As 1892 approached, the western world wanted to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to America in grand style. How else but by another great international exposition, on the model of the hugely successful one in Paris in 1889?
The World's Columbian Exposition was therefore planned, and several American cities competed for the honor of hosting it. New Yorkers assumed that as the great gateway between Europe and America their city was the obvious site, but they were outbid and outhustled by their upstart rivals in the Midwest, Chicago. The Chicago business class was out to show that their city had arrived in the front ranks of the world, and they threw their all into staging the exposition. The leaders of the project were architect Daniel Burnham (of "make no little plans") and landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead. They were backed by a committee of bankers, railroad men, and other business leaders, along with Chicago's ordinary citizens, more than 10,000 of whom bought shares in the enterprise. Chicago had just passed Philadelphia to become the nation's second city, with a population of more than a million, and they were flexing their muscles on the world scene.
Because the choice of a site was not made until 1890, the actual opening of the fair had to be delayed until March of 1893. In keeping with the exhibition's theme of voyaging, a 600-acre site was chosen on the shores of Lake Michigan and the buildings were laid around a great basin, with radiating canals. A Spanish crew built replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria and sailed them to North America.
This viking ship, a replica of the one recently excavated at Gokstad, was sent over from Norway to represent the Viking voyagers.
The "White City" built for the fair was a model of what Burnham and Oldstead thought a city should be like, and the fair was hugely influential in the "city beautiful" movement. Features such as man-made lakes and canals, attractive bridges, riverfront esplanades, and so on were incorporated into hundreds of city parks. A few critics complained that it was all too classical and European, with nothing Americans about it, but most visitors loved it.
The fair's organizers thought hard about a way to top the Eiffel Tower, the centerpiece of the Paris 1889 exhibition. After considering several designs for enormous towers, their imaginations were fired by a young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., and his plan for a huge, rotating wheel built almost entirely of steel. Some of the more nervous committee members thought it would never work, but Burnham was convinced, and so Ferris got the job. He completed the wheel late, but once it was open it became the fair's top attraction.
The fair's buildings were designed by an array of America's top architects. One of them, George Post's Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, was the largest in the world; in fact if it were still standing it would still be the second largest building in the world.
Electricity, the cutting edge of technology, had its own building, and the competition between Edison's direct current and Nikolai Tesla's upstart alternating current designs was played out across the floor.
Among the historical exhibits was a reconstruction of an Egyptian temple. What was supposed to be the log cabin Lincoln had been born in was also displayed, and the actual engine house that had been the site of John Brown's last stand at Harper's Ferry.
Exotic dancing was another big hit, including the first belly dancing in North America. A whole street of houses was brought over from Algeria and populated with actual Algerians, paid to cross the sea and portray themselves in a vast living diorama of Arab life. That annoying little tune that has been used in hundreds of movies and tv shows to signal middle eastern exotica -- du du DU du du, du du DU du du du du -- was written to advertise the belly dancing.
There is a great book about this fair, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. Larson tells the story of the fair and also the story of serial killer H.H.Holmes, who preyed on young women come from far off to visit or work at the fair. I suppose lots of people were bored by the stuff on the organizing and building of the fair and wanted more on the serial killer, but I was the opposite; I skipped some of the stuff on Holmes because I just wanted to know more about the men who did this astonishing thing: built a beautiful city from nothing in just two years, filled it with marvels of technology and art, and invited the world to see it.
Attendance at the fair started slowly, as few as 10,000 on some days. That would doom the enterprise to bankruptcy, and the backers worried and fought among themselves about who was at fault. But the swarms of visitors slowly grew, and the completion of the Ferris Wheel helped draw more in. In August the daily average was finally over the 100,000 that was needed to break even. By October, the crowds were huge. On October 9, 1893, the day designated as Chicago Day, the fair set a world record for outdoor event attendance, drawing 716,881 people. Ticket sellers were overwhelmed; their cash registers overflowed, and by day's end they were standing ankle deep in quarters; one man sold 18,000 tickets in his shift, more than 20 per minute for twelve hours. The fair broke into the black and ended up earning a modest profit; total paid attendance was 27.5 million, 42 percent of the population of the U.S.
It was, everyone said, one of the wonders of the world, and it became a symbol of America's new status as a leader in technology, manufacturing, and architecture. Besides all the electrical marvels it featured the world's first moving sidewalk, and the process of spray painting was invented to help finish the buildings on time. It showed what Americans, and Chicagoans in particular, could do.