From the Fox River Valley to the Windy City: The Roaring Twenties and the Neenah Foundry

Elevated view of street and some buildings.
Bird’s-eye View of Neenah Wisconsin, c. 1915. Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society, ID 41854

The 1920s began with economic prosperity, new technologies such as telephones, radio and movies, and important new cultural movements such as jazz and Art Deco. As one of the most rapidly growing cities in America, Chicago experienced all of these developments, along with being the focal point for the dramatic new architectural style of Louis Sullivan and Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright. Chicago’s rapid growth called for the equally rapid expansion of its water and power utilities, and the Neenah Foundry of the Fox River Valley produced almost all the manhole covers and sewer grates dotting the city’s streets. City records indicate that the Neenah Foundry cast manhole covers for the Chicago as early as 1920, if not earlier.[1] It is difficult to date these manhole covers because foundry catalogs rarely mentioned them, but we can use the cover’s various surface patterns and styles to estimate dates.[2]

File:LaSalle Street from old Chicago Board of Trade Building.jpg
View of South LaSalle Street, May 5, 1916.

As of 2016, the Chicago Water Department had 46,000 manhole covers and the gas company had over 4,000, all produced at The Neenah Foundry.[3] The relationship between the City of Chicago and The Neenah Foundry continues today with recent production (2008-2016) resulting in over one billion dollars in sales.[4]

Written by Keith Kaziak, September 2021.

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[1] Matt Bubala, “Chicago’s Manhole Covers Have Been Made at Same Foundry Since At

Least 1920,” WGN Radio (June 14, 2016). Accessed September 1, 2021

[2] Mimi Melnick, Manhole Covers (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994): 8.

[3] Nancy Stetson, “COVER GRILL,” Chicago Tribune (October 30, 1994). Accessed September 1, 2021

[4] Matt Bubala, “Chicago’s Manhole Covers Have Been Made at Same Foundry Since At

Least 1920,” (Chicago: WGN Radio, June 14, 2016). Accessed September 1, 2021