among U.S. cities. More accurately, it is now the Third City, more than a million people behind Los Angeles, with Houston quickly gaining ground.

As for Windy City, Erik Larson explains how that nickname came about in his book The Devil in the White City. It began as an insult aimed at Chicago by New York newspaper editor Charles Dana and referred not to the city's big winds but to its big talk. Chicago leaders loved to brag about their growing city, and some thought the World's Fair of 1893 would put the city ahead of New York. Soon the nickname caught on, but came to refer to winds, not boasts.

Yet, as Larson tells us, Chicago winds did pose a threat to the fair. One storm caused substantial damage, yet the huge Ferris wheel, which some scoffers thought would collapse as soon as it took on passengers, hardly swayed at all during the high winds. In fact, the wheel continued operation during the storm, and no attempt was made to evacuate passengers.

Larson also comments on another addition to our language, the word snapshot. This is not quite a synonym for photograph. Larson says that English hunters used the term snap-shots "to describe a quick shot with a gun." When Kodak came out with the simple No. 4 box camera at the time of the fair, the quick photos people were able to take with them became known as snapshots. Even today the term suggests photos taken in haste by tourists and other amateurs, not photos taken, even if just as hastily, by professionals.

Cameras became a point of contention at the fair. Organizers saw photography as another way to profit from the fair. So they gave one photographer a monopoly on official photographs, a share of the profits going to the committee. Anyone who wanted to take snapshots was supposed to rent one of those Kodak box cameras. If you insisted on bringing your own camera, you had to pay two dollars for the privilege.

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