World's Columbian Exposition

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In 1893 Chicago was at the center of national and international attention not only due to the amazing way it had bounced back from the fire that had almost destroyed it in 1871 but also because of the Columbian Exposition, with its famed "White City" constructed on the banks of Lake Michigan in and around Jackson Park. The old settlers of the city saw their home being treated as a gateway for Chicago and America to bridge the gap between the Old World and the New and to position itself at the center of the modern order of things. As Alfred Kazin put it, "Chicago was halfway between the wilderness and the stock exchange" (p. 237). At the closing ceremony of the fair on 28 October 1893 (two days before the gates were closed for the last time) Carter Henry Harrison, chief magistrate of the City of Chicago, made a speech that summed up much of what the people of Chicago felt about their fair and their city: "The World's Fair is a mighty object lesson, but, my friends, come out of this White City, come out of these walls into our black city. When we get there we will find that there is an object lesson even greater than is the World's Fair itself. . . . I believe I shall see the day when Chicago will be the biggest city in America and the third city on the face of the globe" (Truman, p. 606). Commentators have also seen the 1893 exposition, along with the St. Louis World's Fair nine years later, as marking the celebration of a new consumer society that ushered in the twentieth century. The Chicago exposition introduced a host of new brand names that would become staples of American daily life, such as Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemina's syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum.

The Chicago writer Henry Blake Fuller (1857–1929) loved the cosmopolitan experience of the fair but was not so sure that all this growth through commerce was a positive thing for his city or his nation, and he recognized that this transition from the accepted and understood precepts of Chicago to the status of a modern world-renowned metropolis was unlikely to be an easy one. Alan Trachtenberg has written that "the Fair invites ironic scrutiny as few other events and objects of the age" in that, being positioned between the financial panic of 1893 and the Pullman strike of 1894, it is representative of the age and of Chicago as a site in flux. An association between culture and corporate influence closes the era, Trachtenberg claims, but also "lays bare a plan for the future. Like the Gilded Age, the White City straddles a divide: a consummation and a new beginning" (p. 209). Fuller, like others of his ilk, including a young Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), was concerned about what would follow the fair and how the old Chicago—the society Fuller knew intimately—would function in this new world: there simply didn't seem to be much of a link between the White City of the fair and the "black city" of industrial Chicago. Fuller expressed these concerns before the fair even opened its doors, but his voice was drowned out by the overwhelming enthusiasm for the glamour of the exposition. As one commentator described the White City, it was "crowned with flags, running the gamut of color, but above the splendor of imperial banners the starry folds of 'Old Glory' rose and fell, dearer to every patriotic eye than all the rest" (Truman, p. 157). Stanley Appelbaum has noted that the White City "seemed to suit the temper of the country, which was actively turning from the conquest of its own territory to imperial conquests overseas"; it also suited the "psychological needs of the newest group of millionaires, who tended to be suave financiers rather than lusty self-made men. Its Romanism was that of the Empire, not that of the Republic, as Jefferson's had been" (pp. 13–14).


Literary works were commissioned for and inspired by the fair. Harriet Monroe (1860–1936), the founder of Poetry magazine, was asked to compose a commemorative ode, verses of which were read at the opening ceremony. Some sections were also set to music and sung by a choir reputed to have been five thousand strong. Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's story Two Little Pilgrims' Progress (1895), Clara Louise Burnham's romance Sweet Clover (1894), and Emma Murdoch Van Deventer's detective story AgainstOdds (1894) all use the fair as a backdrop or a major setting. Henry Adams wrote about his visit in The Education of Henry Adams (1907). Addresses given by Hamlin Garland at the fair were expanded and published as Crumbling Idols (1894), a manifesto of his artistic vision. Robert Herrick's The Web of Life (1900) has key scenes set in the ruins of the fairgrounds, while Erik Larson's Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) has been a modern success.

In a series of letters published in Cosmopolitan between November 1893 and September 1894, William Dean Howells (1837–1920) reflected on the promise for a utopian future in America as seen by a traveler from the fictional Altruria, who visits the fair and reflects on the ingenuity and clarity of purpose it shows. Through the eyes of his narrator, Aristides Homos, Howells saw in the fair a promise of a Christian socialism that would consolidate the industrial and cultural future of America. When Howells came to gather the letters as a sequel to his 1894 A Traveler from Altruria, however, he was disillusioned with his nation in the light of the Spanish-American War. In Through the Eye of the Needle (1907), Howells summarizes (without comment) Aristides's visit to the fair by simply saying that he was there, but the enthusiasm and idealism of the earlier letters has vanished.

Theodore Dreiser, a fledgling reporter for the Republic of St. Louis, accompanied a group of schoolteachers to the exposition. In his memoir Newspaper Days (1931), he wrote that the fair had "a lightness and an airiness wholly at war with anything that the western world had yet presented, which caused me to be swept into a dream from which I did not recover for months." The critic Guy Szerbula notes that the two cities of Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie (1900)—the walled city and the magically lit city—are "close at hand as Dreiser thinks back to Chicago and the White City" (p. 370). In Sister Carrie, Dreiser conflates the city and the fair to create the image of a semimythical garden surrounded by the city: "not an illustration of the machine in the garden, but the garden within the machine: within the city" (p. 378). Szerbula sees the idea of Dreiser's "urban sublime" coming from the exposition and the architectural designs of Daniel H. Burnham.


The exposition occupied 630 acres in Jackson Park and the Midway. The main site was bounded by Stony Island Avenue on the west, Sixty-seventh Street to the south, Lake Michigan on the east, and Fifty-sixth Street at the north side. A specially selected group of architects designed the exposition's buildings under Daniel Burnham's supervision. Sophie Hayden, the first woman awarded a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed the Woman's Building, and the exposition also helped launch the careers of architects such as Louis Sullivan and William Le Baron Jenney. A classical architectural theme was selected for the fair over the objections of the more innovative Chicago architects. The design centered on the Court of Honor, onto which all of the buildings housing exhibitions and attractions faced. These included the Mines and Mining Building, the Agriculture Building, the Palace of Fine Arts, and the Palace of Mechanic Arts. The buildings housed sixty-five exhibits in tune with the theme each represented. Some of the more popular exhibits were curiosities rather than serious displays of technology and progress. They included an eleven-ton cheese and a fifteen-hundred-pound chocolate Venus de Milo in the Agriculture Building and a seventy-foot-high tower of lightbulbs in the Electricity Building. The fair consumed three times more electricity than the whole city of Chicago. While the interiors of the buildings on the main court were more like warehouses than palaces, these structures came to identify the beaux arts classicism that would spread across the country and introduce to the world of modern architecture some of its best-known figures, including Sullivan, Dankmar Adler, and later, Frank Lloyd Wright. All of the facades were constructed of a temporary material of plaster, cement, and jute, and the uniform order of cornice height and classical designs was enhanced by the white color of all of the structures.

Unfortunately the temporary nature of the buildings was also an invitation to disaster. There were several fires before and during the exposition, and on 5 July 1894 most of the site was cleared by a fire that destroyed multiple buildings, including the Electricity Building, the Manufacturer's Hall, and the Court of Honor itself. The only surviving building built specifically for the fair is the Palace of Fine Arts, now the Museum of Science and Industry, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Immediately after the fair it was occupied by the Field Museum, but it was abandoned in 1921 when the Field collection was moved to its current home in Grant Park. In 1926 Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck created an industrial museum and renovated the deteriorating building to the tune of $5 million. The faded glory of the structure was rebuilt with limestone and marble, and it stands in the early twenty-first century as a reminder of how glorious the White City must have been.


The Columbian Exposition was the first of the world's fairs to provide an amusement area that was away from the main site of the exhibits. While the White City was on the shore of the lake, the Midway Plaisance, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, led away from it inland. The Plaisance, a narrow strip of land between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth Streets, extended west from Stony Island to Cottage Grove Avenue and was laid out with fairgrounds. The area was constructed with replicas of European villages and carnival rides. The "Street in Cairo," which introduced exotic dancing to America, was the most successful Midway attraction; its stockholders realized more than 100 percent profit on their investment. At the center of the attraction on the Plaisance and towering above them all was the world's first Ferris wheel. The Plaisance can still be seen, running along the south side of the University of Chicago's campus, and it has become an open recreation ground. At the western end stands Lorado Taft's concrete sculpture The Fountain of Time, completed in 1922.


One of the major draws at the fair was a dancer known as Little Egypt. Although there are many different theories about who Little Egypt was and where she came from, the legend is that she was a practitioner of the danse du ventre, or belly dance. Some commentators describe the dance she performed as the hootchy-kootchy, a sensual routine in which she wriggled out of much of her costume with the aid of the newly invented zippers along the side of it. Though audiences were reported as being shocked and scandalized, Little Egypt was one of the major attractions of the fair, credited with helping to pull the exposition back from financial ruin. However, Donna Carlton, a dance historian, believes that there were at least three exhibits of Oriental dance on the Midway Plaisance and that Little Egypt is in fact a composite and apocryphal figure created by word of mouth after the fair had ended. Carlton has found no concrete evidence that a single Little Egypt ever appeared at the fair and notes that the name itself was known to be a euphemism for "loose woman."


In 1890 Daniel Burnham called on the architects of Chicago to visualize a structure for the Columbian Exposition that would challenge or emulate the role of the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the 1889 Exposition Universal in Paris. The idea of building another, higher tower was rejected, and the focus rested on the plan of the thirty-two-year-old engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, who specialized in building steel bridges. When his plan was accepted he set up the Ferris Wheel Company, and the exposition committee set aside a site on the Midway Plaisance, the agreement being that his company would retain $300,000 of receipts and that any take above that would be shared equally with the fair. Construction of the wheel began in one of the worst Chicago winters for years. Eight reinforced concrete masonry piers were built to support the towers, which in turn would support the axle of the wheel. The axle, forged in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company, weighed 89,320 pounds and was 45.5 feet long and 33 inches in diameter. At each end it had two 16-foot diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds that gripped and turned the wheel itself. The axle was fixed at 140 feet above the ground. The wheel itself weighed in at 2,079,884 pounds and was driven by steam. It took nine minutes to complete one non-stop revolution, and it ran without problems for the four months it was at the fair. There were eventually thirty-six cars hung around the wheel. Each car carried 60 passengers, weighed 26,000 pounds, and was 24 feet in length, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high. A trip on the wheel became a major cultural experience, including weddings performed at the highest point of a revolution. By the beginning of November 1893 more than 1.45 million paid admissions had been logged, and the Ferris Wheel Company showed a profit of $395,000. After the fair the wheel was relocated at huge expense near Lincoln Park, but it never recouped the cost of moving it. The wheel was taken to St. Louis for the World's Fair of 1904, once more failing to cover the costs of moving it. At the end of the St. Louis fair the wheel stood idle for almost two years until 11 May 1906, when it was destroyed by a combined three hundred pounds of dynamite. George Ferris did not live to see the destruction of his creation, as he died of tuberculosis in 1896 at the age of thirty-seven.


African Americans, while free to come and go at the fair like anyone else, were made to feel unwelcome. Unlike the exhibits celebrating the achievements of other cultures, fake "African villages," according to Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), had a very different purpose: he saw them as an attempt "to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage." At the Chicago fair even Douglass's presence and his eloquent speech-making could not prevent thoughtless bigotry, as organizers offered free watermelons to African American fairgoers and turned "Colored People's Day" into an example of how far the fight for equality still had to go. The fair was a true expression of the less-worthy aspects of its age as well as the best. A year after the exposition, in a speech made in Washington, D.C., Douglass declared that, "great and glorious as it was," it still showed "unfairness and discrimination against the Negro."


As the home to the influential Chicago Woman's Club and social reformers like Jane Addams, Chicago was ideally placed to offer a forum for women at the fair. The Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer (wife of Potter Palmer, a member of the administrative board for the fair) headed the Board of Lady Managers who organized the Woman's Building, including decisions related to design, layout, and content. Palmer referred to the building as the "Ladies' lovely child." The Board of Lady Managers decided to include a Gallery of Honor that would feature the "most creditable achievements of women." It was also decided that, while there would be work by women featured in other buildings, "where there is anything of such extreme excellence that we, as a sex, feel proud of it, . . . a duplicate should be featured in the Woman's Building to call attention to the fact that it is the work of a woman" (Weimann, p. 280). Unfortunately the gallery was roundly criticized as displaying a "glorious wealth of mediocrity."

The Women's Congress convened on 15 May 1893 with the aim of representing the progress of woman since the discovery of the American continent in 1492. It was divided into different areas of interest and progress, including education, industry, art and literature, philanthropy and charity, moral and social reforms, religion, and civil law and government. The purpose was to discuss the relation of women to each of the subject areas and to produce documents and observations that would be of use to students of sociology. Sixty-three organizations were represented at the congress, and attendees from the United States included Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Helena Modjeska. International attendees came from Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Spain. Papers were presented in the course of the congress on such subjects as "The Civil and Social Evolution of Woman," "The Ethics of Dress," "Woman as a Financier," "Woman in Municipal Government," "The Political Future of Woman," and "Woman's War for Peace." As Bertha Palmer said in her address at the dedication ceremonies, "Columbus discovered a new world, but the Columbian Exposition has discovered woman." She also used her speech to advocate for women's rights, to call for more opportunities for women to work, and to express the desire of women to be more self-sufficient.

See alsoChicago; St. Louis World's Fair


Primary Works

Appelbaum, Stanley. The Chicago's World Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record. New York: Dover, 1980. Photos from the collections of the Avery Library of Columbia University and the Chicago Historical Society.

Truman, Ben C., et al. History of the World's Fair: Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition from Its Inception. Philadelphia: Standard Publishing, 1893.

Secondary Works

Burg, David F. Chicago's White City of 1893. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976.

Carlton, Donna. Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington, Ind.: IDD Books, 1995.

Fuller, Henry Blake. "Mural Painting at the Fair II." Chicago Morning Record, 26 May 1893, p. 4.

Fuller, Henry Blake. "Photographers at the Fair I." ChicagoRecord, 10 August 1893, p. 4.

Fuller, Henry Blake. "Photography at the Fair II." ChicagoRecord, 11 August 1893, p. 4.

Fuller, Henry Blake. "World's Fair Architecture I." ChicagoMorning Record, 14 September 1892, p. 4.

Herrick, Robert. The Web of Life. New York: Macmillan, 1900.

Kazin, Alfred. An American Procession. New York: Knopf, 1984.

Szerbula, Guy. "Dreiser at the World's Fair: The City without Limits." Modern Fiction Studies 23 (1977): 369–379.

Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age. New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Weimann, Jeanne Madeline. The Fair Women. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981.

Keith Gumery

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World's Columbian Exposition

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