Classified History: Housing Ads in Chicago, 1849-1871

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The Chicago Public Library offers access to the online scanned archives of the Chicago Tribune to all cardholders via ProQuest. We made use of our access to this treasure trove of information when researching our series on the history of renters’ rights and for our history of Moving Day. I recently had to renew my library card, which brought me back to the Trib archive but this time I wasn’t looking at the articles. Much like the Super Bowl, I was there for the ads, specifically the “For Rent” section of the classifieds.

News articles record the major events of history, but to find out about the daily lives of individuals the classified ads can sometimes be more important. Ads reflect the wants and needs of a given generation. Watching videos of old TV ads from the 1980s can be a real trip down memory lane for Gen X folks. But today I’ll be taking you back in time almost two centuries, starting with the earliest classifieds I could find, cherry picking through the decades before the fire in 1871. All ads included below are transcribed verbatim from the Tribune archive at ProQuest, including capitalization and abbreviations.

The year is 1849, two decades before the great fire. Chicago has been an incorporated city for just 16 years and it’s borders are tiny, (map) with North Avenue on the north, Western on the west and 22nd St on the South. The Chicago Daily Tribune has already been in print for twenty years.

April 23, 1849

While most of the ads are grouped together, rental and real estate adverts are scattered throughout the paper, which consists of about four printed pages. Many of the real estate ads are advertising vacant lots, including farmland and storefronts on Wells, Clark, Randolph. The most popular term used to describe a property is “healthy.”

Ads of Note:
Valuable farm and tavern stand for sale. On the Milwaukee Road, 15 miles from Chicago, and 7 miles from Wheeling and in a good settlement. The Farm contains 273 acres of Land, 160 of which are fenced, 90 acres under cultivation, 71 acres are heavy timber. The improvements are a good Frame House and Barn, with two good wells of water, and an orchard of about 200 apple and peach trees just beginning to bear. It is one of the best tavern stands in the country. The plank road to Wheeling will pass by the door. The land is well situated for division into two farms. Apply to Rees & Rucker, No. 8 Merchants’ Exchange. (Editor’s Note: plank roads were wooden toll roads created for long distance travel as a better alternative to dirt paths. They were basically the 19th century’s answer to our modern highways. The plank road to Wheeling was similar to our modern I-94. This location in modern times is in the center of Niles near the corner of Oakton and Milwaukee.)

For Rent. A beautiful, large two story House, with six rooms below and four above, together with kitchen and woodshed, and cistern, an excellent and commodious barn, with stables, and suitable apartments for carriages, wagons, &c. It also has an excellent root room, and upper loft that will contain 8 tons of hay. The yard is spacious and dry — situated on Kinzie street, block 1, Original Town Chicago. Apply to Sampson & Nichols, No. 57 Wells st. or at the office of J.S. Wright. April 23, 1849. (Ed. Note: Original Town Chicago refers to the section of the city that was included at the time of incorporation in 1835, bounded by Chicago Ave, Halsted St. and 12th St. The city had expanded in 1837 and again in 1847.)

Boarding at 184 Randolph street. The Rooms are spacious and airy, and the utmost attention will be paid to the comfort and health of boarders. A few day boarders will be accommodated. S.C. Bennett. April 9 1849.

To Let. The south tenement in the new three story brick block on State street, corner of Adams. The house is new and well furnished. Possession given May 1. Inquire of Larned & Bentley, 117 Lake st. April 6, 1849.

A Small House Wanted. The subscriber wishes to buy a house with two or three rooms, on the south side of the River, to be removed at once to his own lot. J.S. Wright, March 24, 1849.

January 4, 1851

We now have a dedicated section for boarding houses, but not many other “to rent” ads because in 1850’s Chicago everybody moved on May 1. We also are noting that stores for rent and housing for rent are jumbled together in the same sections. A building was a building at this point in Chicago’s infancy, and shopkeepers would often reside on the premises of their stores. It was remarkable to us how few classified ads there were in these early days of the Trib. At most there were 10 ads for rental housing, shops or land in any given issue. We also remarked that while we are still twenty years before the fire, the word “healthy” was starting to take a back seat to “fire proof.”

Ads of Note:
Boarders — A gentleman and Lady can be accommodated with a Parlor and Bedroom, in a central part of the city. Terms low. Apply to Wm. Sampson, 52 Wells st.

Two or three respectable steady men can be received as Boarders in a private family. The house is situated within two minutes’ walk of the Post Office, in one of the most healthy parts of the city. For cards of address, apply to the Book Store No. 21 Clark street, four doors north of Lake street.

Mrs. Haight having taken the extensive house at No. 179 Lake street, is now prepared to receive Boarders. The house has been thoroughly repaired and furnished, and will be found a comfortable and convenient place for the business men of Lake street, and others. Terms moderate. July 22, 1850.

April 21 – May 6, 1852

We are now 3 years away from our starting point, almost to the day. The two ads included below also appeared in the May 6 issue of the Tribune, so perhaps the owners were a bit too optimistic about how quickly their properties would fill.

Ads of Note:
House to rent. One of the four houses on Washington street, fronting the Public Square. Possession given on the first of May next. Also, a neat Cottage of Wells street – possession given about the 10th of April. Apply to Alex White.

For sale or to rent. A large brick cottage, with fine cellar, cistern, well, and a commodious yard, beautifully ornamented with shade trees, etc., on the North side of the river, corner of Rush and Indiana sts. Apply to Cornell & Barros, North east corner of Randolph and Clark sts, or to the owner on the premises.

For Rent On Corner of Clark and South Water Streets. Fire Proof Store on the corner. Three Rooms in the third story, 15 by 20 ft. each. One room in the fourht story, 35 by 40 ft. Possession immediately. Enquire of B. Wheeler & Co.

December 1852

These wintertime editions of the Tribune list very few homes for rent, but we did want to note that by this point the paper had found a consistent layout for their classifieds. The For Sale or Rent section took up a third of a column in the top left hand corner of the page. Those of use who are accustomed to the modern Tribune’s dedicated and lengthy Real Estate section will probably find this amusing. This researcher found it a relief as it made finding these ads much, much easier. However, the print is tiny and often blurred in the ProQuest archive so please pardon us if we cannot provide perfect transcriptions.

April 1, 1853

Chicago’s borders have just expanded westward from Wood St. to Western Ave. Vacant lots are still being sold in the central downtown area, although the days of 273 acre farms being sold on Milwaukee Ave are fading away. Chicago’s origins at the hands of the surveyors are plainly clear, as the lots for sale are described in the same surveying terms used in real estate contracts (the ones that cause headaches for trainee real estate agents).

Ads of Note:
To rent from the 1st May. A comfortable Dwelling House, No 62 Kinzie st., at present occupied by Robt. Kinzie, Esq. Said House contains 7 Rooms, Kitchen, Wood-house, Cistern, &c. Also, — a small House on West Lake st., five blocks from the Bridge. Also, — a small Dwelling on corner of Halsted and Milwaukee Avenue. Apply to the subscriber at the office of W. H. Stickney, Esq., No 123 Lake St.

To lease for a term of years. Lot nomber four (4) in Block thirty-one (31) in the Original Town of Chicago, being eighty (80) feet front on Lake st, and one hundred and eighty (180) feet on Market st. The above corner is one of the most desirable locations for a hotel, of any in the city, being situated in teh centre of the most business part of the city. A plat of the above lot can be seen by calling at the office ofthe subscriber at no 229 Lake st. or at the Real Estate Rooms of Clark & Harding, J.B.P Russel or Geo. G. Grubb. John Link, Agent for Eliza Garrett, Feb 12.

Real estate. East 1/3 of SW 1/4 Sec 8 T [blur] R 14, 80 acres. S 1/8 Sec 18, T 3, R 14, 300 acres. This is well known to be the highest and best Section south of the city, and adjacent to the Junction of the R.I. and M. R.R. Also, Block 8 in W 1/3 SW 3/4 Sec 18, T89, R14: 5 acres beautifully situated on S. Western Plank Road. For sale by JohnS. Buchanan, Odd Fellows Hall, Randolph st. (Editor’s note: Rock Island and Michigan Railroads.)

April 1, 1861

We’re now going to jump forward a few years to April of 1861. The previous year Illinois had sent its favorite son Abraham Lincoln to the White House. We are 11 days from the outbreak of the Civil War. The Trib has by now changed its classified layout to something considerably more legible in scanned form, so hopefully our transcriptions will improve. The Post office, which was advertised as “under construction” in the 1840s and built in the 1850s is now fully operational and renting out P.O. Boxes, which have eliminated some of the footwork for those who wished to respond to classified ads.

The final ad in the collection from this issue is of particular note for a couple of reasons. First, it’s the first ad with a price, which given as the full year amount of $800 rather than a monthly amount, and also because the landlord lived in Lake Forest making this the first verifiable occurrence of an absentee landlord.

Ads of Note:
Wanted. A Good two-story House, with nine rooms: South Side, east of Clark and north of Twelfth streets. Address P.O. Box 2616.

House Wanted. A prompt paying tenant wishes to rent a small convenient house on Wabash or Michigan avenues, or in their immediate vicinity, but not more than half a mile south from Lake street. Posession desired on or beofre the first of May. Address “LOCK,” Box 6170, giving particulars.

To Rent. A new two-story Cottage, with stable adjoining, corner Gurley and Silver streets. Enquire B.F. Chase, 109 Randolph street. (Note: Gurley St. is now Vernon Park Place and Silver St. is now Peoria. This was in the middle of the current UIC Campus.)

To Rent. A Farm on the South Western Plank Road, within a mile-and-one-half of the City Limits — 60 acres — 30 of which is in a high state of cultivation, well fenced, good house and sheds. For particulars apply to George Steel, Esq. or J.J. Richards, foot of Lasalle street. (Editor’s note: The Southwestern Plank Road ran from the corner of Ogden and Joliet out to Naperville, roughly following the path of our modern I-55.)

To Rent. Dwelling House No. 231 Wabash avenue. Terms, $800 per annum; or the premises would be sold on easy terms. Address G. Rossiter, Lake Forest.

April 13-15, 1861.

The days after the first shots were fired in the Civil War, but moving day is just around the corner and Chicago’s classified ads seem unphased by the horrific violence in South Carolina. We have mention of utility services and amenities such as gas and hot water. Chicago is becoming a modern city.

Ads of Note:
To Rent. A Nice Furnished House, Price $550. Also, 8 nice Houses, with all the modern improvements, Price $400, near Union Park. Address box 1163 P.O., or J.F. Norton, 100 Washington street, room 6. (Ed. Note: Remember, those prices are per year. At the time the western border of Chicago was Western Ave, so this was comparably on the outskirts of town.)

To Rent. Possession given May 1st. My Homestead House, Southwest corner of Jackson and Jefferson streets, with Woodhouse, Garden and Barn. The lot is 75 by 100 and on a corner pleasantly shaded. The house is conveniently arranged and it has the hydrant in it and cellar under the whole — Kitchen, Pantry, Dining-room, Hall and two Parlors in main story. Five chambers and bathing room in second story. Inquire at my office, 15 and 7 South Wells street, under Geo. Smith & Co’s Bank. (Ed. Note: “Homestead House” and “on a corner pleasantly shaded” are highlighted in this ad, meaning they were the big selling points. Not the two parlors or the 2nd floor bathroom.)

To Rent. From the first of May, Dwelling No. 350 Wabash avenue, containing eight rooms, good cellar, gas &c. Rent $450. Apply to Geo. W. Adams, in rear of 180 North Water street.

To Rent. The first-class House, 494 Wabash avenue is for rent to a first-class tenant, for one or more years from the 1st of May next. The house contains twelve rooms, two bath rooms, hot and cold water, and is warmed by steam or grates. The lot is 67 feet by 160 feet, with bood barn. Apply to H.G. Loomis, at Marine Bank.

To Rent. The building kown as the Republican Wigwam. For terms apply to O. Lunt, No 272 South Water street. (Ed. Note: Have you noticed how many street names in Chicago are appearing among the names posting these ads? Also, this building has its own wikipedia article. Nifty.)

April 14-15, 1867

We’re just going to skip right over the Civil War and move forward six years. It is now four years until the city will burn. The city has expanded its borders again and now extends from Fullerton in the north to Egan, now Pershing, in the south. The Trib’s Classified section has exploded, with the real estate section now split into residential sales, commercial rental, rooms for rent, houses for rent, and horses/carriages for rent. Rental housing now takes up two full columns. The addresses are moving outward as residential areas push towards the borders making room for the growing financial district downtown, but building uses were still very fluid with rooms being listed as usable for either offices or sleeping rooms. Monthly rates are starting to appear instead of annual rates. Advertisers could now rent blind boxes at the Tribune offices.

Ads of Note:
To Rent. Four or five rooms in a fine brick house near the lake, on Sixteenth st., suitable for a gentleman and his wife; also, use of bath room and cooking stove. $35 per month. Address “M B,” Tribune office.

To Rent. 7 new houses in a desirable location, in a block on Eugenie st., between Clark and Wells. Rent $35 per month. Apply to John Scanlan, 126 Washington st., opposite Court House.

To Rent. Immediately. A cottage ouse of 7 rooms, on West Madison st., near Aberdeen, with gas and water. Rent $35 per month. Carpets, stoves and gas fixtures for sale. Appy to Chas Leeds & Co, 162 South Water St.

To Rent or For Sale. Large cottage of seven rooms, balconies, &c., east and south front. Rent $30 per month and immediate possession given. Inquire at 123 East Randolph st., or 199 West Randolph, Room 5, second floor. (Ed. Note: Okay, so the going rate is about $30-35 per month for a house.)

To Rent. A nice residence at Cottage Grove with an acre of ground and a fine view of the lake. $100 per month. Rees & Ayres, Room 10, Opera House. (Ed. Note: But a house with 100 acres of land is far more expensive.)

Wanted. To rent a small House, suitable for a family of three. Rent $15 to $25 in a good location within 3/4 mile of Madison st. bridge, West Side. Address 194 West Madison st. (Ed. Note: even back then there was a substantial gap between asking prices and renters’ budgets.)

April 1871

We’re now just six months from the date of the Great Chicago Fire. The real estate for sale section of the Trib is now split into city, suburban, and country sections. Docks, which were “leased”, are now split out from commercial space, which was “rented.”

Ads of Note:
To Rent. Furnished house no 643 Webster-av., (formerly Asylum Place.) opposite Lincoln Park, two stories and basement, large grounds neatly improved. This is a choice and beautiful home, one of the most attractive locations in the city. Apply O. Benson, Lincoln Park, and on the premises. (Ed. Note: this area of the city would survive the fire. This property would have bordered the cemetery through which refugees of the fire would flee in October. Also, that street renaming is in the actual ad copy. We didn’t shove it in there.)

To Rent. One in the block of four marble front dwellings on Eldridge-court, between Michigan and Wabash-ave. Possession April 1 or May 1, rent $1500 a year. Apply to Geo. C. Clarke, 13 Chamber of Commerce. (Ed. Note: That’s some pretty severe inflation for a 4 year span.)

Board and room wanted, furnished or unfurnished, for lady. Over scrupulous persons need not apply. Chas Barclay, P.O. Box 764. (Ed. Note: There’s a whole novel in this one, we’re sure of it.)

To Rent in the Fire Proof Tribune Building, Desirable Stores and Offices. Apply to Wm. C. Dow, 116 LaSalle st., or at Tribune office.

To Rent. For 10 years, in the south division, a fine large place, consisting of good buildings, outhouses, with two acres of ground finely ornamented with trees, shrubbery, etc. Immediate possession. A.E. Guild, Jr., 87 Washington-st.

To Rent. Pleasant furnished rooms to gentlemen, with or without board (breakfast and tea), in a private family. Brick house; modern improvements. 411 W Madison-st.

To Rent. House furnished complete. A private residence of 10 rooms, with use of piano, whose owner will take part of rent in board. Address B.L. Ward, Tribune office.

Wanted to rent. A single gentleman, deirous of making permanent arrangements, wishes to obtain pleasant rooms, furnished or unfurnished, without board, in a quiet household on teh North Side, or South Side north of Sixteenth-st. Is willing to pay for pleasant surroundings. Address Felix, Tribune office.

Wanted to rent. A good two story house, 10 to 15 rooms and modern improvements, one with little yard and barn preferred, either on North Side, east of Clark and south of Division, or South Side, east of State and north of Twenty-second-sts., by a very prompt paying tenant. Address 73 Wabash-av.

Wanted to rent. Rooms — a gentleman, wife and daughter wish to rent five rooms: three living rooms on first floor, and two sleeping rooms, immaterial which floor, east of State-st. between Peck-court and Thirtieth-st. Address with terms and location, Harkness, Tribune office.

Chicago before the fire was a very different place from the city we know today. There were no large apartment blocks or skyscrapers. There was no electricity. Mention of steam heating only appeared in the very last years of our search. If you needed a place to live you could buy a house, rent a house, or rent rooms in someone else’s house. You could rent a shop and sleep in the back room. There was no public transit, there were no supermarkets nor highways. Spelling has changed. Language has changed. Street names have changed, as has the way we spell out and abbreviate them.

What do you think? Would you have wanted to rent one of these houses or rooms? What sort of “housing wanted” ad would you have put in the Tribune in the 1860s? Do you think you’d have been able to find a place to live in the embryonic Chicago?

I hope this trip back in time has given you some insight into or even nostalgia for the Chicago of two centuries ago. We won’t be continuing this series immediately but we will probably return to it over the coming months. Let us know what you thought of it, and if this inspired you to do your own deep dive into historic classified ads do let us know what you find!

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.