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Workshop 5:  Lectures & Activities

Lecture Transcript Two:
Chicago World's Fair

Lecturer: Professor Jonathan Chu

Image of Jonathan Chu

I'd like to introduce you to the Chicago World's Fair, the Columbian Exposition. Sometime in the 1880s, American cities—St. Louis, Chicago, New York—began a competition to gain federal approval, and the more important part of federal approval, federal subsidies, for celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus' voyage to the Western Hemisphere.

Chicago was chosen because it represented the first truly modern American city. It symbolized the promise of modernity and demonstrated how far Chicago had come since that disastrous fire some 20-so-odd years earlier, and in retrospect it was one of the best attended of American expositions. Imagine approximately a third of the American population moving through a city in that period of time. On its busiest day, it had 700,000 people. The plans included all the up-to-date examples of modern technology, electricity, sewage treatment, rapid transit.

Daniel Burnham, the designer of the fair, wanted to create a White City—a city that worked. And in part, much of the World's Fair movement throughout this period in world history were attempts to sort of tinker with technology—arrange the city, bring order to what was in the late 19th century chaos. American cities had gone through these immense periods of growth, prompted by the development of a nationalized economy; factories... prompted by large numbers of immigrants moving to the United States to work in these factories. And it was utter chaos—strange people speaking strange languages, eating strange foods, living all concentrated together. And what the World's Fair movement and what the White City in particular were attempting to do was to work, to make a city work.

And not just work in the sense of technology or efficiency, but work in terms of an aesthetic value. The exposition grounds were to reflect the possibilities of city life, so there were these wonderful, monumental palaces to house various kinds of exhibits, part of it to advertise new industries. The Heinz company starts giving out pickle pins to advertise its new 57 varieties of foods that it was putting into cans, preserving. Frederick Law Olmsted was asked to design the central lagoon, one of the central features of the grounds. And this, too, reflects America's sense of the necessity of a kind of a natural connection, even with all of its urbanization—to the garden, to nature, something absolutely consistent in American life. Olmsted, of course, is doing many of these things in other places—Central Park, Boston's Emerald Necklace. And the lagoon was Olmsted's attempt to recreate nature in the city.

The exhibition halls, above all else, reflected a confidence in the progressive benefits of knowledge. What was being exhibited was human intelligence and industrial development and that, by revealing this, people could take confidence in the way in which knowledge would lead to future benefits. And there was also the midway, something that symbolized also the development of the city and something new. It was the first example of manufactured and industrialized fun—rides, dance halls, refreshment stands, exotic exhibitions of strange cultures—which also foreshadows the rise of the amusement park, the new leisure activities that were more suited to city and industrial life. In summary, the World's Fair was to provide examples of promise: examples of the capacity of humans, and Americans especially, to better their society and to make the future work.

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