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Chicago’s Postwar Industry

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

by: Dominic A. Pacyga, Ph.D.

Chicago’s industrial base served the nation well during World War II. The city quickly recovered from the Great Depression and, along with other Midwestern industrial centers such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, produced much of the material necessary for the defeat of the Axis powers. In 1947 as the capital of the industrial belt, the Chicago area remained the nation’s railroad center; was a leading player in meat, iron, and steel production; and led the nation in communication equipment, candy production, and commercial printing. In addition, the city produced an amazing array of other goods. Chicago produced more than one-twentieth of America’s total value added by manufacturing. Its proportion was equal to that of the entire state of California, and it produced more than twice the amount of industrial goods as Texas. By 1950, 36 percent of Chicago’s employed residents worked in manufacturing.

This map from 1947 showing Chicago’s value in manufacrturing compared to other states reveals that production by the city and its surrounding metro area was similar to that of Ohio and exceeded Michigan. (Chicago History Museum, ICHi-037022)

The Beginnings of Industrial Decline

In the immediate postwar era, the future of the industrial economy of the city seemed secure. The city had 204 large-scale industrial projects under construction for the five-year period from 1946 to 1951 valued at $131 million ($1.4 billion in 2018 dollars). The suburbs had another 143 projects worth $229 million ($2.4 billion in 2018 dollars). The Chicago area alone led all the other metropolitan areas in the country in manufacturing. Between 1947 and 1951 Chicago corporations built over 800 industrial buildings. Of these, 443 were factories with a total floor area of 13.4 million square feet as the city developed more than 1,000 acres for manufacturing purposes. This number did not include additions to existing plants. By the end of that era, roughly 8,000 acres were dedicated to industrial purposes exclusive of its railroad yards and trackage, of which Chicago had roughly 16.2 square miles, a greater amount of land than used for all industrial and manufacturing purposes.

Still, since the late 1930s much of Chicago’s industrial base had declined. Food processing, furniture and fixtures, and the clothing industry underwent a slow but discernible decrease in production. On the eve of World War II, these three industries accounted for more than 25 percent of all industrial workers in the city. In 1947 they made up 18 percent and 10 years later less than 16 percent of that workforce. By the 1970s the once huge garment industry accounted for only about 7,000 employees. Many of the clothing manufacturers originally moved to the South where labor expenses were lower. Manufacturers in Asia eventually took over much of the American market for ready-made shoes and clothing. The few companies that remained in the city attempted to integrate new means of production to cut labor costs.

The furniture industry also floundered after the Great Depression and World War II. Many companies also moved to the South in particular North Carolina and Virginia, where labor costs were cheaper, unions did not exist, and raw materials were abundant. In the late 1970s the famous Chicago Furniture Mart was sold and later developed into condominiums along the North Side lakefront. By 1997 none of top 25 manufacturers were based in Illinois. (1)

Greener Pastures

The city faced several challenges to its industrial base in the expansive years after 1950. Much of its industrial production operated in obsolete buildings, and there was more demand than available land. Roughly 17 percent of industrial buildings in 1952 had been built before 1900. Forty-two percent of the total were constructed before 1920. Twenty-five percent of the industrial structures contained in the Central Area had been built before 1900, with only 7 percent since 1930. (2) Many of the industrial concerns were crowded into multistory buildings surrounded by partially empty buildings or small plots of land. Chicago had at least 6 million square feet of vacant industrial floor space, mostly in dilapidated buildings, and most of these were in the Central Area. It provided the heart of the city’s industrial base. In addition, multiple tenancy predominated in the older industrial buildings, limiting space for expansion. A slightly larger manufacturing belt running from Belmont Avenue to Garfield Boulevard and from the lake to the city limits included 80 percent of the city’s manufacturing employees.

A view of the Chicago Central Manufacturing District, c. 1950. (Courtesy Epstein Global.)

Much vacant property had a poor location, a small size, or mixed ownership. Congested streets and inadequate housing for working class families hindered industrial expansion. Also, many businesses had located in residential locations before the 1923 enactment of zoning laws and could not now expand or at least found it difficult. Approximately one-third of all industrial establishments were located in primarily residential or commercial districts in 1952. Chicago’s complex rail patterns also segregated many parts of the city into isolated zones, and grade crossings obstructed increased postwar automobile traffic. It was no wonder that many businesses moved to the suburbs. In the five years after 1945, more plants had moved from Chicago to the suburbs than in the previous 21 years combined.

Part of the problem was the almost universal adoption of one-story plants. Due to the limited amount of available industrial space in the city, this trend proved an especially difficult problem, especially in the Central Area. City land values made it difficult to adopt the campus-like industrial settings available in suburban areas. At inner-city locations, buildings occupied roughly two-thirds of land areas. In newer settings, they occupied about 47 percent. A lower ratio of building to land area on new sites was accounted for by setbacks, parking facilities, and space reserved for possible future expansion.

About 4,000 acres within Chicago itself were available for industrial use, but these varied in size, condition, and distribution. Nearly 1,000 acres were located near Lake Calumet, but this area required landfill before it could be developed. The railroads owned 1,600 acres, but insisted on heavy rail use by any industries locating on their land. Most new industries did not want this as the truck was coming more and more into vogue. The city also suffered from an uneven availability of land. There was little available on the North Side, and what was available tended to be small parcels. Roughly 2,800 acres were available south of 95th Street, but many industries found this area to be unattractive.

Another problem was presented by plans for urban renewal, especially the construction of highways. This would be largely carried out by the federal government in the years after 1955. In the early 1950s, planners estimated that the construction of the Congress Expressway (now the Eisenhower Expressway) displaced 59 West Side manufacturing establishments. The proposed Northwest Expressway (now the Kennedy Expressway) would move another 225 manufacturing plants.(3) Thus despite the attractiveness of a Chicago address, more and more industries began to look beyond city boundaries to the suburbs or even beyond the region.

This 1966 aerial view looking northwest over the Congress Expressway shows the vast swath of land cleared for the highway and Phase 2 construction of the new University of Illinois urban campus, eliminating even more small manufacturing plants. (Courtesy UIC Special Collections, Building UIC – The Facilities Collection (University of Illinois at Chicago, University Archives Site Development, University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, 003-03-08-01_H699-001-002-1966.06.01-NW-PN)

Steel, Meatpacking, and Candymaking

Traditionally, steel and meatpacking provided much of the city’s manufacturing wealth. In Chicago the steel and iron industry had located largely, but not entirely, in the neighborhoods of South Chicago, South Deering, the East Side, and Hegewisch. The first mill in this area, the Joseph H. Brown Iron and Steel Works, opened in 1875 in Irondale (South Deering). Five years later, the North Chicago Rolling Mill Company opened its South Works at the mouth of the Calumet River in South Chicago, and steel production began in earnest. By 1954 the Chicago Steel District, including Northwest Indiana, was the world’s largest producer of steel with 161 open hearths and 16 electric furnaces located in Gary and East Chicago, Indiana, and on the city’s Southeast Side. U.S Steel’s Gary Works, its South Works, along with the Inland Steel Company’s Indiana Harbor Works, Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and Wisconsin Steel made up a basic steel producing area that could not be matched. In 1953 the Chicago Steel District’s capacity produced 22,293,000 ingot tons, against Pittsburgh’s 20,211,780 tons of annual capacity. U.S. Steel alone employed 54,000 out of a total of more than 100,000 steelworkers in the area. These men and women were among the highest paid in the nation’s steel industry. (4)

While the meat industry remained important and had boomed during World War II, after the war it returned to the downward trend it had been experiencing since the beginning of the Great Depression. The Union Stock Yard had opened on Christmas Day 1865 and soon became the nation’s largest livestock market. By the 1870s Chicago’s packinghouses began to move west of the stockyard in an area soon known as Packingtown. The number of livestock sold annually on the Union Stock Yard peaked in 1924 when 18.6 million head of cattle, hogs, sheep, and horses sold on the market. This was the second year in a row when over 18 million head had arrived in Chicago. That year on December 14, a record 122,749 hogs entered for sale into the massive two-story hog house that stretched for four blocks from Halsted Street to Racine Avenue. In 1927 Chicago had the highest concentration of cold storage facilities in the country as the city continued to dominate the industry.

This postcard of the cattle pens and runways at the Union Stockyards, postmarked April 25, 1918, represents not only the acreage within the city occupied by the livestock industry but also the period when the slaughterhouses drew thousands of tourists who came to view the efficiency of the assembly line methods that reduced a living animal to processed meat in less than an hour. (Matranga Archive)

Despite Chicago’s lead over other meatpacking centers, the industry began to go through a significant transformation. From 1923 to 1929 cattle receipts declined by 18 percent, largely as a result of the growth of small meatpackers and the further decentralization of the industry by the large corporations. Also, direct buying by meatpackers from livestock producers also increased. In addition, the use of trucks rather than trains to transport cattle, hogs, and sheep began to change the marketing of animals. (5)

After 1933 the Union Stock Yard never again received more than 13 million head annually. In fact, its numbers dropped well below that number and continued to decline until World War II when numbers again increased After the war the downward spiral resumed. In October 1952 Swift & Company announced it would no longer slaughter hogs in Chicago. The company maintained that the number of hogs on the Chicago market were too small and its old buildings too expensive to maintain. This decision portended the complete decline of the industry in the city. Three years later, Wilson and Company announced the complete shuttering of its massive Chicago plant, laying off some 3,000 employees. By the end of the decade, both Swift and Armour & Company announced the discontinuation of their Chicago operations. The Union Stock Yard, which had sold its one billionth head of livestock in 1954, celebrated its centennial in 1965 with the promise that it would remain the nation’s leading livestock market. Six years later the stockyard closed all operations. The loss of the large packinghouses and eventually the Union Stock Yard provided the first real post-industrial crisis for Chicago. (6)

Many Chicagoans did not see the loss of meatpacking as a major problem. The manufacturing base still seemed large, stable, and even growing. In fact, many celebrated the passing of the industry known for its famous stench that often wafted across the cityscape. Besides, the Central Manufacturing District proposed to develop the stockyards as part of its expansion. The northern part of the Union Stock Yard had already been turned over to the Central Manufacturing District in the mid-1960s as part of a stockyard modernization plan.

Few Chicagoans understood what the last half of the 20th century would mean for the “City on the Lake.” Despite the decline of the meat industry, the city still dominated the candy industry as every fourth candy bar made in the United States came out of Chicago. More than 100 manufacturers made candy in Chicago. In the 1950s the industry employed some 22,000 people in the city with an annual payroll of about $86 million. The city attracted the industry because of its vast railroad network, cheap immigrant and African American labor force, and its access to agricultural products. Cracker Jack was first made in the city and became an American legend during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. William Wrigley got into the chewing gum business when he found it was easier to sell gum than baking powder and soap. Frank Mars, Emil Brach, and George Williamson, who created the Oh Henry! bar, also made their confections in Chicago. Curtiss Candy developed the Baby Ruth in the city. Chicago continued to lead in the production of steel, tools, diesel locomotives, electronic equipment, plastics, and a host of other products. Despite the loss of many manufacturing plants to the suburbs and to the South and West Coast, Chicago seemed assured of an industrial future. (7)

Continued Deindustrialization

Yet the city’s industrial downturn continued into the 1970s. Many of the businesses that had replaced meatpacking as a major employer also began to fade. In the mid-1970s the American steel industry endured a sudden collapse, especially in the Chicago area. Old, inefficient plants faltered in competition with new, modern foreign steelmakers. In 1980 Wisconsin Steel, the descendent of Brown Steel in South Deering, closed. During the seven years after 1979, roughly 16,000 Chicago steelworkers lost their jobs. In 1986 U.S. Steel reported a $1.83 billion loss! The company’s South Works in South Chicago, which had opened in 1880, closed in 1992. At that time, the plant, which once engaged over 17,000 men and women, employed less than 700 workers. Other plants, both large and small, closed across Chicago’s Steel District including LTV (Republic Steel), Acme Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. (8)

This aerial view from 1974 shows Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works manufacturing facility in suburban Chicago. (ATT Archives)

Additional industries also soon fell to deindustrialization. In the 1980s, suburban Cicero saw the huge Western Electric Hawthorne Works, which included nearly one hundred buildings and provided 5 million square feet of industrial space and employed at its peak over 45,000 people, fall upon hard times. In its heyday, it was the equivalent of Silicon Valley for the telecommunications industry. The plant opened in 1906 as the nation’s first “fireproof” manufacturing plant. Western Electric, along with ATT’s Bell Laboratory, pioneered all types of communication innovations for the Bell System. The film industry also depended on Western Electric for “talking” movies, and during World War II the Hawthorne plant and Bell Labs developed an accurate radar system for the American armed forces. The plant itself provided much of the economic base for Chicago’s Southwest and West Sides. In 1983, after years of rumors and a vastly reduced workforce, Western Electric closed Hawthorne Works. (10)

This map legend shows the types of manufacturing businesses in the Cicero Industrial District in 1950. (From a display at the Hawthorn Works Museum in the Morton College, 3801 South Central Avenue, Cicero, Ill. Matranga Archive.)

Residential gentrification also provided problems for the city’s industries. As early as 1987, the Clybourne Industrial Corridor saw factory buildings increasingly being converted into loft apartments. By 1990 the Clybourne shopping district was well under way, and residents were complaining about the dirt and noise of local manufacturing plants, especially steel producer A. Finkl & Sons. Finally, after years of struggling with complaints from neighborhood residents, the mill announced its move to the South Side’s Steel District in 2008. The original site is now under development as Lincoln Yards by real estate developer Sterling Bay. Other plants also left the gentrifying North Side of Chicago. In 2016, Vienna Beef left its longtime home to resettle across from the old Union Stock Yard site in Bridgeport. (11)

Between 1967 and 1982 Chicago lost a quarter million jobs, 46 percent of its former industrial might. While some of these positions moved to the suburbs, as they had earlier in the city’s history, a deeper restructuring took place. During the 1970s alone, 25 percent of all Chicago factories closed. Between the high point in 1947 to 1981, the entire Chicagoland region lost roughly 14 percent of its industrial jobs. This brutal trend continued into the 1980s and 1990s. Between 1982 and 1992 the region lost another 18 percent of its industrial workforce. In the 1991-1992 alone 19,000 jobs left the city and 6,000 the suburbs.

The disruption of Chicago and the Midwest’s industrial base had been going on since the end of the 1940s, although it could be traced back to the industrial expansion during World War II. During the war, the federal government invested heavily in California and other western and southern states. Spurred on by the three Pacific Rim wars the United States fought beginning in 1941, investment in other regions of the country continued. Taxpayer money constructed bases and invested heavily in the aerospace industry and in other military-oriented industries. Washington, D.C. left the old industrial heartland to fend for itself. Illinois and other Midwest states slipped down the ranks of industrial states being awarded defense contracts. Chicago manufacturers often felt no need to improve industrial practices as once small western and southern cities bloomed into industrial giants. Furthermore, globalization impacted the city’s economy and weakened its industrial base. Still, in 2018 Chicago ranked as the number-two manufacturing city in the United States, a country much changed from 1945.


1. Youngsoo Bae, “Clothing and Garment Manufacturing,” in Encyclopedia of Chicago, eds. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James Grossman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 175-178. For the furniture industry, see John B. Jentz, “Furniture” in Encyclopedia of Chicago, 321-322.​ 2. The Central Area is defined as bordered by Diversey Avenue to the north, 51th Street and Garfield Boulevard (55th Street) to the south, Lake Michigan to the east, and Western Avenue to the west. 3. This section is largely based on Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Industrial Study, Summary Report (Chicago, 1952). 4. Ray Vicker, “From Sand Dunes to Steel,” The Chicago Story, ed. Alan Sturdy (Chicago, 1954), 44-45, 316; Dominic A. Pacyga and Ellen Skerrett, Chicago, City of Neighborhoods (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986), 410. 5. Drovers Journal Year Book of Figures of the Livestock Trade for the Year 1962, (Chicago, 1963), 4; Edward A. Duddy and David A. Rezvan, The Supply Area of The Chicago Livestock Market (Chicago, 1931), pp. 1-3, n 7-16, 19-27. 6. For a discussion of the end of Chicago’s meatpacking industry, see Dominic A. Pacyga, Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), Chapter 5. 7. Chicago Tribune, October 20, 2013; Zarko G. Bibija and Ezra Solomon, Metropolitan Chicago: An Economic Analysis (Glencoe, Il., 1959). Retrieved from (June 4, 2005); Chicago Plan Commission, Chicago Industrial Study, 9; Joseph Russell, Jerome D. Fellman, and Howard G. Roepke, The St. Lawrence Seaway: Its Impact By 1965 Upon Industry of Metropolitan Chicago and Illinois Waterway-Associated Areas, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1959), 1:10-13; Russell Freburg, “Candy Capital of the World,” The Chicago Story, ed. Sturdy. (Chicago, 1954), 48, 331-332. 8. David Bensman and Mark R. Wilson, “Iron and Steel,” in The Encyclopedia of Chicago, 425; Kenneth Warren, The American Steel Industry, 1850-1970: A Geographical Interpretation (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1973), 301. 9. Austin Weber, “The Hawthorne Works, “Assembly Magazine,” August 14, 2002. 10.;;; Mathew Hendrickson, “City’s Worst Polluter Moving to South Side,” Chicago Reporter, October 31, 2008; David Doig, “The Relocation of Finkl Steel to the South Side Is a Rare Gift,” Crain’s Chicago Business, December 28, 2016; Robin Amer, “Manufacturing Consent: Chicago’s Oldest Steel Mill Will Soon be Demolished. What Will Replace It When It Is Gone,” Belt Magazine, January 20, 2015. 11. Janet L. Abu-Lughood, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 322-327; For the growth of Western cities as a result of World War II, see Carl Abbott, Metropolitan Frontier: Cities in the Modern American West (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1993); Ann Markusen, Peter Hall, Sabina Dietrich, and Scott Campbell, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

The “L” is probably the most distinctive aspect of Chicago’s cityscape. Since 1893 the elevated train tracks have encircled the central business district and given the downtown its name: "The Loop.” So it was only fitting that in August of 2016 when I invited Dominic Pacyga to lunch, he chose The Exchequer, the classic pub tucked under the L at Wabash and Jackson, for burgers and brew. For he had grown up in a Polish immigrant family and worked in the stockyards in his youth—he is a diner kind of a guy.

I wanted to pitch him my idea for a book about Chicago’s history of industrial design and manufacturing. I hoped to pique his interest in the stories I wanted to tell. After all, Pacyga lives and breathes Chicago’s histories of labor, ethnic neighborhoods, and urban culture. The author of numerous books on the city, he often appears on screen to share anecdotes about Chicago’s places and people. I hoped he would contribute an article that summarized the evolution of Chicago’s 20th-century industrial past. And we had similar backgrounds, as I too had been shaped by my childhood in an immigrant family and living in South Side neighborhoods.

The book concept shifted to a website project and took much longer than I expected. Dominic delivered his text, which sat waiting for the website to develop. I am honored that he prepared “Chicago’s Postwar Industrial Metamorphosis” for what became His authoritative piece provides a rich interpretation, filled with astonishing facts and figures, that frames the stories about the places and products that will appear on this site. I am grateful to Dominic Pacyga for his unwavering support.

Visit the Packinghouse Museum, which Pacyga curates and helped to establish, to learn about Chicago’s labor, immigration, and industrial history. Pick up a copy of one of his books, Chicago: City of Neighborhoods (1986), Chicago: A Biography (2009), Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made (2015) or American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago (2019), to learn more about the city Dominic Pacyga knows like the back of his hard-working hand.

To get a sense of the landscape that soon would be developed for industrial, residential, and commercial uses in the post-war expansion, view this video of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad route in 1945. Known as the North Shore Line, its trains traveled several times daily from the Loop through the northern suburbs to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The high-speed electric interurban train operated from 1916 to 1963; passenger service was discontinued because of declining ridership due to rising automobile ownership and the opening of the Edens Expressway.


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