Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

25 Above-Average Facts About Illinois

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron

Illinois is known for a few things: prairies, corn (it’s the country’s second-largest producer), and the Chicago Cubs (one of the nation’s longest-running professional sports clubs). But the country’s fifth most populous state is much more than just Chicago and farmland. Here are 25 colorful facts about the midwestern state.

1. Several analyses of U.S. Census data have found that Illinois is the most average state in the nation. That means its population demographics, average incomes, and urban-to-rural proportions look more like the nation as a whole than any other state’s. 

2. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport sees more flights than any other airport in the U.S. In 2015, almost 882,000 flights went through the airport. 

3. It has the tallest building in North America—by some standards. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) in Chicago stands 1451 feet tall. New York City’s One World Trade Center tops out at 1776 feet tall, making it officially taller than Chicago’s 1970s skyscraper. But the roof on One World Trade is actually only 1335 feet tall, with the rest of the height coming from a spire. The Willis Tower has six more floors than One World Trade Center, and its roof stands 100 feet taller. 

4. It was home to the world’s first skyscraper. The Home Insurance Building, built in 1885 in Chicago, is generally considered the first skyscraper, since it was the first tall building to have a structural steel frame. It was 10 stories tall, and the tallest building in the world at the time. It was demolished in 1931 

Image Credit: Chicago Architectural Photographing Company via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

5. John Hughes’ most famous movies were set in the northern part of the state. Hughes went to high school on Chicago’s North Shore, a setting that became integral to his films—most are set in the fictional suburb of Shermer. Many were filmed on the North Shore, too. The Home Alone house is actually a mansion in Winnetka; The Breakfast Club was shot in suburbs like Des Plaines and Northbrook, Illinois. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is all about a day trip to downtown Chicago, complete with a Cubs game and a trip to the Art Institute. 

6. Popcorn is the official state snackfood. The state is one of the nation’s leading producers of popcorn, and in 2003 it was voted the official state snackfood, thanks to lobbying by a group of second and third graders

7. Some parts of the state are very Normal—the main campus of Illinois State University, for example, is located in Normal, Illinois, in the center of the state. 

8. It has its own Grand Canyon. The Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois boasts the Little Grand Canyon, a deep canyon formed by the Big Muddy River. Shawnee is the state’s only national forest. 

9. Chicago has more lines of railroad track radiating out from the city in different directions than any other city. From the late 1850s through the early 20th century, almost all freight and people traveling by train across the country had to pass through Chicago.  

Chicago railroads in 1911. Image Credit: The Chicago Association of Commerce Committee of Investigation on Smoke Abatement and Electrification of Railway Terminals via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

10. Before it became a state, it demanded a lakefront. Originally, the northern border of the state would have cut off Illinois from any access to Lake Michigan. Later, a congressional committee discussing Illinois’ 1818 promotion from territory to state suggested that the northern boundary of the state extend straight west from the Indiana state line. However, the Illinois Territory’s congressional delegate successfully lobbied to push the border some 50 miles further north to give the state more shoreline and a port at Chicago—and profitable valuable access to the Erie Canal, which had just begun construction the year before. 

11. It hosted a Mormon utopia for a few years in the 1800s. In 1838, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints were driven out of Missouri, resettling in Illinois. Church founder Joseph Smith founded a new town called Nauvoo, a Mormon community that quickly became one of the state’s largest cities. After Smith’s assassination in 1844, his followers set out to find refuge farther west, eventually landing in Salt Lake City. 

12. The origins of its name are debated. French explorers and settlers called the Native American tribes who lived in the central Mississippi Valley the Illinois Indians. According to several sources, including the website of the state attorney general, the name “comes from a Native American word meaning ‘tribe of superior men.’” However, according to scholars of indigenous American languages [PDF], it actually traces back to the Illinois word "irenweewa," meaning “he speaks in the ordinary way." Eventually, this merged into another indigenous language as “ilinwe,” which French travelers made “Illinois.” 

13. It has deep roots in jazz history. The Great Migration brought thousands of Black southerners north to Chicago, where they settled on the South Side. These southern transplants—including Louis Armstrong—brought jazz talent from New Orleans. Chicago became the go-to destination for the best musicians to perform and record.  

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who moved to Chicago from New Orleans in 1922. He lived in the city off and on for much of his career. World-Telegram staff photographer, Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

14. It’s the start of Route 66. The historic highway begins in downtown Chicago before continuing across Illinois and down to Missouri on its way to California. 

15. It’s incredibly flat. A 2014 study found that the prairies and farmlands of Illinois are flatter than every other state except Florida, thanks to ancient glaciers. The highest natural point in the state, a hill called the Charles Mound, is 1,235 feet above sea level—slightly lower than the Willis Tower. 

16. It has a (now inactive) giant underground particle accelerator. Before the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory shut down its particle accelerator, the Tevatron, in 2011, it was the country’s largest particle accelerator, and the world’s second-most-powerful behind the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. 

17. Chicago has one of the oldest NFL teams in the nation. The Bears were once the Decatur Staleys, a founding team of the NFL hailing from Decatur, Illinois. Only one other team has been around since the league’s founding: the Arizona Cardinals, who originally played in Chicago. 

18. It has its own indie folk album. In 2005, Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, an entire album devoted to places, people, and history of the state. He had previously released an album about his home state of Michigan. 

19. It’s one of the only states that celebrate Casimir Pulaski Day. The day, honoring Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, who was a Polish immigrant, is a state holiday in Illinois, which has an particularly large Polish population. The state holds its memorial on the first Monday in March, in honor of the general’s birthday. Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Indiana also observe it. The federal government observes General Pulaski Memorial Day in October, in honor of the general’s death day. 

Casimir Pulaski. Image Credit: Marcin K. via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

20. Young culinary students can drink there. Per the state’s liquor code, amended in 2012, someone under the age of 21 (but over the age of 18) can taste but “not imbibe” as long as they’re doing it as part of a culinary course. 

21. It’s the Land of Lincoln, but two other presidents have launched their political careers there: Ulysses S. Grant and Barack Obama. And though Ronald Reagan is known as a California politician, he was born and raised in northwest Illinois. 

22. It birthed the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. Jimmy John Liautaud founded the first restaurant in 1983 in Charleston, Illinois, near the campus of Eastern Illinois University. 

23. One of its nicknames is the Sucker State. There are several theories as to how this sobriquet came about. The name might also refer to the migration patterns of 1820s lead miners, who would come north in the warmer months to work in the mines of Galena, Illinois, then return south for the winter, like sucker fish in the Mississippi River. Or, it might be a reference to the sprouts of tobacco plants, called suckers, referencing the southern migrants who came to Illinois to get away from the plantation system. Regardless, it appeared on this 1884 map made by an Illinois-based pork company, with a crassly named pig for every state. 

Image Credit: Library of Congress

24. It once hosted the windmill capital of the world. Batavia, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, was the home of several major windmill producers at the turn of the century. The U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company factory there was once the largest manufacturer of windmills in the world

25. It was home to America’s largest prehistoric city. In 1250 CE, Cahokia—just a few miles over the Illinois border from what is now St. Louis—was larger than London. It was inhabited as early as 700 CE and abandoned around 1300 CE. 

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:


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