The Official Fair--A Virtual Tour

When the gates opened at eight o'clock in the morning, visitors had already lined up to get an early start and make the most of their day's sightseeing. Visitors recalled the huge distances of the Fair from their first day of sightseeing, and returned via electric launches on the waterways to the north end of the grounds. They often resumed their tour by examining the thousands of artworks found in the Palace of Fine Arts. Charles Atwood's 140-room structure, which now houses Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, contained many of the world's artistic masterpieces. Countries from all over the world contributed, and awards were given for artistic accomplishment in, among other fields, painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and drawing and etching. The United States contributed over 600 works, including paintings by John Singer Sergeant, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer, as well as a private collection of European art with works by Renoir, Cassatt, and Pisarro. The building, which housed over 8,000 exhibits, sat on the north bank of the North Pond, and was surrounded by the scores of foreign and state buildings erected at the northern edge of the fairgrounds.

Forty-three states and territories contributed buildings, as did 23 foreign countries. These buildings often offered a respite from the heat and constant shuffling from exhibit to exhibit, with wide shady porches and cool reception halls. Although the Palace of Fine Arts was quite far from the Court of Honor physically, it echoed the Beaux-Arts strains in its white columns and large dome. The state and foreign buildings held themselves to no such form, however. 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. Florida's reproduction of Ft. Marion was not far from Massachusetts' reproduction of John Hancock's house and Virginia's of Mt. Vernon. California's Spanish-style stucco rubbed shoulders with Vermont's reproduction of Pompeii and Wisconsin's Queen Anne Victorian. The exhibits were as unique and widely varied as the structures that contained them. California presented a 127 year-old palm, a fountain of red wine, and a statue of a medieval knight made entirely of prunes; Louisiana boasted a Creole restaurant and entertainment; Massachusetts displayed copies of charters signed by King Charles and a book brought on the Mayflower; and Pennsylvania provided the actual Liberty Bell (not made of fruit or grain this time), as well as Pocohontas' necklace and John Quincy Adams' baby clothes.

After being bombarded with such a wide variety of displays, Fairgoers often turned south from the state and foreign buildings to take a few moments of peace--and a bit of lunch--on the Wooded Island. Although the island did house two exhibit buildings--the Japanese Ho-o-Den, a compound of buildings exhibiting 12th, 16th, and 18th century Japanese architectural styles, and the Hunter's Cabin, a monument to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone--the focus was on relaxation. The island was crisscrossed with trails and dotted with park benches, providing shady escapes from the press of the crowd and the constant invitation to view more exhibits.

But the call of the exhibit was strong, and after a brief respite on the Wooded Island, Fairgoers pressed on. The Woman's Building was not far, just west of the Wooded Island at the entrance to the Midway Plaisance. The 80,000 square foot building designed by Sophia G. Hayden of Boston served as the headquarters for the Board of Lady Managers, as well as the repository for special exhibits of women's work. The Board of Lady Managers was established as a parallel governing body to the national Commission, overseeing the exhibition of women's work throughout the Exposition. Many women chose to have their work exhibited alongside those produced by men, in the appropriate departments (i.e., Agriculture, Fine Arts), but some displays were deemed to have "rare merit and value, [which] the exhibitors would prefer to have placed under the special care and custody of the ladies..." (Johnson, 201) The Italian Renaissance-style building housed a manuscript of Jane Eyre in Bronte's handwriting, costumes from around the world, murals by Mary Cassatt, and a copy of the 1879 law allowing women to plead cases before the Supreme Court. The goal of the exhibits was explicitly educational; the Midway Plaisance, at which the Woman's Building stood at the head, was an education of a decidedly different sort.

The sound of tambourines, German bands, Midway "fakes" (later sideshow shills and carnies), scores of foreign tongues, and the screams of fear and delight from passengers on the Ice Railway could be heard in the distance as Fairgoers exited the Woman's Building toward the west. The focus of the Midway was entertainment, despite the Directory's early protestations that it was to be educational. Julian Ralph, an early guidebook author, quickly saw the entertainment and profit motive:

The Columbian Exposition is to have what the irreverent architects call a "church fair" annex. They call it so because whereas the Exposition proper is designed to show a visitor "the earth for fifty cents," this addendum will be filled with things calculated to draw a visitor's last nickel, and to leave his pocket-book looking as if one of Chicago's 20-story buildings had fallen upon it. I refer to the Midway Plaisance. (Ralph, 206)
The Midway was filled with every kind of amusement imaginable: Hagenbeck's Zoo, models of both the Eiffel Tower and St. Peter's Basilica, a captive balloon ride, a diorama of the Kilauea volcano, a "world's congress of 40 beauties," reproductions of Blarney Castle, a German and a Javanese village, a street in Cairo, Old Vienna, and of course the introduction of the Ferris Wheel--50 cents for 2 revolutions, double the entry price for the Fair itself. Souvenir stands dotted the mile-long strip, a Natatorium was provided for public swimming, and the Moorish Palace, complete with funhouse mirrors and a wax museum, was incredibly popular.

Visitors were entranced by the Midway--whether it was due to its entertainment value, shock at its freedoms (including Little Egypt, the "hootchy-kootchy" belly dancer who scandalized many guests), or the opportunity to observe fellow Fairgoers being amused and being conned. Contemporary writers often put forth the idea that the Fair was like America's lawn party--a chance to come together and have a good time. The Midway provided ample and unadulterated opportunity to do just that.

However, Fairgoers were also given the opportunity to be educated and edified, in a more traditional manner. The World's Congresses, over the course of the six months of the Fair, presented 5,978 addresses, which were delivered to audiences of more than 700,000. (Bolotin, 20) Meetings on Education, Architecture, Science, Religion, Authors, Music, Temperance, Moral and Social Reform, Medicine, and Commerce and Finance were held; the Labor Congress of August 28-30 drew 25,000 people, and Congress lecturers included such luminaries as William Jennings Bryan, John Dewey, George Washington Cable, Henry George, Samuel Gompers, and Woodrow Wilson. The World's Congress of Religion held three sections per day for over a week, and drew religious leaders from all over the world. The World's Congress of Authors beginning July 13 included meetings chaired by Oliver Wendell Holmes (authors), Charles Dudley Warner (criticism), and Walter Besant (English). Presentations at the author's meeting included Cable's "The Uses and Methods of Fiction" and Hamlin Garland's "Local Color in Fiction". In the History meeting, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his seminal study based on the 1890 Census' proclamation of the closing of the American frontier, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." A lecture was available on nearly every day the Exposition was in operation, and sufficiently illuminated, guests returned to the Fair proper to continue their sightseeing.

Returning to the Fairgrounds through the Midway to the Woman's Building, visitors turned south, back toward the Court of Honor. On their right, next to the Woman's Building, stood the Horticultural Building. Eight greenhouses and a 180 foot dome comprised the Horticultural Building, covering over 4 acres of Fairground space. Chicago's Jenney & Mundie designed the edifice, which contained the usual eclectic collection of exhibits. Entire environments were recreated, including a Mexican desert and a Japanese garden. Individual states and countries contributed their best: Illinois sent bay laurel and strawberries; Austria provided tree ferns; Oregon exhibited and sold quite a few jars of their preserves; Germany sent an extensive wine cellar. Over 16,000 varieties of orchids were exhibited, and Southern California contributed a 35-foot tower of oranges. The Horticultural Department also oversaw ten of the 16 acres on the Wooded Island, planting 500,000 pansies and 100,000 roses.

The explosion of color found inside the Horticultural Building was echoed in the exterior of Adler & Sullivan's Transportation Building. The main hall of Louis Sullivan's work covered over five acres, and true to his innovative style, bucked the plan of classicality found in the rest of the 14 "great buildings." Allegorical figures and a polychromatic paint scheme covered the exterior, in sharp contrast to the cool whiteness of the Court of Honor just yards to the west. Sullivan, along with a junior member of his firm, Frank Lloyd Wright, delighted Fairgoers with their "golden doorway," the grand gilded and arched entrance with high-relief friezes on a transportation theme. For a public fascinated with new forms of transportation, the building was quite popular inside as well. Railroad relics, including "John Bull," the first locomotive in the United States, were displayed next to models of English warships, a full-scale reproduction of an ocean liner, bicycle companies with the latest models for sale, and a chariot from the Etruscan museum in Florence.

Heading east, back toward the Court of Honor, visitors encountered S.S. Beman's Mines and Mining Building. Its white facade and Beaux-Arts styling announced that visitors had in fact returned to the Grand Basin. Although the exterior was quite staid, the interior contained some of the more unusual exhibits, including presentations by the Kimberley Diamond Mining Company, a statue of actress Ada Rehan made entirely of silver, and a model of the Statue of Liberty made entirely of salt.

Exiting the Mines and Mining Building and turning left, Fairgoers found themselves face to face with the most beautiful sight imaginable: the very last building. And according to most accounts, they had saved the best for last. The Electricity Building, a product of Van Brunt & Howe of Kansas City, was not necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing six acres on the Fairgrounds. It was, however, the most popular exhibit hall at the Exposition. Electricity was a familiar yet relatively new phenomenon for most Americans, and exhibits demonstrating its practical and entertainment value were incredibly popular. Among the official guidebooks, the fascination with electricity at the Fair was universal. Some of the very best things to be seen at the Fair, according to these books, included the interior illuminations of the buildings, illumination of the grounds, electric search lights, the intramural railway, the reynolds-corliss engine, phonographs, and the teleautograph. Guidebook author Julian Ralph was particularly fascinated with the moveable sidewalk, electric and steam launches, but particularly with the exhibits within the Electricity Building itself. "A telephone will employ a fine orchestra to play in New York, and will conduct the sound of the music all the way to the Electricity Building, in which a great horn will throw out the melody for the benefit of all who care to visit the section." (Ralph, 197) Another fascinating exhibit was "a large and complete villa or dwelling fitted with all the household electrical appliances of the period. There will be no occasion for lighting a match in it for any purpose whatsoever." (Ralph, 195) This exhibit included electric lamps, elevators, fans, sewing machines, burglar alarms, stoves, laundry machines and irons. And of course, the unusual had a place in this exhibit hall as well--the world's first telegraph message was on display, as was the first seismograph, Edison's kinetoscope (individual motion picture viewing stations), and Edison's 82 foot Tower of Light, displaying over 18,000 bulbs.

Thus the Fairgoer made their circuit of all 633 acres of the World's Columbian Exposition. As the sun dropped below the western horizon, visitors prepared for the final exhibits of the Fair. They gathered to watch the water and music show of the "colored fountains," wait for the electrical illumination of the Fairgrounds, particularly the thousands of electric lights adorning the gilded dome of the Administration Building, or take in the nightly fireworks display over Lake Michigan. Over the course of six months, over 27 million visitors walked the Midway and exhibition halls. What was their reaction? The next section explores the experience of visitors to the Fair and its varied physical and ideological landscape.

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Copyright 1996 Julie K. Rose