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Houdini | Article

The World's Columbian Exposition (1893)

The mile-long Midway at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago was the closest an amusement seeker came to a sure thing in 1893. Strolling along, one could admire the belly dancing of Fahreda Mahzar, known as "Little Egypt, the Bewitching Bellyrina;" take in a demonstration of strong man Bernarr MacFadden's new exercise machines or ride on George Ferris's 264-foot bicycle-wheel-in-the-sky. With such a heady assortment of entertainment choices, many probably missed nineteen-year-old Ehrich Weiss, a.k.a. Harry Houdini, who had just embarked on his quest for fame as half of a magic act called "The Brothers Houdini."

The Columbian Exposition was the first major American fair since the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, and it marked the beginning of a golden era. It was followed in the next decade by world's fairs in Atlanta, Nashville, Omaha, Buffalo and St. Louis. As American social historian David Nasaw has written in "Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements," the fairs were meant to do far more than merely amuse the public: "The world's fairs were paeans to progress, concrete demonstrations of how order and organization, high culture and art, science and technology, commerce and industry, all brought together under the wise administration of business and government, would lead inevitably to a brighter, more prosperous future." In many ways, they were the ultimate expression of their age.

In the 1890s the United States was in the middle of an unprecedented transformation. As the industrial revolution remade the economy, the effects on society were broad and far reaching. One of the most obvious changes was the growth of American cities – between 1870 and 1920, the nation's urban population exploded from less than 10 million to more than 54 million. The average worker, who saw his income and free time increase dramatically, began to look for new amusements. These changes, along with new emphasis on technological progress and the rise of consumerism, led to a revolution in American popular entertainment. The rise of vaudeville was one result. But it was the world’s fair that became the perfect vehicle for exposing Americans to the wonders of the modern world. Visitors to Chicago’s main exhibit, "The White City," were thrilled to glimpse a better world right around the corner, courtesy of the latest in human ingenuity and high culture. 

If the "serious" exhibits were the meat and potatoes of the World's Fair, the Midway was pure confection. In 1876, the organizers of the Philadelphia fair, not wanting to detract from their educational mission, had banned lowbrow entertainment -- only to see a wildly successful "Shantytown" spring up right across the street. Fairgoers at the huge Paris Exposition of 1889, on the other hand, found light entertainment mixed freely with more substantial exhibits. The Midway was created by the organizers in Chicago as a compromise, a way to offer popular fare without tainting the serious stuff. This arrangement gave free rein to performers and the public alike, and resulted in something entirely new.

"Variety was the spice of show business and the right kind of amusements -- brief, light, and frivolous -- could be almost addictive," observed Nasaw. "Each amusement only whetted the appetite for more. Had any of the exhibits been entirely satisfying the chain would have been snapped. But that never happened." The balance between edification and pleasure was important, however. When Omaha businessmen kept their Midway open for a second year after the fair had closed, it was a financial disaster. It seemed the public felt guilty skipping the meal and indulging only in dessert.

The Midways were not fun for everyone, though. African-Americans, while free to come and go like anyone else, were made to feel unwelcome. Unlike the exhibits celebrating the achievements of other cultures, fake "African villages," according to Frederick Douglass, had a very different purpose: "to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage." At the Chicago fair, even Douglass’s effort to highlight the progress of African Americans since the abolition of slavery backfired, as organizers turned "Colored People’s Day" into a cruel joke by offering free watermelons to African American fairgoers. As examples like this show, the World’s Fairs were -- for better and for worse -- true expressions of their age.

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