The World’s Columbian Exposition was a world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the New World in 1492. The fair was open for 6 months from May 1, 1893 to October 30, 1893 and boasted a total of 27,300,000 visitors.
The layout of the Chicago Columbian Exposition was, in large part, designed by John Wellborn Root, Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles B. Atwood. It was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a perfect city should be. It was designed to follow Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. The color of the material generally used to cover the buildings façades gave the fairgrounds its nickname, the White City. Many prominent architects designed its 14 “great buildings”. Artists and musicians were featured in exhibits and many also made depictions and works of art inspired by the exposition.
The exposition covered 690 acres and featured nearly 200 new (but deliberately temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from 46 countries. The World’s Columbian Exposition’s scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs.
The fair was planned in the early 1890s during the Gilded Age of rapid industrial growth, immigration, and class tension. World’s fairs, such as London’s 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, had been successful in Europe as a way to bring together societies fragmented along class lines.
The first American attempt at a world’s fair in Philadelphia in 1876, drew crowds but was a financial failure. Nonetheless, ideas about distinguishing the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landing started in the late 1880s. The exposition corporation and national exposition commission settled on Jackson Park and an area around it as the fair site in Chicago.
The fair opened in May and ran through October 30, 1893. Forty-six nations participated in the fair, constructing exhibits and pavilions and naming national “delegates”. The fair was originally meant to be closed on Sundays, but the Chicago Woman’s Club petitioned that it stay open. The club felt that if the exposition was closed on Sunday, it would restrict those who could not take off work during the work-week from seeing it.
The World’s Columbian Exposition was the first world’s fair with an area for amusements that was strictly separated from the exhibition halls. This area, developed by a young music promoter, Sol Bloom, concentrated on Midway Plaisance and introduced the term “midway” to American English to describe the area of a carnival or fair where sideshows are located. It included carnival rides, among them the original Ferris Wheel, built by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. This wheel was 264 feet tall and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 40 people.
Other attractions at the fair included:
- Life-size reproductions of Christopher Columbus’ three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria
- A series of lectures on the Science of Animal Locomotion in the Zoopraxographical Hall. A zoopraxiscope was used to show moving pictures to a paying public, the hall was the first commercial movie theater.
- An Anthropology Building featured “The Cliff Dwellers” a rock and timber structure that was painted to recreate Battle Rock Mountain in Colorado, a stylized recreation of American Indian cliff dwelling with pottery, weapons and other relics on display.
- The “Street in Cairo” included the popular dancer known as Little Egypt. She introduced America to the suggestive version of the belly dance known as the “hootchy-kootchy”.
- The first moving walkway or travelator. It had two different divisions: one where passengers were seated, and one where riders could stand or walk. It ran in a loop down the length of a lakefront pier to a casino.
- Norway participated by sending the Viking, a replica of the Gokstad ship. It was built in Norway and sailed across the Atlantic by 12 men, led by Captain Magnus Andersen.
- Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, where historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave academic lectures reflecting on the end of the frontier which Buffalo Bill represented.
- The electrotachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz was demonstrated, which used a Geissler tube to project the illusion of moving images.
- The German firm Krupp had a pavilion of artillery, which apparently had cost one million dollars to stage, including a coastal gun and a breech-loaded gun.
- Architect Kirtland Cutter’s Idaho Building, a rustic log construction, was a popular favorite. The building’s design and interior furnishings were a major precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement.
- Horticultural exhibits at the Horticultural Hall included cacti and orchids as well as other plants in a greenhouse.
- The John Bull locomotive was displayed. It was only 62 years old, having been built in 1831. And a Baldwin 2-4-2 locomotive was showcased
- Among the other attractions at the fair, several products that are well known today were introduced: Juicy Fruit Gum, Cream of Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer
Architecture was also an incredible draw for the Exposition. Most of the buildings of the fair were designed in the neoclassical architecture style. The area at the Court of Honor was known as The White City. Façades were made not of stone, but of a mixture of plaster, cement, and jute fiber called staff, which was painted white, giving the buildings their “gleam”. Architecture critics derided the structures as “decorated sheds”. The buildings were clad in white stucco, which, in comparison to the tenements of Chicago, seemed illuminated. It was also called the White City because of the extensive use of street lights, which made the boulevards and buildings usable at night.
Other great architectural installments include:
- The Administration Building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt
- The Agricultural Building, designed by Charles McKim of McKim, Mead & White
- The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, designed by George B. Post. If this building were standing today, it would rank second in volume and third in footprint on list of largest buildings (130,000m2, 8,500,000m3).
- The Mines and Mining Building, designed by Solon Spencer Beman
- The Electricity Building, designed by Henry Van Brunt and Frank Maynard Howe
- The Machinery Hall, designed by Robert Swain Peabody of Peabody and Stearns
- The Woman’s Building, designed by Sophia Hayden
- The Transportation Building, designed by Adler & Sullivan
- The Fisheries Building designed by Henry Ives Cobb
- Forestry Building designed by Charles B. Atwood
- Horticultural Building designed by Jenney and Mundie
- Anthropology Building designed by Charles B. Atwood
Almost all of the fair’s structures were designed to be temporary; of the more than 200 buildings erected for the fair, the only two which still stand in place are the Palace of Fine Arts and the World’s Congress Auxiliary Building. Three other significant buildings survived the fair. The first is the Norway Building, a recreation of a traditional wooden stave church. After the Fair it was relocated to Lake Geneva, and in 1935 was moved to a museum called Little Norway in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. In 2015 it was dismantled and shipped back to Norway, where it was restored and reassembled. The second is the Maine State Building, designed by Charles Sumner Frost, which was purchased by the Ricker family of Poland Spring, Maine. They moved the building to their resort to serve as a library and art gallery. The third is the Dutch House, which was moved to Brookline, Massachusetts.
Since many of the other buildings at the fair were intended to be temporary, they were removed after the fair. The White City so impressed visitors (at least before air pollution began to darken the façades) that plans were considered to refinish the exteriors in marble or some other material. These plans were abandoned in July 1894, when much of the fair grounds was destroyed in a fire.
The fair garnered many famous visitors and performers such as:
- Helen Keller, along with her mentor Anne Sullivan.
- Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, visited the fair in summer of 1893.
- A Wellesley College English teacher named Katharine Lee Bates visited the fair. The White City later inspired the reference to “alabaster cities” in her poem “America the Beautiful”.
- The Exposition was extensively reported by Chicago publisher William D. Boyce‘s reporters and artists.
- There is a very detailed and vivid description of all facets of this fair by the Persian traveler Mirza Mohammad Ali Mo’in ol-Saltaneh written in Persian. He departed from Persia on April 20, 1892, especially for the purpose of visiting the World’s Columbian Exposition.
- Pierre de Coubertin visited the fair with his friends Paul Bourget and Samuel Jean de Pozzi. He devotes the first chapter of his book ” Souvenirs d’Amérique et de Grèce ” (1897) to the visit.
- Scott Joplin, pianist, from Texarkana, Texas; became widely known for his piano playing at the fair.
- Swami Vivekananda visited the fair to attend the Parliament of the World’s Religions and delivered his famous speech “Sisters and Brothers of America!”.
- Sissieretta Jones, a soprano known as “the Black Patti” and an already-famous opera singer performed at the fair
- Kubota Beisen was an official delegate of Japan. As an artist, he sketched hundreds of scenes, some of which were later used to make woodblock print books about the Exhibition.
- Serial Killer Herman Mudgett (H. H. Holmes) attended the fair with two of his victims, Annie and Minnie Williams.
- Joseph Douglass, classical violinist, who achieved wide recognition after his performance there and became the first African-American violinist to conduct a transcontinental tour and the first to tour as a concert violinist.
The fair also had hundreds of artists featured. From painters, sculptors, and a feature on women’s artists. To list or delve into those talents is beyond the scope of this post.
The fair ended with the city in shock, as popular mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated by Patrick Eugene Prendergast two days before the fair’s closing. Closing ceremonies were canceled in favor of a public memorial service.
After the fair closed, J.C. Rogers, a banker from Wamego, Kansas, purchased several pieces of art that had hung in the rotunda of the U.S. Government Building. He also purchased architectural elements, artifacts and buildings from the fair. He shipped his purchases to Wamego. Many of the items, including the artwork, were used to decorate his theater, now known as the Columbian Theatre. Although not available for purchase, The George Washington University maintains a small collection of exposition tickets for viewing and research purposes. The collection is currently cared for by GWU’s Special Collections Research Center, located in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library.
Examples of exposition souvenirs can be found in various American museum collections as a way for everyone to remember the incredible World’s Columbian Exposition. One example, copyrighted in 1892 by John W. Green, is a folding hand fan with detailed illustrations of landscapes and architecture. Charles W Goldsmith produced a set of ten postcard designs, each in full colour, showing the buildings constructed for the exhibition. Columbian Exposition coins were also minted for the event. Similarly, the first pressed penny souvenir was a featured exhibit.
The Columbian Exposition has celebrated many anniversaries since the fair in 1893. The Chicago Historical Society held an exhibition to commemorate the fair. The Grand Illusions exhibition was centered around the idea that the Columbian Exposition was made up of a series of illusions. The commemorative exhibition contained partial reconstructions, a video detailing the fair, and a catalogue similar to the one sold at the World’s Fair of 1893.
For More Posts on the World’s Fairs:
The World’s Fair | A History
Seattle’s Architectural Icon: The Space Needle
A History of Pressed Pennies
The Columbian Exposition Coin that Challenged the Way a Nation Views Women
The First Commemorative Stamps
The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Through Vintage Postcards
The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair Exposition Seen Through Vintage Postcards