The World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, was the last and the greatest of the nineteenth century's World's Fairs. Nominally a celebration of Columbus' voyages 400 years prior, the Exposition was in actuality a reflection and celebration of American culture and society--for fun, edification, and profit--and a blueprint for life in modern and postmodern America.

Columbia The Fair was immensely popular, drawing over 27 million visitors, including Frederick Douglass, Jane Addams, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Henry Blake Fuller, Scott Joplin, Walter Wyckoff, Edweard Muybridge, Henry Adams, W.D. Howells, and Hamlin Garland. It was widely publicized both nationally and internationally, and people traveled from all over the world to see the spectacle. Travelers came from the East by "Exposition Flyers" --Pullman coaches traveling at the amazing speed of 80 m.p.h -- which gave "many Americans their first look at the country beyond the Alleghenies..." (Donald Miller, 74) People left their factories, their farms, and their city businesses to participate in what was touted as the greatest cultural and entertainment event in the history of the world.

The goals of the management and the reactions of the public to this massive event reveal a great deal about the state of America at the close of the Gilded Age. The early 1890s were a time of considerable turmoil in America, and the conflicting interests and ideas found full play in the presentation and reception of the Fair. It was an age of increasing fragmentation and confusion, of self-conscious searching for an identity on a personal and on a national level. The industrial, and increasingly electrical, revolutions were transforming America; the American way of life was no longer based on agriculture, but on factories and urban centers, and the end of the Gilded Age signified the advent of what Alan Trachtenberg has called the "incorporation of America," the shift of social control from the people and government to big business. The accompanying shift from a producer to a consumer society and the incredible growth of these corporations led to financial instability. Recessions and the devastating Depression of 1893, the violent Homestead and Pullman labor strikes, and widespread unemployment and homelessness plagued the early years of the decade. The frontier was closing, immigration, technological advances, and the railroads had changed the face of the country, and suddenly "Americanness" was more and more difficult to define. Americans were at once confused, excited, and overwhelmed.

The World's Columbian Exposition was the perfect vehicle to explore these immense changes while at the same time celebrating the kind of society America had become. World's Fairs, by the end of the century, were an established cultural and entertainment form with immense international influence. From the first major nineteenth century exposition, the 1851 "Crystal Palace" fair in London to Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition to Paris' Exposition Universelle of 1889, hundreds of millions of people around the world visited over 50 international fairs in the last half of the century, finding in them not only entertainment, but cultural enlightenment, commercial opportunity, and a reflection of their age.

Even as cultural producers and consumers of the time understood the importance of the Fair as a form, so modern scholars understand that as "cities within cities and cultures within civilizations, they both reflect and idealize the historical moments when they appear." (Gilbert, 13) We are able to learn a great deal about the culture and issues of the late nineteenth century by studying fairs as important social indicators. Robert Rydell has observed that

Fairs, in short, helped to craft the modern world. They were arenas where manufacturers sought to promote products, where states and provinces competed for new residents and new investments, where urban spaces were organized into shimmering utopian cities, and where people from all social classes went to be alternately amused, instructed, and diverted from more pressing concerns. Memorialized in songs, books, buildings, public statuary, city parks, urban designs, and photographs, fairs were intended to frame the world view not only of the hundreds of millions who attended these spectacles, but also the countless millions who encountered the fairs secondhand.
The Columbian Exposition was very much a part of this tradition. It attempted to redefine America for itself and the world, and in doing so introduced many themes and artifacts still prevalent in American life: the connection between technology and progress; the predominance of corporations and the professional class in the power structure of the country; the triumph of the consumer culture; and the equation of European forms with "high culture", as well as the more pedestrian legacy of Juicy Fruit Gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, ragtime music, and Quaker Oats. H.W. Brands, in his fascinating work on the 1890s, The Reckless Decade, points to the importance of studying this Fair and the age it informs and reflects.
For Americans living in the 1990s, the events of the 1890s would be worth exploring even if they imparted no insight into the present. Life on the edge frequently evokes the best and worst in people and societies. It did so during the 1890s, when the United States produced more than its normal quota of demagogues and dedicated reformers, scoundrels and paragons of goodwill, when the American people lived up to their better selves and down to their worse....

Yet the story of the 1890s also possesses significance beyond its inherent color and drama. How America survived the last decade of the nineteenth century--how it pursued its hopes, occasionally confronted and frequently fled its fears, wrestled its angels and demons--reveals much about the American people. What it reveals can be of use to a later generation of those people, situated similarly on the cusp between an old century and a new one.

(Brands, 5)

This project will focus on the message of this overwhelmingly popular Fair and its implications for contemporary and modern society. First, we will take a virtual tour of the Fair, pointing out its high and low points, and what they meant in the Official Fair's vocabulary, followed by a discussion of reactions to the Fair by its visitors--how, and how well, were the Fair's messages received? Finally, the focus shifts to the legacy of the Fair: the text and clues inferred by its spatial and ideological landscape, the messages that emerge with over a century of perspective, and the ramifications of its successes and failures.

So, take a step back in time, to an era when bicycles were a novelty, telephones a rarity, and phonographs an absolute revelation. To a time when the hustle and bustle of a consumer society, the immigration problem, economic instability, and feelings of cultural inferiority were foremost in Americans' minds. Does it sound familiar? Perhaps, in our investigation of this watershed event in American history--this celebration of early modernity--we can find ourselves in and learn from the messages of, and reactions to, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.


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


Copyright 1996 Julie K. Rose