The Official Fair

Sell the cookstove if necessary and come.
You must see the fair.

--Author Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents, 1893

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was an event of immense cultural importance to an America nearing the turn of the century. From May 1 to October 31, 1893, Chicago and the Exposition were host to 27 million visitors--nearly one quarter of the country's population at the time. Fairs were an incredibly popular event in the nineteenth century; the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia drew over 10 million visitors in 1876 and Paris' extremely popular Exposition Universelles drew over 28 million to the city of lights. Fairs encompassed the spectrum of experience and interest of the 1800s--from sport to entertainment to high culture. To understand their importance and draw in modern terms, they could be seen as a combination of the Olympics, DisneyWorld, the Superbowl, and the National Gallery--an international entertainment and cultural event with lasting social importance.

Fairs were also money-making ventures. While not always necessarily profitable in and of themselves, they allowed their host cities to take the spotlight--and the tourist dollar. When the idea of celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyages to the New World surfaced in the 1880s, cities began to scramble for the opportunity to host the Fair.

Chicago's City Council began their campaign to host the Fair on July 22, 1889, when it directed Mayor De Witt C. Cregier to appoint a committee of 100 citizens to carry out the project. Bank president Lyman Gage, publisher Andrew McNally, railroad tycoon George Pullman, and J.P. Morgan assistant Charles Schwab were among the business leaders who helped raise five million dollars in stock (500,000 shares at $10 each) to establish Chicago's determination that they would have the Fair. The House of Representatives took up the issue in late 1889 and considered petitions from Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and Washington, D.C. After months of consideration and conflict, the House gave the victory to Chicago on February 24, 1890--but with a catch. The city was required to raise an additional $5 million.

However, the makeup of Chicago's Fair supporters was decidedly capitalistic and the task was by no means insurmountable. With a list of contributors and fundraisers which included G.B. Shaw, President of the American Loan & Trust Company; W.E. Hale, President of the Hale Elevator Company; W.J. Huiskamp of the Chicago Times; O.W. Potter, President of the Illinois Steel Company; Potter Palmer, real estate tycoon and owner of the Palmer House Hotel; and Stuyvesant Fish, President of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, the fundraising was soon accomplished. A Presidential Proclamation recognizing Chicago's compliance with fundraising restrictions was issued on December 24, 1890, and the Fair officially belonged to Chicago.

Chicago lost no time in beginning its preparations, starting with a governing body to oversee the World's Columbian Exposition. Although a corporation had already been established in Chicago to raise the funds, the Congress determined that a national board of oversight, consisting of two representatives from each state and territory, as well as eight at large members, would also be required. The national organization came to be known as the Commission and the local group was the Directory; the two bodies were directed by one man, Col. George Davis, a former soldier and senator who helped plead Chicago's case in Congress. With this political/corporate body in place, the work of planning the Exposition began in 1890.

The construction of buildings and the choice of a site were the first items on the agenda. Burnham & Root, a successful Chicago architectural firm whose work included many of the major skyscrapers which had arisen after the devastating 1871 fire, was chosen as the lead Firm. John Wellborn Root was the creative genius of the partnership, while Daniel H. Burnham had the organizational and personal flair to make the venture a success. When Root died of pneumonia early in the planning process, Burnham took control of the architectural planning of the Fair. Burnham had great leeway in the choices he made: the site for the Fair, the architects he tapped to design and build the exhibition halls, the sculptors he hired to decorate the grounds, even the color scheme to be employed. Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted, the venerable landscape architect who had designed New York's Central Park, had chosen prime Lake Front space for the Exhibition buildings. Wealthy Michigan Avenue residents, including Potter Palmer, were not amused by the Lake Front plan and pushed for little-used and marshy Jackson Park as the site for the Fair.

By 1891, over 40,000 skilled laborers and workers were employed in the construction of the fair--at Jackson Park. Burnham headed up the selection of the Board of Architects who conceived the general design of the Fair's buildings and the Court of Honor, as well as the architects who would carry out the design and construction of the 200 additional buildings. Olmsted, Burnham, and the Board of Architects -- a group of Eastern architects generally trained at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris -- decided on an unusual Fair plan. Utilizing the natural landscape of Jackson Park, Olmsted created a system of lagoons and waterways fed by Lake Michigan. These bodies of water served as decorative reflecting pools, waterways for transportation, and provided a place of respite necessary for weary summer visitors--the shady Wooded Island. The 14 main buildings surrounding the waterways were in the Beaux-Arts style, with its emphasis on logic, harmony, and uniformity. The Court of Honor buildings-- surrounding the Grand Basin with its massive gilded statue of the Republic--were covered with "staff," or stucco, giving the main buildings a magnificent whiteness and dazzling visitors who arrived at the rail terminal just outside the Fair's gates.

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, 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 change of opening date only served to increase public anticipation regarding the Fair. Moses Handy's Department of Publicity and Promotion did the rest. In operation since 1890, Handy's department was the source for information and news about the progress of the Fair for many national and international newspapers and journals. The scope of the effort to promote the Fair was immense. Working out of the Rand McNally building in downtown Chicago, Handy and his staff sent out information and watercolor sketches all over the world; in fact, Handy claims that "'scarcely a day passed on which less than 2,000 to 3,000 mail packages...were not distributed from this department.'" (Hales, 5) Handy's focus was on the promotion of Chicago and the commercial opportunities of the Fair, and was the basis for a number of guidebooks, often representing themselves as the "Official Guidebook of the Columbian Exposition." Julian Ralph was one of the first guidebook authors, penning Harper's Chicago and the World's Fair in 1891, two years before the Fair opened, an indication of the advance interest and publicity this event inspired.

After three years of preparation and $28 million, the fair opened to great fanfare on May 1, 1893. One hundred thousand people crowded the Court of Honor to watch President Cleveland touch a golden lever, electrically sending the dynamo engines into motion; the Fair, after years of preparation, was finally underway. Visitors over the six months of the Fair's operation were excited, entertained, and overwhelmed. The Fair was calculated to be awe-inspiring, and in large part achieved its goal. Visitors were greeted with 633 total acres of Fairgrounds, 65,000 exhibits, and restaurant seating for 7,000. They were amazed by the clean and safe elevated railway and the electric launches plying the canals and lagoons. Guests, on the way to the entertainment and the spectacle of the Midway felt quite safe with the hundreds of Columbian Guards and plainclothes detectives on the grounds. Hundreds of concessionaires, selling everything from souvenir paperweights to popcorn and the newly invented carbonated soda, crowded the walkways, and nearly every day had a special theme for visitors to celebrate. The World's Congress Auxiliary held daily presentations and lectures, 5,978 in all, covering subjects including ethics, authors, economics, labor, and the mammoth week-long Congress of Religions. The event was massive, and its popularity was sustained: Chicago Day, held in the last month of the Fair, drew over 700,000 visitors.

Attendance figures vary, but it is generally agreed that a total of over 27.5 million people visited the fair (21.5 million paid admissions, 6 million free). Figures for the number of American visitors is not available, nor is the percentage of those admissions that were repeat visits. However, it can be safely assumed that approximately 25% of the United States' population visited the Fair, and the majority of the rest of the country experienced it through newspaper accounts, photographic guidebooks, and the pictures and stories of friends and family who visited it themselves.

The Fair was incredibly popular until it closed on October 31, 1893. The World's Columbian Exposition paid off all of its operating expenses, even returning $1 million to its 30,000 subscribers, a portion of their initial investments. It had a great influence on turn of the century American society, as well as social, economic, cultural, and political legacies to modern America. The Fair presented itself to the country and the world as a celebration of the advance of American civilization; but how was it received, and what has been its lasting legacies? The first step to contextualizing its reception is to understand the ideological landscape and physical dimensions in the Official Tour.


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Copyright 1996 Julie K. Rose