IntroductionCentury of Progress: The 1933 Chicago World's Fair
Conceived in 1923 and adopted in 1926, the
idea of an exhibition to celebrate Chicago's pending centennial in 1933 was not
surprising. After all, the city had played host to the immensely important Columbian
Exposition just a few decades before. However, though styled somewhat after that famous
fair, this world's fair was to be quite different.
Named after the commission formed to organize it, the Century of Progress Exposition showed a marked departure from its forerunner in a number of ways. First of all, whereas the Columbian Exposition relied heavily on grants from federal, state, and municipal government agencies, the Century of Progress was funded by several of Chicago's wealthiest citizens, in addition to quite a few corporate sponsors. More importantly, the goals of this fair differed markedly. The Columbian Exposition had created a village which, in many ways, glorified tradition and looked with longing on an idealized past. Its buildings were crafted in the Classical style, its art was conservative, and its overall sense of nostalgia was overwhelming. Indeed, it did celebrate America, but it was an America that was a result of her past, an America drawn from memory.
The Century of Progress, by contrast, celebrated an America of the future, of the imagination. Rather than rejoicing in what was, this exhibition enticed people to envision the grand America to come, to think about the wonders that lay ahead and aspire toward a new vision of their nation. This idea was especially poignant in 1933, as the country lay stricken by its worst financial disaster in history, the Great Depression. By creating a wonderland reflecting America's greatest advancements in art, literature, architecture, science, and industry, the fair served not only as a source of pride, but also provided some much needed reassurance that, despite the current situation, the future of America was full of promise.
The Century of Progress Exhibition tells a fascinating story of the mindset of the nation during the early part of the 1930's. Even something as simple as this postcard of the Time and Fortune Building, an artifact that helped publicize the fair, can be used to trace the significance of the Century of Progress not only for Americans at the time, but also for the generations to come. Why was this particular world's fair important, though?
There are several ways to approach this question. For our purposes, we have chosen to focus on the architecture, the international exhibits , and the issues of race. However, these provide but a brief glimpse of possible avenues of exploration. In addition, one may look at any number of topics: the role of Time and Fortune Magazine, and the media in general, in the Century of Progress Exposition; the nature of the exhibits included in the fair; the types of artifacts from the Century of Progress still available today; the cultural impact of the fair (ie were there any works of art, music, literature, created as a direct reult of or inspired by the fair?); the issue of class; and the decision for location.