1893: Chicago and the World's Columbian Exposition

Diane Dillon and Hana Layson with Jim Montgomery

What did visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition experience? How did the Exposition’s White City compare to the actual city of Chicago?

Introduction

The World’s Columbian Exposition transformed the city of Chicago in 1893 and influenced the city’s development for decades to come. The Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was located in Jackson Park, at the current site of the Museum of Science and Industry and the Midway Plaisance. It drew an estimated 27 million visitors, 14 million from outside the United States, at a time when the population of Chicago was just over one million. The Columbian Exposition celebrated, one year late, the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas. Chicago competed with cities such as New York and St. Louis for the right to host the fair. Exposition planners wanted to showcase the nation, still coming to terms with the Civil War that had ended 28 years earlier. They also wanted to demonstrate Chicago’s international stature just 22 years after much of the city had been destroyed by fire. Daniel Burnham served as the fair’s lead architect and oversaw the design and planning of the fair’s main buildings. These massive, neoclassical structures came to be known, collectively, as the White City. Despite their imposing appearance, the buildings were made from wood frames wrapped in staff, a plaster mixture that created the illusion of stone. The White City stood for less than six months. The exposition closed in late October 1893 and, that winter, almost all of the buildings were destroyed by fire. The documents that follow present the history of the Columbian Exposition in relation to the history of Chicago.

Please keep the following questions in mind as you review the documents

  • What is the ideal city expressed in the Columbian Exposition documents? What forms of artistic and civic culture would this city promote?

  • How did the exposition physically transform Chicago, especially its lakefront and parks?

  • How does the exposition portray Chicago, the United States, and the world?

  • What was the exposition’s legacy for Chicago?

The Real City and the Dream City

These two collections of photographs were published a year apart and give a strong sense of the contrast between downtown Chicago in the 1890s and the White City of the Columbian Exposition.

Questions to Consider

  1. Compare downtown Chicago, in the first two photographs, to the White City, portrayed in the third and fourth photographs. What differences do you notice? Describe how you would feel in each of these settings.

  2. How would these very different forms of architecture and urban planning shape the experiences—and the behavior—of people who moved through them?

“North-East from Monadnock Building”

From Chicago ... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets ... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City, 1894.

Image of North-East from Monadnock Building

Rooftops and skyline of downtown Chicago in the 1890s.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title North-East from Monadnock Building
Publication Title Chicago... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City
Short Title North-East from Monadnock Building, 1894
Book Title Chicago ... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets ... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City
Place of Publication Chicago, Ill
Publisher Frank
Publication Date 1894
Call Number G 8962 .149
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“State Street, North from Madison”

From Chicago ... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets ... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City, 1894.

Image of State Street, North from Madison

The scene on State Street, downtown Chicago, in the 1890s.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title State Street, North from Madison
Publication Title Chicago... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City
Short Title State Street, North from Madison, 1894
Book Title Chicago ... as Seen from the Skies. It's Crowded, Busy Streets ... Views of Chicago, Covering Every Subject That Forms a Factor in the Make-up of that City
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Frank
Publication Date 1894
Call Number G 8962 .149
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Agricultural Hall”

From The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.

Image of Agricultural Hall

An expansive view of the Columbian Exposition’s Agricultural Hall, water, and walkways. The internal caption provides a lush description of the building and statues, complete with a price tag.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Agricultural Hall
Publication Title The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Short Title Agricultural Hall, Columbian Exposition, 1893
Book Title The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Place of Publication St. Louis, Mo.
Publisher N.D. Thompson Publishing Co.
Publication Date 1893
Call Number Case folio T500.C1 D78 1893
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Northeastern Corner of the Grand Basin”

From The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.

Image of Northeastern Corner of the Grand Basin

View of the Columbian Exposition’s “Statue of the Republic” and the waterway, looking out toward Lake Michigan.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Northeastern Corner of the Grand Basin
Publication Title The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Short Title NE Corner of the Grand Basin, 1893
Book Title The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Place of Publication St. Louis, Mo.
Publisher N.D. Thompson Publishing Co.
Publication Date 1893
Call Number Case folio T500.C1 D78 1893
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Book of the Fair

Hubert Howe Bancroft’s Book of the Fair offered a history of the conception and construction of the Columbian Exposition, accompanied by photographs as well as two volumes of gorgeous watercolors.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the text describe Chicago as a physical location? Why do you think the author included this information in an account of the creation of the Columbian Exposition?

  2. Examine the engraved “bird’s-eye view” of the exposition. How does the exposition appear? What kinds of activities are represented in the illustration? How do these activities compare to people’s activities in the photographs of Chicago in Chicago … as Seen from the Skies, presented above?  

The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893

Hubert Howe Bancroft. 1893.

Image of The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893

Historical sketch of the founding of Chicago in the early nineteenth century.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
Short Title The Book of the Fair: Columbian Exposition, 1893
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The Bancroft Co.
Creator Hubert Howe Bancroft
Publication Date 1893
Volume Vol. 1
Number of Pages p. 29
Call Number Case oversize R 1832 .07
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Bird's Eye View World's Columbian Exposition”

Hubert Howe Bancroft. From The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, 1893.

Image of Bird's Eye View World's Columbian Exposition

An engraving of the Columbian Exposition, looking northwest from above Lake Michigan. The White City appears in the foreground and the Midway Plaisance in the distance.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Bird's Eye View World's Columbian Exposition
Publication Title The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
Short Title Bird's Eye View, Columbian Exposition. 1893
Book Title The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The Bancroft Co.
Creator Hubert Howe Bancroft
Publication Date 1893
Volume Vol. 1
Pages p. 71
Call Number Case oversize R 1832 .07
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Map of the Fair

This guide map was sold to visitors at the fair. It includes an index of all of the exposition buildings as well as a detailed map of the grounds.

Questions to Consider

  1. How have the exposition planners incorporated water into their design? What do you think their goals were? How would the man-made lakes and lagoons, the accessible lakefront, and the free boat rides affect visitors’ experiences?

  2. Using the index (see detail) as well as the map, note the names of buildings in the White City. What do the buildings and their layout tell us about what the exposition planners wanted to showcase?

  3. Examine the index to the Midway Plaisance and identify the different cultures represented there. Moving from left to right, how are the Midway exhibits arranged? Why do you think they’re arranged this way? What beliefs about countries and cultures outside the United States does the arrangement of exhibits suggest?

Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago

Rand McNally and Company. 1893.

Image of Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago

A guide map that was sold to visitors at the fair.

Image of Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago

Detail of Indexed Standard Guide Map showing Midway Plaisance.

Metadata Details
Item Type Map
Title Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago
Short Title Map: World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Rand McNally & Co.
Creator Rand McNally and Company
Publication Date 1893
Call Number Map 2F oG4104.C6:2W6 1893.R3
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Midway Plaisance

While the White City featured monumental buildings to exhibit the fine arts, industry, and agriculture, the Midway Plaisance took on a very different form and character. Exposition planners intended the Midway to be a site for entertainment, as well as education. For the Midway’s ethnographic exhibits, groups of people from around the world—Indonesia, West Africa, Germany—were brought to Chicago to be put on display in buildings designed to recreate their “native” villages. At the same time, the Midway became a prototype for the amusement park and included the first Ferris wheel as well as numerous shows and cafes.

Questions to Consider

  1. Describe these images from the Arabian and Dahomey exhibits. What do you think the organizers were trying to accomplish through their layout and design?

  2. What kind of experience did the Midway provide to fairgoers? What do you think the experience would have been like for the people on display in the exhibits?

“Dahomey Village, on the Midway”

From Official views of the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.

Image of Dahomey Village, on the Midway

The scene outside a recreated West African village, one of many ethnographic exhibits featured on the Midway Plaisance.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Dahomey Village, on the Midway
Publication Title Official views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Short Title Dahomey Village, on the Midway, 1893
Book Title Official views of the World's Columbian Exposition
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Press Chicago Photo-gravure Co.
Publication Date 1893
Pages Plate 110
Call Number R 1832 .045
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Arabia, Midway Plaisance”

Hubert Howe Bancroft. From The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, 1893.

Image of Arabia, Midway Plaisance

A re-creation of a Middle Eastern town, one of many ethnographic exhibits featured on the Midway Plaisance.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title Arabia, Midway Plaisance
Publication Title The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
Short Title Arabia, Midway Plaisance, 1893
Book Title The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation of the World's Science, Art, and Industry, as Viewed Through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The Bancroft Co.
Creator Hubert Howe Bancroft
Publication Date 1893
Volume Vol. 1
Pages p. 62
Call Number Case oversize R 1832 .07
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Dangers of the City

This book, published anonymously the year before the Columbian Exposition, offers visitors a guide to the city’s amusements. It includes chapters on hotels and theaters, churches and panoramas, as well as “Perils and Pitfalls” and “Adventuresses.” These chapters warned about con men and women, pickpockets, and prostitutes. The chapter included here describes “Cheyenne,” purportedly Chicago’s roughest neighborhood.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the author portray Chicago’s “most dangerous district”? Who lives there? What makes it so dangerous?

  2. How does this representation of African Americans and Europeans compare to the exposition’s portrayal of nonwhite and foreign people?

Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker's Guide to the Paris of America

1892.

Image of Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker's Guide to the Paris of America

A guidebook description of Cheyenne, purportedly Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhood in the 1890s.

Image of Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker's Guide to the Paris of America
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker's Guide to the Paris of America
Short Title Chicago -The Pleasure Seeker's Guide, 1892
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Thomson and Zimmerman
Publication Date 1892
Number of Pages pp. 201–203
Call Number G 8962 .1473
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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The Fair’s Legacy for Chicago

In 1909 the principal architect of the Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham, collaborated with Edward Bennett and the Commercial Club of Chicago on the Plan of Chicago. This ambitious document offered a comprehensive vision of what the city could become in the twentieth century. The Plan’s recommendations included the creation of the lakefront and neighborhood parks, the construction of Lake Shore Drive, and the widening of major streets. Much of the Plan would be realized over the next 50 years. In this passage, Burnham discusses the goals of the Plan and its relationship to the 1893 exposition.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are the goals of the Plan of Chicago? How do Burnham and the other authors believe the city should develop? What were the primary considerations of the planners?

  2. Why does Burnham identify the Columbian Exposition as the “origin” of the Plan?

  3. What is the “spirit of the World’s Fair” according to the footnote on page six? What relevance does it have to the development of Chicago?

  4. Why do you think Burnham is concerned with “dignity” and “beauty” in a city that he describes as the “center of industry and traffic”? How will beautifying the city affect the people in the city?

Plan of Chicago Prepared Under the Direction of the Commercial Club During the Years MCMVI, MCMVII, and MCMVIII

Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett. 1909.

Image of Plan of Chicago Prepared Under the Direction of the Commercial Club During the Years MCMVI, MCMVII, and MCMVIII

Architects Burnham and Bennett on the Columbian Exposition’s importance to the Plan of Chicago.

Image of Plan of Chicago Prepared Under the Direction of the Commercial Club During the Years MCMVI, MCMVII, and MCMVIII
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Plan of Chicago Prepared Under the Direction of the Commercial Club During the Years MCMVI, MCMVII, and MCMVIII
Short Title The Plan of Chicago, 1909
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher The Commercial Club
Creator Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett
Publication Date 1909
Call Number Case folio W 999 .182
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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Selected Sources

William Cronon. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, 1991.

Donald L. Miller. City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America, 1996.

Erik Larson. Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, 2003.

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Digital collection produced in conjunction with Jim Montgomery’s Teachers as Scholars seminar, “Chicago: City on the Lake,” on May 12-13, 2011.

This collection was last updated