Post may contain affiliate links. Several images courtesy of the Chicago Field Museum, as was a ticket to the exhibit.
Long-timers likely remember my fondness for Erik Larson’s book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. Reading that book marked the beginning of my interest in the 1893 World’s Fair, called the Columbian Exposition because it celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering the Americas. I learned from a blogging sponsor that the Chicago Field Museum was hosting an exhibit about the fair, called “Opening the Vaults.” I applied to visit and report on the exhibit. Surely this was an opportunity custom-made for me! And … I was not chosen. Because … get ready for it … I didn’t have an Instagram account. I kid you not.
I was sad about this for maybe a day, and then I decided that I needed to make this happen on my own. So — I wrote to the museum, who helpfully offered me a ticket if I could get there. I found a bus trip heading to the windy city, and one day last week, I was off. Most of the bus was hoping to shop, but I was dreaming of the museum. No consumer goods could tempt me like a glimpse at some of the goodies from the 1893 fair. I was dropped off at Water Tower Place, and began my walk.
Across the river — right as a boat passed!
Into the exhibit — bear in mind that World’s Fairs, particularly this one, were the Disney Worlds of their day. They were massively attended: the 1893 fair had 25 million visitors. The US population at the time was 67 million. Is there anything today that gets that type of attendance?
Tickets to the fair cost 50 cents, and it ran for just six months. The fair covered 630 acres, and there were 65,000 exhibits. 50,000 of those later became part of the anthropology collections of the Field Columbian Museum, which became — you guessed it — today’s Field Museum. This was housed in the Palace of Fine Arts, the fair’s only building that remains to this day. But, in 1921 the exhibit moved to today’s Field Museum building. The Palace of Fine Arts remains — as Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
All the white buildings of the fair led to its nickname, The White City. Several things common today originated during the fair: ragtime music (which was playing in the exhibit as I toured), shredded wheat, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, and of course the Ferris Wheel. The fair’s Ferris Wheel was truly a marvel. It was 100 feet higher than the Ferris Wheel on today’s Navy Pier, and it could hold 2160 people at once!
And yet despite all the grandeur, many of the items on display at the fair were decidedly lower-key. Take, for instance, this display of various types of oils. There were also many displays of various plants, spices, etc. Not that exciting today, perhaps, but it’s interesting to imagine those days, before the internet and television made it possible to see photos of almost anything, from anywhere. A world’s fair was a place people could travel vicariously to almost any country of the world and see the things grown and made there. And after all, it’s still pretty cool to see things with labels typed up in 1893 — even if they are just bottles of oil.
The fair wasn’t all “things.” Various countries and cultures were represented as well. One of the fair’s big themes was the superiority of Western culture — not in an overbearing way, that I could tell, but just as an evident fact. As a counterbalance, various native groups from primitive countries were brought in and “displayed” in recreated villages at the fair. Check out this photo of fair goers shocked, shocked I tell you, by a group of African savages.
Clearly this is all a bit exploitative, and yet I’m always amused at the tone of explanations written for this sort of thing — always condemning the behavior soundly, then insinuating that we’re all so much more evolved now. And yet, my ornery brain tends to head right on over to things like reality TV, where I recall just a few years ago Jon and Kate Gosselin’s eight kids being put on display for million of us to observe each week. Were people back then really any worse? Your call, I suppose.
And, some of the “oppressed” peoples of the day found their own way to fight back. The exhibit told about a group of 60 Labrador Intuit peoples who were brought to the fair to be observed by visitors. Turns out, the Intuits became annoyed by the heat (they were expected to wear their native fur costumes) and less-than-stellar food. They pulled out of the fair, but in a great display of good ol’ American capitalism, they set up their own village just outside the fairgrounds and charged admission themselves . Gotta love entrepreneurship, huh?
More Chicago sights later this week — too much for just one day!