THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION OF 1893
On May 1, 1893, President Grover Cleveland officially opened the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, flipping the switch that electrified the array of buildings on the shores of Lake Michigan that the world would come to know as the “White City.” It was the greatest Fair in the history of the world and to this day, it was an event that has never been duplicated. But it was far from perfect..
Behind the bright lights and gleaming facades was a dark underbelly of the sort that only a city like Chicago couple provide. Thieves and pickpockets roamed the fairgrounds. Visitors vanished without a trace. The vice districts and brothels of the Levee did big business. And it was a grim time in American history, when bank failures and a national depression ended the shiny Gilded Age just as Chicago was being placed on the world’s largest stage.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition
The World's Columbian Exposition, celebrating the 400th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in America, was held in Chicago in 1893, one year later than the actual anniversary. Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis all competed vigorously for the honor of hosting the fair and it was during this jockeying that the city of Chicago actually gained the title of the "Windy City." As Chicago was doing more boasting about its landscape and amenities than any of the other cities, Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Sun, advised his readers to ignore the "nonsensical claims of that windy city." This was the first use of the term and had nothing to do with wind gusts along Lake Michigan. Chicago's lobbyists eventually won out and on April 25, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the act that designated Chicago as the site of the exposition. It took three frantic years of preparation to produce the fair and although dedication ceremonies were held on October 21, 1892, the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until the following May.
To the elitists in New York and Washington, Chicago was a backwater mudhole, a symbol of the nation’s raw, commercial energies, a colossal but crude “hog butcher to the world.” The cynics predicted the worst. It would be a world’s fair that reflected the host city’s brazen spirit and was bound to be an embarrassing display of American vulgarity. But the skeptics fell silent when the organizers called on the nation’s most eminent architects, painters, sculptors and engineers to design the Exposition grounds. The finished product not only dazzled the world, but had a lasting impact on not only Chicago, but scores of other American cities.
President Grover Cleveland arrived in Chicago in May 1893 to open the fair and nearly 400,000 people turned out to cheer and enjoy the event. The fairgrounds were made up of six hundred and thirty acres and between May and October of 1893, the fair attracted 25,836,073 people -- a number that equaled nearly half of the population of America at that time. The grounds included palaces, lagoons and immense white buildings. Many of them became electrically lighted fantasies at night and gleamed so brightly in the daylight that the grounds were dubbed the "White City."
President Cleveland arrived riding in front of a procession of twenty-three horse-drawn carriages that conveyed the city's most influential citizens. Thousands crushed into the area near the main reviewing stand and their cries and shouts were nearly drowned out by an orchestra that blared the "Columbian March." Jostled children wept, women screamed as their dresses were torn and some even fainted and had to be rescued from being stomped into the muddy lawns. In the midst of the chaos, President Cleveland opened the fair with the press of an electric switch. The president's high silk hat had been damaged in all of the excitement but he placed it aside and made a speech that could not possibly have been heard by the gathered throng. He pressed the switch with enthusiasm and the flags of the United States and the red banner of Spain were run up their staffs. Fountains began to spurt water and throughout the fairgrounds, vast and mysterious machines began to turn. Across the lake, the thunder of guns from the warships assembled there began to sound and the fair was officially opened.
The fairgrounds had taken shape on a stretch of boggy shoreline, seven miles south of downtown Chicago. Work had started in February 1891 with the clearing, filling and leveling of the land and over time, seven thousand laborers toiled heroically to complete the Exposition before the deadline.
The main site of the fair was bounded by Stony Island Avenue on the west, Sixty-Seventh Street on the south, Lake Michigan on the east and Fifty-Sixth Street on the north. The Midway, the first of its kind and which would become a staple at carnivals and fairs from that time on, was one of the most popular attractions of the fair. It occupied a narrow strip of land that ran between Fifty-Ninth and Sixtieth Streets and extended west from Stony Island to Cottage Grove Avenue. Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago and Frederick Law Olmstead, America's foremost landscape architect and creator of New York's Central Park, were responsible for the design of the fairgrounds. Jackson Park, which remains from Olmstead's efforts, is still regarded as one of the city's most beautiful gardens. A distinguished group of architects was assembled to create the buildings, including Henry Ives Cobb, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, George B. Post and Louis Sullivan. Sophie Hayden, the first woman awarded a degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed the famous Women's Building.
Daniel Burnham was the man who assembled the architects and planners for the event and in 1891, had faced the daunting task of turning a patch of sand and wild oak into a glorious World's Fair. Burnham was at the mid-point of his career in those days and was already responsible of many of the city's most acclaimed buildings. He and his partner, John W. Root, had joined their fortunes less than two years after the Great Fire, when both men were in their early twenties. They operated out of a single room for years, slowly earning a reputation. When the era of the skyscraper arrived, Burnham and Root designed the first very tall building -- the Montauk Block, a ten-story monster that was the first building in the country set upon "spread foundations" of concrete and railroad ties that would not sink in Chicago’s marshy soil. They followed this with grand achievements like The Rookery, a national historic landmark and Burnham and Root’s former headquarters, and many others.
In 1891, the two men were selected to see that the World's Fair was constructed according to the vast general plan. But Root never had the chance to put his soul into it. His death from pneumonia at age forty-one in early 1891 left Burnham to bear the burden and reap the glory alone. Burnham, still grieving for his friend, went bravely ahead with the work of organizing, harmonizing and strategizing the fair. He fought and won a battle with a large and stubborn group of Chicago businessmen who were intent on telling him how to compose the building and grounds committee and persuaded them to give up on the idea of competitive designs and allow him to invite a group of selected architects to submit their work.
Meanwhile, civic patriot and nature lover James W. Ellsworth, a member of the World's Fair Board, managed to persuade Olmstead to tackle the swamp that would become Jackson Park. Ellsworth was reported to have promised him "$15 million and a free hand" and Olmstead agreed, achieving a design that would not only serve the immediate purpose, but would be a thing of permanent beauty. Olmstead set to work to change a wasteland of sand, where little would grow and flooding was frequent, into one of the finest parks in the nation. Acres of sand were sliced from the surface and carloads of soil were brought in to replace them. He brought in thousands of beautiful plants and ferns, trees and flowering shrubs, all of which were carried for miles to beautify lagoons and a wooded island.
Burnham enlisted the reserved and eccentric sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to serve on his staff and he brought into the effort such sculptors as Daniel C. French, Paul Bartlett, Karl Bitter and many others. All of them, like Chicago's Lorado Taft, were eager to work with Saint-Gaudens and provided Burnham with scores of ideas and designs for the White City.
However, not everything went smoothly. Burnham often had a battle on his hands when it came to the architects that he had chosen. The planners selected a classical theme for the fair buildings, over the strenuous objections of the more innovative architects. In fact, Chicago's Louis Sullivan later predicted that "the damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer." He believed the Greek and Roman style "temples" and pavilions were old-fashioned and outdated but there was little worry that any of them would be around for long. The buildings that were created were meant to be amazing, both for their beauty and for their size, but they were constructed from temporary materials and were not supposed to be permanent. The buildings were made from a material called "staff," which was plaster and a mixture of fibers that would harden and be adaptable, like wood. By pouring the staff into glue molds, many ornamental pieces, which appeared to be handmade, could be achieved in a short time. The structure underneath the material was always steel or wood so that the buildings would not collapse.
Only one of the two hundred buildings that were constructed for the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts, remains today. Like most of the others, this building was also a temporary structure that was made from staff, but it housed the Field Columbian Museum after the fair's closing until 1920. During the late 1920s, the building was reduced to its steel skeleton and rebuilt with stone, and then was re-opened in 1931 as the Museum of Science and Industry.
In spite of Burnham’s valiant efforts, the fair was still unfinished on Dedication Day, October 21, 1892. Even so, the ceremonies that took place were a smashing success. The festivities began with a spectacular, ten-mile long military parade that passed through the city to the fair site. An estimated 80,000 people turned out to cheer as marching bands played, cavalry soldiers rode past and dignitaries rolled past in their stately carriages. The dedication itself took place inside of the Exposition’s most awe-inspiring building, the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building. The spectators that packed into the massive structure were treated to several hours of orations from fair officials and other notables, interspersed with a number of musical selections. Other highlights included an awards presentation by Harlow N. Higginbotham, the head of the World’s Columbian Exposition Corporation, and a “light luncheon” for the assembled crowd – only half of whom actually managed to get anything to eat in the mad scramble for food.
It was an amazing display of pageantry but, as mentioned, the fair did not actually open until the following year. In May 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition finally opened to the public. More than 200,000 people braved a heavy downpour to be the first to roam the soggy fairgrounds. When the rain finally cleared off that morning, the view that stretched out before the surging crowd was almost overwhelming in its splendor.
The buildings on the grounds housed sixty-five exhibits that followed the theme of each building. Some of the most popular exhibits were curiosities, rather than serious displays of technology. These included a hygienically stuffed whale that attendees could walk through, an eleven-ton piece of cheese, a 1,500-pound replica of the Venus de Milo made from chocolate, and a seven-hundred-foot tower of light bulbs in the Electricity Building.
A panoramic view of the 1893 Columbian Exposition
At the heart of the fair was the Court of Honor. Standing in the midst of this, fair attendees could take in a breathtaking vista of glittering Beaux-Arts palaces, soaring arches and gleaming domes, all flanking a formal basin that was 2,500 feet long. Colossal statues rose from the water at either end of the basin. To the east stood Daniel Chester French’s “Statue of the Republic,” a towering, robed female figure that some wit nicknamed “Big Mary.” The fountain at the opposite end was dominated by Frederick MacMonnie’s “Grand Barge of State.” This sculpture was over the top, even for the late nineteenth century, when allegorical art was greatly admired. It was stupendous -- a monumental depiction of Columbia sailing triumphantly over the water, enthroned atop a great barge with Father Time clutching a trumpet at the helm. At the oars were eight sturdy maidens representing Music, Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, Science, Industry, Agriculture and Commerce.
But these splendors were by no means all of the wonders that the fair had to offer. There was always something to see on the fairgrounds and the sights amazed the visitors, whether they had come from the city or the farm. There were movable sidewalks; replicas of Columbus' three ships that had actually sailed from Spain in 1892; an Irish Village; a replica of Blarney Castle, with an appropriately fake Blarney stone that was actually a Chicago paving stone; and even a high-current wire devised by Nicola Tesla that powered a long-distance telephone line to New York. Visitors could also see real Parisian fashions; Miles Standish's pipe; a full-sized replica of Washington's Mount Vernon; the Liberty Bell; and an a presentation by a woman named Susan B. Anthony, who held the curious belief that women should be allowed to vote.
The World’s Columbian Exposition introduced a number of new products to the world, including Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope (an electrically driven peepshow-like device that showed moving pictures); the first zipper for clothing and a salty-sweet concoction called Cracker Jacks. There was a woman born in slavery named Nancy Green, who as “Aunt Jemima,” sang songs, told stories and gave a cooking demonstration in which pancakes were made from a new kind of self-rising flour that could be purchased in a box with her picture on it. There were the U.S. Mint’s first commemorative coins; Cream of Wheat; Shredded Wheat (which some fairgoers referred to as “shredded doormat”); Pabst Beer (which won a Blue Ribbon, hence the name change); Juicy Fruit gum; the first hamburgers; and a souvenir item that continues to bewitch young and old to this day, the squashed penny. A man by the name of Hershey was so taken by the German chocolate-making machinery he saw at the fair that he bought it and took it with him back to Pennsylvania, where he began turning out a line of popular candy.
The Columbian Exposition Midway
This was also the first world's fair to feature a separate amusement and entertainment area, a promenade that was elegantly dubbed the Midway Plaisance. The noisy and distracting attractions there were concentrated in a central area so as not to disturb the park-like setting of the rest of the exposition. While the rest of the fair was dedicated to high-minded principles like progress, patriotism, and culture, the Midway was all about fun, raucous, rowdy fun. It was a mile-long sideshow that offered such thrilling attractions as a South Sea Islands village, a Japanese bazaar, and a Dahomey village, outside of which a large poster of a loincloth-clad man triumphantly holding up a severed head implied that the Dahomians were not a particularly peace-loving people. (When the real Dahomians were late in arriving from West Africa in time for the fair’s opening, African Americans were recruited to take their place). Other wonders of the Midway included the World Congress of Beauties (“40 Ladies from 40 Nations”); carnival rides; cold beer and a replica of a street in Cairo, Egypt.
The fabulous “Little Egypt,” scandal of the Fair
It was at the "Street in Cairo" exhibit that fairgoers were entertained by an attraction that became the most popular, and the most controversial, of the fair. This was the first venue to introduce the art of exotic dancing to America. While shocking to many, the exhibit proved to be the most successful Midway attraction and its backers realized more than double the profit on their investment. Without a doubt, the sensation of the exhibit was Fahreda Mahzar, better known as "Little Egypt." Fahreda was a practitioner of danse du ventre – or what Americans came to call belly dancing. The diamonds on her garter, her colorful brassiere, and her abdominal contortions either fascinated or scandalized everyone who saw her perform and easily gained her the title of sexiest dancer at the fair. Fahreda was sexier, even, than the Hawaiian hula dancers who were another new sensation for fairgoers. The music to accompany her dance, the familiar “snake charmer” tune that pops into everyone’s head when they think of belly dancing, was composed in a flash of inspiration at a press preview by the Midway’s manager, twenty-three-year-old Sol Bloom. Little Egypt later became the wife of a Chicago restaurant owner and while her costume would seem tame by modern standards, she was remembered for years as the most beautiful and wondrous attraction of the entire exhibition.
Even those scandalized by Little Egypt, however, would not have missed a visit to the Midway’s other main attraction, the world’s first Ferris wheel. The giant, rotating wheel of steel soon became a staple of amusement parks and it was named for its inventor, George Washington Gale Ferris, a bridge-builder from Galesburg, Illinois, who created it specifically for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The wheel was two hundred and sixty-four feet in height, two hundred and fifty feet in diameter, and eight hundred and twenty-five feet in circumference. The axle was the largest piece of forged steel in the world at that time, weighing 142,031 pounds. This was heavier than anything that had ever been lifted before and it had to be mounted on top of eight towers. The Ferris wheel held thirty-six wooden cars the size of small railroad coaches, each capable of holding sixty people.
The giant Ferris Wheel looms in the distance, visible from every corner of the Fair
The contraption looked very fragile and extremely dangerous. A similar project could never exist today because no company would dream of insuring it. But during every day of the fair, thrill-seekers paid fifty cents each to climb into the cars and soar for twenty-two minutes above the city. Rumors spread about suicides, but the company denied these allegations. The cars had barred windows to keep people from jumping out, although some passengers discovered their fear of heights a little too late. One man panicked and hurled himself against the bars with such force that he shattered the glass and bent the iron bars. He pushed away everyone who tried to hold him back until a woman (to the mixed shock and delight of onlookers), lifted her skirt and placed it over the man’s head until he calmed down. It was a method that worked with panicked horses and it worked equally well with a panicked human. Needless to say, the man was quickly subdued.
The Wheel was the Exposition’s most popular attraction. It was dismantled at fair’s end and then rebuilt in St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. It was scrapped in 1906 (and portions of it were buried in Forest Park, the St. Louis fairgrounds) but its design was copied all over the world.
Not everything was pristine and beautiful at the Columbian Exposition. Despite the genteel public face that had been put on the event, a darker side shimmered just below the surface. The area was a prime target for confidence men, pea-shell and three-card Monte men, and thieves of every kind. Newspapers (mostly from out of town) reported muggings and robberies, country yokels who were conned by loaded dice, marked cards, the gin joints, and the prostitutes, who could easily be found within walking distance of the fairgrounds.
But such cautionary tales did little to deter the countless people who dreamed of making the trip to Chicago for the fair. Ordinary people mortgaged their farms and dipped into their lifesavings to make the journey. For the tourists who came from all over the country – and from countries around the world – Chicago offered every sort of accommodation possible. Visitors with healthy bank accounts could stay at a luxury hotel downtown, while those on smaller budgets were happy to settle for a well-kept boardinghouse. The demand was so great for decent lodging, especially on the South Side and within walking distance of the fairgrounds, that anyone with a clean room to spare could pick up a few extra dollars by renting out a room to a desperate tourist. A landlord with even a few empty apartments could make a nice profit in a very short amount of time.
The World’s Columbian Exposition came to an end at sunset on October 31, 1893. It closed to the strains of “Funeral March” by Beethoven. Grand ceremonies, like the ones that had opened the fair, had been planned for the occasion, but were canceled at the last minute. A short time before, the fair celebrated “Chicago Day,” during which the city’s five-term mayor Carter Harrison predicted a great future for Chicago. That evening, the mayor was resting at home in his robe and slippers when the doorbell rang. When Harrison answered, he was shot to death by a man named Patrick Eugene Prendergast.
Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, murdered at the end of the Fair
Prendergast was a Chicago newspaper distributor, and in 1893, he supported Harrison's re-election campaign. Unfortunately for the mayor, Prendergast was also more than a little unhinged. Prendergast was under the delusion that if Harrison won the election he would receive an appointment as Corporation Counsel. When the appointment didn't come, Prendergast went to Harrison’s home and shot the mayor four times. Prendergast was hanged on July 13, 1894.
The fair flags were lowered to half-staff when news of the murder broke and on the Midway, minor rioting broke out and whiskey bottles were shattered on the facades of the white buildings. Not since the arrival of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train had there been such a weeping and thronging procession of mourners as when the mayor lay in state at Chicago's City Hall. It was, some have said, a fitting climax to the twilight days of the fair.
And this was not the only problem to occur during the fair’s run. It was hard to ignore the fact that the fair took place during a major panic on Wall Street and a serious depression that severely affected the city of Chicago and the rest of the nation. The Chemical National Bank, with a branch at the fair, failed just eight days after the Exposition opened.
The Jewelry Exhibition, a supposedly impregnable repository, was broken into and two large diamonds were stolen, along with a riding crop that was owned by King Leopold II of Belgium.
With thousands of reports of robberies, pickpockets and assaults, the police (and many others) breathed a sigh of relief as the lights went dark on the fairground. They hoped that the bad element that had been attracted to the fair would finally move on to other places. The Midway was scattered among the variety shows and museum circuits around the country, including the exotic dancers, whom some called one of the worst abominations ever invented. Little Egypt's imitators were now loose in America and for years afterwards, small-time carnival midways were sure to feature "the Original Little Egypt -- direct from the Chicago Exposition."
All in all, though, Chicago did well during the fair. If not for the exposition, it's likely that the local economy would have been hit even harder than it was by the depression of the day. The gate receipts brought in more than $10 million and the concession receipts at least $4 million more. This did not include the millions made from souvenir books, commemorative coins and other items that were sold or even the interest that was earned on the deposits that were made. It was thought that at least $3 million was left over to divide between the investors, a not insubstantial sum in those days.
But the glory of the Columbus Exposition was a transient one for Chicago. The White City was gone, except for the great buildings, which some were now calling "white elephants" for which no purchasers could be found. On January 8, 1894, a fire destroyed three major Exposition buildings – the Casino, the Peristyle and the Music Hall. Six months later, an even more devastating blaze burned its most glorious structures, including the magnificent Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, the largest building ever constructed at the time. At the height of the fair, few visitors would have believed just how fragile those stately white structures actually were.
The national depression that was still plaguing the country settled in on Chicago and the late autumn and winter brought misery to scores of its residents. As the winds grew colder, the effects of the closed factories, stores running with reduced workforces, and the scores of men and women laid off from their jobs started to show.
At City Hall, the stone corridors were filled with sleepers at night. The halls were so crowded that men were forced to sleep with their heads against the walls with a narrow path left between two rows of outstretched feet. Police stations all over the city sheltered between sixty and one hundred transient men each night. In the Harrison Street station, cells were packed and, in a ten-foot-long corridor, in which the shrieks of prisoners could be heard, men slept elbow-to-elbow, sometimes with rats running over them. Reporters stated that the hallway was "paved with bodies." There were young boys sleeping in the station, too, and in the women's section, mothers with babies.
The winter after the fair was terrible for children. Scores were turned out on the street. Babies were given to overcrowded orphanages. Evictions ran to the hundreds per day -- partly because rents had been raised so high during the World's Fair. Jane Addams, and other settlement workers, labored to keep mothers and children from the poorhouse, but there were just too many to care for.
The streets were filled with people begging for a handout, some of them stranded World's Fair vendors, who now found their Armenian rugs and glittering fake jewelry impossible to sell. On every corner, poor outcasts, who had profited during the days of plenty, now cried for help, but got very little.
Even with hundreds of thousands of people out of work, Chicago was still the "city of big shoulders," as Carl Sandburg would later call it. Funds were given by wealthy men to rent vacant stores where soup kitchens could be opened. Merchants made contributions of food. In slum districts, aldermen distributed food and clothing to needy persons, who, of course, immediately became loyal constituents. Saloon operators and brothel owners sheltered and cared for hundreds and "free lunches" saved many from starvation. It was later reported that during the worst of the crisis, 60,000 men were fed each day for free by saloonkeepers.
Chicago would not be defeated by mere financial setbacks. It was a city that had completely rebuilt itself after a devastating fire and a place that had created the world's most dazzling fair out of a few miles of sand and barren lakefront. The crisis of the middle 1890s passed and Chicago moved on to embrace another century. As author Lloyd Lewis wrote, "The city of those days, no less than now, abounded in comedy, alternating with eruptions of tragedy."
A World’s Columbian Exposition ticket from the author’s collection