The original Airbnb: Libertyville, Mundelein, and the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition

Welcome back to my first post of 2019! While talking with a coworker about a potential topic for a post, she mentioned that she had just finished putting new file folders into our history collection, and suggested I take a look at the file on the Libertyville Business Men’s Association. There was only a single page article in the file, but at the very end it referenced voting on a “program…for the accommodation for visitors to A Century of Progress” (Independent Register 1933, p. 1). Intrigued, I did a bit more digging and discovered that during the height of the Great Depression, Libertyville and Mundelein worked together on an extensive publicity campaign to draw in tourists arriving for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

The fair itself, which forms the backdrop to this story, was the brainchild of former army chaplain turned social worker Myron E. Adams. A well-known Chicago booster, Adams saw Chicago’s centennial celebration as a golden opportunity to show off the “progress”  that the city had made since the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Backed by the likes of Samuel Insull and Albert Sprague, both of whom would play key roles as fair organizers, Adams submitted his plan for the fair to Mayor William Dever on August 17, 1923. The plan was quickly approved only to be dropped after Dever lost his re-election bid to William “Big Bill” Thompson on April 5, 1926. In late 1927 however, a small group headed by city treasurer Charles S. Peterson was able to convince Thompson to reconsider the project. They must have been persuasive because Thompson appointed a committee to examine the issue, and, once decided, planning began in earnest in the December of that year.

second verse same as the first

Located on three and a half miles of newly reclaimed land along the shore of Lake Michigan on a portion of Burnham Park, the Century of Progress was a bold display of colorful Art Deco architecture. True to its motto of “Science finds-Industry applies-Man conforms”, the fair showcased the latest in modern living and consumer culture (Book of the Fair, 1933). Among the fair’s exhibits was the Pioneer Zephyr, a streamlined art deco train that could achieve speeds of up to 112.5 mph (now on display at the Museum of Science & Industry), a series of 12 futuristic houses dubbed “Homes of Tomorrow” which included personal helicopter pads, and the Darkest Africa show, an anthropology-as-entertainment exhibit that led some African American residents of Chicago to boycott the fair. Millions of visitors were expected to visit the fair, visitors who in turn, would spend millions at stores, restaurants, and hotels in and around Chicago, proving a much needed boost to the local economy. Given that the nation was still in the grip of the Great Depression,  the unemployment peaked at 24.9% in 1933, it’s not surprising that the residents of Mundelein and Libertyville began to look for ways to take advantage of the impending arrival of tourists headed for the World’s Fair.

double pick 2

One of the first, and least successful, attempts of local residents to cash in on the expected influx of World’s Fair tourists came in late September 1932 when the Libertyville Lumber Co. commissioned R.R. Sitz, a local contractor, to build temporary housing for fairgoers. The first house, located on the corner of Brainerd and Park Avenue on what had only a year before been a miniature golf course, was comprised of a single room measuring only 12 x 20, albeit with all the “modern conveniences” including running water, electricity, and gas. Neighbors took issue with the construction however, and made their views known at a meeting of the village council on October 4, 1932. When the village building inspector J.R. Mulholland was questioned about the permit for the structure, it was discovered that the house had been built in a restricted subdivision. Mulholland was instructed to tear down the house and construction of additional “World’s Fair houses” was halted.

Corner of Park and Brainerd Ave.

Sanborn map of the probable location of the first, and only, “World’s Fair houses”. Courtesy of the Cook Memorial Public Library District.

With the Fair set to open in only a few weeks time, on May 18 the Libertyville-Mundelein Business Men’s Association, at the suggestion of an H.W. Robbin (who may or may not have been Horace Wyker Robbin, an employee at Libertyville Lumber Co.) approved the creation of a tourist bureau to provide accommodations for tourists arriving for the Fair. Appointed chairman, Robbins in turn appointed committees (welcoming, publicity, transportation, etc.) to oversee the project and set up a central office in the Public Service Building, located at 344 N. Milwaukee Ave., to direct the bureau’s activities. In addition to providing visiting tourists with rooms and board, the bureau also planned on providing free parking, guides to accompany tourists to the fair, chauffeurs, and child care for parents who didn’t want to take young children to the crowded fair. A centralized list of the available rooms, 320 in total, would be drawn up and rental prices, ranging from 50¢ to $1.25 per day (around $9.72 and $24.31 today respectively), would be fixed for various classes of rooms. With little time to spare (the fair was set to open on May 27) the bureau quickly set about surveying both towns and putting advertisements in the Independent-Register to gather information on who had rooms available to rent, which at least 38 people replied to.

final render

In order to apprise arriving fairgoers that Mundelein and Libertyville had rooms to rent, the bureau launched an extensive advertising campaign. Working with the Libertyville Businessmen’s Association (which had only met for the first time on May 25th) and various local papers, the bureau planned to print thousand of “attractive folders” that provided information about housing accommodations, various local attractions including St. Mary of the Lake and the Insull estate, as well as directions on how to reach Libertyville and Mundelein via the official fair radio route (State route 21 which ran just happened to run directly to Libertyville) (Independent Register 1933, p. 1). In addition to the folders, the bureau placed adverts in local newspapers and set up a series of signs in a radius of 100 miles informing passing tourists about the available accommodations.

By June 22, 1933 the first tourists began to arrive. I was unfortunately unable to find any solid numbers on how many tourists took advantage of the available rooms in Libertyville and Mundelein. However, I did find one article from June 29 in which at least one tourist, a sales representative from Appleton Wisconsin, was “so taken with the beauties and advantages” of Libertyville that he began house shopping and, according to the paper at least, was expected to “make a purchase before the end of the week” (Independent Register 1933, p. 1). The World’s Fair was originally only supposed to run from May 27 to November 12, 1933. However, due to lower than expected attendance, 22.3 million rather than the anticipated 60 million, bondholders voted to open the Fair for a second time, May 26th and October 31, 1934,  in order to make back their money. I wasn’t able to find any references to either Libertyville or Mundelein renting out rooms for the Fair’s second run, although I can’t say for certain they didn’t (it was the Great Depression after all and any economic windfall for the towns would have been welcome).

So there you have it, the hidden history of how Libertyville and Mundelein “invented” Airbnb during the 1933 World’s Fair! I hope you enjoyed this little piece of hidden local history, and I’ll leave you with this breathless (color) video of the 1933 World’s Fair!


“1933-1934 Century of Progress Exposition.” http://www.architecture.org. Accessed January 31, 2019. http://www.architecture.org/learn/resources/architecture-dictionary/entry/1933-1934-century-of-progress-exposition/.

“Advantages of Libertyville will be shown.” Independent Register (Libertyville), June 1, 1933. Microform.

Answering Your Questions If You Plan to Attend a Century of Progress. IL, 1933.

“Association Is Organized by Business Men.” Independent Register (Libertyville), May 25, 1933.

“Century of Progress Exposition.” Accessed January 31, 2019. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/225.html.

Century of Progress International Exposition. “A Century of Progress Records.” June 2005. Accessed February 8, 2019. https://findingaids.library.uic.edu/sc/COP15.xml.

Chicago Tribune. Pioneer Zephyr Dawn to Dusk Club 1936. June 1, 1936. Chicago. May 14, 2014. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pioneer_Zephyr_Dawn_to_Dusk_Club_1936.JPG.

“First world’s fair house is erected here.” Independent Register (Libertyville), September 29, 1932. Microform.

Ganz, Cheryl R. The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair: A Century of Progress. IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

Good Housekeeping. “The Home of the new era”. Advertisement. June 23, 2006. Accessed February 15, 2019. https://em.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Stran.jpg.

Harris & Ewing. THOMPSON. MAYOR OF CHICAGO. 1911. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. Accessed February 15, 2019. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2016853780/.

“Local bureau will provide for tourists.” Independent Register (Libertyville), May 18, 1933. Microform.

Official Guide: Book of the Fair, 1933. Chicago, IL: Chicago: A Century of Progress, 1933.

Photos courtesy of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society, Cook Memorial Public Library, and the Library of Congress.

Pursell, Weimer. Chicago World’s Fair. A Century of Progress, 1833-1933. 1933. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C. In Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Accessed February 12, 2019. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004665785/.

“Residents Protest Temporary Houses.” Independent Register (Libertyville), October 6, 1932. Microform.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Libertyville, Lake County, Illinois.” Map. In Digital Sanborn Maps, 1867-1970, 4. Sanborn Map Company, 1933. Accessed February 12, 2019. http://sanborn.umi.com/image/view?state=il&reelid=reel47&lcid=1973&imagename=00025&mapname=Libertyville Dec. 1933, Sheet 4&CCSI=277n.

“Support the Service Bureau.” Independent-Register (Libertyville), May 25, 1933.

United States of America. United States Department of Labor. Labor Force, Employment, and Unemployment, 1929–39: Estimating Methods. By Stanley Lebergott. 1948. 50-53. Accessed February 11, 2019. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1948/article/labor-force-employment-and-unemployment-1929-39-estimating-methods.htm.

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