Chicago's Exposition

the Columbian Exposition's effect on Chicago


Overall, the Columbian Exposition continues to affect Chicago and Chicagoans today because of the new age of architectural and environmental changes it brought, the technological introductions, and the positive change in Chicagoan's spirits.

What was the Columbian Exposition?

Just 22 years after The Great Chicago Fire, Chicago was once again in the spotlight, but this time it was for a good thing. The Columbian Exposition was a World's Fair held in Chicago from May 1, to October 31, of 1893. It was to celebrate the 400th year anniversary of Christopher Columbus coming to America. People came from all over the world to see new technology, crazy acts, and just to be entertained.

Attractions, Buildings, and Fun Characteristics

The fair itself was extremely large. It had fourteen main buildings and two hundred ancillary buildings. The fairgrounds included a system of lagoons and waterways that were fed by Lake Michigan. Architects designed the layout, and the exposition was nicknamed the “White City” because all the buildings were painted white.

Each of the main buildings at the fair had a different theme, including government, mining, machinery, agricultural, manufacturing and liberal arts. In each building, fair goers could see the latest trends and inventions. Several popular products made their debut at the fair, some of which were Juicy Fruit gum, Aunt Jemima syrup, Cracker Jack popcorn, Shredded Wheat cereal, Pabst beer, the hamburger, diet carbonated soda, postcards, Quaker Oats, and the very first Ferris wheel.

There were also nearly 43 states and 50 foreign countries represented in the fair. The displays had statues of historical people representing their countries or states, cultural food, and pieces of artwork.

Once attendees were tired of walking through the 200 plus buildings, they could enjoy entertainment and relaxation in the Midway Plaisance, where rides, music, and refreshments created a carnival-like setting. In addition, the Midway Plaisance had a hot-air balloon ride, a zoo, reenactments of traditional Japanese and German villages, a swimming pool, and a wax museum. It was not possible to get through the entire fair in one day, so millions of people stayed overnight for at least one day in Chicago or nearby.

As one fair-goer once said about the Midway Plaisance, "There was something about the Midway Plaisance a peculiar attraction for me. It presents Asiatic and African and other forms of life native to the inhabitants of the globe. It is the world in miniature. While it is of doubtful attractiveness for morality, it certainly emphasizes the value, as well as the progress, of our civilization. There are presented on the Midway real and typical representatives of nearly all the races of the earth, living in their natural methods, practicing their home arts, and presenting their so-called native amusements," (Chauncey M. Depew).

Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted

Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted were the two main landscape architects of the fair. They redesigned Jackson park, near Chicago's South Loop, to be home of the 1983 World's Columbian Exposition. As director of architecture, Burnham assembled an impressive layout of designs for the fair's exhibition buildings. Olmsted envisioned these buildings to rest on a park that would rival Central Park in New York City. These buildings were classical architecture, covered with plaster and painted a chalky white. That is where these buildings acquired their name of "The White City." "As stated in "Spectacle of the White City," "There is no doubt, and it was widely repeated at the time, that the chief marvel of the Exposition was its architecture," (Hales, Peter).

Archetectural and Environmental Changes

This new sense of architecture that Burnham provided was cherished by the citizens of Chicago. This is because of the fire that burned one third of the city, causing Chicago to lose almost all of its architectural character.

Chicagoans are also affected by the fair because some of Chicago's very own museums owe a tribute to the Worlds Fair. For example, "Chicago's Field Museum owed its origin to the fair and opened in 1894 in the former Palace of Fine Arts, a building that would later be reconstructed to become the Museum of Science and Industry. The building that had housed delegates to world's congresses, would become the Art Institute of Chicago" (Rydell, Robert).

The planning and designing that went into the Exposition and its buildings also led to the "City Beautiful" Movement. This movement focused on "improving cities through order and culminated, for Chicago, in the 1909 Burnham Plan which had a major impact on Chicago's lakefront that is still evident," (p 107, Hales).

Burnham's "Chicago Plan" also traces directly back to the World's Columbian Exposition. After the fair, Burnham presented The "Chicago Plan"; another integrated series of projects that he believed would improve Chicago's lakefront. Some of the projects included building new and widened streets, parks, new railroad and harbor facilities, and civic buildings. Although only portions of the plan were acted upon, the plan reshaped Chicago, and was an important influence on Chicago's field of city planning.


Another way the Columbian Exposition affects Chicagoans is the technology it produced. The Expostion was one of the first times that electricity was introduced to America in a public space. The nation's first electric transit system was used in Chicago during the fair, and it still is used by millions of Chicagoans today.

The Fair also showed Chicagoans, and all visitors alike, that electricity was not something they should be afraid of, but something they should celebrate. The fair set Chicago on the path of innovation of the twentieth century. "No longer was technology to be the frightening or overpowering symbol of the shift from an agrarian to an industrial nation, but the harbinger of a new age of American progress," (Rose, Julie) .

Change in spirits

Right before the Fair, many Chicagoans had very low spirits. This is because just 22 years before the fair, Chicagoans had dealt with the Great Fire, which destroyed nearly one third of the city. Chicago had also just dealt with the Haymarket Square bombing which happened only 7 years before. But after the fair, their attitudes completely changed. The fair brought so many new ideas, new technology, and popularity to Chicago. It showed the world that even after the devastating fire, Chicagoans were still determined to rebuild their city and bring it back to life. Since such a huge event was held in Chicago, Chicago was known all over the world. If it were not for the fair, Chicago may not have been fully rebuilt and evolved to the place it is today.

What were the goals? Were they reached?

The goal of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was to encourage American unity, but also encourage cultural change and to celebrate technology and commerce. And of course, the fair directors hoped the it would also be a financial success.

Overall, pretty much all of the goals were reached. The fair ended up showing Americans that ethnic and cultural differences did not matter. After the Fair, American's attitudes on other cultures were strongly influenced, and people became more tolerant. The Fair was also a huge financial success. It brought in more than the $28 million spent on it.

Was it a success? How did people respond to it?

The World's Columbian Exposition was extremely financially successful. By October of 1893, attendance had reached over 6.8 million paid visitors. Chicago Day (October 9) alone saw 716,881 Fair-goers entering the White City. The concession stands brought in over $4 million. The Ferris Wheel also turned a profit, and when all the calculations were complete, the Exposition itself more than broke even, with a $1 million surplus to be returned to its 30,000 stockholders. This had never happened before at a World's Fair. "In a way, the Columbian Exposition was Chicago's debut on a world stage as a locus of great architecture and burgeoning economic power," ("World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.")


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