Masks required in Abakanowicz Research Center; optional for rest of Museum MORE

4.10 | Chicago’s Silent Stars

In its heyday, Chicago’s Essanay Studios was one of the industry’s most prominent producers of silent films. Founded in 1907 by George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson, Essanay (“S” and A”) was based in Uptown and known for its comedies and westerns. Its stars included Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, and cofounder Anderson also played a part in his company’s success–he starred as “Bronco Billy” in short westerns and produced one a week for 376 straight weeks. While Chaplin was at Essanay from only 1915 to 1916, he was undoubtedly its biggest star. Best known for his iconic role as the bumbling, childlike Tramp, he was also in several shorts, such as The Champion, The Bank, Shanghaied, and His New Job, which put Essanay on the industry map. However, warmer weather and higher pay beckoned Chaplin to the Mutual Film Company in Hollywood, and his departure expedited the decline of Essanay, which is now remembered by only the most serious movie buffs. Learn more about Chicago’s film history.

Film set for a silent western featuring Gilbert M. Anderson as “Broncho Billy” at Essanay Studios in Chicago, c. 1910. CHM, ICHi-016886


Developed in partnership with Lake Forest College, Digital Chicago is a collection of digital projects about forgotten or at-risk aspects of Chicago’s history and culture. Musicologist Don Meyer sought to explore the musical practices of silent films during the Progressive Era, so he recreated the music of Essanay’s film Max Wants a Divorce (1916) as it might have been heard in theaters at the time. Listen now.


The Chicago History Museum is situated on ancestral homelands of the Potawatomi people, who cared for the land until forced out by non-Native settlers. Established in 1856, the Museum is now at 1601 N. Clark Street in Lincoln Park, its third location. As a major museum and research center for Chicago and U.S. history, the Chicago History Museum strives to be a destination for learning, inspiration and civic engagement. Through dynamic exhibitions, tours, publications, special events and programming, the Museum connects people to Chicago’s history and to each other. To share Chicago stories, the Museum collects and preserves millions of artifacts, documents, images and other items that are relevant to the city’s history. The Museum gratefully acknowledges the support of the Chicago Park District on behalf of the people of Chicago. 

Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories