After the Great Fire of 1871, the sight of devastated buildings with neoclassical elements could easily have called to mind familiar images of ancient ruins of Greece, Rome and Egypt circulating at the time.
Perhaps this was one reason the city defiantly adopted the Greek and Egyptian mythological figure of the phoenix as a symbol of its determination to rebuild with thrilling vigor. From the Chicago History Museum: “The pace of the rebuilding reflected the vigor of the national and international economy in which Chicago played such a vital role. The city’s boosters would point to the reconstruction as proof of the indomitable spirit and inevitable preeminence of Chicago, which adopted the phoenix as its symbol.”
A Chicago Tribune editorial on October 11, 1871– the very day the after the fire–announced: “CHEER UP. Chicago will rise again. On October 15, 1871 they published a statement from William H. Carter, the president of Chicago’s Board of Public Works: “Chicago is burned down but not despairing — she has the energy and the push and will rise phoenix-like from the ashes.”
The phoenix symbol began to appear throughout the city, most noticeably on the campus of the University of Chicago (founded in 1890), which chose the phoenix as its central symbol.
The 1893 Columbian Exposition proclaimed to the world that Chicago was back and ready to take its place on the global economic and cultural stages. The organizers of the Expo set aside October 9, 1893 as “Chicago Day” and lobbied industrieis to give their workers a holiday and railroads to offer special fares. Attendance broke all records, incuding those set in Paris at the previous World’s Fair at which the Eiffel Tower was first unveiled; more than 700,000 people attended Chicago Day. The ticket for Chicago Day at the fair featured a phoenix (left).
Take a tour of University of Chicago of phoenixes here.