Chicago's 24th ward: politics the old fashioned way

Chicago's 24th ward: politics the old fashioned way

There was once a barber shop on Chicago's West side that doubled as a polling place on election day. I lived 20 feet from that shop located on 15th St. near Trumbull Ave. It was a barber shop straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Two barber seats, chairs for the next customer and the one item to which we were most attracted: a barber pole all lit up running all day till the shop closed. Silly what we remember.

Now let's talk about the 24th Ward of Chicago where our precinct voted in the barber shop. The powerful Alderman at the time was Jacob "Jack" Arvey, a close friend of Mayor Richard J Daley. In fact it was alleged that President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the strongest ward in the entire country.

At that time our precinct captain was Arthur X. Elrod, the father of Richard Elrod who was elected as Cook County Sheriff many years later. In those years the precinct captain was an important element of the party. He knew just about everyone in his precinct. He visited them or they went to his office for various types of assistance. They were usually seeking employment for a member of the family and somehow Mr. Elrod was able to help them.

Those were the years of patronage that drove the party to success in elections. It helped the voters to find jobs in various departments of the City of Chicago. In return, they helped the party by going door to door to recommend the candidates for whom to vote.

Now on election day the "boys" showed up at our precinct with their "uniforms"; a suit and tie, a cigar and a hat. In today's elections you cannot solicit within 100 feet of the polling place. However in those years of the 1940's and into the early 1950's, the workers hung around the barber shop encouraging the voters to help them by helping to elect their candidates.

When you went in to register, as similar as today, you were handed a paper ballot in English only. For those who couldn't speak English there was a helpful and friendly person to help them place the x in the proper square.

The paper ballot was confusing because every office up for election was printed on this massive, intimidating piece of paper. The precinct workers made sure that those who promised to vote did indeed vote. There was an elderly lady who lived on the first floor of our walk up building. Two anxious helpers helped carry her from bed to the polling place, helped her find the right candidates for whom to vote and then they carried her back to her apartment. It was my early observation of local politics and truthfully I found it exciting as a young teenager. The polling place in those years closed at 6pm sharp.

Some workers were encouraged to vote around 5:30 to make it appear there were long lines so the opponents were discouraged, anxious to get home from a hard days work and left. Then the real fun began. If you were young in the years aforementioned then you know it was an all night count of the paper ballots.

The 24th ward of Chicago again proved it was the most powerful Democratic ward in the State and possibly the country. Now I never witnessed the count yet I learned there seemed to be quite a few counters to hurry things along. It was said (this is hearsay) that the ladies counting the ballots with long finger nails had a tiny piece of lead under the nail. This was so they could spoil a ballot if necessary. Again, to me it was hearsay, but given the times who knows?

Years later when I was a married adult we went to South Haven, Michigan for a week or so of relaxation. We learned that Mayor Daley and Jacob Arvey had homes along the north shore next door to each other. In fact they were so close each house had the initial of their last names in a bold letter, D for Daley and A for Arvey. Two of Chicago's most powerful leaders were close neighbors. I found it interesting.

That is my memory of the good old days of early voting. In this era of TV and social media the friendly precinct captain and his helpers have become obsolete, a relic of a time gone with the wind. Of course, it was the beginning of the independent voter who no longer votes for a particular party but for the candidate. In my opinion it became the silent third party of our election process. So gone are the paper ballots, the old fashioned voting machines that were a nightmare of another era and mercifully are now extinct.

But the history of the voting machine is a tale for another time. Ain't politics grand?

Memories light the corners of my mind and I hope yours too!


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  • Not sure I would call such massive and overt corruption "the good old days," but it was an interesting slice of history you related.

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