The legacy of Chicago's most famous world's fair

1/5/2021 cbw

By Dr. Jacob K. Friefeld

If you visit the Art Institute of Chicago or the Museum of Science and Industry, you're walking in the footsteps of millions of nineteenth-century world travelers. These two buildings were constructed as part of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, or World's Fair. The fair opened in Chicago on May 1, 1893, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas as well as Chicago's recovery from the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Architect Daniel Burnham designed the fairgrounds in the neoclassical style, as if in ancient Greece or Rome. He relied on famed landscape architect (and designer of Central Park) Frederick Law Olmsted to design the gardens. Within this White City, as the main fairgrounds would be called, the fair presented technological innovations and cultural exhibitions in European styles.

 Exposition grounds, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Johnston (Frances Benjamin) Collection.

Fair organizers also invited African Americans to participate in the exhibits in the White City, but they were forced to make their proposals to all-white committees. With all African American proposals rejected, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells distributed a pamphlet to fairgoers, "The Reasons Why," explaining why Black Americans were prevented from playing a prominent role in the fair.

The page from that pamphlet shown below lists qualities Douglass and Wells wished the United States possessed. They concluded on the following page that the U.S. did not possess these qualities because of a:

 "system of iniquity which possessed the power of blinding the moral perception, stifling the voice of conscience, blunting all human sensibilities and perverting the plainest teaching of the religion we have here professed...That system was American slavery. Though it is now gone, its asserted spirit remains."

 Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress.

Going ahead without African American representation in the main exhibits, the neoclassical buildings stood as displays of Euro-American culture and innovations. The White City tied Chicago and Illinois to European traditions ignoring African Americans as well as Kickapoo, Miami, Peoria, Potawatomi, and Sioux tribes who had first settled the land.

The White City was also meant to portray a unity of material progress and domestic tranquility even though the city had experienced serious disputes between corporations and labor over the previous decade, and 1893 saw the beginning of an economic recession.

Fair designers contrasted the displays in the White City to the exhibitions of the Midway. The Midway hosted a number of exhibits meant to highlight non-European cultures including an African village exhibit, belly dancers, and an exhibit meant to recreate the streets of Cairo. The Midway also boasted the first ever Ferris wheel and other amusements.

 Street of Cairo section of the Midway at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Lot 4291.

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition would go on to great success and reach over 20 million paying visitors from around the world. The fair serves as a reminder of how Illinoisans in the late nineteenth century saw themselves as members of a world community, and illuminates the stories they told themselves about their own progress. While the Art Institute and Museum of Science and Industry buildings remain, most structures in the White City no longer exist. Almost all of the majestic, white buildings had been constructed of wooden frames covered in white plaster—about as stable as the mythology they were made to spread.

Dr. Jacob K. Friefeld is the research historian at the ALPLM.

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