Socioeconomic History: An Introduction to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893
Workers had moved from farms to factories and from country to city and European immigrants had flocked to American manufacturing centers.
By Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott
American History Fellow
Old and New Frontiers at the Chicago World’s Fair
Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. . . . And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.Frederick Jackson Turner
For six months, during the summer and fall of 1893, the city of Chicago hosted a World’s Fair that drew more than 27 million visitors from all over the world. The official reason for the Fair was to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, but unofficially, it served as an opportunity to reflect on the state of the nation. In the three decades after its deadly civil war, the United States had seen rapid social and economic changes. Workers had moved from farms to factories and from country to city; European immigrants had flocked to American manufacturing centers; telephones had connected distant cities made artificially bright by electric lighting.
Within little more than a generation, the United States had become the world’s leading industrial power, while its government systematically dispossessed Indigenous peoples, deployed state power against striking laborers, and abandoned efforts to ensure Black equality in favor of acquiescing to Jim Crow segregation. What had the United States become by the end of the nineteenth century, and where was it heading in the twentieth? Those who planned, built, and visited the Fair used it as an opportunity to assert their vision of the national character and global power of the United States at the height of the Gilded Age.
The Gilded Age refers to the period from approximately 1865 through 1900 in the United States, when rapid economic growth and immigration led to social stratification. Mark Twain coined the term as a critique of the era, which he compared unfavorably to a golden age by saying it was merely gilded.
World’s Fairs and the Spectacle of Colonialism
In the second half of the nineteenth century, grand exhibitions were all the rage among the imperial nations of the world. A world’s fair was a place to exhibit products, inventions, arts, and cultures, and holding one was a way for a country to lay claim to the authority to label, organize, and own the peoples and resources of the world. In 1851, the United Kingdom had hosted the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace near London; in 1889, the Eiffel Tower crowned France’s World’s Fair commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. The Parisian fair included an ethnological exhibit displaying people who lived in France’s overseas colonies that both touted the reach of the French empire and implied that these “less evolved” peoples were incapable of self-rule.
Although the United States had celebrated its own revolutionary origins with the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, near the end of the century, U.S. civic leaders sought to bring international attention to its growing role as a world power. Why not another exposition, celebrating Columbus’s arrival in the Americas? That Columbus was Italian, and had never set foot on soil claimed by the United States, was immaterial. (Perhaps fittingly, delays prevented the Fair from opening in 1892 as originally planned, and so the commemoration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s arrival was on neither the anniversary nor the site of his arrival). It was more to the point that the United States was, in the eyes of the Fair’s promoters, the fulfillment of the historic process set in motion by Columbus: the domination of Indigenous and Black peoples by white Euro-Americans, the westward march of “civilization.” Like those of the United Kingdom and France before it, the organizers of the 1893 World’s Fair intended to showcase the growing power of the United States in the world and assert that the coming century would be the “American century.”
Suffused with the contemporary racist pseudoscience of Social Darwinism—which claimed that white people with northern European ancestry were the most “evolved” race—the World’s Fair cast other races and cultures as the living relatives of white people’s distant ancestors. In its treatment of Indigenous Americans, the Fair’s organizers openly celebrated imperialism and genocide as part of the “civilizing” force at work in this process, with exhibits showing how whites “educated” Indigenous children in boarding schools or conquered them in Wild West battle reenactments.
The Defining Event of Its Age
Conveniently for historians, the Fair’s organizers were convinced that it would be the defining event of its age, thoroughly documenting their every decision and publishing guide books with explanations of how visitors should understand and experience the Fair. For that reason, the 1893 World’s Fair is itself a kind of primary document about American society and culture at the end of the nineteenth century. In addition to its physical exhibits—which included buildings dedicated to exhibitions of the arts and sciences, pavilions where the nations of the world as well as U.S. states could entice tourists and trade, and a carnival midway with cheap amusements and exoticized entertainments—the Fair also served as a site for intellectual discussions. The World’s Congress Auxiliary was a series of more than 200 international meetings, hosted at the newly-built Art Institute of Chicago, on topics ranging from women’s progress to dentistry.
It was at a special meeting of the American Historical Association as part of the World’s Congress that U.S. historian Frederick Jackson Turner articulated his famous “Frontier Thesis.” The American national character of rugged individualism and democratic virtue, Turner claimed, had been formed from white settlers’ ongoing experiences of “taming” a frontier that moved ever westward. But the 1890 census had delivered the startling news that white American settlement now stretched to the Pacific Ocean, and there was no more frontier to be found on the North American continent. What was to become of American culture?
The Chicago World’s Fair answered that question through every aspect of its design. Its exhibits (and the exhibits that organizers rejected); the paintings displayed in the Fine Arts Building; the site plan and architectural style of its exhibit halls; the racial othering of the Midway Plaisance: all of these contributed to an argument that white Americans, and middle-class white cultural norms, represented the crowning achievement of the progress of the human race. Consequently, it was only right that American culture should expand its influence beyond its borders, finding new frontiers overseas.
This essay will provide a brief history of the planning and construction of the Fair, and the two that follow will focus on the Fair’s two main areas: the White City, and the Midway Plaisance.
Origins and Construction of the Fair
In the early 1880s, eager to recreate the cultural and commercial success of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, American civic and business leaders seized upon the upcoming anniversary of Columbus’s voyage as a reason to hold another world’s fair. The U.S. Congress invited bids from cities to host the fair, and New York and Chicago vied until the last moment to win the right to host. Chicago triumphed, thanks to generous boosters who raised an additional $10 million of capital in twenty-four hours. The Fair ultimately cost over $25 million to build, or more than $735 million in 2021 dollars.
The Fair’s directors—a who’s-who of Chicago’s Gilded Age magnates and financiers, including department store owner Marshall Field, mechanical reaper inventor Cyrus McCormick, railroad baron George Pullman, and banker Lyman Gage—were determined to put on an exhibition that reflected the height of American sophistication. To design and supervise the building project, they hired Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, whose Montauk Building had been the first skyscraper built in Chicago.
Despite Chicago’s emerging reputation as a mecca of modern architecture, Burnham hired mainly New York architects trained in the French Beaux-Arts style to design the Fair’s exhibition halls. The Beaux-Arts style combined ancient Greek and Roman architecture with elements of Gothic and Renaissance styles to create opulent, often symmetrical buildings on a grand scale. Beaux-Arts architects believed these forms would inspire social harmony and moral uplift in communities, a theme taken up by the City Beautiful movement the Chicago World’s Fair helped to inspire. With the exception of Adler & Sullivan’s Transportation Building, the Fair’s buildings were uniformly white and Beaux-Arts in style. Louis Sullivan (of Adler and Sullivan) would later gripe that the Fair directors’ rejection of contemporary forms set American architecture back by fifty years.
The responsibility for selecting and designing the site of the Fair was assigned to Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who designed Central Park. Olmsted chose Jackson Park, seven miles south of downtown Chicago, as the site for the Fair, due to its beautiful view of Lake Michigan and easy access to rail. His design for the 690-acre site featured a central “Court of Honor” surrounding a Grand Basin, as well as canals, a lagoon, and a man-made “Wooded Isle.” Olmsted believed that beautiful vistas and contact with nature would promote moral and civic virtue among city dwellers.
The Steps of Progress and Civilization
Every decision about who and what to exhibit at the Fair was hard fought. The Smithsonian’s assistant secretary, G. Brown Goode, devised the scheme for organizing the Fair’s exhibitions. He proposed not only to showcase industrial and scientific achievements, but rather “the steps of the progress of civilization and its arts in successive centuries, and in all lands up to the present time and their present condition; to be, in fact, an illustrated encyclopedia of civilization.”
To Goode, and the anthropologists who worked in his department, the process of becoming civilized was the process of attaining the contemporary beliefs and practices of white men. Unsurprisingly, women and people of color did not figure in this scheme, at least, not as representatives of civilization as it was understood. Although Congress created a Board of Lady Managers after prominent white women complained about their exclusion, every effort on the behalf of Black citizens to celebrate their achievements was rebuffed.
As Burnham and Goode designed it, the Fair would have two main zones: the main fairgrounds, with 14 exhibition buildings dedicated to modern achievements in arts and industry, along with pavilions representing the 46 U.S. states and countries of the world that chose to participate; and the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long carnival of amusements and exhibits drawn from the “uncivilized” regions of the world. Burnham explained how visitors should interpret the these zones in the guidebook:
Those about the Grand Basin [in the Court of Honor]…—the Administration, Manufactures, Agriculture, Machinery, Electricity, Mines, and also the Art Building—are essentially dignified in style; those lying farther to the north—the Horticultural, Transportation, and Fisheries—being less formal, blend readily with the more or less homelike headquarters buildings of the States and foreign governments, which are grouped among the trees of the extreme northern portion of the grounds. Upon the Midway Plaisance no distinct order is followed, it being instead a most unusual collection of almost every type of architecture known to man—oriental villages, Chinese bazaars, and reproductions of ancient cities. All these are combined to form the lighter and more fantastic side of the Fair.Daniel Burnham
Although the Fair’s organizers had originally balked at including such “low” entertainments in their splendid city of progress, the popularity of the recent Paris Exposition’s “ethnological villages,” in which representatives from French colonies in Asia and Africa demonstrated their dress, culture, and dwellings, convinced them to include a similar area. Guides to the Fair instructed visitors to see the White City first, and then head to the Midway Plaisance to gawk at the Javanese and Dahomean villages, so they could gain a true understanding of how far humanity had progressed.  Indigenous Americans appeared in both zones: as anthropological exhibits in the fairgrounds, and as savage curiosities on the Midway. (Read more about these exhibits in the Midway Plaisance article.)
Construction of the Fair began in 1891. Laborers dug lagoons and canals and filled them with water from Lake Michigan. The exhibition buildings (intended to be temporary, they were essentially were steel-framed warehouses with intricate façades made of staff—a mixture of cement, plaster, and jute that could be poured into molds and quickly dried). Once assembled, the buildings were whitewashed, lending the attraction the nickname “The White City.” Covered with electric bulbs, and three gargantuan spotlights, the Fair shone at night. The Fair opened to visitors on May 1, 1893.
- Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893.
- Chaim M. Rosenberg, America at the Fair: Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (Arcadia, 2008), p. 10.
- Louis H. Sullivan, The Autobiography of an Idea (Dover, 1956), p. 325.
- G. Brown Goode, “First Draft of a System of Classification for the World’s Columbian Exposition,” 1891.
- Daniel Burnham, quoted in Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 213.
- Robert W. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876–1916 (University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 64–66.
- Read the Official Guide Book to the World’s Columbian Exposition
- View the Official Photographs of the Fair
- See colorized photos of the Fair
- Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (University of Chicago Press, 1995).
- Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916 (University of Chicago Press, 1984).
Originally published by Smarthistory, 07.09.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.