Steps from the University of Chicago at the height of the Great Depression, work was completed on the city by the lake’s own grand institution of American ingenuity just in time for the 1933 Century of Progress world’s fair. It would become a famous tourist attraction for ever more, and it was so huge and important that after WWII it earned its own alphanumeric telephone exchange—MUseum 4— which was promptly imprinted on pencils for use by docents, execs, school children and anyone else who happened to need something to write with during their visit to the mind-bogglingly large and varied museum.
Like the 1933 fair’s other Art Deco edifices, the Museum of Science and Industry’s interior was reasonably Art Moderne, but its exterior was curiously ancient looking, almost as if it had been there for decades. That’s because it had.
When one of those everyday pencils printed sometime between 1948 and 1977 came into our possession recently, we knew we were holding a forgotten reminder of major Chicago history.
As a fourth-grader who lived two blocks away and played at the hulking Beaux Arts MSI every day after school in the 80s, I discovered many little incongruities on the grounds that made it seem like a portal to the 19th century. Why did the empty back of the building seem to be some kind of long lost grand entrance? Why was there a giant lagoon back there in an otherwise teeming part of the south side of Chicago?
I would eventually learn that the building was actually the last remnant of Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exposition, also known as the White City because of its faux marble structures. Fire destroyed many of the other genteel temporary structures, but the gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts somehow remained standing at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive.
Directly after the 1893 fair, department store magnate Marshall Field paid for it to become the Columbian Museum of Chicago. In 1920 the renamed Field Museum left the old building for newer digs on the Chicago lakefront closer to downtown (where it still stands). The 1893 structure was left to rot as various pols and planners debated on what to do with it.
By 1926, Julius Rosenwald — the man best known as the “& Company” of Sears, Roebuck and Company — began laying down millions of dollars to endow it, incongruously, as an industrial museum. The rest is history.
Visitors can still walk the same huge halls they did when this pencil was made probably in the ‘50s around the same time the WWII German submarine and the chick hatchery debuted, all while making new memories: Barack Obama’s presidential library will be built on the 1893 park grounds behind the museum soon.
MSI is always old and new at the same time. Squint your eyes a little bit and you can be transported to 1893, 1933, or any mid-century yesteryear. Chicago adopted two-letter alphanumeric phone numbers including the one on our old MSI pencil in 1948 and finally abandoned them in 1977. But just like the time-warping magic of childhood, you can still dial MUseum 4-1414 and a Museum of Science and Industry operator will answer, just like they have for 70 years. -Jessica Letkemann