I just finished reading the Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, a fascinating and informative book about the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition, or Chicago World’s Fair. What really struck me is how much of a worldwide sensation it was. Today, it is a forgotten piece of history.
In 1889, Paris had put on a huge World Exposition, and the United States was ready to compete. A huge complex of buildings and exhibits was created on the shores of Lake Michigan in Jackson Park, and was open to the public from May to October, 1893. The cost for admission was fifty cents. Buildings were erected by nations from around the world, including Japan, Germany, Jamaica, Spain, and the list goes on. Each state had its own structure. Huge buildings were devoted to branches of the arts and sciences, including the Electrical Building, Anthropological Building, and Fisheries Building, to name just a few.
Along the Midway, whole foreign villages were transplanted to the fairgrounds, the newly-invented Ferris wheel turned 250 feet in the air, and other attractions were waiting for visitors. Tens of thousands of people visited each day, with the highest one-day total over 750,000!
After reading the book, I decided to explore the vaults of HSMC to see if we had any material relating to the Exposition. Turns out, we have LOTS! We have souvenirs, like postcards and flags. We have a variety of guides, including Rand McNally & Co’s A Week at the Fair and Pennsylvania and the World’s Columbian Exposition. Also in the collection are “Snap Shots.” World’s Fair through a Camera and the Official Catalogue of Exhibits—Department K, Fine Arts.
We also have a few pieces in the collection which were exhibited at the fair, later purchased, and then donated to the Historical Society. You may remember one such thing in a previous post (see the porcelain teeth in “Oral History”). Montgomery County artist Thomas Hovenden exhibited his painting Breaking Home Ties and it was voted the most popular painting at the fair! Come see another of his paintings Looking West at the Historical Society Headquarters.
By looking at these various artifacts and their donors, one can see that Montgomery County went to Chicago for the fair! Ambrose Dettre went on October 28th, 1893, right before the fair closed at the end of the month. The Misses Preston arrived earlier, in August, to see the sights. On the map in their guide, they penciled an “X” at every building they visited, and had a running list of the places still left to see, including the Texas, Delaware, and Louisiana buildings. The Fornance family also visited; someone in the family wrote down train ticket prices in their guide (8 cents for a single ticket or 60 cents for a ten-pack). Other prominent members of the Historical Society also attended, including Mrs. Anna Delacroix and Senator A. D. Markley.