If you could time travel anywhere, anytime, where would you go?
I know exactly where I’d want to go and I’ve known it for about the past twenty years. I would just about sell my soul for a trip to the World’s Columbian Exposition, otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.
I can’t remember exactly when I first learned about the fair, but I know that when I did, I was hooked. I was (and still am) amazed that an immense and intentionally temporary city was created on 633 acres of Chicago lakefront known as Jackson Park, and that virtually none of it remains to this day. When I saw photographs of it, I was stunned by how huge, how beautiful and how other-worldly it looked, and how it’s all gone.
A colossal amount of effort, money and creative energy was put into creating a vision that stunned and amazed visitors from around the world and existed for only six months. Those who came to the World’s Fair couldn’t believe their eyes and I’m sure they talked about for the rest of their lives. At a time when the country was deep in an economic depression, the fair represented the best that society had to offer and then, after a brief period of time, it literally went up in smoke.
The Columbian Exposition was the most incredible event of its day, attracting millions of people who traveled from far and wide to see the marvelous sights of the “White City,” among them the first Ferris Wheel, the largest piece of artillery ever created (imported from Germany), a Venus de Milo made of chocolate and incandescent light bulbs that brilliantly lit up the city at night. The fair was so large that it took a week to see it all, and even then, you wouldn’t have seen it all. There were palaces devoted to the arts, machinery, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, electricity and transportation. There were lagoons and canals, complete with gondolas and swans. There was a wooded island, a moving walkway, replicas of the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria (it was in honor of Columbus discovering the New World, after all) and the first ever “midway” boasting carnival attractions and people from around the world, including scandalous Egyptian belly dancers, cannibals, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a hot air balloon that would take visitors 1,000 feet up in the air.
I can’t think of anything today that compares to what it must have been like to experience this fair. It would be like building Disneyland in a year and then tearing it down six months later.
If you’ve visited the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago you have some notion of the scale and size of the buildings erected for the fair. The museum is the only remaining structure in Chicago left from the fair. (Technically this isn’t quite true, since the building was basically gutted and rebuilt as a permanent structure.) It looks pretty much the same as it did in 1893 when it was the Palace of Fine Arts. The Wooded Island behind it is another feature of Jackson Park that remains from the fair.
The World’s Fair of 1893 played a major role in the history of Chicago. The city earned its famous nickname of the Windy City, not from the weather, but for the tireless lobbying by local politicians, urging that Chicago win the honor of hosting the fair. After the fair, some of the works of art on display in the Palace of Fine Arts were moved to another location, sparking the creation of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Cracker Jack and Shredded Wheat debuted at the fair, along with the first zipper, Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima pancake mix (Everything you need in one box!) and two beers, Berghoff (the local favorite) and Pabst Blue Ribbon, which earned its name at the fair. Edison displayed moving pictures (Kinetoscope) and Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have been influenced by the Japanese temple he saw on the Wooded Island. Other famous visitors to the fair included Theodore Dreiser, L. Frank Baum, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Harry Houdini, Scott Joplin, Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, and a young Helen Keller.
I have much more to say on this subject; interesting facts and anecdotes that I’d like to share, as well as my own personal connection to the fair (including a family heirloom that may, or may not, be an actual exposition souvenir.) So, rather than blabber on for now, I’ve decided to come back to this subject from time-to-time. I hope to include other interesting aspects of Chicago history, including its architecture, as well, as I go along.