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The Great White City

July 2024
14min read

More than any world’s fair before or since, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 had a lasting effect on its visitors, the taste of the times, and the lusty community that brought it forth

When the plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition were spread before him, banker Lyman J. Gage greeted them with disbelief. “Oh, gentlemen,” he said, “this is a dream. Yon have my good wishes. I hope the dream can be realized.” The occasion—one the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens called “the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century”was a day-long session in the architectural offices of Daniel Burnham early in 1891. Though the idea of a fair to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ lauding had been stirring in the minds of Chicagoans for a number of years, it had not taken practical form until 1889. New York, Washington, and St. Louis mused similar ambitions, but Chicago’s bid of ten million dollars (later doubled from other sources) had settled the matter. With Burnham’s famous slogan—“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood”—with Burnham himself as chief of construction, and with Frederick Law Olmsted (and his partner Charles S. Codman of Boston) engaged to lay out the grounds, a tract ol Chicagos swamp and sand was to become—as it was first and best known—a “Great White City.”

The Fair was projected on an enormous scale. Where London’s Crystal Palace had covered over twenty acres, and Philadelphia’s Centennial over two hundred, Chicago dwarfed them with over six hundred. Its vistas of ivory colonnades against the blue of sky and lake stretched the imaginations of Americans unused to such magnificence. “It’s too much for my mind,” said one visitor. “It fills you up with more ideas than you’ve got room for.” Undoubtedly the uniform whiteness added to an effect of unreality and other-worldliness in this period when streets of alabaster and gates of pearl were familiar hymn-book images.

In any event, the words “vision,” “dream,” and “enchantment” are frequently used in contemporary descriptions. Even James Truslow Adams refers to the Fair as “a vision of beauty which has rarely been equalled … compared with it the Paris Exposition of 1900 was an inchoate jumble of incongruous monstrosities,” and almost forty years afterward Lloyd Lewis could write that it “still forces the belief that … it was the most wonderful thing of its time. It became the ruling passion of statesmen as well as architects, of religionists as well as artisans, of merchants, painters, engineers, musicians, soldiers, orators, and dukes.... Destiny brought to this young city an explosion of idealism, produced a miracle and then ordered the miracle to disappear....”

There is certainly evidence that to the public—the many millions who rambled through its miles of parks and gardens, drifted along its lagoons, or from the top of the Ferris Wheel watched the lighted prisms of the great fountain in the Court of Honor—the Chicago Fair was overwhelming, an impression that is only confirmed by Henry James’s sarcastic reference: “They say one should sell all one has and mortgage one’s soul to go there, it is esteemed stich a revelation of beauty. People burst into tears, cast away all sin and baseness, and grow religious under its influence.”

What produced this outpouring of civic energy? Why, above all, did it occur in Chicago, that “reeking, cinder-ridden joyous Baptist stronghold,” that pandemonium of pork and profits? In 1843 Margaret Fuller had called the city the “desolation of dullness,” and easterners considered its interests confined to “cash, cussing, and cuspidors.” But Richard Cobden had advised Englishmen to see two things in America, “Chicago and the Falls of the Niagara,” and as early as 1820 Lewis Cass had foreseen that “to the ordinary advantages of an agricultural market town Chicago must hereafter add those of a depot for inland commerce … and a great thoroughfare for strangers, merchants, and travellers.” The dosing decade of the nineteenth century marks the end of an era in the city’s growth. By the elegant eighties Chicago had acquired the leisure to pause—after her successive crises of pioneering, massacre, civil war, and ruinous fireto catch her breath and appraise her status.

Her population had topped 100,000 by 1860 and this was doubled in the next twenty years by immigration. By 1889 the country’s population center had moved from Maryland to Indiana, the Mississippi had been bridged, over 160,000 miles of railroad were operating, and the Midwest was producing an annual billion dollars’ worth of wheat, corn, and oats. By 1891 Chicago, with over a million citizens, was a major rail center, boasting 850 trains daily, three universities, 465 churches, a symphony orchestra, twenty-four theaters, fourteen hundred hotels, several hundred weekly, monthly, and quarterly magazines, and two dozen daily papers. Hydraulic elevators served the city’s “sky-scrapers,” and fireproof buildings of granite and “Lemont Marble” (a lighter limestone preferred to the local yellow) lined her busy gas-lit streets, where formidable fortunes were no longer a novelty.

Moreover, Chicago had become conscious of herself as a metropolis, a focus of trade, spokesman for the Prairie West—a combustible mixture of optimism, acumen, elbow-grease, and idealism that was ready to explode into action given the right catalyst. Meat and grain still formed her principal exports, but imports now included wines, oysters, chocolates, brocades, laces, and even “wigs, curls and ringlets"—scathingly described in one editorial as “the humbugs and fripperies of the East.” Gold was in her banks, and the wives and daughters of her merchant princes knew Paris, London, and Rome. The city may have resembled Rosalie the Prairie Flower, but she was fast preparing to take a decisive step forward in her civic and social progress.

A unique feature of Chicago’s Fair was the active participation of a majority of her leading citizens, and their conviction that this must be not merely another trade fair but an exposition that would widen the horizons of Chicago, and of the world. Only midwestern naïveté, perhaps, could have entertained so presumptuous a purpose. But along with its crudities this generation culturally bounded by the Bible, Shakespeare, and Horatio Alger retained an as-yet-unshaken faith in human perfectibility. The men behind the Fair—Lyman Gage, Harlow Higinbotham, John Root, Martin Ryerson, Charles Hutchinson, Edward Ayer, Kabbi Emil Hirsch, Dr. Frank Gunsaulus, and many others—were characterized by a genuine idealism.

The planning committee included leading architects and artists from all parts of the country. Halsey Ives, head of the Fair’s Department of Fine Arts, declared that “Never in modern times have men of widely different characteristics been brought together in a work that has resulted in such complete unity of action.” As evidence of their determination that this fair should be “more than the mere mechanical and material triumphs of mankind,” an Auxiliary was created, to arrange a series of World Congresses at which humanity’s major problems would be discussed—“to promote the unity, prosperity, peace and happiness of the world,” a formidable program backed by men like Whittier, Tennyson, Carl Schurz, Max Müller, and Cardinals Gibbons and Manning. The subjects of discussion were to be education, religion, social reforms, labor problems, the substitution of arbitration for war, and the establishment of a world court to adjudicate international disputes. One congress, with surprising foresight, was devoted to “Africa as a New Factor in World Affairs.” At another, on aerial navigation, speeds for aircraft as high as sixty to eighty miles per hour were predicted. At the Science Congress were Tesla, Helmholtz, and Edison, who declared that “No man who makes his living by his intellect can afford to miss the Fair.”

A preliminary dedication and parade were held on October 21, 1892, but the winter that followed produced an unprecedented series of blizzards, alternating with arctic cold, which made construction a nightmare. Men worked bundled up like mummies; picks rang uselessly against the iron ground; and almost an acre of skylights fell under the weight of snow. Delivery of engines, boilers, and parts was delayed. The chief of mechanical construction resigned in despair. Eastern newspapers, especially in cities that had competed for the Fair, gleefully reported that nothing would be ready for the opening in May, that accommodations would be poor and extortion general. The railroads showed no interest and made only token rate reductions.

But Chicago, stubborn as ever, managed a near miracle, transforming the slushy scrub-oak wastes along its lake shore into landscaped parks and islands where lagoons mirrored the white palaces above them. To counteract eastern propaganda, an unexpected bit of luck turned up in the form of a spring meeting of the National Editorial Association in Chicago. The association’s members made their own inspection and circulated their conclusion that “rumors of the incomplete state of the Fair were much exaggerated, and rumors of extortion unfounded.” The Fair opened on May 1, with the presidential blessings of Grover Cleveland. “As by a touch,” he said in his address, “the machinery that gives life to this vast Exposition is now set in motion, so … let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in all time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity, and the freedom of mankind.” The orchestra burst into the Hallelujah Chorus, electric fountains leaped skyward, cannons boomed, flags flew to mastheads, and the crowds went wild.

At the main gate of the Fair, the Court of Honor confronted the visitor with its noble and breathtaking dimensions. At the south end of the lagoon lay the Manufactures Building, 1,687 feet long, 787 feet wide, and so tall that a ten-story building could have been carried through it without touching top or sides. To build it had required forty carloads of glass, seventeen million feet of lumber, and thirty tons of “staff,” the plaster-glue-gypsum mixture used to coat the buildings. Its nearest rival in size was the Palace of Fine Arts, 500 feet by 320 feet, with over 145,000 feet of wall space. The Electrical Building was especially attractive to a generation in which that still-mysterious force occupied in popular imagination the place held today by atomic power. The central station for the Fair was three times as powerful as those serving the rest of Chicago. “We hover about the beautiful terrible stranger, but we do not shake hands. His glance is blinding, his voice deafening, his touch is death.” People wondered whether the new force was “merely a dangerous toy or a new power brought to its knees in the service of man.”

Foreign buildings, too, were notable both for size and craftsmanship. The Emperor of Japan had sent his own workmen to erect the exquisite little structures known as Phoenix House (which survived until destroyed by fire during World War II). The Siamese Pavilion was a jewel box, glittering with tiny mirrors and purple-and-crimson glass. The German Building was a towering 150 feet of turrets, gables, dormers, and variegated tiles, costing $250,000. At Brazil’s huge and hospitable quarters free coffee was served daily. France’s contribution was a replica of the Great Hall at Versailles, and Spain duplicated the Lace Exchange at Valencia. At Victoria House, the British center, hours were short and visitors were hurried through the roped-off exhibits as though by a firm English “nanny,” a situation probably resulting from recent American tariff increases and acute commercial rivalry.

“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus” said Mrs. Potter Palmer, social leader of Chicago and chairman of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, “is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman,” and she noted in passing that Columbus’ voyage would not have been possible but for Isabella. Her board had taken its job seriously. At first, most of the foreign commissioners would say only that women in their countries “did not participate in public efforts of this sort.” But the undaunted ladies wrote directly to Europe and elsewhere in the world, and they were rewarded by warm responses from artists, writers, and leading women, titled and title-less. Queen Victoria herself approved the venture, “with its special efforts for women,” though confessing herself unenthusiastic about fairs in general. Queen Margherita of Italy and the Empress of Japan agreed to help. The Queen of Siam, evidently no less progressive than the King, sent a special envoy “to find what educational and industrial opportunities were open to women, so that Siam may adopt such measures as will elevate the condition of her women.” The Infanta Eulalia of Spain actually came to the Fair in person and seemed to like it very much, though she fended off local party-givers.

And the ladies also had their own Woman’s Building at the Fair, designed by young Sophia Hayden, architectural graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of classic simplicity, its principal ornament a delicate frieze of blue-green and white, it was described by one tired elderly visitor as “so light, it takes the weight off my feet just to look at it.” Beside it was the Children’s Building—housing a toy collection, a library, and a nursery—where trained attendants cared for infants and small children while their parents visited the Fair. Older children could read, listen to stories, or watch lantern slides.

The recreational area of the Fair, the Midway Plaisance, featured the famous Little Egypt, who introduced to the scandalized Midwest the danse du ventre. Her costume, by today’s standards, had the “covered-up” look. With flowing trousers fastened at her ankles, heavy velvet jacket and well-scarved midriff, she possessed, according to Charles Dudley Warner, “inordinately thick ankles and large, voluptuous leet.” Newspapers agreed that the dance was interesting “until it became monotonous.”

The Midway itself was a billowing babel of dust, drums, donkeys, camels, and noise. Cries of the “Whoopers-in” and the donkey-boys—"Look owet! Allah good—boom-boom!” drowned out the muezzin on his balcony. Among the Persian sword dancers, the Dahomey villagers, the Chinese and Algerian theaters, wandered the public, timid or titillated, in a kind of daze. “What language do these folks talk?” “Which ones?” “Well, they all speak the same, don’t they?” The popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—located just outside the grounds, as not sufficiently refined to be let in—so far eclipsed that of the Bedouin WiId East, in spite of sensational spear-play and magnificent horses, that most of the latter had to be sold for return-passage money. It was said that the North African tribesmen later vowed to roast alive any Chicagoans they might ever find in the desert, in revenge for their treatment.

Among the most popular features was the Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind and prolific ancestor of the many lesser imitations that have since borne the name. Standing 264 feet in the air, it carried thirty-six cars, each with a capacity of sixty persons. George Washington Gale Ferris is said to have conceived it, in all its dimensions, during the middle of dinner; and its axle was supposed to be the largest piece of steel ever forged. At fifty cents a trip, it had earned back its $380,000 cost, plus $25,000 royalty on its first profits, by September. This twenty-five minute circuit was probably the easiest way for the footsore visitor to get an inclusive view.

Nothing at the Fair showed more clearly the end of one era and the birth of the next than the paintings and sculptures in the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building from the Fair that still survives. With its original “staff"' replaced by cement, it stands today as the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The work shown there in 1893 by British and European artists was typical of the overblown romanticism of the period, its addiction to clouds of overfed cupids, pearly-pink maidens in strategically draped chiffons, chivalrous cavaliers, or sweet ragged urchins selling pansies. F. P. Thumann’s Psyche, eventually to be adopted for the label of a popular bottled water, was a typical example. But signs of a coming reaction were plain in the work of Rodin, Zorn, Whistler, Brangwyn, Sorolla, and others. In the American section Whistler, Winslow Homer, Paul Bartlett, Arthur Dawson, and Joseph Pennell were making a name for American artists, despite the lack of public understanding of their work.

It was only natural that the largest crowds should surround Thomas Hovenden’s genre painting Breaking Home Ties, for to many of the Fair’s visitors the farm boy leaving for the city was a family portrait with a personal poignancy. Nevertheless, there was an unmistakable tendency emerging to break through sentimental gentilities into realism, as shown by GeIert’s Struggle for Work, Koehler’s The Strike, Martinetii’s Malaria, and Millet’s well-known The Man with the Hoe. Contemporary critics lamented this trend to “depict the ugly and vulgar aspects of life,” but it might be said of them, as of Ruskin, that the reputations they helped to blast were more important than those they helped to make.

To many visitors, nudity in art was a shocking novelty. “I am a member of the Social Purity Society,” said one woman, “but I felt that they, and myself, condemned without a true knowledge of what we were condemning. I determined to look up the matter from the standpoint ol art instead of ignorance. Whether they censure me or not, I am glad that I did.” Another announced loudly that she was “not brazen enough to face the pictures I hear are in some of the rooms.” But on the whole a great improvement occurred in knowledge and appreciation of the arts. “Here,” said William Walton, “both artist and public may discern how much they have to learn, and to unlearn.”

In spite of the manifest achievements of the Fair, it is plain that the architecture of this “dream in plaster” laid a cold marble hand on American design for the next half-century, covering the country’s banks, clubs, and public buildings with an unvarying façade of granite columns, and squaring the graceful curved windows of the seventies into oblong boxes. The Chicago architects had invited a group of easterners to join them and, with the untimely death of Burnham’s ebullient partner, John Root, the men from Boston and New York—already determined that “Roman classic” must be the motif—took charge.

The great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, who had counted on Root to support his own preference tor bright colors and an “American” style, made one last attempt to dissuade the planners from their “white elephants.” But he lost, and saw his own multicolored and iconoclastic Transportation Building allocated a site apart from the Court of Honor. Later, in retrospect, Sullivan felt the Fair had been like the advance of the boll weevil or the Black Death upon the unsuspecting public. “To them,” he said, “it was a veritable Apocalypse, a message inspired from on high. . . . They departed joyously, carriers of contagion, unaware that what they had beheld and believed to be truth was to prove, in historic fact, an appalling calamity.”

It was said that “Sullivan’s sun set in the golden glow of the door of the Transportation Building” and that the remainder of his life was “merely a measure of his personal tragedy.” But if Sullivan’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, it did not go entirely unheard. His was the only building in the Fair to be given an award by the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. “Only one of these palaces … ,” said André Bouilhet, representing the Union, “is truly original.” In any event, Sullivan’s later career might have been tragic even if the Fair had not existed, for he was not an easy or adaptable man.

“Chicago has chosen a star,” said Mayor Carter Harrison on United Cities’ Day (October 28, 1893), “has looked upward to it, and knows nothing that it will not attempt and thus far has found nothing that it cannot achieve. It was nothing but a swamp when I came into the world. I intend to live for half a century still, and at the end of that time New York will say ‘Let us go to the metropolis of America.’” Unhappily he was not to see such a day. That very evening he was shot and killed as he opened his door to a demented office-seeker. Two days later, October 30, had been set as the close of the Exposition, a day of parades and rejoicing. Instead, the crowds, shocked and silent, gathered to hear the simple announcement, to join in resolutions of sympathy to the Harrison family, and disperse to the Beethoven Funeral March. All day the flags hung at half-mast, and fell at sunset to a twenty-one gun salute, as the Fair passed quietly into history.

During that fall the nationwide financial collapse grew worse. It was harder on Chicago than on other cities, partly because of the strain of carrying the Fair. At the north edge of the Midway, President William Rainey Harper had to reassure the faculty of his young University of Chicago that the payroll would be met. But the men who had sponsored the Fair stood up to their responsibilities; it closed with all bills paid, and a 14 per cent profit to its surprised stockholders, who had “hoped for nothing more than that the Fair would pay for itself, though this was a secondary consideration.” In San Francisco the friendly Argonaut reported that “Even the bitter sneering New York dailies were forced to admit that [the Fair] had been such a success as no man had dreamed of.... Admission was wrung from them. But it was at the end, and only at the end.”

Though fire and the wreckers’ picks soon disposed of the vast plaster shells that had been the White City, its spirit remained. The Midwest was stirring, beginning to break ground in ideas as an earlier generation had broken sod. The following years were to bring municipal associations, institutes, and museums in a steady tide; and material from the Fair was to form the basis of collections for the Art Institute and Chicago’s Museum of Natural History.

London’s Crystal Palace of 1851 had had over six million visitors, Philadelphia’s Centennial almost ten million, Chicago—more than twenty-seven million. Seventy-seven countries had participated. The Fair had been not only for Chicago but for the new West, from the Alleghenies to California, “the first time,” as Julian Hawthorne said, “that the whole American people had met itself in one place.” In England Sir Walter Besant called it “The greatest and most poetical dream that we have ever seen....”

The momentum of the forces that produced the Fair continued well into the twentieth century, losing energy only when the national needs of two world wars diverted activity to a central channel. The surge of postwar prosperity, the changes brought about by prohibition, and the economic crash of October, 1929, dissolved the remnants of the spirit of 1893. Its elements have not been lost but have taken, and will take, other forms. Edgar Lee Masters, describing Chicago before 1915, understood and expressed this earlier ardor: “Chicago rioted in the feelings of youth and strength and liberty. All America, for that matter, seemed a land of liberty and happiness, approaching an era of enlightenment and wisdom.” This was the animating spirit that gave the Fair its unique quality—a spirit of open-minded inquiry, of an almost universal sympathy, unspoiled by cynicism, an unparalleled surge of creative energy, a cultural fountain for the thirsty Great Plains.

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