The World Columbian Exposition of 1893


ferris The World Columbian Exposition of 1893

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” -Daniel H. Burnham

They called Chicago a classless slaughterhouse, knowing nothing of cultural and social refinement. So when the opportunity arose to butcher those beliefs and prove America superior to Europe, Chicago pounced at the chance. The World Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the occasion — a fair to celebrate the most monumental achievements since Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Chicago was vying against New York, St. Louis, and Washington D.C. for the title but, after picking up the ashes from the great fire in 1871 and rebuilding itself to become a leader in commerce, manufacturing and architecture, the Windy City was confident. “The men who have helped build Chicago want the fair, and, having a just and well-sustained claim, they intend to have it.” By a small marginal vote, Chicago stole the fair from New York. The streets outside the Tribune building erupted: traffic halted, men and women cheered while telegraph boys ran off with the eventful news.

Immediately a formal corporation was created — The World’s Columbian Exposition Company. Architectural geniuses Daniel Burnham and John Root of Burnham & Root were elected head designers. The men of the corporation were expected to erect an entire fair (and essentially a new city) in the time it took average firms to construct a single building. Unfortunately for Burnham and Root, the company spent an exorbitant amount of time just deciding on the location of the fair. Ultimately Jackson Park was chosen. The soil was deeply saturated and Burnham could only fathom the hardships this would unveil, so he turned to Frederick Olmsted, who created great works of art such as Central Park in Manhattan, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the Cornell and Yale campuses. Olmsted dreamed up a park so grand that no other could compete, with lavish colors and vegetation, canals and lagoons. These grounds would surround some of the world’s greatest architectural creations.

Burnham & Root created the fair layout and main buildings, choosing a neoclassical style, which boasted columns, domes and pediments. But before the architecture committee could meet and present plans for the fourteen grand buildings, tragedy struck. John Root died and confidence in the fair wavered. Burnham and the committee pressed on with a formal meeting of minds. Each presented a plan more grandiose than the next, leaving some to question the likelihood of such construction given the time crunch. Others marveled at the plethora of ideas. St. Gaudens exclaimed, “I never expected to see such a moment, do you realize this has been the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century?” The fair was meant to do just that – display the glorious progress of man via art, technology and culture.

With the architecture and all its magnificence underway, there was still something missing that the Exposition Universelle in Paris had boasted. In 1889, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel unveiled his masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower, a symbol that France had surpassed America with its creative and scientific talent. The Columbian Exposition scrambled to “Out-Eiffel Eiffel” with an invitation to architects to submit plans and ensure their name in American history. This contest saw scores of entries, including one from Eiffel himself. Ultimately a design by George W. Ferris was chosen. Construction of such a beastly plan was revolutionary. Ferris envisioned a giant wheel (much like a bicycle wheel) with cars dangling from the spokes. A twenty-minute ride with two full rotations would give passengers a panoramic view of the entire fair.

On May 1, 1893 President Grover Cleveland turned a golden key, initiating the steam engines in the Machinery Hall, and the World’s Exposition sprang to life. Fountains spilled over and streetlights sparkled, shedding light on the elegant creation juxtaposed with the gleaming Lake Michigan. This city within a city would soon be renowned as the “White City,” with guests entering by streets, trains and boats. The chatter of native tongues, animals exercising their growls, and the Columbian chorus and orchestra added to the hullabaloo and anticipation. Adults paid .50 cents and children paid .25 cents for the moment of a lifetime.

Whichever way one entered the fair, the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building designed by George B. Post was unavoidable. It stood as the world’s largest structure in the world at the time with 44 acres of exhibits. Exhibitors from around the world were under one roof in this monumental structure selling their wares — items ranging from watches to heating and cooling appliances.

Another popular sight was the agricultural building. Here guests could nibble and whet their pallet with dishes from afar. One Ontario man’s exhibit made quite a stink – a colossal sized cheese, standing six feet tall and weighing over 22,000 pounds. Henry J. Heinz sprawled the upper gallery with his “57 varieties” of products, thus coining the number 57 and becoming an advertising genius. The shift from family farms to large commercial farms was astounding and manufacturing companies had the tools for the job. Windmills, cattle-feeding machines, cotton gins, and corn crushers were all on display along with harvesters and plows.

Many curious visitors lingered in the fascinating Electrical Building. Electricity was a new medium and although France and Germany dominated the field, America was at their heels. The first all-electric kitchen was displayed as well as the telephone and other turn-of-the-century appliances. The Electrical Building was also home to the gigantic Westinghouse engine (the largest in the plant and the main electricity source for the entire fair). It was at this fair that Henry Ford saw the internal combustion engine and his dream of designing a horseless carriage was sparked.

The fair contained over 200 buildings filled to their brims with inventions showcasing the worlds’ advancements.A receding archway drenched in gold leaf led spectators into the revolutionary Transportation Building designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis H. Sullivan. Bridges, steam ships and locomotives were displayed here, including a model of the H.M.S. Victoria, which sank in the Mediterranean with 400 men aboard. Illustrious bridges later led crowds to the Machinery Hall, designed by the Boston architectural firm Peabody & Sterns.

The eclectic midway, however, was still dubbed barbaric, making the upper echelons of society blush. In part, a man by the name of Sol Bloom was responsible. He opened his arms wide, accepting people and animals from all walks of life to join in the spectacle: alleged cannibals from Dahomey, Lapps from Lapland, Syrian horsemen, camels, monkeys and poisonous snakes were among the many strange acts. A woman named Farida Mazhar from Egypt created quite a scene with her expertise in danse du ventre. Rumors of scantly clad women belly dancing circulated and crowds poured in. A tethered hydrogen balloon raised visitors high above the grounds. But the most infamous of all attractions was the great Ferris wheel. A giant steel structure took 36 cars carrying up to 60 passengers high above the Exposition for unparalleled views of the White City. No matter how much criticism Chicago had received in the past, it was hard to deny that this fair provided some of the finest entertainment of the time.

Ultimately the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 surpassed the Exposition Universelle. It also slaughtered the belief that Chicago was just a place were hogs went to die, but rather a refined, culturally endowed, vast city. A New York Dry Goods reporter admitted, “Chicago has disappointed her enemies and astonished the world.” Two buildings remain standing as a reminder of the celebration: The Palace of Fine Arts, now known as the Museum of Science and Industry, and the World’s Congress Auxiliary building, now occupied by the Art Institute of Chicago. And thus the legacy of the White City lives on.


We owe thanks to two pretty awesome books for this articles info. Check them out for great Chicago history!

    Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York: Crown, 2003. Print.

    Rosenberg, Chaim M. America at the Fair: Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2008. Print.

About Natalie Scheid

When Mattel manufactures your idol and your nickname is Barbie life can get pretty unreal. My favorite activities include cheering on the White Sox (I’ve been converting Cubs fans since 1986), meeting new people and writing on the rooftop with the skyline as my backdrop. You might be able to find me at the opening of a new hot spot, soaking up some culture at a local museum or art show, or enjoying one of the cities fabulous festivals. So…. catch me if you can!

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