--Henry Adams, in a letter to Lucy Baxter, October 18, 1893
The World's Columbian Exposition was an extremely popular and influential social and cultural event. The Directory (to simplify, we will use this term to mean both the local Directory and the national Commission) of the Fair had, if not a specific agenda, a set of goals and ideals it wished to promote through its architecture, approved guidebooks, and spatial arrangement. The very immensity of the World's Columbian Exposition would seem to preclude a unified message from being presented or received. Hundreds of accounts, thousands of exhibits, and millions of visitors would produce very different conclusions. How was the message of the official Fair--the dreams of unity, the assertion of culture and education, and most importantly the valorization of American technology and commerce--actually received? As we will see, the ideals of the Directory and its vision of America was well received, but not without comment or concern. The reactions of visitors to the Exposition and its message is a useful way to gauge America's psyche in the midst of a decade of vast changes, but also to garner insight from their reactions for our own decade of vast changes.
After reflecting on the progress of America in the 400 years since Columbus, the Directory sought to present a positive redefinition of America, one in which the country stood as a cultural, commercial, and technological leader. This positive posturing is not unusual in the history of the country, but the 1890s, as historian Harold U. Faulkner has described them, were a restless decade--the upbeat spin was a positive face on the frightening social changes at the end of the nineteenth century. The 1890s was a time when Americans were undergoing the sometimes painful shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, bombarded with images and the reality of technology, progress, and consumption. The Fair's official ideology was an attempt, in large part, to assert a sense of American unity as a bulwark against the fear of change through pride in the country's accomplishments. It was asserted, in the Exposition's architecture, that America had reached cultural parity with Europe, through its appropriation of the European Beaux-Arts form, and through its emphasis on education throughout the Fairgrounds. The two areas in which America was already considered an international leader, commerce and technology, were celebrated extensively in the thousands of exhibits and the placement of the Electricity Building and the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building directly on the Grand Basin, counterparts to the former bedrocks of American society, the Agriculture and Machinery Buildings.
Yet while many Fairgoers were thankful for this positive vision of America, others could not forget the troubles just outside the gates, and this knowledge informed their reactions to the Fair. There are literally thousands of wonderful and fascinating quotes exemplifying visitors' reactions to the Exposition; unfortunately there is not enough room to include them all here. We will instead concentrate on the most characteristic of the reactions in this discussion.
Unity and Utopia
The vision of unity so important to a fractured America found its first and most obvious expression in the pristine whiteness and logical construction of the 14 "great buildings" of the Fair, particularly the Court of Honor. The very rhythm of the grouping and their beauty were somehow soothing to visitors weary from the rigors of early modern America. Robert Herrick observed years later that the "people who could dream this vision and make it real, those people...would press on to greater victories than this triumph of beauty--victories greater than the world had yet witnessed." (Memoirs of an American Citizen, 1905) The visceral response to this visual representation of beauty and unity was widespread; visitors were ready to receive this message.
The population of urban dwellers, and the rural citizens who had access to the growing power of mass media, were faced with significant changes. Corruption in local government, both petty and significant, was an accepted reality of urban life. Filthy streets and poor sanitation pervaded the cities, even in the wealthiest sections of town. Jacob Riis' 1890 How the Other Half Lives details the poverty in the city center, as the wealthy escaped the growing urban blight using improved mass transit to live in their pseudo-rural suburbs, while the poor suffered with open sewage trenches and frequent TB epidemics. Crime steadily increased with continuing economic problems, and ethnic and racial tension increased daily, as black refugees from the ruins of Reconstruction and foreign nationals immigrated to what they themselves perceived as a utopia. In fact, between 1890 and 1900, the United States population increased by over 13 million people, from 62.9 to 76.2 million citizens.
Over and over again, journals, letters, reminiscences all celebrated the beauty and serenity of the World's Columbian Exposition. The well-managed and seemingly uncorrupt Fair had unbelievably clean streets, well-behaved crowds, the most advanced sanitary and transportation systems, and most of all, it was beautiful--so unlike the gray and dusty cities many of the visitors had come from. In many respects, the Fair in fact was a utopia. According to the security department report, only 954 arrests were made over the six months of operation, 10 attempts were made to pass counterfeit coins, 408 people were able to get over the fence into the grounds, and only 33 attempts were made to gain admission on fraudulent passes.
While visitors flocked to the Fair's physical representation of unity, and in some sense utopia, reality had a terrible way of sneaking in. There were constant reminders of the growing economic problems of the country, which deepened into a four-year depression in the summer of 1893. Many conservatives believed the depression was caused by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which they claimed undermined business confidence in the Gold Standard. Others found the genesis of the downturn in the weakness of the banking system, the growing economic interdependence in the country, but most of all the rapid expansion of the railroad industry, which had grown beyond demand due to competition. (Faulkner, 143) As railroads began to fail, the fortunes of industries allied with the railroads began to take a downturn as well--especially a number of prominent banks. Over the course of the four-year depression, 15,000 businesses failed, 600 banks closed, 50 railroads became insolvent, and at least 2.5 million Americans were unemployed.
It was out of this atmosphere that the reactions to the Fair's vision of beauty and unity emerged. Most visitors were thankful for the respite from the growing Depression outside the Fair's gates, and many saw in its beauty and unity a vision of the future. Harper's declared,
It is very much to be deplored that during the best part of the time since its opening the business crisis sweeping over the country should have filled the minds of many of our people with harassing cares as to exclude all thoughts of enjoyment... it is to be hoped they will remember that the genius of the country has created a work of surpassing grandeur which should not be permitted to pass away without having exerted to the widest extent its enlightening and elevating influences upon the living generation.That these visions of beauty were only architectural models, temporary Beaux-Arts facades, was not of concern. "White City represented itself as a representation, an admitted sham. Yet that sham, it insisted, held a truer vision of the real than did the troubled world sprawling beyond its gates." (Trachtenberg, 231) This was the America that the Directory and the visitors hoped they could achieve. And the route to this new America was through a sense of pride and unity in the country's accomplishments--beginning with a sense of cultural parity with Europe.
(#1917, September 16)
With the upheaval of the close of the nineteenth came a sense of instability and inferiority; was America going to constantly experience growing pains? When was it going mature into the social and cultural confidence of Europe? The Fair's answer was: right now. Despite all of America's problems, its youth, its association with the frontier, the Fair's management proclaimed: we have achieved cultural parity with Europe. Through the emphasis on architecture and education, the Fair was making a statement about America's cultural inheritance and future.
The use of the Beaux-Arts idiom was an emphatic statement to America and the world: we are refined and are heir to the cultural traditions of Europe. Some observers were quick to make the connection:
The first impression which takes possession of the beholder [of the White City], for if he is at all susceptible to these emotions which are excited by creations of art, he will be so overcome with astonishment and admiration as to make it a difficult effort for him to tear himself away from the contemplation of the exterior of the wonderful assemblage of palaces in order to enter one of them...The head of one of the foremost art institutes in Europe recently wrote from Chicago to his home newspaper that the aspect of the White City called up in his mind some of Claude Lorrain's landscapes...The dreamy, utopian vision of Lorrain seemed a perfect comparison for those who were enamored of the feeling of high culture that the Grand Court displayed. Nearly every account gives praise to the beauty of this collection of buildings; the monumental Court of Honor was the most publicized aspect of the Fair. The Exposition came to be known as the White City in homage to this vision of European culture transplanted on the shores of Lake Michigan. This was the Fair's (and Daniel Burnham's) unequivocal stance: we may appropriate European forms to our ends in this celebration of America's progress--and the reflected glory will give America the sheen of high culture.
(Harper's #1917, September 16)
Yet while many welcomed the classical European facades of the Court of Honor, others were not so sure. A significant minority of visitors believed that a sense of pride in America would not come from aping European forms, but in celebrating an American spirit, feeling confidence in the vernacular culture that had grown in the New World. Journalist Lillie West Buck was shocked that the Fair celebrated nothing of "our daring originality, vigor and unique emphasis indicative of our own history," instead displaying the "eternal procession of the tiresomely perfect gods and goddesses, allegories, revered freaks, and European celebrities..." (17) She suggested that in "place of gilded Dianas and huge Ajaxes...how infinitely more surprising and dramatic would have been a group of ungovernable prairie horses, startling western riders, and Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, old Jim Bridger or Wild Bill." (20)
But Buck's opinion was in the minority. The emphasis in the publicity, and many of the accounts, was on the Court of Honor, while a few hundred yards away was a collection of state buildings, built with individual state appropriations and honoring the native style and culture of each state. Outside the gates of the Exposition stood many of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, some designed, ironically enough, by Daniel Burnham's own company. The delicate and unusual Transportation Building designed by Louis Sullivan was mentioned by visitors as an oddity, its polychromatic facade, immense gilded and arched entrance, and energy so different from the staid Grand Court. What could explain this dichotomy?
The majority of the Fair's directors were born in Antebellum America, remembering the days before mechanization, technology, and urban life had taken over America. Their aesthetic was based on the European inheritance, and they sought to recreate that image as a way to shore up American confidence against the immense and disorienting changes taking place. Sullivan, however, was of a new generation of American thinkers and artists. Having been born in the early 1870s (along with Theodore Dreiser and Stephen Crane), Sullivan had known only the rapid acceleration of life, the fragmentation the directors were trying so hard to bring under control. He believed in celebrating America for its very acceleration, for its youth and brashness and innovation. Sullivan, in his autobiography years later, asserted that the Fair's emphasis on the European Beaux-Arts form set back American architectural thought for the next 40 years.
He was not alone in this sentiment. The Nation remarked that, "It is not unreasonable to fear lest the Court of Honor mark the beginning of an outbreak of white classicality over the land, which will make the vagaries of Queen Anne and colonial style appear the height of good sense and taste." (#1469, August 24) The very Europeans the directors were attempting to honor and imitate weren't impressed, either. "Convinced already of American commercial and technical superiority, they had come to Chicago to learn how this modern spirit was to embody itself in form, and they found, instead, uninteresting imitations of the ruins of the Old World." (Ziff, 20) Ultimately, however, American visitors were pleased with the vision of unity and culture, and the ideology it connoted, displayed at the Exposition.
The spatial and ideological layout of the Fair--the juxtaposition of the European-style Court of Honor with the vernacular state and foreign buildings, as well as the eclectic Midway--encourages discussion about the tension between popular and "high" culture in America. These tensions--European versus American aesthetics, imitation versus authenticity, popular versus high culture-- have been explored profitably by others, particularly Alan Trachtenberg and Miles Orvell. The important fact to remember, however, is that while there was a strain between opposing cultural forces, the emphasis in official publicity and in many visitor's reminiscences was on the White City and its comforting vision of stable European culture.
Europe was the standard to which the Directory felt the United States had to aspire--and to whom the country must prove itself. Appropriating and valorizing European architectural forms was the most obvious of these attempts; the emphasis on education throughout the Exposition was another. America could be proud of how far it had come in 400 years--it was no longer brash and youthful, but cultured and educated. Or so the Directory hoped to convey.
In all accounts, visitors found some form of education on the grounds of the Fair (we will discuss Henry Adams' life-changing education at the Fair in a moment); however, some lessons were not necessarily intended by the management. The idea that the Fair was a great University, a place for learning and enrichment, was taken in wholeheartedly by the public. Americans in the Gilded Age, particularly near the turn of the century, were avid improvers--of themselves and others. "Improvement" was a favorite Victorian word, and it encompassed not only the Progressive reform movement, but the American desire for learning expressed in the popularity of the Chautauqua lecture movement and the growing network of American universities. Americans were ready to learn, so it was believed, and the Fair was presented as a unique opportunity to do so. Official accounts and personal reactions alike found in nearly every aspect of the Fair some kind of "object-lesson" (another favorite phrase) by which Americans could become more knowledgeable and cultured. The Cosmopolitan, a literary journal in the main, was the most emphatic of the top journals on the subject of education at the Fair. Walter Besant proclaimed in its pages, "The World's Fair, in short, is another edition, the latest and most complete, and by far the best illustrated, of an Ecumenical Encyclopedia, published in one enormous volume." (#5, September 1893) and a fellow columnist added, "It is safe to estimate that our civilization and advance in the cerebral arts will be moved forward by a quarter of a century as the result of this marvelous Exposition." (#5, September 1893)
Even advertisements of the time proclaimed the educational value of the Fair. "The World's Fair has proven a great, big school, where people come like children to learn, to see with eyes, and to hear with ears anointed, all the glory that God has put into the mind of man to bring about." (Advertisement for the Family Dormitory Hotel, Chicago, 1893) Children's writer Frances Burnett Hodgson believed that "there won't be anything you can't see by going through 'em. It'll be good as a college course to spend a week there." (Burnett, 11). The educational message was based on the belief that witnessing such an overwhelming grouping of items, peoples, and cultures together in one place would be more than enough education. Helen Keller was enlightened by the experience:
I took in the glories of the Fair with my fingers. It was a sort of tangible kaleidoscope, this White City of the West...all these experiences added a great many new terms to my vocabulary, and in the three weeks I spent at the Fair I took a long leap from the little child's interest in fairy tales and toys to the appreciation of the real and earnest in the workaday world.
(qtd. in Rydell, 8)
While the official guidebooks and publicity, and many visitors as well, emphasized the educational potential of simply being at the Fair, the one element designed specifically to educate was less than well received. The World's Congresses were largely ignored by the main of the Fairgoing public. With attendance of 700,000, journals would presumably be quite interested in the proceedings of the meetings. Yet 700,000 was less than one percent of the total admissions to the Exposition. The Dial gave space to the Congress of Authors, and all of the journals covered the behemoth Parliament of Religions--"The sessions of the 'Parliament of Religions' at Chicago last week have undoubtedly seemed a great object-lesson in toleration..." (The Nation #1473, September 21) and which "outranks all others in its importance and uniqueness." (Harper's #1913, August 19) yet the focus of education in the minds of the journals and the public remained in the variety of display found on the Fairgrounds.
The less than enthusiastic response to the intellectual messages of the Congress was echoed in the response to the Woman's Building, an admitted attempt to instruct men as to the work and importance of women. The Cosmopolitan had a positive response to the undertaking, "To compare the exhibit of Women's work with that of previous expositions is to realize that a revolution has been effected, not alone in woman's position, but in modern civilization." (#5, September 1893) yet the average male visitor was less than enthralled. "The Woman's Building would more especially interest the ladies...the American ladies are very proud of the fact that a lady was its architect, and all must admit how well she has succeeded." (Naylor, 150) yet, for example, Rev. R.B. Eggleston of Richmond was not impressed: "If you are a woman, go to 'The Woman's Building,' and spend hours looking at hats and dresses and cloaks, embroidery, lacework, and the like, thus obtaining topics for almost an endless conversation; but if you are a man, spend only a few minutes, which are enough to satisfy a man's curiosity about woman's work." (Eggleston, 46)
The ambivalent reactions to the educational messages of the Congresses and the Woman's Building, however, were child's play compared to the public's reaction to the Midway Plaisance. Originally conceived as part of the Department of Anthropology, "...the fair's management had effectively given up--under financial pressure--all expectations of a 'dignified and decorous' ethnological display under the control of Professor [F.W.] Putnam." (Badger, 107) The board replaced Putnam with Sol Bloom, a protege of P.T. Barnum, who observed that putting Putnam in charge of the Midway "was like making Albert Einstein manager of Barnum & Bailey's Circus." (qtd. in Donald Miller, 84) Under Bloom, the Midway provided a different kind of education than what the official Fair had envisioned.
Early on, Harper's was still attempting to justify the Midway as educational,
Visitors will be able to see things within the Midway Plaisance which, were they not exhibited there, they would have to take a journey to the ends of the earth to inspect...It would have been better, of course, if all the sights and entertainments of the Midway Plaisance had been within the grounds of the World's Fair proper, and that they had been a part of the great university to which all can go for an admission fee of 50 cents...but visitors knew better. In fact, Harper's, after the Fair had taken its course, adjusted their point of view: "One of the most comic things connected with the Midway is that theoretically it is also a place for scientific investigation. In the catalogue it is set down as part of the department of 'anthropology'..." (#1921, October 14) An area originally slated for inclusion in the program of education became, thanks to the commission's bottom line, an area for entertainment. The Dial, a voice for the education and intellectual advancement available at the Exposition, made their position on the newly acknowledged mission for the Midway perfectly clear:
(#1899, May 13)
It is unpleasant now...to be forced to chronicle a melancholy derogation from the high motives which controlled the inception and early history of their work. The commercial motive has forced its way to the surface, and has become the controlling influence in their action. The object of the Fair is now frankly proclaimed to be that of making as much money for its stockholders as possible. Amusement, of cheap and even vulgar sorts, is being substituted for education, because most people prefer being amused to being instructed.
(#173, September 1).
The Midway, after the first early and uptight months of the Exposition, came to rival the White City in the public's view of the Fair, and in the stories and drawings about it in the country's journals. The Midway brought in over $4 million in revenue; officials could not argue with that kind of success. They tended to downplay the importance of the Midway in favor of the White City, but visitors did not. Some observers attempted to explain the Midway away as a mere trifle, a short break from the real work of the Fair. Most Americans will go to the Exposition "with some serious purpose before them...Nevertheless, not all Americans have minds which are eager for new knowledge. There must be many who do not intend to visit Chicago because of any profit they may gain. They are going because they hope to amuse themselves. They, too, will have their reward." (The Century #1, May 1893) Nathaniel Hawthorne's son, Julian, had a similar reaction, "The Midway Plaisance could not take the place of the Fair, but the Fair would not be half as delightful as it is without the Plaisance. There is more of the human here than elsewhere; and the study of mankind is not only, as Pope says, the proper study of man, but it is likewise incomparably the most entertaining." (The Cosmopolitan #5, September 1893)
Of course, it was the entertainment aspect of the Midway which was the most popular, despite the early spin the Directory put on it. Robert Bogdan observes,
The Midway Plaisance had the aura of the amusement world, together with its hype and humbug. The women in the World Congress of Beauty were not from '140 nations.' Many of the Egyptian 'hootchy-kootchy' dancers were likely locals, and one, the famed Fatima, is alleged to have been a female impersonator...As one New York Times reporter put it, 'The late P.T. Barnum should have lived to see this day.The visitors seemed to revel in the outlandishness, the foreignness, and even the fakery of the Midway. "In connection with this so-called 'Congress of Beauty,' the management have made one true statement- i.e., 'Admission 25 cents.'" (Naylor, 111) The Century boasted, "In the Midway Plaisance is probably the greatest collection of 'fakes' the world has ever seen...Whenever I grew tired of formal sight-seeing I would stroll down to the Plaisance to the Egyptian temple. Here was the greatest fakir of them all. I am proud to say that he was an American." (#5, September 1893)
Of course, these reactions were offered tongue-in-cheek, but the visitors' forays to the Midway seemed a welcome change from the unrelenting "high culture" and education of the White City. The enjoyment of the pure amusement of it all was not a foreign concept to Americans of the time. Vaudevilles, comic operas, dime novels, and amateur and professional spectator sports were quite popular, as was the great Wild West Show--which characteristically took advantage of the captive audience of the Fair, offering nightly shows just outside the Exposition's gates.
Despite this American desire to be amused, there were notes of disdain with regard to the Midway. Rev. Eggleston noted that upon entering the Midway, you hear "the strange music of a foreign tambourine, and the hideous yelling (music, so-called) of non-American girls." (25) and though the belly dancers drew a large crowd, "to those possessing the sense of propriety, these bodily contortions were unrefined and even repulsive." (26) He seems to have been neither educated nor entertained by his excursion to the Midway.
The program of education succeeded for the Exposition's management, but not entirely in ways they had projected. The potential for instruction of large numbers of Americans in the intellectual life of the Congresses, women's new place in society, and the lives of foreign peoples was to a large degree ignored or lost. The real educational message received by the Exposition's visitors was that high culture represented stability, even utopia, while popular culture was a vernacular expression of contemporary America--exciting, flashy (even tacky), confusing, and based on making money. And yet despite this dichotomy, visitors seemed to enjoy both aspects equally well. The Directory presented a view of America they hoped all citizens could be proud of: cultured and educated in the European style. The visitors found a more accurate vision of their country in the Midway, yet sought to believe in both. Ironically, the Directory turned its back on European standards when it presented the next elements in its display of American pride: consumerism and technology.
Commodity and Commerce
The message of commodity and commerce found so prevalently in the Midway was an important message of the Exposition as a whole as well. The business leaders who were a large part of the Exposition Directory had honorable goals, but personal well-being was not far from their minds. The importance of promoting a consumer society, and encouraging American confidence in business and its products was also a goal of the Fair. Pride in American goods and business, they felt, would be part of the overall plan of encouraging pride in America--and as we will see later, would inspire confidence in the new group of corporate leaders who would shape America in the twentieth century.
America's place in the economic world had to be measured, and for both the management and the visitors, American commerce was not found lacking. The focus on commerce is most significant in the popular Harper's , which devoted a significant number of its over 130 feature stories, drawings, or poems to the goods displayed in the Manufacturer's and Liberal Arts building. The United States in 1893 was already well on its way to completing the transition from a producer to a consumer society (dramatized forcefully in Dreiser's Sister Carrie), so the relative lack of comment on the message of commerce and consumption could be ascribed to the fact that it was a message Americans already believed.
The largest and most magnificent building on the grounds was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building. It was no accident that these two aspects of American life were brought together under one roof. The intermingling of art and manufactured goods was an excellent symbiotic and ideological relationship for the directors: the arts gave cultural cache to the consumption of goods, their producers, and their consumers, while the presence of manufacturing lent credence to the idea that art, increasingly like the rest of American life, could be consumed. American business, according to the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, was not low-class, but a necessary component of high culture. Two goals were accomplished: cultural parity with Europe was alluded to, and international business dominance asserted, in the exhibits of the Manufactures building.
Of course, this focus on commerce was not unique to the World's Columbian Exposition; trade and commerce fairs had been European staples since the Middle Ages, and even the preceding World's Fairs of the nineteenth century had commercial aspects. The "theme of Trade was at the theoretical core of exhibitions, perhaps because it was at the heart of European and American society." (Greenhalgh, 22)
The commercial aspect of the Fair, which was not limited to the Midway but included concessionaires, souvenirs, and the goods for sale in the Manufacturer's and Liberal Arts building, was however quite distasteful to a number of observers. Leo Tolstoy, who didn't personally attend but read about the Exposition in Russian papers found that the "Chicago exhibition, like all exhibitions, is a striking example of imprudence and hypocrisy: everything is done for profit and amusement--from boredom--but noble aims of the people are ascribed to it. Orgies are better." (qtd. in Rydell, 8) while ironically Edward Bellamy, the very well-respected man whose utopian ideas were gestured to in the White City, believed that the "underlying motive of the whole exhibition, under a sham pretense of patriotism is business, advertising with a view to individual money-making." (qtd. in Trachtenberg, 215) While the profit motive was in fact an unspoken message of the Directory, the nature of the their patriotism is a matter for debate. Unquestionably, however, the message of commerce was a strong one that has had lasting impact in modern America.
One theme--so important to the coming face of commerce--was quite well received by visitors: technology, especially electricity. Their fascination with the exhibits of the Electricity Building, the electric moving sidewalk, launches, elevated trains, and thousands upon thousands of incandescent lights was undeniable. "Perhaps the portion of the World's Exposition which America is far ahead of all in competition is the Palace of Electricity; here she is seen in her natural splendour, eclipsing by her dazzling light ever other nation." (Naylor, 149) Electricity had been something vaguely mysterious and even a bit frightening to many Fairgoers; for the majority, the displays of the Fair changed their minds and left them open to new advances. The introduction of the telephone to a wide audience, the phonograph, even an early motion picture, was an education, and for some, even a form of amusement.
"It is the intention of the management to make the World's Fair site and the buildings one grand exemplification of the progress that has been made in electricity." (Artistic Guide, 313) Electricity was to be the basis for America's technological and commercial advances into the twentieth century, and the Fair celebrated it throughout the grounds. This celebration served a number of purposes: it introduced Americans to the technology, and attempted to remove the element of fear associated with electricity (and technology), replacing it with fascination and amusement; it showed Americans that their transition from an agricultural to a technological society was not frightening, but was in fact progress (along with "improvement," a favorite theme of Gilded Age America); and finally, along with the celebration of commerce, it put a positive face on the changes in American society.
For the most part, the reaction was quite positive to progress as defined by technology. In Clara Burnham's fictional Sweet Clover, set in the White City, an elderly aunt hears, over the telephone, an orchestra playing in New York City. "...I've capped the climax o' my life. I don't calc'late to ever call anything wonderful again." (Burnham, 208) Richmond's Rev. Eggleston summed up the majority view, which must have been most gratifying to the management: "Those who saw this [nighttime illumination] declared that the nineteenth century is indeed the century of progress and enlightenment." (Eggleston, 42)
Henry Adams, while fascinated, was not altogether comfortable with the displays of technological change at the Exposition. Adams was the type of doubting and confused visitor the Directory was trying to reach with its message of patriotism and progress through commerce and technology. The changes in America seemed to have left Adams and his class--well-born gentlemen who dabbled in politics and diplomacy--without a place. He ascribed these changes to technology, and Adams found that he was of a group "who knew nothing whatever--who had never run a steam-engine, the simplest of forces--who had never put their hands on a lever--had never touched an electric battery--never talked through a telephone, and had not the shadow of a notion what amount of force was meant by a watt or an ampere or an erg..." (Education, 342) His ignorance of the new ways of the world left him feeling helpless. "Some millions of other people felt the same helplessness, but few of them were seeking education, and to them helplessness seemed natural and normal, for they had grown up in the habit of thinking a steam-engine or dynamo as natural as the sun, and expected to understand one as little as the other." (Education, 341) As he sat at the foot of a giant dynamo engine in Machinery Hall, Adams saw that the accelerating rate of technological change would directly influence the accelerating rate of societal and cultural change in the United States--and his way of life would quickly become obsolete. His lament for a lost age was not unusual, and in hindsight was quite prophetic, but was not shared by the majority of the Exposition's visitors and Directors. While the visitors were being swept along on the wave of change that according to Adams threatened to envelop them, the Exposition's managers sought to harness the power of that wave.
The Directory of the World's Columbian Exposition sought to create for their visitors a vision of America at once immune to the vast changes of the turn of the century while at the same time celebrating them. Henry Adams observed that, "Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving." (Education, 343) The Exposition had an emphatic answer: onward and upward. The answer of the Fair's visitors to this question was equivocal, as is found in the varied reactions to the Fair's message of American strength through pride in its culture, education, commerce, and technology.
As we have seen, visitors to the Exposition were mixed in their reactions to the messages of Culture and Education at the Exposition. They seemed to respect the beauty of the European forms of architecture, yet felt infinitely more comfortable amongst the vernacular forms of the state buildings. Visitors sought enlightenment in the thousands of exhibits in the Exposition proper, but struck a blow for popular culture when they admitted their preference for the Midway. However, in the long run, the Fair was reflective of, rather than an influence on, the debates on culture and education in the 1890s. In fact, the tension between European and vernacular forms, entertainment and amusement, has not been resolved as we move into the twenty-first century.
The Exposition was quite influential in its position on commerce and technology--during the 1890s and into the 1990s. The celebration of a system based on commerce, and the equation of technology with progress, was not unusual at the time. However, to valorize these thoroughly modern ideas at an immense social and cultural event was unusual. Millions of Americans visited the Fair, and millions more experienced its messages through guide- and viewbooks, and the mass valorization of commerce and technology arguably coopted popular feeling while at the same time encouraging it. The psychological stage was set for associating progress with technology and commerce. As we will see, this association has formed American culture in the twentieth century, and will influence it into the twenty-first.