*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.
This famous quotation is from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but it also applies to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, aka the Chicago World’s Fair. The world indeed came to Chicago’s stage during the exposition’s 179 day run—total attendance was 27,529,400, for an average of 150,000 daily. Even accounting for multiple visits by the same people, as many as 12 million people came. There were 129,000 on opening day; also in attendance was President Grover Cleveland. The biggest single day attendance was 716,881, on October 9. This was Chicago Day, celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the great Chicago fire. (Reardon, Patrick T. “The World’s Columbian Exposition at the ‘White City’.” Chicago Tribune, n.d. ) Tickets were 50 cents—this would be about $14.00 today. Kids got in for half price. “Out of the tens of millions of people who attended the fair, only a lucky 60,000 managed to get their hands on a “portrait ticket.” These detailed notes served as season passes for exhibitors, organizers, press members, and other insiders. Engraved in great detail to prevent counterfeiting, each ticket featured either Washington, Lincoln, Columbus, or a stereotypical American Indian chief—figureheads who, taken together, were meant to represent various stages of the country’s history.” (Atlas Obscura–Your Ticket to the 1893 Columbian Exposition) Below is a picture of one of the portrait tickets, this one celebrating Christopher Columbus.
Columbian refers to the fact that this fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Fierce competition to host the event began a decade earlier, with New York, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. vying with Chicago for bragging rights. “By 1890, it was clear that the U.S. Congress would have to decide where the fair would be held and that the principal contenders, by virtue of their superior financial resources, would be Chicago and New York. New York’s financial titans, including J. P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and William Waldorf Astor, pledged $15 million to underwrite the fair if Congress awarded it to New York City. Not to be outdone, Chicago’s leading capitalists and exposition sponsors, including Charles T. Yerkes, Marshall Field, Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Cyrus McCormick, responded in kind. Furthermore, Chicago’s promoters presented evidence of significant financial support from the city and state as well as over $5 million in stock subscriptions from people from every walk of life. What finally led Congress to vote in Chicago’s favor was banker Lyman Gage’s ability to raise several million additional dollars in a 24-hour period to best New York’s final offer.” (Encyclopedia of Chicago–World’s Columbian Exposition)
The first hurdle crossed, Chicago moved on to select a site, finally settling for Jackson Park in what was then a low-lying area some seven miles south of the Loop. Daniel H. Burnham was chosen as the exposition’s director of works, and George R. Davis, his director-general. The act of Congress that awarded the fair also stipulated that there would be a Board of Lady Managers that took part in governance and decision making. A local woman, Wilhelmine Reitz, was a member. (Wilhelmine was the daughter of lumber baron John Augustus Reitz. Her home is now a museum at 112 Chestnut St. This is her gravestone from St. Joseph Cemetery.) Many prominent architects and artists signed on to design the major buildings of the fair.
In designing the exhibits themselves, it was decided that the fair would exemplify no less than the story of civilization. No small ambition, that! Civilization would be depicted, on the high-brow side, through exhibitions of industrial prowess, agricultural production, and displays of fine art. These exhibitions would be housed in magnificent Beaux-Arts buildings, all covered with plaster of Paris and painted white. Thus the nickname of “the White City” was born. Among the 14 major buildings were:
Administration Fisheries Manufactures & Liberal Arts
Agricultural Forestry Mines and Mining
Anthropology Horticultural Building Transportation
Electricity Machinery Hall Woman’s Building
The construction of these buildings was a mammoth undertaking. Before it could even begin the issue of a swampy location had to be addressed. “The huge dredging and filling operation necessitated by this condition was begun on February 11, 1891, and resulted in a total cost of over $615,000. The unimproved area of Jackson Park, consisting of 469 acres of the total site, was leveled upward by six and a half feet and interspersed with waterways, while the demand of the South Park Commissioners that the black earth there must be initially removed and then replaced over the filling to preserve the ground for park purposes “required the handling of 400,000 cubic yards of earth twice.”” (Chicago’s white city of 1893, p. 83) With this done by May, it was time to move on to the actual construction. A special railroad spur had to be created just to bring materials to the site. From May to early July, 36,407 train carloads of structural materials, fuel, and supplies were delivered. The White City consumed and employed:
20,000 tons of steel/iron
70,000,000 feet of lumber
Thousands of tons of glass
12,000-14,000 workers during the last few months.
“The interest surrounding the construction of the Fair became so great–in large part due to the competition and controversy that went into the selection process–that Burnham decided to allow spectators into the Fair compound. Paying a fee of 25 cents to watch the progress of construction, over 3000 people visited per week. Burnham and the Directory had plenty of opportunity to make this pre-Fair interest a profitable venture. With a total area of 633 acres (including 80 acres for the Midway Plaisance, an entertainment strip), 75 million board feet of lumber, 18,000 tons of iron and steel, 120,000 incandescent lights, 30,000 tons of staff [a type of artificial stone covering temporary buildings], 14 main buildings with total floor space of 63 million square feet, the construction process was slow. In fact, the enormity of the task at hand forced Burnham and the commission to push the opening day back from late 1892 to May, 1893.” (The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. (University of Virginia, 1996.)
In addition to the White City buildings, there were buildings/pavilions/exhibits from 43 U.S. states and territories, as well as at least 23 foreign countries. Unlike the White City construction, these exhibits were not under any central control. “Each state or foreign committee was responsible not only for the appropriation of funds for their building and exhibits, but for the design of the building as well. …The exhibits were as unique and widely varied as the structures that contained them.” (The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. (University of Virginia, 1996.)) Besides the United States, there were exhibits from Japan, Austria, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Denmark, Brazil, Switzerland, Holland, Italy, Spain, Norway, Russia, Belgium, and France. There were smaller displays from to Jamaica, India, China, Mexico, Persia, the Argentine Republic, Ceylon, Korea, Monaco, Siam, Turkey, New South Wales, Bulgaria, and Portugal. (Chicago’s white city of 1893, p. 200)
The Exposition was not just buildings, however. America’s foremost landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead (he designed Central Park), utilized the location’s features to design a series of waterways, basins, and grand walkways. There was a Grand Basin, a lagoon, and a Wooded Island. These features were used for transportation, beauty, and for recreation.
If the White City was “high brow,” then the “low-brow” side, if you will, was 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 Midway was the site of the giant Ferris wheel, also. The Midway Plaisance will be the source of next week’s blog entry.
Everything about the fair was over the top, larger than life. Another blog entry will highlight some of its superlatives and oddities. But above all, the fair was a success. “The World’s Columbian Exposition was financially immensely successful. By October, attendance had reached over 6.8 million paid visitors–doubling August’s 3.5 million. Chicago Day (October 9) alone saw 716,881 Fairgoers entering the White City. The concession stands brought in over $4 million, the Ferris Wheel turned a profit, and when all the calculations were complete, the Exposition itself more than broke even, with a $1 million surplus to be returned to its 30,000 stockholders.” (The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. (University of Virginia, 1996.)
The fair ended successfully, although with some sadness. “The fair came to a close amid mourning, rather than the scheduled speeches and parties. On the evening of Oct. 28, two days before the fair’s final day, Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated in his Near West Side home by a 25-year-old job-seeker. Four months later, fire destroyed or damaged six fair buildings and their still-valuable exhibits. Another fire occurred in February, and then in July 1894, a final conflagration leveled nearly all of the remaining structures.” (Reardon, Patrick T. “The World’s Columbian Exposition at the ‘White City’.” Chicago Tribune, n.d.)
Despite the fires and death, the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 did leave a lasting legacy.
The Palace of Fine Arts, reconstructed, now houses the Museum of Science and Industry.
The Field Museum opened in the Palace of Fine Arts in 1894 and operated there until it moved to its current building in the 1920’s.
“Over 50,000 objects on display at the fair became part of the Anthropology collections of the Field Columbian Museum, later renamed The Field Museum. The founding collections of the Museum came mainly from three of the fair’s main buildings–the Anthropology Building, the Horticulture Building, and the Mines, Mineralogy, and Metallurgy Building–as well as from the cultural villages displayed in the fair grounds and Midway.” (Field Museum—Fun Facts about the World’s Columbian Exposition.)
Other fair exhibits ended up in the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Commercial Museum.
The Art Institute of Chicago predates the fair, but it did not move into its permanent location until 1893, in what was the World’s Congress Auxiliary. The two lions that guard its entrance today came from the entrance to the Palace of Fine Arts.
The celebration of Columbus Day as a national holiday grew out of the popularity of the fair.
Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks, diet carbonated soda, Aunt Jemina syrup/pancake mixes, and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum all debuted at the fair.
The Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is said to have been inspired by the White City.
Even though all this transpired 125 years ago, it still holds fascination and meaning for us today. Be sure to check out next week’s blog on the splendors (and horrors) of the Midway Plaisance.
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.
Field Museum—Fun Facts about the World’s Columbian Exposition.
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.)