I’ve always wondered what goes on in those exclusive clubs downtown. Have you ever noticed them? Their closed doors make it easy to just walk right by. I had the unexpected opportunity the other day to find out for myself at the University Club, a 124-year-old institution. In the early part of the 19th century these were the primary social outlet for the middle and upper classes. Examples are the Medinah Shriners, the Freemasons, the University Club, and Men’s and Women’s Athletic Associations. Once you paid your membership dues, you could use their facilities, such as the library or smoking lounge, and attend their luncheons, parties, and grand balls. You got to hobnob with the best, basically. In other words, these were the old headquarters of the “Old Boys Network.”
Lucky for me, a friend’s partner had to cancel last-minute for a luncheon. I was just a block away, so I said absolutely yes to lunch and a talk about new book, Zero-Sum Game: The Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange, led by author Erika Olson (side note: It was a little awkward for some at the luncheon table who suspected I was some sort of young mistress. Ha ha!)
I’m fascinated with Chicago’s history as a financial center, and Erika lead an engaging presentation of the roots of the Chicago Board of Trade (founded in 1848) and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (1898). Of course the photographs and the quotes were my favorite part: she showed an image of stock traders in front of a chalkboard – which was how they communicated the fluctuating value of futures until 1967. And for quotes, she had some colorful adages in standard Chicago style: rife with both strong opinions and expletives. As a public speaker myself, I appreciated the alternating between serious points and playful ones since this topic could have easily been made dry.
As a side note, “Floored” is a fun documentary that examines the culture of futures trade (which encompasses “derivatives”), focusing on the slow extinction of the custom of open outcry. You know – the gesticulating and crazy suits.
So what it is like to enter this elite club? When you step into the lobby, numerous guards welcome you, immediately asking if you are a member or who you are meeting. And they make sure you will abide by rules and dress code: absolutely no jeans or tennis shoes, no cell phone use, no photos, no if’s and’s or but’s. However I did see a man who did not take his bluetooth off his ear the entire talk. And yes, the “no photos” rule is why you won’t be seeing any pictures from me! The walls are of well-oiled wood, the staircase with elegantly carved banisters. We were in too much a hurry to see the library, but what I did see had books stacked to high ceilings. This building of the University Club of Chicago dates to 1909, and if only the walls could speak…Oh well, don’t expect any Chicago tour of history or architecture to stop in this building any time soon!