The Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition opened on May 1, 1893, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in America. Organizers had been at work on the event since 1889 and the Exposition opened to great fanfare around the country. Before it closed on October 31, the Fair recorded 27 million admissions.
The Fair represented a meeting point for many strands in American culture and was a manifestation of contemporary ideals of civilization and progress. "Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity," Henry Adams wrote later; "one must begin there." The Fair produced much discussion of the sources of America's greatness and speculations on its future. At a historians' conference during the Exposition, one of thousands of meetings and conventions held in conjunction with the event, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." He argued that a great era in American history was ending with the closing of the Western frontier. As a complement to this argument, demonstrating the enduring mythologies of the West, Buffalo Bill set up his Wild West Show only a few blocks from the Fair site. During the Exposition his troupe gave 318 performances for a net profit of almost a million dollars.
The Exposition's values and meanings were hotly contested in Chicago. The Depression of 1893, one of the most severe economic crises ever to hit the United States, hit only weeks after the Fair opened. Financial collapse, bankruptcies, and massive unemployment followed in its wake, bringing many to question the idea of "progress" itself. Many labor unionists, Socialists, and Populist Party leaders spoke during the Exposition, underlining the negative consequences of industrialization.
Other issues also arose at the Fair. A Board of Lady Managers supervised a Woman’s Building that became a "fair within the fair," documenting women's achievements in education, the arts, labor, and reform movements. Jane Addams and Frances Willard (leaders of Hull House and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, respectively, and both based in Chicago) contributed to the planning; women, however, had to fight for recognition and funding.
The Lady Managers, like male organizers of the Fair, refused to appoint any African-Americans to their committee, leading to protests by leading black Americans. Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells distributed a pamphlet to fairgoers and reporters, recounting African-Americans' achievements since Emancipation and denouncing the virtual exclusion of blacks from the Exposition. As if these controversies were not enough, Fair Managers reneged on a promise that the Fair would be closed on Sundays--angering Protestant leaders who wanted the Exposition to observe the Sabbath. In the end, the Fair closed on four Sundays but remained open on twenty-two.
Entrepreneurs sold thousands of postcards, prints, books, and photographic views, both as souvenirs for those who attended the Fair and to provide glimpses for those who did not. One such product was "The Dream City," sold by the H. B. Thompson Publishing Company of St. Louis, Missouri. Each week, through late 1893, subscribers received a portfolio containing 16 views with explanatory texts. The views on this website have been selected from the 18 portfolios of "The Dream City."
The creators of "The Dream City" summed up celebratory attitudes toward the Fair--and ignored dissenting views--with their introduction to the series. "Never, since the first gray dawn of time," they announced, "has there been such a collection of genius, such an assembly of the Master Spirits of the world," as that brought together by the grandest civic event in history, known as The World’s Columbian Exposition. Here was a 'Spectacle of the Centuries,' the wondrous beauties of which have been heralded to the ends of the earth, whose like men now living may never hope to see again. All of the highest and best achievements of modern civilization; all that was strange, beautiful, artistic, and inspiring; a vast and wonderful university of the arts and sciences, teaching a noble lesson in history, art, science, discovery and invention, designed to stimulate the youth of this and future generations to greater and more heroic endeavor."
We invite you to explore the views and commentary on this site, to encounter again the world of 1893, and to draw your own lessons from this remarkable event.
Map of the Exposition
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
Part I: Excerpts from the Education Art Series, N. D. Thompson Publishing Company, St. Louis, Missouri, 1893, in a weekly series of 20 portfolios
Part II: Poems and Architecture in the State Buildings, by David Greenstein Vassar '05
Dream City Resources