People & Events: World's Columbian Exposition of 1893: The Midway
"[W]hin ye say anything to thim about th' fair, they say: 'D'ye raymimber th' night I see ye on th' Midway?"
-- Mr. Dooley, Irish bartender, a fictional character from Finley Peter Dunne's Daily News columns
Performances of classical music and other uplifting entertainments were scheduled for the buildings of the Court of Honor of the World's Columbian Exposition, Neo-Classical buildings arranged around a basin and connected by footbridges over canals and lagoons. The Court of Honor was having trouble competing with the Midway, however, and the concerts were poorly attended. Theodore Thomas, the fair's musical director, resigned halfway through the exposition, recommending that for "the remainder of the Fair music shall not figure as an art at all but be treated merely on the basis of an amusement."
Taking his suggestion to heart, and trying to lure fairgoers from the Midway, the Court of Honor started featuring John Philip Sousa marches. Moreover, the Court was host to donkey races, boat and swim races in the lagoon, international tug-of-war contests, tightrope-walking, and parachute drops. Clearly, the spirit of the Midway had overtaken the "White City" of the Court of Honor.
Midway's most outstanding feature from afar was George Washington Gale Ferris's gigantic wheel ride -- the first Ferris wheel ever built. This was a direct response to Gustave Eiffel's tower for the Paris fair of 1889. The attraction featured 140-foot-high towers and a 250-foot-diameter wheel whose apex brought riders to a point higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty. For fifty cents each, 1.4 million riders went for two revolutions. A New York entrepreneur ordered a half-sized wheel for his park in Coney Island, telling a reporter, "We Americans want either to be thrilled or amused, and are ready to pay well for either sensation."
The Midway performers included the escape artist Harry Houdini, ragtime pianist Scott Joplin, and Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. There were also beauty contests, dwarf elephants, a two-headed pig, boxing matches and Hindu jugglers.
For the first time, hungry Americans were offered hamburger sandwiches and fizzy, carbonated soft drinks. They could even get a new-fangled postcard to send to their friends.
There were talks by the local reformer Jane Addams, by suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by the famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, future president Woodrow Wilson, and by the socialist Samuel Gompers. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave his seminal paper on the closing of the American frontier at the Fair, and Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke on literature.
International exhibits included German and Irish villages, mosques, a Cairo street, an Indian reservation, half-naked Dahomeyan villagers and Algerian belly dancers. But there was no acknowledgement of the more than eight million African Americans.
Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass complained that the only examples of African culture on display were the villagers from Dahomey. He organized a Colored People's Day at the fair and was jeered at and ridiculed -- until he spoke. The Exposition was, among other purposes, the largest reconciliatory event since the Civil War, held while lynching was on the rise in the South. Douglass said: "We Negroes love our country. We fought for it. We ask only that we be treated as well as those who fought against it."
Similarly, the Native American exhibits, organized by the curator of Peabody Museum of Harvard University, were criticized by one of the staff members because they were "used to work up sentiment against the Indian by showing that he is either savage or can be educated only by Government agencies.... Every means was used to keep the self-civilized Indians out of the Fair." The staff member, Emma Sickles, was fired.
The World's Columbian Exposition was wildly popular. In the six months that it operated, 27 million people visited the fair. That number is astounding today, but even more so when one considers that the population of the United States was only 63 million in 1890, or that there was an economic depression at the time and families mortgaged farms and houses, or borrowed on their life insurance, to visit. This was Chicago's -- and America's -- showcase, a chance to set a standard and an agenda for the century that was to come.
One farmer was overheard speaking to his wife as they left the Fair: "Well Susan, it paid, even if it did take all the burial money."
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