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Archives and Manuscripts

Justin's LetterThe Chicago History Museum's Archive and Manuscript holdings include records produced by individuals, businesses, and organizations in the Chicago metropolitan area that document significant aspects of life in the city, suburbs, region, and state from 1683 to the present. The holdings also include important material related to American history that document the nation’s development from the 1770s to the 1870s.

The collection is particularly informative on the Chicago area's early history, social conditions and problems, 20th-century neighborhood life, community organizations, African American history, ethnic history, women's history, civil liberties and civil rights, politics, religious-centered social action, labor unions, environmental concerns, teachers, and school reformers.


The Museum makes most of the archives and manuscripts in its collection available to the public for research through its Research Center.

Only a limited portion of the Museum’s sound holdings have been transferred to readily accessible reference copies or have transcripts. Advance arrangements must be made to order a reference copy for use in the Research Center.

The staff also welcomes written and email requests for information about materials in the collection. Please allow several weeks for a reply.

> Contact the Research Center

Types of Documents

Letters, account books, diaries, journals, certificates, genealogical charts, licenses, log books, membership lists, memoirs, memoranda, minutes, muster rolls, research notes, scrapbooks, scripts, sermons, speeches, subscription lists, and telegrams are found in the Archive and Manuscript holdings.

Highlights of the Archive and Manuscript Holdings

Large holdings include office files from:

  • Claude A. Barnett, director of the Associated Negro Press, 1918–67
  • Board of Lady Managers of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893
  • Chicago Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925–69
  • Alderman Leon M. Despres, 1929–82
  • Senator Paul H. Douglas, 1932–71
  • Illinois Manufacturers' Association, 1893–1986
  • Sterling Morton and the Morton Family, 1814–1953
  • Open Lands Project, 1961–75
  • District 31 of the United Steelworkers of America, 1934–79
  • University of Chicago Settlement and Mary McDowell, 1894–1968
  • Wieboldt Stores, Inc., and Mandel Brothers, 1892–1958
  • Young Men's Christian Association of Chicago, 1853–1978
  • Burr Tillstrom, 1939–85

The Red Squad Collection

The Chicago Police Department, Red Squad selected records, c. 1930s-86 (bulk 1963-74) concerns surveillance of suspected “subversive” groups by the Chicago Police Department, ca. mid-1950s-74. The records were involved in two federal lawsuits. After these lawsuits were settled, Judge Susan Getzendanner of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued an order that deposited these records at the Museum and imposed certain restrictions on access to and disclosure of the records.

> Learn about accessing the Red Squad collection

Sound Holdings

The Museum’s collection also includes a large number of sound recordings of radio programs, oral history interviews, speeches, and proceedings.

The Studs Terkel / WFMT Oral History Archives

Audio recordings of interviews, readings, and musical programs aired during Studs Terkel’s tenure at WFMT Radio from the early 1950s through 1999 are part of the Museum’s collection. Over five decades, Terkel interviewed individuals from every walk of life. These interviews narrate the cultural, literary, and political history of Chicago and the United States.

Discussion topics reflect the interests, passions, and political leanings of the interviewer. The archives are especially rich in interviews with and performances by musicians, singers, lyricists, and composers of jazz, opera, and folk. Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Judy Collins, and many other artists performed.

The list of authors and poets represented in the collection reads like a Who's Who of 20th-century literature. James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren, and Mike Royko are just a few of the authors who read from their works and discussed their craft with Terkel.

Terkel and his guests discussed such diverse topics as nuclear disarmament, the American peace movement, psychology, race relations, ecology and environmental pollution, violence against women, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and labor activism.

Oral History Archives of the Chicago Polonia Project

The Polonia Project recorded life histories of 140 Chicago-area Polish-Americans, many of whom emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1930. The interviews were conducted in the mid-1970s and provide firsthand accounts of adjustment to American culture.

Other Sound Holdings

Other sound holdings in the Museum’s collection include:

  • Interviews of Chicago-area journalists by students in Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, 1975–present
  • Problems of the City radio programs, 1970–91
  • Bill Cameron's The Reporters radio shows, 1978–93
  • Teen Chicago exhibition, 2005: approximately 100 interviews conduced by the Teen Council of Chicagoans about their experiences as teenagers
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