World's Columbian Exposition

Chicago May 1, 1893 (Opening Day)

"Chicago's Finest Hour"

Among Chicago, New York City, Washington D.C., and St. Louis, Chicago became the designated city to host the World's Columbian Exchange of 1893. On April 25, 1890 President Harrison signed the act that declared Chicago the official site of the exposition; it would then take three years of preparation and dedication to open the gates of the fair to the world. The fair would only last six months, ending on October 31, 1893. Several architects participated in the construction and organization of the fair; some include Fredrick Law Olmsted, Henry Ives Cobb, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, George B. Post, Louis Sullivan, and Daniel H. Burnham. They were all responsible for the exposition's buildings and the classical architectural theme of the fair. The fair occupied 630 acres of land in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance.


The Columbian Exposition commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first landing on the Americas in 1492. The fair also served to honor the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; "Chicago Day" was celebrated on October 9, 1893. "Chicago Day" looks forward rather than at the past and represents Chicago's great retaliation and development since the devastating fire. The Columbian Exposition presented America to the world, along with a positive redefinition of the nation. The fair symbolized the nation's transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial society. Therefore, the fair had several showcases of the development and progress in technology. While attempting to demonstrate that America held the future to civilization's progress, "the fair planners presented a picture of American identity as one of technological innovation and education" (UCLA history). The World's Fair provided stability in a period of change, encouraged American unity, celebrated developments in technology and commerce, and encouraged popular education.


The World Fair lured more than 27 million people from all over the world in a six month period; there was a wide range of visitors. Around 40 foreign countries were being represented in Chicago; their motive was to display their history, culture, and accomplishments. The numerous states of America had the opportunity to display their cultures in exhibits. Specific peoples and ethnic groups were showcased at the fair as well. Visitors to the fair were presented with over 65,000 exhibits advertising the most recent technology in the era and ancient cultures. Visitors were also given a view of 200 newly created buildings and an opportunity to experience the world's first ferris wheel. The World Fair was essentially a museum of everything remarkable and historic.


The Columbian Exposition brought forth several positive reactions from various visitors. The fair is believed to be the greatest one of all others in the nineteenth century. Richard Harding Davis says, "there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan , slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War". The World Fair had a positive effect on many to be deemed one of the great events in history. In regard to the displays of the most modern technology, it is believed that "the portion of the World's Exposition which America is far ahead of all in competition is the Palace of Electricity...eclipsing by her dazzling light every other nation" (Naylor). Prior to the fair, many of the people who attended were generally uneasy about the idea of advancement in technology. To some technology was even frightening because it was rare at the period. However, the fair was able to change the minds of its visitors; new technology and electricity was being introduced in an amusing way. The World Fair "helped change Americans' reactions to technology. It became the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of Americans, as they saw in it a reflection of their own progressive nature and bright future" (virginia.edu).




The World's Fair and the American Dream

The World's Columbian Exposition and the conceptions of the American Dream are closely linked to each other in terms of advancements or upward movements, superiority, and material prosperity. Essentially, the American Dream portrays the traditional social ideals of the United States. Although the dream may vary depending on the individual, prosperity remains a main ideal. To James Truslow Adams, the American Dream is one "of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement". It can also be the hope or desire for upward social mobility. For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's the Great Gatsby focuses primarily on the life of Jay Gatsby, a man at the top of the social ladder. Coming from poverty when younger he was able to rise from rags to riches, an aspiration of many. Martin Luther King Jr. believes the American Dream is one "of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take the necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few". A chance for equality is essential in living the American Dream.


The Columbian Exposition emphasized the advancement and progression of the nation. For example, the exhibits of the fair showcased several new inventions and the latest technology of the time. In the American Dream, an individual hopes to climb the ladder of social mobility and advance upwards. An individual might want to rise from rags to riches, and constantly improve their lives. The World Fair also promoted the superiority of the United States. The fair gave a large display of the improvements in technology and electricity, hoping to make America seem superior or greater than all other nations or countries. Similar, the American Dream also shares a hope of superiority. A person may hope to be at the top of the social class or placed higher among other Americans. One can only hope to be among the few who are most privileged and well off. The exposition symbolized the wealth and prosperity of America. Along with being financially successful and profitable, the fair had very rich displays of the modern inventions of the Gilded Age. Millions of dollars were put in to creating and organizing the fair; in essence, the exposition was a symbol of affluence. The American Dream also circulates around prosperity and wealth. It is a dream of many to be financially well off and among the most privileged Americans. One can only hope to have a well-off life to provide for oneself and others. The World's Colombian Exposition of 1893 "became the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of Americans, as they saw in it a reflection of their own progressive nature and bright future."



"Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving." -Henry Adams

World Columbian Expostion Fair of 1893 (UCLA 3D recreation)

Works Cited

"7 Things You May Not Know About the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair." History.com. A&E Television Networks, 1 May 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. http://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-1893-chicago-worlds-fair

Harnagel, Anne. "Chicago: Field Museum opens the vaults on 1893 World's Fair." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 25 Oct. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/25/news/la-trb-chicago-field-museum-opens-the-vaults-20131021

"History Files - The World's Columbian Exhibition." History Files - The World's Columbian Exhibition. Chicago Historical Society. Web. 6 Jan. 2014. http://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo.html

"Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World's Fair Photo Gallery." Welcome to The Field Museum. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. http://fieldmuseum.org/about/multimedia/opening-vaults-wonders-1893-worlds-fair-photo-gallery

"The American Dream What is The American Dream?." Students. Web. 7 Jan. 2014. <http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/lessons/american-dream/students/thedream.html>.

The World at the Fair: Experiences of the 1983 Columbian Exposition.” June 2009. Joint Project of UCLA History and Information Studies Graduate Students. June 3, 2009. <http://uclawce.ats.ucla.edu>

"The World's Columbian Exposition." xroads.virginia.edu. Web. 9 Jan. 2014. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma96/wce/title.html