The Legacy of the Fair

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. No exposition in the nineteenth century could boast such success, and the World's Columbian Exposition became the standard by which all future fairs were measured. The 1901 St. Louis fair modeled itself on the Exposition, in both its profit-making and cultural aspects, as did the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. The official goals of the Fair, to provide stability in the face of great change, to encourage American unity, to celebrate technology and commerce, and to encourage popular education have their echoes in the fairs of Chicago and New York in the 1930s, and those most permanent of American fairs, Disneyland and DisneyWorld.

The influence of the Exposition extended beyond the confines of the World's Fairs. Trends which originated in Chicago in 1893 and many of the ideas advanced there have shaped the very landscape of modern America. Its legacy is wide-ranging, from movements in popular and high culture to changes in the nation's power structure and the lasting influence of commerce and technology.

A number of additional elements of the Fair seem eerily familiar to late-twentieth century observers. The fear of, and disdain for, the casualties of the Depression--the homeless and unemployed -- is not unfamiliar (Schwantes' Coxey's Army investigates this aspect of the Fair to advantage). Racism, pervasive throughout the White City and the Midway (a theme which has been extensively explored in Robert Rydell's works on the Exposition), is still a significant problem in America. Yet these aspects of the Exposition, often not discussed by contemporary observers and totally ignored by the official Fair, were not proactive influencers, but examples of the changes and problems in turn of the century America. However, new entertainment and popular culture forms were innovations, and the valorization of commerce, corporation, and technology, was planned and proactive. While these introductions and ideologies were reacting to American society, they were not simply reflective. They were the messengers of a paradigm shift, influential not only in the message, but in the unprecedented audience for the message. As we move into the postmodern twenty-first century, legacies of the World's Columbian Exposition still shape our world.


The cultural and entertainment impact of the Fair was pervasive in 1893--from stories and jokes to songs and cartoons, the Exposition was everywhere. The cultural legacy of the Fair is not quite as obvious, but still as pervasive, today, coloring every aspect of daily modern life--from museums to the Pledge of Allegiance to hamburgers and Disney World.

The Columbian Exposition was the venue for the debut of consumer products which are so familiar today--including Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building was a showcase for American products, and showed them to advantage. To debut at the Fair, and possibly win a Columbian medal in product competitions, was a perfect way to win product recognition and a boon for the advertising department--advertisements in the months following the Fair prominently displayed ribbons and proudly pointed out, for example that this product was, "1st place, Bicycle Division." The Fair also introduced picture postcards to the American public, as well as two staples of the late-twentieth century diet--carbonated soda and hamburgers.

But it was not merely the Fair's product introductions which have had an impact on the face of modern America. The Exposition provided the United States with a new holiday, Columbus Day, and a new method of inculcating patriotism in schoolchildren-- the Pledge of Allegiance. Yet nothing "says more about the power of the White City than that it inspired the Emerald City. Children's writer L. Frank Baum never forgot the fair and transmuted it into Oz." (Patton, 38) Other artists and writers, as we have seen, were heavily influenced by the Exposition. Popular novels, such as Burnham's Sweet Clover and Burnett's Two Little Pilgrims' Progress took the Fair as their backdrop and theme, while sections of W.D. Howells' Letters from an Altrurian Traveler and Henry Adams' Education focused on the meaning of the huge cultural event they had just experienced.

The Fair positioned itself as a cultural event, and included music as an important element in that scheme. John Phillip Sousa's work was frequently performed by the many marching bands on the Fairgrounds, Dvorak composed the New World Symphony in honor of the Exposition, and a young piano player named Scott Joplin was quietly developing a new sound in music while working at the Fair--ragtime.

While Joplin was creating a new musical sound, the "entrepreneurs" of the Midway were creating a whole new entertainment form. The overwhelming popularity of the Midway, whether perceived as a guilty pleasure or not, has also been a huge influence on popular culture in the twentieth century. Not only did "...displays of 'native villages' on the Midway of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition inspired circuses to enlarge their own displays of tribal people." (Bogdan, 185), but "in the area around Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. . . the idea for a collective amusement company was first discussed and the carnival as we know it was born." (Bogdan, 59) Bringing fakes, rides, food, music, and theatrical entertainment into one complex was an idea heartily approved by the entertainers and theater managers who peopled the Midway and the Wild West Show. By the turn of the century, the first permanent iteration of the concept of the Midway was established at Coney Island, New York, and has been followed by scores of permanent amusement and theme parks throughout the country--including Disneyland and DisneyWorld.

It was not only popular culture that was influenced by the Fair, however. Thanks to the emphasis on exhibits and education at the Exposition, public science and art museums can be found in every population center in the country. Of course, many of these museums were built in the monumental Beaux-Arts style; civic architecture has utilized the style almost exclusively in the century since the Exposition closed.

Consumption and Corporate Power

The advent of the consumer-based society in America received its first major expression and celebration at the World's Columbian Exposition. Not only was the Fair a "dry run for the mass marketing, packaging, and advertising of the twentieth century." (Patton, 43), it was also important in inculcating the urge to consume in Fair visitors--from the scores of concessionaires, to the "consumption" of foreign cultures on the Midway, to the price tags for comparison shopping on many of the so-called "educational" exhibits (particularly in the Manufacturer's and Agriculture Buildings). This urge to consume was nascent in American consciousness--witness the popularity of Marshall Field's department store and the critique of this mindset in Dreiser's Sister Carrie. The urge was not created by the World's Columbian Exposition, yet its inescapable messages of commodity and its equation with the enjoyment of the Fair had a lasting impact on American consciousness. Enjoying oneself became inextricably tied to purchasing goods or simply the act of spending money.

This association of fun with consumption was an unintended but pleasant consequence for the Fair's management. They originally intended to increase American pride during times of trouble by celebrating American goods--which would, in turn, increase Americans' confidence in the business system. However, this drive to consume entertainment, while not unique in America, was unusual in its large scale. The Columbian Exposition, in its valorization of consumption on many levels, aided in the transition from a producer to consumer society--and pointed the way into the twentieth century.

The Exposition produced another innovation which would shape the coming century: corporate control on a national level. The Directory and Commission were made up of both politicians and business leaders--U.S. Senators, presidents of railroads, banks, and department stores, and heads of real estate empires. They were also professional men, architects and professors, who sought to have a stake in the scope of the Fair's message. As a result of the Fair, these men came to be considered more than leaders in business. The cultural and entertainment messages of the Fair gave social cache to these businessmen. Alan Trachtenberg has suggested that the emergence of corporations and their wealthy leaders as cultural gatekeepers was one of the most important messages of the Fair. America would survive its current troubles and prosper in the future "through a corporate alliance of business, culture, and the state." (217) As with consumerism, corporate control of national culture--and some might say society--did not end with the Columbian Exposition.

The obvious legacy of the Columbian Exposition's influence on consumerism and corporate control in the twentieth century is Walt Disney World's EPCOT Center. Initially envisioned as a utopian experiment (Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow), the corporate vision prevailed. EPCOT is packaged as utopian and educational, with corporations as the explicit gatekeepers of technology, culture, and history. The Manufacturer's, Machinery, and Electricity Buildings of the Columbian Exposition have been concentrated into the Pavilions of such corporate giants as GE and AT&T, taking up the message of progress and technology so prevalent at the Fair. The Midway is recreated as well, with Pavilions for foreign countries, providing "the world for 50 cents," or, in this case, $25. The amazing accomplishment of Handy's Department of Publicity and Promotion pales in comparison to the Disney Marketing Department and its ability to make the corporate messages of Disney so familiar, and somehow so natural, to parents and children alike. The linking of business and technology found throughout EPCOT is a significant legacy of the Columbian Exposition; Disney's fascination with technology and progress is another.

Technology and Progress

The World's Columbian Exposition not only guided America toward the twentieth century through its valorization of consumerism and a new business elite. It also showed the way to modern America through its emphasis on technology, specifically electricity.

Electricity would become an increasingly significant aspect of business and consumption, and it had to be given a new identity. No longer was technology to be the frightening or overpowering symbol of the shift from an agrarian to an industrial nation, but the harbinger of a new age of American progress. In the early 1890s, the icon for technological advance was electricity. It can be argued that "...most of all, the Columbian Exposition was a spectacle for the emerging technology that would power and transform the coming new century--electricity." (Judith Adams, 47), and it was certainly a large focus of the director's efforts. Electricity was the latest in the marriage of science and progress, and its display throughout the grounds indicated the extent to which the management wished to promote its use and the underlying message of progress it connoted. Drawing on a widely held belief about progress, in which America was constantly moving forward and upward, the directors gave a new focus to the concept. Rather than considering political or moral innovation the epitome of progress, the Fair successfully turned the focus to technology.

The Fair helped change Americans' reactions to technology. It became the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of Americans, as they saw in it a reflection of their own progressive nature and bright future. "The medium of the fair clearly held grand potential for rendering America's civil religion of progress an international faith." (Rydell, 70) The equation of electricity with progress in the Fair's vocabulary showed visitors that technology was not a force to be feared. Visitors were meant to see that one of the most potent agents of change in their society--electricity--was not to be feared, but celebrated. In conjunction with the consumer and corporate symbolism of the Fair, the celebration of technology at the World's Columbian Exposition set Americans on the path toward modernity in the twentieth century.

In Conclusion

The World's Columbian Exposition was only nominally a celebration of Christopher Columbus and his voyages to the New World. Rather, it was a cultural statement, an argument for power, a societal influencer, and above all, a reflection of the confusions, fragmentations, and hopes of a transitional age. The Columbian Exposition, in its official, unofficial, and received form, was an expression of the convergence of forces which eventually shaped modern America. Harvard President Charles Eliot Norton, himself a member of the officiating Directory, said of the Exposition,

The great Fair was indeed a superb and appropriate symbol of our great nation, in its noble general design and in the inequalities of its execution; in its unexampled display of industrial energy and practical capacity; in the absence of the higher works of creative imagination; in its incongruities, its mingling of noble realities and ignoble pretenses, in its refinements cheek-by-jowl with vulgarities, in its order and its confusion--in its heterogeniousness and in its unity.

The World's Columbian Exposition was "a kind of tract, an argument for the superiority of our civilization...The fair measured American progress and found it highly satisfactory, as well as inevitable; it saw itself as American destiny made manifest." (Patton, 40) It was an incredibly popular and influential event, arguing in its architecture, guidebooks and spatial arrangements for America's stability and leadership in the face of incredible change.

Modern America would not have been the same had the World's Columbian Exposition not existed. A bold claim, to be sure, but the influence of the Fair's ideas reached millions upon millions of Americans, reinforcing their beliefs, encouraging pride in their country, suggesting new paradigms which would be more easily accepted in a time of crisis. The huge audience for the Columbian Exposition is the key to its definition as a watershed event in American history, influencing millions through visits, guidebooks, journal accounts, and photographic viewbooks. The reactions of visitors to the Fair's messages of stability--cultural parity with Europe through appropriation of European forms, and the official emphasis on education rather than entertainment--were mixed. Yet the messages of consumption and technology were either received without comment or with outright enthusiasm.

It is this--the acceptance and even celebration of consumption and technology--which has had the most significant and lasting impact on American society. The dialogue between popular and "high" culture, and education and entertainment, at the World's Columbian Exposition was a continuation of a running conversation which has not been resolved in postmodern America--they were reflections of their time, rather than influencers. The messages of consumption (as well as the many goods introduced at the Fair), the rise of a business elite to national power, and the valorization of technology as positive progress have had the most significant and lasting effects on American society. In the great World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, we find the blueprint for modern America.


Home ~ Welcome ~ Tour the Fair ~ Reactions to the Fair ~ The Legacy of the Fair ~ Notes and Further Reading


Copyright 1996 Julie K. Rose