The 1893 Fair That Changed the World

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By Jonathan H

In 1892, an entire city arose from the swamps of Chicago to host the greatest mass of people ever assembled in the United States. On the heels of the Paris World Exposition, America wanted to display its new industrial might and cultural refinement. The Chicago World’s Fair drew a crowd of 27 million. At the time, essentially half of America’s population attended.

Surrounded by a country mired in the depression of the early 1890s, Chicago seemed to be in a world of its own – completely oblivious to simple economics.

This exhibition was for the American Cereal Company - the famous purveyors of Quaker Oats

This exhibition was for the American Cereal Company – the famous purveyors of Quaker Oats

It was here that Shredded Wheat made its first foray into the American iconosphere (which was described by fair-goers as “shredded doormat” “sawdust” or “cardboard,” despite its later success). Juicy Fruit captivated fair-goers, men had their first swig of Pabst Blue Ribbon. And perhaps the fair’s greatest achievement was the invention of the Ferris Wheel. No other element of the landscape has had such a profound effect on our milieu of outdoor leisure.

This was no simple fair. It was the “World’s” fair – the Gilded Age equivalent of the Epcot center, but on a much larger scale. And it was all built in less than a year.

In 1892, Chicago was home to scores of stockyards and slaughterhouses. Everywhere, was the smell of blood and death. The homicide rate in the city was among the highest in the country. All around were the signs of a soon-to-be great city that needed something to set it apart. The fair’s symbol was the Phoenix – perhaps the most appropriate symbol ever chosen for any event in the history of mankind, because in less than two decades, Chicago had arisen from the ashes of the Great Fire and housed the greatest architects and architecture of its time.

This painting by William Hunter Crane, depicts the debaucherous “carnival” adjacent to the World’s Fair, the Midway Plaisance. Note the Phoenix engraved at bottom left, the world fair’s official symbol.

In Chicago, Frank Lloyd Wright got his start. It was Daniel Burnham, the man who designed the Flatiron building and D.C.’s Union Station, who planned the fair’s architectural environment. The grounds were meticulously laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, landscape designer of Central Park, and the country’s premiere Landscape Architect.

Here, the world’s largest building – said to have the capacity for the entire Russian Army – was built in months. It was the first large-scale use of electricity. Generators, incandescent bulbs, alternating currents, and electric boats were everywhere. The vast majority of visitors to the fair had never seen these things in their life.

If there’s one book any aspiring architect or landscape aficionado should read, it’s Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. It’s a true account of the events, the men, and the tragedy that resulted from the fair. Larson paints a portrait of an America that had ambition – something which seems a spectre in today’s modern mode of stasis.

In the coming months, you’ll be treated to a smorgasboard of buildings — all exclusively garnered from a recent acquisition of Bearings. We’ve hand-picked these sketches from a rare 1893 book. Above is the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building – the world’s largest building. Others will be presented soon, and thank you for reading Bearings.

6 comments on “The 1893 Fair That Changed the World

  1. andrew bisset on said:

    if you ever make it out to Chicago, check out the Art Institute and the Museum of Science and Industry, the only two buildings left standing from the 1893 fair.

  2. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thanks Andrew. I’ll definitely do that. I need to make it there some day. I hear so much about Chicago. In the meantime, you should tell me more about Gary. 🙂

  3. Stan Barker on said:

    Jonathan, please take a closer look at the bird you identify as a “phoenix” at the bottom of the Midway Plaisance view. It’s clearly marked “Old Vienna”, the name of the Midway concession that’s pictured. Rather than being a phoenix, I believe it represents the eagle which appears of the city seal of Vienna. Though a double-headed eagle was the symbol of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the single headed eagle, often black, was frequently used to symbolize the city of Vienna over the centuries.

  4. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Thank you! I stand corrected. You are absolutely right. When I have a chance, I will make that update.

  5. jtcolfax on said:

    I don’t know why I do some of the things I do, but I enjoy living in the past so much, I have decided to TRY to type in an entire article from an old paper about the Fair. If it was about the fair in general, in: being AT the fair, I wouldn’t bother, as there is so much available online.
    But, this is different. Frankly, it might be dull as toast to most people, but I will make the effort because this article shows the dull day to day workings surrounding the fair from afar.
    Namely, Binghamton NY, 600 miles from Chicago. The article speaks of the Fair offices throughout NY State, and I just feel it’s sort of different than what’s out there in the usual sense. It’s boring work-a-day stuff, but in articles like this one glimpses how massive the fair was in a National sense. I got the article from microfilm at the Binghamton library when I made a copy of the article NEXT to it depicting someone being mugged by a gang on the land that later became an Iron Works which is now an abandonment I have explored. Later, when I browsed this site I realized this might be a bit of off the wall trivia for this Fair story, or for those researching the fair.

    And so: here is work-a-day trivia about FAR OFF Fair Offices.

    Headline: Columbian Exposition
    From: Binghamton Republican, Jan. 31st 1893

    “Yesterday afternoon a Republican reporter called at the offices of the World’s fair commissioners in the Strong Block. They occupy the Western portion of the building and are three in number. A private hall separates them from the public hall. The tables are covered in pamplets containing information upon different matters relating to the fair.

    Opening from this room is a smaller one containing a handsome desk and rugs. This office is one of eight which have been established in this state. (NY). There is one in each of the eight Judicial districts. (Leaving off the flowery language the article points out the 8 as: NYC, Brooklyn, Albany, Saratoga, Syracuse, Binghamton, Rochester, and Buffalo).

    The commission is created for 2 years and the commissioners of this district are Hugh Duffy of Cortland, George O’Niel (wealthy merchant who built huge building that was demolished in 2009), and Prof. Thurston of Cornell University. Each commissioner is represented in the office by a clerk.
    They are B.S Curran Jr. of this city (Binghamton…Curran was the son of a Mayor and was involved in a snowball fight in the 1870’s that caused the arrest of the man the street I live on is named after).

    (The two other clerks mentioned)…Since the office was opened there have been some sixty applications for space to exhibit (at the fair). In almost all cases these have come from the cities or large towns in the district, and the major part of these are manufacturers exhibits.
    There are some applications for agricultural or stock exhibits.

    Mr. Curran was in the office at the time the reporter called and he gave the scribe some interesting information.

    “The object of these district offices is to receive applications and investigate them. If they are all right they are entered upon the books of the office and forewarded to Albany. They are again registered and sent to the authorities in Chicago. The applicants have space assigned to them in which they desire to exhibit and a diagram is sent to them. There is no charge for an exhibit, but the exhibitor is required to furnish show cases etc. for whatever he sends. He is required to pay the freightage at special rates one way. Many applications at first were sent to Chicago. All had to be returned to the district offices and the person sending them looked up.

    (Senseless and unfinished sentence here). During the exhibition the officials in the offices will give any information regarding trains, hotels, and other matters that people desiring to attend want to know. The offices in this city are open everyday from 9 until 4. Mr. Curran is pleased to receive callers during those hours.

  6. Bob Rein on said:

    I agree that Erik Larson’s, The Devil in the White City, is a great accounting of the exposition. We’re looking forward to staying in the building that architect Daniel Burnham designed in Chicago and is one of the first sky scrapers. It is now the Burnham Hotel.

    As we’ve traveled through all 50 states, we’ve recorded some interesting places in our blog, There’s a lot to see in our great country and preservation is critical.

    Yesterday we visited the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Meyers, Florida. It was exciting to see the experiments that Edison did in attempting to produce rubber from plants grown in the United States. The Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is another extraordinary place.

    Thanks for an interesting web site.

    Bob Rein

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