World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

On Chicago Day, October 9, 1893, over 750,000 people visited the World’s Chicago Day posterColumbian Exposition. The Fair still draws a crowd. One hundred and twenty years later, a Google search delivers 921,000 results for Chicago’s World’s Fair.

The Columbian Exposition was Chicago’s grand statement of its international standing. The birthplace of the skyscraper and the fastest growing city in the world, Chicago created the White City, a showcase of architectural splendor, and threw a great party on the Midway.

Daniel Burnham, the Director of Works, brought together the most notable Chicago-Worlds-Columbian-Exposition-1893-Birds-Eye-View-Map_mediumthumbarchitects in the country to design major fair buildings. Most were from New York, to the chagrin of Chicago’s architectural luminaries. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, redesigned Jackson Park for the Fair. The White City was a classical city, a form of architecture familiar to city dwellers on the east coast, but not common in the Midwest. One exception to the classical aesthetic was Louis H. Sullivan’s Transportation Building.

The court of honor

The Court of Honor

transportation building (arnold)

The Transportation Building

 The Fair was a visual, auditory, olfactory and gastronomic experience. One can still ride a scaled down Ferris wheel and eat Cracker Jacks. The Museum of Science and Industry, designed as the Palace of Fine Arts, is the only building that remains. The White City was built of steel framing covered with staff (plaster of Paris and hemp fiber) to speed building, keep down cost, and allow a recovery of materials when the fair ended on October 30, 1893.

Thanks to the work of the UCLA Urban Simulation Lab, we can take a virtual stroll through the Fair. As the Lab notes on its website, Burnham’s chosen “architects created a classical city that would have lasting repercussions on wooded island flowers USLAmerican design ideals and spark the American Renaissance and City Beautiful movements. Our understanding of this important complex has heretofore been based solely on static images and written descriptions. This is no longer the case. Real-time visual simulation technology allows us to reclaim the lost experience of navigating through the White City. Just as in 1893, the completed model will allow users to stroll along the virtual Court of Honor, tour the Wooded Island, and marvel at the fair’s classical structures from a gondola.”

The Lab’s Tour of the World’s Columbian Exhibition takes us on a gondola ride through the Grand Basin that includes some the greatest structures of the Fair: Lagoon and Buildings USLAgriculture, the Peristyle, Manufactures, Electricity, Administration (with its gold dome), and Machinery. We walk through the Fine Arts Building as it looked before it was transformed into the Museum of Science and Industry. We see the Wooded Island and several State buildings. The grandeur of the buildings is evident.  (Use the interactive map to identify the buildings).

One of my favorite clips is the tour of Louis H. Sullivan’s Transportation Building with its Golden Door.  (Be patient, these files may take awhile to load.) Sullivan’s was the only main building of the Trans1_68 Golden DoorWhite City that was multicolor. The Golden Door was considered an architectural marvel of the Fair.  It echoes other Sullivan portals as well as the interior design of the Auditorium theatre. Most of Sullivan’s great Chicago buildings are gone. The Lab, as urban archeologist, used the exterior of Sullivan’s Wainwright Building (St. Louis, 1891) and remnants of the reconstructed trading room of his Chicago Stock Exchange (built in 1893, currently in the Art Institute) to add color to their simulation.

The Lab also provides a tour of the Street of Cairo, one of the most popular attractions on the Midway. At the end of the tour, behind the Temple of Luxor, Cairo8_1130 w ferris wheelwe see a slice of Mr. Ferris’s wheel, Chicago’s answer to the 1889 Paris Exposition’s Eiffel Tower. The Arnold collection (Official Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition) includes pictures of the “exotic” peoples of the world (Penobscot and Alaskan Indians, Samoans, Turks, Dahomeans, Laplanders, and Arabs) who tried to make the Midway home during the Fair.  Buffalo Bill Cody held his Wild West Show off the Midway to save on rent.

The Worlds Columbian Exposition was to be a money making event, but from its opening in May through September 1893 it did not appear that it would pay After-the-Ball2-225x300off its debt.  Special events were planned to draw in crowds including the great Midway Ball held on the night of August 16, 1893. The Ball brought together Chicago dignitaries (Daniel Burnham, Mayor Carter Harrison, Potter Palmer) and the men and some scantily clad women of the Midway. The Chicago Tribune thought it was scandalous and was not amused.  I can find no pictures of the Ball, but Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City) opines that the dignitaries in attendance took their carriages home at four-thirty A.M., perhaps singing After the Ball, a hit song of the day.  Here is a clip of Irene Dunne singing After the Ball in a setting evocative of an 1890s music hall. Consistent with its setting, it’s a little ruckus for the first minute. Then shut your eyes and image you are dancing at the Midway Ball in the White City.

The White City represented a vision of what Chicago could become, not what it was at the end of the 19th century.  William Cronin (Nature’s Metropolis) Admin and Grand Basin at Nightdescribes how visitors to the Fair from the hinterlands were impressed by Chicago’s wealth and appalled by its encircling slums. Labor and capital were at odds after Haymarket and the fight for the eight hour day. The Pullman Strike would erupt after the Fair closed against the background of a depression that lasted until 1897 (the Panic of 1893). The Union Stockyards were a popular tourist stop as well as a source of substantial pollution. Tenement housing surrounded the fair grounds, while the more well-to-do traveled further out on the street cars. At the Fair, electricity lit up the night as entertainment but was not a standard feature of city dwellings. Downtown was congested, dirty and loud. It was surrounded by the railroad tracks and hard up against the Levee vice district. The Lake front was cluttered with squatter’s shacks and mountains of garbage

Fabulous Imperialism: The 1893 Columbian Exposition, posted on YouTube, provides an strong statement of the Fair as a manifestation of Empire.

The White City celebrated the Chicago that had risen like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 and offered hope that it could be remade in the genteel vision of the Fair’s architects and designers. It would have wide avenues and grand buildings, parks, gardens and ponds. It would be well planned. Prior to the Fair, Daniel Burnham was most highly regarded for his organizational and business acumen. Creating the Fair established Burnham as the supreme planner of his day. His vision and learning would come together in the 1909 Plan of Chicago.

The 1893 World's Fair coverAdditional commentary and views of the Fair are provided in the attached class presentation.

World’s Fair – Overview

World’s Fair – Photographs


In anticipation of visitors with diverse interests, published guides offered information on the range of entertainments the City had to offer. One guide, Chicago by Day and by Night – Pleasure seekers guide to the Paris of America,  has been revised by Chicago historians Paul Durica and Bill Savage.

To celebrate the 120 anniversary of its opening, Roosevelt University Librarian
Michael Gabriel arranged a show at the Auditorium Library, “Rare Books AboutPalmer book cover the Womens building book coverColumbian Exposition of 1893″ and posted links to an Interactive map of the Fair and the Project Gutenberg EBook of Official Views Of The World’s Columbian Exposition, by C. D. Arnold (the Fair’s official photographer) and H.D. Higinbotham (President of the Exposition Board).


He has also posted a guide to contemporary books on the The White City: The World’s Columbian Exposition.

Current books of interest on 19th century Chicago that offer discussion of the Fair and its significance include William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, Donald Miller, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, and Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City.

The Urban Simulation Lab clips of Street of Cairo and the Transportation Building have no sound. Scott Joplin introduced Ragtime to Fair goers – numerous sources credit the World’s Fair with spreading the popularity Ragtime. His Pineapple Rag is good background music for the Transportation Building. For the Street of Cairo, try the music of Hamid El Kasri at the Festival Gnaoua in Essaoira, Morocco


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One Response to World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893

  1. Pingback: The Auditorium meets the NFL and the Wabash goes to Malaysia | Building Chicago

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