*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
This is the second blog on the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, aka the Chicago World’s Fair. We have discussed the background and history of the Expo and will examine the Big and the Bizarre—the things that were superlatives (the biggest___, etc.) and the oddities in the final blog of this series. Today we will look at the “delights” of the Midway and its Ferris Wheel.
In the last blog, we saw the contrast between the White City as “highbrow,” and the “low-brow” side, the Midway Plaisance. “The Midway Plaisance was an avenue 600 feet wide and a mile in length which connected Jackson Park with Washington Park; it lay between Fifty-ninth and Sixtieth streets and extended westward from a point directly behind the Woman’s Building. Its features were privately sponsored, though they constituted a sanctioned part of the exposition. The character of the Midway was distinctly exotic, polyglot, cosmopolitan, festal. Regardless of the weather, the Midway was always crowded. It was “a side show pure and simple. But side shows are interesting, and to many hundreds of thousands of people who have not been afforded the opportunity of seeing how other hundreds of thousands live, the Midway plaisance is amusing, interesting and instructive.” (Chicago’s white city of 1893, p. 216)
“The inspiration for the Midway came from the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition, where the French government and prominent anthropologists turned representations of the French colonies into living ethnological villages featuring people from Africa and Asia. To lend anthropological legitimacy to their enterprise, Chicago’s exposition directors placed the Midway under the nominal direction of Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam, who had already been chosen to organize an Anthropology Building at the fair. Putnam envisioned the Midway as a living outdoor museum of primitive human beings that would afford visitors the opportunity to measure the progress of humanity toward the ideal of civilization presented in the White City. All of the ethnographic villages and most of the other attractions on the Midway, however, were commercial ventures organized by entrepreneurs who obtained concessions through the Ways and Means Committee of the World’s Columbian Commission.” (Encyclopedia of Chicago–World’s Columbian Exposition.)
Right away this language rankles modern sensibilities. We are uncomfortable with the idea of a “living outdoor museum of primitive human beings” and the further comparison between them and the “ideal of civilization,” i.e., the average fair goer. Imagine looking at any group of living human beings as a museum exhibit! That said, these were not uncommon attitudes for the time.
“During the “Gilded Age,” every man was a potential Andrew Carnegie, and Americans who achieved wealth celebrated it as never before. In New York, the opera, the theatre, and lavish parties consumed the ruling class’ leisure hours. Sherry’s Restaurant hosted formal horseback dinners for the New York Riding Club. Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish once threw a dinner party to honor her dog who arrived sporting a $15,000 diamond collar. While the rich wore diamonds, many wore rags. In 1890, 11 million of the nation’s 12 million families earned less than $1200 per year; of this group, the average annual income was $380, well below the poverty line. Rural Americans and new immigrants crowded into urban areas. Tenements spread across city landscapes, teeming with crime and filth. Americans had sewing machines, phonographs, skyscrapers, and even electric lights, yet most people labored in the shadow of poverty.” (The Gilded Age—PBS American Experience webpage.)
To delve deeper into the stereotyping prevalent at the time and the role (or lack thereof) of African-Americans in the fair, consult:
Ballard, Barbara J. “A People Without a Nation.” Chicago History, Summer 1999, p. 27-43.
Cole, Josh. “Cultural and Racial Stereotypes on the Midway.” Historia, v. 16 (2007), p. 12-32.
The World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, for all its faults (and positive experiences) was an exemplar of the Gilded Age.
One such exhibit on the Midway was the Dahomey (Dahomey is now the country of Benin) village, “described as “the most exclusive and independent of all the exhibits.” It contained three buildings, one of them a museum, and a series of huts to house its forty women and sixty men. “The various dances and other ceremonials peculiar to these people are exhibited, and their songs, chants and war cry are given. They also sell unique products of their mechanical skill, such as quaint hand-carved objects, domestic and warlike utensils, etc.” In the later months of the fair a placard was placed outside the entrance to the Dahomey village requesting visitors not to ask the villagers about their former custom of cannibalism, since they found such questions annoying.” (Chicago’s white city of 1893, p. 219)
Another very popular Midway exhibit was the Street of Cairo. It had 180 inhabitants in addition to theaters, camels, donkeys, and dogs. Two times per day a wedding procession or birthday festival was presented to entertain visitors.
Here are some more exhibits from this eclectic part of the fair.
The major attraction in the Midway was clearly the Ferris wheel. Director of Works Daniel Burnham was looking for something massive and impressive to set the fair apart. In 1889, just four years prior to this, at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, the Eiffel Tower had been the centerpiece. Burnham was determined that American design and ingenuity would out-Eiffel Eiffel. George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. was a 33 year old structural engineer employed inspecting steel during the fair’s construction. He dashed off a design of a giant wheel, drawing it on a restaurant napkin, and showed it to his peers, who believed that it would collapse under its own weight. “Undeterred, Ferris spent $25,000 of his own money to prepare detailed blueprints. When Ferris approached the exposition’s directors, one board member remarked that “Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head.” Ferris won over a majority of the directors, but they stipulated that he must finance construction with his own money. To do so, Ferris formed a joint stock company, attracted wealthy investors, and then began to order the pieces. At the core of his “monster” wheel was an 89,320-pound axle manufactured by Bethlehem Iron Company in Bethlehem, Pa. Thirty-three inches in diameter and 451 1/2 feet long, the massive axle was hoisted on to thirteen-ton cast-iron spiders set on twin 140-foot towers.
More than 100,000 parts went into building the wheel. The finished structure was 264 feet in height–about twenty-six stories–and, according to one reporter, the wheel “varied from a true circle less than the most delicate pivot-wheel of a watch.” To turn the giant wheel, Ferris built a power plant with two 1,000-horsepower reversible engines, one for primary power and the other as an emergency backup, connected to a 20,000-pound sprocket chain that turned the wheel. To stop the wheel and hold it motionless when needed, he employed a custom-built marker Westinghouse air brake. To carry passengers, Ferris mounted thirty-six glass and steel passenger compartments the size of railroad cars onto the wheel, into each of which he placed forty comfortable swivel chairs. The great wheel’s total capacity was 2,160 passengers.” (Ferris Wheel Inventor Historical Marker. ExplorePAhistory.com)
Because of the complexities of construction, the Ferris wheel did not open until nearly 8 weeks after the fair began. The first riders were the mayor of Chicago, Ferris and his wife, and a marching band. Miraculously, this and all subsequent trips were completed safely and without incident. The 50-cent fee, as much as the fair admission itself, earned the rider two revolutions of the wheel, with six stops on each revolution. (Many of the Midway exhibits cost an extra fee, but the Ferris wheel ride was one of the most expensive.)
“…The original Ferris wheel offered fairgoers a 10- to 20-minute ride unlike anything they’d experienced before. For many, the Ferris wheel took them as high up as they’d ever been—and the views did not disappoint. As passengers traveled through the air, they could see out over Lake Michigan and glimpse new vistas of the city itself. In all, more than 1.4 million people paid the 50-cent fee to take a ride on the wheel.” (World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.) The wheel was immensely successful–according to a “week-by-week sales report [that] reveals that 1,453,611 tickets were sold between July 1 and November 6, earning $726,805.50, with the largest number of tickets sold (151,201) the week of October 16. As part of Ferris’s concession agreement, fair organizers received $211,805. No concession came close to earning as much, making the great wheel the most lucrative operation on both the Midway and the official fairgrounds. Without the financial success of the Ferris wheel, it is doubtful that the fair corporation would have showed a profit.” (Lewis, Russell L. “A Wheel with a View.” Online exhibit from the Chicago Historical Society)
All may have been rosy during the fair, but neither Ferris or his wheel came to a good end. Ferris ended up suing the fair for his share of the profits. At the same time, due to the overwhelming popularity of this attraction, he had to fight off patent lawsuits. “Ferris soon declared bankruptcy and lost his companies. Then his wife left him. Suffering from kidney failure and typhoid fever, George W.G. Ferris Jr. died in Pittsburgh on November 26, 1896, at the age of thirty-seven. His cremated ashes remained unclaimed for fifteen months until his brother satisfied the funeral debt.” (Ferris Wheel Inventor Historical Marker. ExplorePAhistory.com) After languishing for a time on site, the wheel was taken down and reassembled on N. Clark St., operating in that location from 1895-1903. Here it faced opposition from neighbors and a general lack of enthusiasm. The Chicago House Wrecking Company purchased it for only $1800. It was dismantled yet again, shipped via 175 rail cars to St. Louis to be re-erected for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition/St. Louis World’s Fair, in 1904. ” (Lewis, Russell L. “A Wheel with a View.” Online exhibit from the Chicago Historical Society) It was equally popular in St. Louis, but after that fair closed, there were still no takers for a permanent location. “Finally, in May of 1906, a demolition company used 200 pounds of dynamite to destroy the wheel. Its remnants were sold for scrap metal.” (Chicago Architecture Foundation. (World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.)
Just as there were disparities between the “elegance” of the White City and the more plebian atmosphere of the Midway, so were there disparities between triumph and failure within the Midway itself. If you have not read last week’s blog on the history of the fair, check it out. Next week’s blog deals with the “Big and the Bizarre” of the fair—its superlatives and its oddities.
1893 World’s Columbian Expo—Admission Tickets
1893 World’s Columbian Expo—Ride & Attraction Tickets
Atlas Obscura–Your Ticket to the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Ballard, Barbara J. “A People Without a Nation.” Chicago History, Summer 1999, p. 27-43
Burg, David F. Chicago’s white city of 1893. (e-book, accessible only on campus or to registered USI users)
Chicago Architecture Foundation. World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Cole, Josh. “Cultural and Racial Stereotypes on the Midway.” Historia, v. 16 (2007), p. 12-32.
Encyclopedia of Chicago–World’s Columbian Exposition.
Ferris Wheel Inventor Historical Marker. ExplorePAhistory.com
Field Museum—Fun Facts about the World’s Columbian Exposition.
George Ferris. Famous Inventors.
The Gilded Age—PBS American Experience webpage.
Larson, Erik. The devil in the white city: murder, magic, and madness at the fair that changed America. General Collection HV6248.M8 L37 2004 also HV6248.M8 L37 2003
Lewis, Russell L. “A Wheel with a View.” Online exhibit from the Chicago Historical Society.
Maranzani, Barbara. “Chicago Was Home to a Serial Killer During the 1893 World’s Fair.” History Channel online, May 3, 2013.
McNichol, Susan. The Story of the Mammoth Cheese. Perth (Ontario, Canada) Museum.
MSS 264, the Thomas Mueller collection. Thomas Mueller was a self-employed photographer in Evansville, Indiana. He worked for the Evansville Courier and Press newspaper until 1945. This collection is available online from University Archives and Special Collections.
Novak, Matt. Where the Future Came From: A Trip Through the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Gizmodo.
Ramsey, John G. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and Victorian America: A Humanities Time Capsule©. Carleton College.
Reardon, Patrick T. “The World’s Columbian Exposition at the ‘White City’.” Chicago Tribune, n.d.
Shepp, Daniel B. Shepp’s World’s fair photographed. Chicago, Philadelphia, Globe Bible Publishing Co. [c1893]. Located in University Archives and Special Collections’ oversize collection, T500.C1 S54.
Vazakas, Sue. Let’s Talk About Chocolate. Johns Hopkins University Sheridan Libraries Blog July 18, 2011
The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. (University of Virginia, 1996.)