World’s Fair put Illinois in spotlight
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, a six-month extravaganza that thrust Illinois into the international spotlight. The event inspired an artistic and educational revival despite a string of nagging controversies.
The right to host the exposition, organized to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World, became a battle among several American cities, notably New York, St. Louis and Chicago, in 1890. In the Big Apple, financiers like J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt offered $15 million to underwrite the event, but Chicago titans like Marshall Field and Cyrus McCormick came in with a counteroffer. Finally, Chicago banker Lyman Gage raised several million dollars in 24 hours, convincing the U.S. Congress to award the fair to Chicago.
Congress delayed the exposition for a year, but Chicago was in a race against time. Using the wildly successful 1889 Paris exposition, which highlighted the Eiffel Tower, as inspiration, the fairgrounds were constructed in Chicago’s Jackson Park, which was 633 acres of marshy ground.
The fair’s director of works, renowned architect Daniel Burnham, rounded up America’s finest architectural talent to create a stunning array of sculptures and buildings in Jackson Park, which housed displays from around the world on such topics as industry, agriculture, transportation, manufacturing, animals and electricity.
The buildings were coated in plaster and painted a shade of white, giving way to the nickname “White City.” At night, a large electrical display illuminated the buildings and left onlookers awestruck at the new form of energy. One writer breathlessly called the spectacle “very likely the most beautiful thing ever created on the western hemisphere.”
Nearby was the mile-long Midway Plaisance, a mixture of education and amusement. Fairgoers could peruse African, Eskimo and Island villages, an enormous Streets of Cairo attraction with live camels and belly dancers, and food from around the world. Entertainment, including Scott Joplin and a 19-year-old Harry Houdini, were also on tap. The lower-brow Midway was in conflict with the gleaming sophistication of the White City and attracted more patrons.
The fair also featured a gigantic 264-foot Ferris Wheel designed by Galesburg engineer George Washington Gale Ferris with 60 cars and a capacity of 2,160 passengers. Admission was 50 cents – twice the cost of a fair ticket.
A myriad of other attractions captivated fairgoers, including moving sidewalks, electric mathematical calculating machines, and Thomas Edison’s new kinetoscope. One display, an internal combustion engine, inspired visitor Henry Ford in his design of a new automobile.
An astounding 27.5 million visitors attended the fair, which ran from May 1 to Oct. 30.
The fair also spawned a seamier side. The mayor of Chicago, Carter Harrison, was assassinated by a disgruntled office-seeker two days before the close of the fair, and the closing ceremonies were canceled. That summer, a wave of smallpox originated at the fair and spread to the city.
Blacks were mostly excluded from fair jobs and the fair board of commissioners, and many complained that African-themed exhibits were dehumanizing.
More grisly was the subsequent revelation of serial killer Dr. Henry H. Holmes, who enticed multiple victims, including fairgoers, to a hulking building called the “Castle,” where he tortured and murdered them.
Many of the fair buildings were destroyed in a sweeping fire in 1894, and today, the only major remaining structure now houses the Museum of Science and Industry. But the breathtaking 1893 World’s Exposition sparked a renaissance in art, education and technology both in Illinois and across the nation.
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.