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Chicago: City of the Century | Article

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

Chicago Exposition, 1893. Library of Congress

America hosted the World's Fair of 1893 as a celebration of Columbus' voyage to the continent four hundred (and one) years earlier. Chicago beat out New York, St. Louis and Washington, D.C. for the privilege of hosting the fair. Like the 1876 Centennial Exposition before it, the Fair provided a showcase for American power — and a reflection of the nation's prevailing values.

The board supervising the fair invited Frederick Law Olmsted, America's premier landscape architect, to develop a site and plan for the fair. With his partner Harry Codman, Olmsted chose Jackson Park on Lake Michigan. Rather than design a landscape, Olmsted and Codman conceived of a spectacular seascape. Along with the lake itself, a series of artificial pools and canals would contrast with islands and raised terraces for the buildings. An arrangement of buildings around a terrace had been used at the last World's Fair, in Paris of 1889 -- but the Chicago site was four times larger.

Daniel Hudson Burnham, of the Chicago architectural partnership Burnham and Root, the chief of construction for the fair, enthusiastically adopted this proposal. Burnham then suggested that the greatest American architects of the time contribute designs for the buildings. The contributors included Richard Morris Hunt (who built the façade of the Metropolitan Museum in New York), Charles McKim (New York Public Library), Robert Peabody, George B. Post (New York Times building), Henry Van Brunt, Louis Sullivan, and William LeBaron Jenney (Home Insurance Building of Chicago, among the first with a steel skeleton). The sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, as artistic director, oversaw the decorative program of the fair, which included works by Daniel Chester French, who later created the statue of Lincoln for that president's memorial, and the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

When the architects met in Chicago in 1891 to share their designs with one another, Olmsted noted, "the general comradeship and fervor of the artists was delightful to witness & more delightful to fall into." Together, they collaborated on a magnificent vision -- and enjoyed their own audacity in dreaming it up. Saint-Gaudens compared the group to the Italian Renaissance geniuses who built Florence. "Look here, old fellow," he said to Burnham, "do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!"

The Neo-Classical buildings of Hunt, McKim and the other eastern architects stood around a basin in the Court of Honor; Sullivan's multicolored Transportation Building was off to one side. A mile-long commercial strip, the Midway Plaisance, provided entertainments nearby.

The Court of Honor's buildings served as exhibition halls, housing the newest inventions and appliances for the home and farm, many of them powered by electricity. Visitors gawked at electric incubators for chicken eggs, electric chairs for executions, an electric sidewalk, an early fax machine that sent pictures over telegraph lines, electric irons, sewing machines and laundry machines, and Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, the first moving pictures. For many of the fairgoers, Edison's fourteen-year-old invention, the electric lightbulb, was a novelty they had never seen before. That the Court was lit at night was itself astonishing. The exhibits helped to demystify the many mysterious new inventions of the age.

The seascape conception worked beautifully. Newly designed electric boats, quieter and smaller than steam-powered boats, carried fair-goers around the site. There were also Venetian gondolas, a Norwegian Viking ship, a Japanese dragon boat and replicas of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. The World's Fair Steamship Company ran ferries from midtown to the fair with live music on board and the best view of Chicago available for 15 cents.

"The influence of the Exposition on architecture will be to inspire a reversion toward the pure ideal of the ancient," Burnham wrote. Although individual architects like Olmsted and Sullivan were unhappy with the idea of privileging of classical European design over homegrown American styles, Burnham succeeded. The World's Columbian Exposition established a Neo-Classical revival in Chicago and across America.

Although the Court of Honor influenced American architecture for decades to come, most visitors to the fair were more impressed with 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.

The 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 Housini, 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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