Keeping Everyone in the Loop: 50 Years of Chicago “L” Graphics

A 1913 map of the Chicago Elevated system

A recent visit to Chicago reminded me of how enamored I am of its rapid transit. It’s so much a part of what makes Chicago unique and exciting to me. Chicago is one of those cities with a “sound” to it—San Francisco being another—and the elevated “L” system is the reason why. Much of the original structure is almost 125 years old, yet it continues to be a vital element of the city’s circulatory system. When the “L” was built, and way before we all used automobiles as our primary means of transport, the dependence on interurban transit (including streetcars and motor coaches) stretched beyond merely commuting. It provided the population an opportunity to venture into outlying areas for recreation as well.

This post reflects on a half-century of graphics (mostly the brochure covers of transit maps) relating to Chicago’s elevated and subway system, known as the “L”.

(I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible concerning dates, but if anyone sees a screwup, please leave a comment and I’ll revise.)

The reverse side of the 1913 map shown at top. This design format was used consistently through the 1920s.

A 1915 Elevated travel brochure


1915 map

An interesting and thorough brochure (circa 1910) presenting the system and the effective opportunity it offered as an advertising tool. The lighted clock-tower in the illustration on the left is the old Wells/Kinzie Street Chicago & Northwestern Terminal, now the site of the massive Merchandise Mart.

A 1920s travel brochure as a joint venture between the Elevated railways and the Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railway, which ran trains from the south side of Chicago all the way up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Yes, between 1919 and 1963 you could board a train in the loop and take a non-stop electric train to the Cream City.

Another 1920s CNS&M/”L” travel brochure.






A 1933 map produced in conjunction with that year’s “Century Of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago. The fair was so successful that it ran through 1934 as well . . .


1934 map












A brochure offered up at an inspection of the new (under construction) State Street Subway, which opened in 1943.










“Guest tags” for the first day of operation on the State Street (1943) and Milwaukee Avenue (1951) subways







1948: This brochure explained the restructuring of service that ensued with the demise of the Chicago Rapid Transit and the creation of the new Chicago Transit Authority. Many stations were closed, along with some of the smaller, lesser-used branches.




1951 map


Late 1940s/early ’50s: The CTA was off and running on their modernization program with booklets like this . . .








1954 map


1956 map




1957 map


1958 map


1959 map






1963 system map

Company PR brochures offered to the public


These are examples of the PR brochure holders installed in the rapid transit cars circa 1910s/late 1940s.

Example of the baked-porcelain signage utilized on the system from the 1910s through to the 1980s. This technique and font was used on the platforms and in the stations for everything from passenger warnings to wood-framed destination signs.

These stickers/labels (1950s) were affixed to the window sills on the rapid transit cars, trolley buses, and streetcars.

The above is somewhat of a companion piece to one I wrote last year (—so please check that out if you’re interested in further info

Finally, the best site covering EVERY aspect of Chicago Transit is Graham Garfield’s It’s as comprehensive as it gets!


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14 thoughts on “Keeping Everyone in the Loop: 50 Years of Chicago “L” Graphics

  1. Martin Tuohy

    Arlene Bader: If you wish to see numerous photographs specifically depicting the 63rd Street streetcar line in Chicago during the 1940s or earlier, you might want to search your public library’s catalog for a copy of this book:

    Alan R. Lind, Chicago Surface Lines: An Illustrated History (Park Forest, Illinois: Transport Trails Press, 1974)

    If you find that the book is difficult to borrow, there are number copies available for sale through online booksellers and individual sellers on eBay. You would probably want to look for a third edition or a later edition (1979 or later), since the book was updated and corrected several times. The book is thick.

    One section of the book contains both narrative descriptions and visual depictions of each route of the Chicago Surface Lines, including the 63rd Street route.

  2. Martin Tuohy

    Chris Helnius: if the subject is new to you, you might be interested in learning about some existing sources of information about the history of the advertising of Chicago’s elevated railroads. These are rather widely available already. Beyond articles by John Gruber and J. J. Sedelmaier , three additional sources would be:

    Bruce Moffat, The “L”: The Development of Chicago’s Transit Rapid Transit System, 1888-1932 (Chicago: Central Electric Railfans’ Association, 1995). Thoroughly illustrated with examples of commercial illustrations in advertising pieces.

    Graham Garfield,, The largest and most comprehensive collection of information online by a professional in Chicago’s rapid transit system. For maps, see

    The Central Electric Railfans’ Association ( has published bulletins (books) since the group’s formation in 1938. You might find some of their publications interesting for the graphics and extensive maps. Many of the out-of-print books can be found available through antiquarian booksellers and through online sales venues.

  3. Chris Helenius

    This is indeed a wonderful entry, but I don’t quite understand some of the captions, starting with the monochrome/red ‘”L” map of Chicago’, stating that it’s a map, but isn’t that a brochure, and not a map?
    Pardon for the pedanticity, but I was equally interested to see the actual transit maps from those eras as well as their accompanying graphics on the brochures/booklets, but there are only 3 images on this entry that can rightly be called maps.
    It would be fantastic if you could also provide the actual maps of the system.

    I was also thinking about archiving and public access; if you would allow, with an according license, I could upload these images onto Wikimedia’s Commons, as it is a project for archiving images of… well, anything. Many map enthusiasts, historians and even just Chicago citizens would surely appreciate such a trove.

  4. Michael T. Greene

    Was the blue “ENTRANCE” sign made by Baltimore Enamel & Novelty? The letter font looks similar to older signs in Philadelphia’s Broad Street Subway.

  5. Arlene Bader

    The 1948 brochure shows the streetcar that I remember very well, but I would love to see something with the even older streetcar that ran on 63rd street, with the motorman in the front and the conductor in the back, collecting fares in an open-air rear platform.

  6. Debbie

    Brilliant! Has inspired me even more to visit Chicago! I’m a graphic designer far away in Melbourne, but it looks like I’ll get my chance next June / July if anyone has some more design related incentives for me 😉

    Thanks for a fantastic article.

  7. Pete Martinez

    I’m impressed and entertained! Obviously a monumental effort in collecting all these! An Outstanding accomplishment. Thank you for sharing the art work. Pete

  8. Heidi Wells

    Congratulations on a fascinating article! Is it possible to purchase prints or copies of the maps — the 1933 and 1934 maps, in particular? They’re works of art!

  9. Steve Herberger

    Great Historical info and classic graphics.

    At the age of 3 I boarded one of those electric trains with family and friends to ride one of the last runs from Waukegan, IL (halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago) to Milwaukee.

    The former track bed trough Lake County, Illinois is now the Robert McLory bike trail.

  10. Martin Mulcahy

    This article is phenomenal. Thank you for putting this together. It made me so excited, combining three of my favorite things: graphic design, history of Chicago and transit maps! Thank you. Looking forward to reading your earlier work too.