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Historic Photos of the Chicago's World's Fair
BOOK REVIEW
by Marie J. Kuda
2010-09-01

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Text and captions by Russell Lewis. $39.95; Turner; 216 pages

The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a landmark in Chicago's history, so much so that one star on our city flag commemorates the event.

Just a few decades after the Chicago Fire we were city of one and a half million residents but we hosted over 21 million visitors during the six months of the Fair—a figure nearly one-fourth of the population of the entire United States. While it was a great gathering of the fruits of industry, arts and agriculture, the images of the Fair that survive in popular memory are the statue of The Republic standing at the head of the Great Basin surrounded by the gleaming white buildings of the Court of Honor—and the 264-foot-high Ferris Wheel, the real money maker of the fair.

  In his preface Russell Lewis, executive vice president and chief historian of the Chicago History Museum, tells us: "The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the most photographed event in the nineteenth century." Charles Dudley Arnold was the official photographer, but Kodak's recently invented snapshot cameras were available for rental to fairgoers for $2.00 a day, plus film and developing. The 200-plus photos in this book are selected from Arnold prints and those of non-professionals in the Museum's collections. Few, especially those documenting the early stages—filling the swamps, dredging, creating the lagoons, the shear immensity of the construction projects dwarfing the workers—have been seen before. Lewis has endeavored to show the full sweep of the project—men, mules, steelworkers and plasterers building a magnificent something out of nothing. All aspects of the Fair are on view in five sections, each with an introduction, culminating in the post-closing fires and smoldering ruins.

 

The Midway Plaisance

Most visitors entered the Fair by boat or across the bridge through the grand entryway amidst the Peristyles representing the forty-eight States to see the much touted "White City" spread out before them. But many entered from the southwest directly unto The Midway, home to the gaudier, more profitable, seamier side of the 1893 Fair. Russell Lewis' book has several photographs of the Streets of Cairo section that, along with camel rides and Egyptian mummies, featured the hootchy-kootch dancing girls that would create the myth of "Little Egypt" which would linger in Chicago lore until overshadowed by the ostrich-fan dance of Sally Rand at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition.

  Journalist Marian Shaw who covered the Fair for the Fargo, North Dakota Argus entered unto the Midway "pushing our way through noisy crowds of street vendors, hackmen and rumbling carts, deafened by the roar of elevated trains . . . yelling Arabs, howling muleteers, braying donkeys ... it would be well for all visitors to this primitive encampment to follow the example of the Cossacks when they attacked the garlic-eating French battalion—stop their nostrils with clay." ( Marian Shaw, World's Fair Notes, 1992 ) .

Encampments of fur-clad Exquimaux ( Eskimos to us ) , nearly naked Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, two Irish castles, German and Viennese beer gardens, a Chinese Village, a Turkish Village replete with an obelisk and mosque, a Moorish Palace, an erupting Hawaiian volcano, are but a few of the Midway attractions documented in Lewis' book.

The Midway was also home to the towering Ferris Wheel, the icon du jour, which had 36 cars, each holding 40 people seated or 60 standing. The book has ten photographs of the Wheel, from mid-construction to views of the Fair from its apex. Just last year while excavating for an ice rink the original steel foundation of the Wheel was unearthed.

 

Jackson/Washington/Lincoln parks

  Lewis' book also has photos of the replica of Japan's 14th-century Ho-o-den Palace constructed by Japanese craftsmen on the Wooded Island in the North lagoon in Jackson Park. This beautiful structure was left as a gift to Chicago and survived the Fair only to fall victim to arson during World War II, when Japan was our enemy.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Jackson Park, filled with the toys of technology is a survivor of the Fair. The huge Caryatids, draped female figures created by Enid Yandell, support the Graeco-classic style building that once was the Palace of Fine Arts. A massive staircase led to a landing in the South Pond where fairgoers were discharged directly from boats that meandered the lagoons.

  In Washington Park the 30-foot gilded statue of The Republic is a replica of the 100-foot creation of Daniel Chester French that stood in the Great Basin of the Fair surrounded by those temporary classical structures that would be dubbed "The White City." At its western end, the Midway today culminates in Lorado Taft's Fountain of Time. Taft, but one of the sculptors of the Fair had his studios just to the east, hired women assistants; several who worked on sculpture at the Fair went on to national recognition.

For years the Lincoln Park Zoo also housed a remnant of that fabled 1893 Fair—a Viking ship open all around to view. Nothing but a roof and a small fence protected the carved dragon-head prow and tail from vandals and the elements. A plaque explained that the boat, an exact replica of the 10th-century Gorstad, manned by 12 oarsmen and under its own sail, had crossed from Norway to North America in 28 days before making its way through the Erie Canal and Lake Michigan to the Fair. It arrived at the Basin the same day as the replicas of Columbus' caravels the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria ( which had been towed across the Atlantic from Spain ) . Pictures of the vessels under sail and at anchorage are in the Lewis book. The history and details of the eventual fate of the Viking is told in June Skinner Sawyer's book Chicago Sketches ( 1995 ) .

One photograph in the Lewis book refutes Sawyer and others who claim that the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show was "included" in the Fair. Clearly showing Bill's structure well to the southeast of the fairgrounds, Lewis' caption indicates that the show had been rejected for participation in the Fair and as an "independent attraction" with "two shows daily, rain or shine" diverted revenue from the Midway attractions.

 

From Fair to McCormick Place

Fairs throughout history have been places to showcase new products, commercial and cultural, for consumers. Two of the popular harbingers of 20th-century progress displayed were transportation and electricity. In his beautifully illustrated book, America at the Fair ( Arcadia, 2008 ) , Chaim M. Rosenberg concentrates totally on the commercial side of the venture. He has collected dozens of full-color pieces ( advertising trade cards, catalog covers, postcards ) from the Fair to bring life to his history of each of the major buildings and their wares. He notes that there were 65,000 exhibits of 250,000 objects from fifty foreign nations on display. Rosenberg writes that the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building contained 44 acres of exhibits and was "the largest structure in the world at the time." The massive steel-framed structures are given scale in the photographs in the Lewis book that show them under construction. McCormick Place exhibition halls can trace their origins back to the original lakefront Exposition.

 

Fires and destruction

  After the Fair closed hastily following the murder of Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison, building after building was destroyed by unexplained fires. The final pages of Lewis' book have haunting images of the conflagrations and eerily recognizable structures amid the smoldering ruins. But the most tragic photograph in the book documents the mid-Fair blaze when the Cold Storage Building caught fire in July. Firefighters and employees are shown trapped atop the building's tower amid the rising smoke and flames. One person is shown mid-air leaping to his death—shockingly reminiscent of 9-11. Seventeen would lose their lives.

 

Did the "Devil" make them do it?

Chicago History Museum has been the major source for photographs of the Fair for dozens of books, particularly over the last forty years. In the Centennial year 1993 they mounted an exhibition and published an excellent catalog, Grand Illusions: Chicago's World's Fair of 1893. Why another book? Why now? One can only speculate, since the question is not addressed in the current volume. The CHM currently offers "Devil in the White City" tours, and as already mentioned, little survives of the fairgrounds, so perhaps this was considered as a companion or souvenir volume. Its format follows the construction, flourishing,and destruction of the Fair as delineated in Erik Larsen's 2003 book that counterpoints Fair builder Daniel Burnham with mass murderer H. H. Holmes. Then again, perhaps there is some movement I've missed toward the adaptation of Larson's novel to film since Paramount renewed their option a few years ago. Whatever the reason, the current volume is a more than welcome addition to the body of work documenting a seminal event in our Chicago history.

  The only "faults" I can find in the Lewis present volume, are of interpretation and omission—I sorely missed an index, and, a few more words to round out the pictures. While in these photographs the thoroughfares and buildings are shown alive with people, I would question some of the captions. Three photographs—one of a mustachioed Dandy chomping a cigar and wearing a boater, and another with a Columbian Guard—appear to be ogling young women ( one whose short skirt betrays her youth, glances back coyly ) in the other, two women lock glances with a uniformed man; all are labeled with suggestions that fairgoers were "discomforted" by the variety of races encountered—while in these three photographs costumed humanity has already passed by.

Other captions are sufficient, but with plenty of white space unfilled; additional information would have been welcome. For example, in the section "A City Beautiful," a photograph of Alexander Phimister Proctor's statue "Cowboy" notes a companion piece "Indian Scout" also stood along the Lagoon in front of the Transportation Building. This could easily have been cross-referenced to the photograph in the "Beauty and Grandeur Unrivaled" section that shows the Indian Scout ( unidentified ) to the right of the Mines and Mining Building. The page showing the Bison by Proctor and Edward Kemeys could have carried such information as Kemeys' also did the lions in front of the Adminstration Building ( which became the Art Institute of Chicago after the Fair ) ; or that the Bison now reside in Humboldt Park. Additional information, such as I supplied above, about the Ho-o-den building and the Viking ship could have been added to their brief captions.

Likewise, the caption of a photo showing a souvenir stand makes mention of the minting and sale of commemorative half-dollars ( not shown ) impressed with an image of Columbus. There was room to add that souvenir Isabella quarters were also minted and sold by the Board of Lady Managers.

Copyright 2010 by Marie J. Kuda


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