Saturday, October 5, 2013

A side trip through time: The Columbia Exposition and World Fair Of 1893

The next track from the Illinois album  heavily refers to the Columbia Exposition and Worlds Fair held in Chicago in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the "New World". We will be talking about the song itself next week but for now a little background seems important.

The Worlds Fair was an event in American history that I did not really know a lot about before researching for this blog. It seems like many schools have included the Fair in their curriculum since my school days, but I was uniformed and have found the subject to be quite interesting.

In many ways The Columbia Exposition was presented as a sort of coming out party for the United States.We wanted to be seen as a key player on the world stage. As well, it was a celebration of the end of the century of expansionism that had moved the United states from a strip of colonies on the east coast of North America to an empire nation that spanned the width of the continent.It was a heady time in the United States, bursting with new inventions and newly found wealth and the exhibition showcased many of the marvels of the age of invention as well the wealth of the nation.

You see, in the 1800's the US was a growing country but still considered to be young, crude and primitive by many Europeans who felt their far older cultures were superior on the basis of their ancient ruins. The fair would build a great city to rival the splendors of Europe and prove American worth. In addition, participating countries from around the world built elaborate displays so as not to be upstarted by the brash Americans.

The result was a fabulous pleasure center that I would have loved to see and experience. A great city of white stucco was contsructed in a neo-classical style that would be illuminated after dark with then new electric lights It must have been jaw dropping for the attendees. The White City of the Columbia Exposition proved to be inspirational to American architecture, greatly influencing the City Beautiful movement that seems so iconic to turn of the century America. Unfortunately, shortly after the close of the Fair a massive fire burned down the grounds and today almost nothing remains.

To get an idea of the scale and beauty of the Exposition I have a few videos to share. The first from UCLA is a computer rendered 3d flyover view of the sight that does a good job of illustrating the beauty that fair goers of the time celebrated in many sources,



The second video is a slideshow of pictures actually taken at the fair. After seeing the animation, I found my mind helped fill in the color palette on the old black and white photos. I hope you have the same effect.



In addition to its architectural excess, the Columbian Exposition featured many notable firsts. From Wikipedia:

Edibles and potables

Inventions and manufacturing advances


As stated above the Ferris Wheel was introduced at the fair. It was a massive structure an was the focal point of many an image. It was so associated with the fair that in Latin America the Ferris Wheel goes by the name of a Chicago Wheel. The massive device anchored the new concept of a dedicated entertainments zone called the Midway Plaisance. This area featured rides and attractions such as Little Egypt who performed her Hootchy-Kootchy dance to the appreciative murmurs of the men in the crowd, while being tsk-tsked by the more more proper ladies in attendance. Many a husband enjoyed the show under the guise of multi-cultural enlightenment,. And much of the fair was about multi-cultural entertainment. The first Polynesian performance in the US occurred there. Buffalo Bills Show was set up just outside the lot. Through international villages all sorts of exotic tribal peoples were on display.

The effect of the multi-cultural exhibits on the American psyche it has been argued led to a feeling of superiority by the United States which ushered in the imperialism of the 20th century. From my research, I see this being taught as the lasting legacy of the fair in many classrooms. I prefer to remember the effect to the City Beautiful movement and the development of modern technology.

There is a lot more that could be said about the Columbia Exposition and World Fair of 1893. However, this is just a side trip on a larger voyage. So next week we will return to Sufjan Stevens Illinois album and his track that references this surprisingly major event in US, and Chicago, history.

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