In the years before World War I, Chicago was struggling with gangsterism, corruption and vice. Though not yet in the grip of Al Capone and the Mafia, Chicago was divided and controlled by ethnic gangs of Italian, Irish and Polish descent. Parts of the city were awash with crime and violence but its police force was one of the most corrupt in the United States. Chicago also had a flourishing red light district, one of the largest of any American city. Unable or perhaps unwilling to combat these larger problems, Chicago’s City Council instead focused on smaller ones. Between 1910 and 1914 council aldermen passed a series of ordinances that banned or restricted dozens of activities. A few of these ordinances – like restrictions on the storage of food and automobile noise levels – were progressive, enlightened and remain with us today. Others were more frivolous or poorly considered. In 1911 the City Council banned the distribution of paper drinking cups, restricted tyre width and banned the use of horns and whistles. The city banned all forms of boxing and ball games in public parks and spaces. It was illegal to post signs or advertising on trees. Aircraft and balloons were fined if they landed without a permit. Newspapers, publishers and bookmakers were prohibited from printing racing form guides. Restaurants and saloons were ordered to remove or lower private booths. Streetcar companies were forced to remove advertising from inside their carriages. Fortune telling was banned, as were ‘shell games’ and hair removal by electrolysis. In December 1912 a local baker was arrested, convicted and fined for baking a seven pound loaf of bread (the city’s maximum size was six pounds). In March 1910 the council banned women from wearing long hat pins in public. Concerned about their use as concealed weapons, possibly by militant suffragists, city leaders ruled that hat pins “shall not extend more than one-half an inch beyond the crown of the hat”. Alderman Bauler summarised it thus:
“If women care to wear carrots and roosters on their heads, that is a matter of their own concern… but when it comes to wearing swords, they must be stopped. One man told me he was almost decapitated in the City Hall elevator by the sweep of a hat pin-like scimitar worn by one of the City Hall belles. In the street cars people are in danger of losing their eyes by sitting beside some lovely devotee of the fashions.”
The most famous city ordinances of the period were the so-called ‘ugly laws’, which made it illegal for the disabled to appear in public:
“No person who is diseased, maimed or mutilated, or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object or improper person to be allowed in or on the public ways or other public places in this city, or shall therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under a penalty of not less than one dollar nor more than 50 dollars for each offence.”
These laws were actively policed, at least initially. Several disabled residents were arrested for breaching this ordinance and either fined or transported to the Cook County poorhouse. This waned toward the end of World War I, which of course produced an exponential increase in the number of disabled citizens. Chicago continued to use this ordinance intermittently until the mid 1970s, when it was finally repealed.
Source: Various inc. Mount Sterling Advocate, March 16th 1910; Tacoma Times, August 9th 1911; Chicago Municipal Code 36034/1911.