After our last column, Holly Martin submitted the following question for historians at the Evanston History Center:
I saw your recent article in the Evanston RoundTable and want to send along a history question. You’ve probably received the same question in the past so my apologies for sending a repeat question if that’s true.
Long ago as a grade schooler living in Wilmette I remember taking trips to buy school supplies just before the start of the new school year. I remember these trips fondly and one of the things I remember most was picking up my new Chandlers for the upcoming school year. It was basically a day planner, geared around the academic school year. However, we never called it planner. We always referred to it like this: “Did you put that in your Chandlers?” Or “Did you remember to bring your Chandlers?” Everyone in my family and at school referred to it that way.
I remember getting older and moving away from Wilmette, and suddenly I learned there is another term for this “Chandlers” thing. It was like suddenly realizing they don’t really refer to them as “party shoes.” It was one of those moments in growing up where you realize childhood terms are not actually used by the adult population except when talking to children.
So a few years ago after I moved back to Evanston as an adult I found myself walking around downtown by Fountain Square. And suddenly I notice this plaque on a building with the name “Chandlers.” I stopped in shock and had a moment of nostalgia. Could this be the place where Mom took us to buy school supplies each year? Is this where my beloved planner came from?
So I’m writing in hopes that you can fill in some of the gaps. Was there a business called “Chandlers” in downtown Evanston and did they in fact sell school supplies? What happened to the business and why is there still a plaque on that building?
Thank you so much for your question, Holly. Yes, indeed, there was a business called Chandler’s in Evanston and they did sell school supplies and much more. We’ve dug into our files at the Evanston History Center to put together this brief history.
Chandler’s store in Evanston was in business for a century. Chandler’s first opened its doors in 1895 and closed in 1995. Chandler’s was founded by Henry Ellsworth Chandler, known as H.E. Chandler. Over the years, his business was called by various names, including “H.E. Chandler & Co.” and “Chandler’s University Bookstore.” It would finally become known as Chandler’s Department Store, or simply “Chandler’s.” Also over the years, the business grew and expanded. Ultimately it would be run by members of three generations of the Chandler family. By the time the flagship Evanston store closed in 1995, there were seven regional Chandler’s stores in operation.
The Evanston business was located in various buildings located both on Davis Street and Sherman Avenue in Evanston’s Fountain Square area. Its physical expansion reflected the commercial growth of Evanston’s downtown. Chandler’s came into being just after Evanston became a city (after annexing South Evanston) and it grew during the years of the 20th century. It weathered the storms of the Great Depression. It boomed in the 1950s, when Evanston’s downtown became a hub for shoppers on the North Shore, and it survived the economic downturns of the 1970s and 1980s.
Chandler’s Evanston Locations
630 Davis St.: The first building Chandler’s occupied was a small frame building formerly occupied by merchant Jennetta “Jennie” Simpson.
632 Davis St.: In 1910, Chandler’s expanded west into 632 Davis St.
634 Davis St.: In 1914, Chandler’s expanded farther west into a building on the corner of Davis Street and Sherman Avenue. The building had formerly been occupied by Simpson’s meat market, a business owned by Jennie Simpson’s brothers, Andrew and Robert Simpson. (The building’s original address was 435 Davis St.)
1575 Sherman Ave.: In 1925, Chandler’s expanded again by opening a store at 1575 Sherman in a building just south of the former Simpson’s meat market.
In 1929-1930, Chandler’s built the two new major wings of the building that still stands today, replacing the older buildings at 632 Davis and 1575 Sherman.
Chandler’s founder, Henry Chandler, lived in Evanston for 25 years. He served as alderman of the Second Ward, president of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce and chairman of Evanston’s Parks Committee. For his work to expand the city’s parks and play facilities, he was later dubbed the “Father of Evanston’s Playgrounds.” (The Chandler-Newberger Community Center is partly named after him).
Born the first year of the American Civil War, Henry Chandler grew up in Chicago; he came from a well-to-do family. His father, Henry Bellows Chandler, was a self-described “paper publisher.” Born in Canada in 1826, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1852 and took up management of the Detroit Free Press. In 1855, he married Mary Ann Mather Watson (1832-1883), who was originally from Connecticut. The couple had four children. In 1861, Chandler and his family settled in Chicago where Henry Bellows Chandler purchased an interest in the (now defunct) Chicago Times.
Henry’s older brother, Charles Hibbard Chandler (1859-1946), was a successful merchant. He served as president of a company he co-founded in 1880: Thayer and Chandler Art Supplies at 46 E. Madison St. in Chicago. (In 1898, the store expanded and moved to 146 Wabash Ave.) For a time, Henry Chandler worked for his brother’s company.
The two brothers were interested in the future of Evanston, which, by the approach of the 20th century, had been newly incorporated into a larger city with the annexation of the village of South Evanston. And so, in 1899, they decided to move to Evanston and take advantage of the new opportunities the city offered. Henry, in particular, was eager to start his own business in the heart of downtown.
Henry, who never married, lived in Evanston with his brother Charles, his brother’s wife, Mary, and their four daughters and son. They lived at 1733 Asbury in a house that remained in the Chandler family for many years.
The Simpsons: 19th-century merchants
Before the Chandlers, there were, in effect, the Simpsons.
Around 1895, Henry Chandler purchased an existing business at 630 Davis St.: an art supply, stationery and confectionery store run by Jennetta “Jennie” Simpson. Simpson’s brothers, Robert Jr. and Andrew Simpson, operated Simpson’s, a meat market at nearby 634 Davis.
The brick building that housed Simpson’s meat market, pictured above, was designed by Evanston-based architect Asa Lyon (1849-1903). At the time, it was a notable and impressive structure, famous for its “tile floor and fountain.”
The building represented the growth of the young village of Evanston, and its owners, the Simpson brothers, were widely lauded as leading citizens.
Perhaps the most commercially successful of the Simpson siblings was Robert Simpson Jr., who lived in Evanston for 50 years. Born in Scotland, he was 3 years old when he immigrated to the U.S. with his parents and two older siblings. His younger siblings, Jennie and Andrew Simpson (1845-1908), were both born in the U.S. Their father, George Simpson, became a successful coal and wood trader after settling in Libertyville in the 1840s. His businesses took him to Evanston, where several of his children would later move in the 1850s.
Robert Simpson Jr. went on to run a successful butcher business with his brother Andrew, and they also became coal and ice distributers in the area. Robert Simpson also invested widely in local real estate, making him a very rich man upon the time of his death in 1914.
The financial success of the Simpson siblings in early Evanston represents the generation of 19th-century merchants who ran commercial operations in the village and built their wealth as a result. The Chandlers were part of the subsequent generation who literally moved into that earlier generation’s vacated structures. They too capitalized on the growth of the city and the changing (and broadening) retail demands of the 20th century.
The growth of Chandler’s
In its first years, Chandler’s offered a variety of goods. It also served as the primary distributor of newspapers for the city. At first, Henry Chandler catered casually to the university trade, offering school supplies as well as candies and sundries. But soon, he capitalized on this relationship. He expanded his merchandise and renamed the store “Chandler’s University Bookstore.” He added dictionaries, slates and other accoutrements that students needed, and stocked textbooks for courses, as well as books for general readers. He also expanded into other areas of interest for his clientele. When a turn-of-the-century bicycle craze took off, for example, he began to sell the popular two-wheeled “safety” bikes and also offered a bike repair service, attracting customers from well beyond Evanston.
In 1910, Chandler listed his occupation as “stationer.” A decade later, he called himself a “merchant,” reflecting his expanding (and booming) business. Now, along with books and school supplies, he was also selling clothing, sporting equipment, furniture, typewriters, etc. He had turned his small business into a “departmentalized” concern, or, simply, a department store.
In 1914, the meat market closed after Robert Simpson’s death. Henry Chandler purchased the building, which was next door to his existing store.
By 1917, Chandler expanded his business further, not only selling more types of merchandise, but also by offering a variety of services, including locksmith services, parcel delivery, messenger service, vacuum cleaner rentals and repairs of small appliances.
In 1924, the former meat market building was renovated and Walgreen’s Drugs leased the ground level. Chandler’s occupied the building’s upper floors.
In February 1926, Henry Chandler passed away at the age of 64. Evanston’s City Hall shut down entirely on the day of his funeral, reflecting Chandler’s many associations with members of Evanston’s civic and political circles. At the time, Henry Chandler’s estate was valued at a quarter of a million dollars (about $4 million today).
In August 1926, just months after Henry’s death, Chandler’s opened an additional store on Sherman which was devoted to “books and social stationery.”
Chandler’s continued to expand physically. In 1929, plans for a new two-section structure, designed by Evanston-based architect Edgar Ovet Blake (1866–1953), were drafted. The building was planned to harmonize with Northwestern University’s architectural style. The new building would be designed in an “Elizabethan or Tudor” style, appropriate, it was said at the time, “because of Chandler’s long association with local schools and colleges and school supplies.”
Since only the two lots surrounding the existing smaller structure on the corner of Sherman and Davis were available, an L-shaped building was designed to accommodate the unusual site. The new building would be constructed around the still extant 1882 Asa Lyon building (the former meat market). When the new Chandler’s building was completed, however, only five of the planned 10 stories were constructed. The 1929 stock market crash had placed a limit on the more ambitious plans. The first wing of the new Chandler’s building on Sherman opened in November 1929; the Davis wing opened in 1930.
Over the years, several Chandler family members worked alongside Henry Chandler, including his brother Charles, who ran the business for two decades. After Charles Chandler died in 1946, the business remained in the family.
Charles and Henry’s nephew, Jared Johnson, Jr. (1907-1975) began working as a stock boy in the sporting goods department in 1927. In 1931, he became manager and oversaw the expansion of the business, which ultimately included seven regional stores. In 1946, Johnson became chairman of the board of the Chandler’s office supply chain.
It was Johnson who designed the iconic “Chandler’s Assignment Notebook” in the 1940s. He later said that he could not find a planner that met the needs his customers expressed to him. One of the notebook’s key features included a calendar that ran from August to August, thus coordinating with the academic school year.
The notebook became a much beloved mainstay of students, and was still printed after the store closed. It even found its way into popular culture: It was featured in Evanstonian John Cusack’s 2000 film, “High Fidelity”; Cusack’s character retrieves a Chandler’s notebook out of storage to look up the phone number of his seventh-grade girlfriend.
Many Evanston students went to Chandler’s for their school supplies. “A fall ritual for Evanston High School students,” reported the Chicago Tribune in 1995, “was to march up the marble staircase to the upper floors to order one’s orange and blue Wildkit gym uniform, name emblazoned in felt on the back, then march back down to the first floor to load up on rulers and other essentials.”
And many local residents would work at the store. One (later famous) Chandler’s employee was 25-year-old John Malkovich. “I didn’t mind it, you know,” the actor later told The New York Times about working as a clerk at Chandler’s in the 1970s. “I got in a lot of arguments with the owners, but I liked them in a perverse way. They liked me. It was an old-fashioned little department store with a little elevator operator, a little gift-wrap section. I took an interest in it.”
Some Chandler’s employees worked for the company for decades. Long-time employee Ruby Brown was profiled twice in the Evanston Review, marking her 45th and 62nd work anniversaries.
Ruby Brown (1900-1999) was just 18 years old when was she was first hired at Chandler’s in 1918.
In 1963, she told an interviewer that Chandler’s was “one of the few businesses in Evanston that would hire Black women.” Around 1928, her sister Sadie Brown also became a Chandler’s employee. Both women lived with their widowed mother, Janie Brown, at 1812 Darrow Ave. By 1940, both Ruby and Sadie Brown reported making $721 a month working at Chandler’s.
Ruby Brown, who started as a stock clerk, eventually became manager of Chandler’s stock and supplies, a position she held for decades. In 1980, the owners of Chandler’s hosted an anniversary party for Brown at their Evanston home. Among the 200 guests were several other long-time employees, including 90-year-old David Rubin, who had worked for Chandler’s for 46 years, and Abram Kutok, who had been with Chandler’s for 50 years.
In 1995, Jared Johnson’s sons, Mort Johnson and Jared Johnson III, who had taken over the business, announced plans to retire. They also announced that they had decided to close the flagship Evanston store. On Jan. 21, 1995, Chandler’s closed its doors after being in business for a century. “The reasons,” the Johnson brothers noted, “have to do with a family drifting into other interests and across wide geography as well as the advent of office superstores that make staying competitive even tougher.”
In 1995, the Chandler’s property was acquired by the Davis Street Land Co. For a while, it remained empty. In 1999, the 1882 former meat market building was razed by real estate developers, Montera Partners and Heitman Retail Properties, after they purchased the Chandler Building. The open space was renamed Chandler’s Plaza. The architectural firm Holabird & Root restored and renovated the 1930 building and the plaza. The Chandler’s plaques were installed then as tribute to an Evanston institution.
For more Chandler’s history, visit the exhibit at the Evanston History Center.