This weekend concludes the 2016 Chicago Auto Show, the country’s biggest and longest-running car show. Sponsored by Motor Age magazine, Chicago’s first official auto show opened on March 23, 1901 at the Chicago Coliseum. Exhibiting just 100 cars, the second annual show charged visitors $0.50—an amount, when adjusted for inflation, slightly higher than the price of the ticket to the 2016 Chicago Auto Show.
From these relatively modest beginnings, the Chicago Auto Show quickly became a major tourist event, drawing in not just the relatively small circle of potential customers who could afford these expensive machines, but also spectators who came to feed their daydreams.
Although the Chicago Auto Show website hosts images and films from throughout its history, the Detroit Public Library has a surprising selection of images from the 1909 show.
“As the eighth show is held in Chicago the fans opined it already was an institution transcending, nay obliterating, all memories of the common horse show and demonstrating Chicago to be setting the pace in the automotive trade,” the Chicago Tribune reported then. Creepily, the Tribune also promised that the show was a fantastic place to ogle female spectators and that generation’s version of “booth babes”: “Everywhere the scene bloomed with the feminine element—smartly gowned women diplomatically arousing enthusiasm for the horseless vehicle in the breast of the man with the wherewithal. . . women reclining upon the luxurious cushions of touring cars. . . and, lastly, just women who came to look on and feast their eyes on beautiful things.”
A total of 332 exhibits were crammed into the Coliseum and the First Regiment Armory, both of which were festooned with bronze-colored papier-mâché and stucco ornamentation. Unlike contemporary auto shows, which market the relative greenness of their new fuel-efficient or electric cars through video presentations, the 1909 show brought in hundreds of plants to decorate exhibits—the Coliseum was even scented with incense to give visitors “a breath of pine country.”
The spectacle brought in 200,000 visitors, a number, Chicago newspapers gleefully reported, that was twice the amount for the New York Auto Show. “This exhibition has been the greatest business show ever held,” the head of one car company exclaimed. “People seem to have come to a realization that the auto is king and has come to stay forever.”
We’ll see about that last bit—millennials are buying fewer cars than their parents did. But in the meantime, enjoy these photos from the 1909 show.