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Bertha Palmer’s Chocolate Brownie: The Hidden Gem of Chicago

Posted  20 months ago  in  Then and Now, Restaurants and Dining

2 MIN READ - Food helps define a place, which is why deep dish pizza, hotdogs, and popcorn come to mind when you think of Chicago. Surprisingly, only some locals and far fewer travelers know about the Palmer House’s chocolate brownie despite its notable history.

Brownies were invented in 1893 at Palmer House by Bertha Palmer, a socialite and philanthropist, who achieved a reputation as a skilled musician, proficient linguist, writer, and able politician. In 1870, she married Potter Palmer, a successful businessman and Chicago millionaire, who built Palmer House in 1871 and owned a vast portfolio of properties. She chaired the Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 and charged Pastry Chef Joseph Sehl to create a new dessert that would be easy to box and transport. The new invention wasn’t called brownies at the time. The first reference to the “brownie” in America appeared in the Sears Roebuck catalog published in Chicago in 1898.

Bertha Palmer - Photo Courtesy of Famous American Men and Women A Complete Portrait Gallery of Celebrated People

The brownie became quite famous during the World’s Fair. However, Palmer was baking sweeter plans of action to amplify women’s role in this prominent event that signaled the city’s recovery from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and debuted its innovation including the world’s moving walkways, the first Ferris Wheel, Juicy Fruit gum, and more.  

Under Palmer’s guidance, the Board of Lady Managers ensured that women had a strong presence at the Columbian Exposition. The board hired Sophia Hayden, an American architect and first female graduate of the four-year program in architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as architect for the Woman’s Building. They also chose the “mother” of interior design, Candace Wheeler, one of America's first female interior and textile designers, to oversee the interior design of the building. The Woman’s Building showcased 47 exhibits from 47 nations during the World’s Fair.

Chocolate Brownie - Photo Courtesy of Palmer House

Palmer’s dessert has been a hit for over a century. Today the Palmer House makes its brownies using the same recipes from 1893. You can have a taste of history at Potter’s Chicago Burger Bar or Lockwood, two restaurants housed in the hotel. If you don’t want to dine in, you can enjoy them on the go in a cute box tied with a Palmer House ribbon.

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