- Historic Sites
The Great White City
More than any world’s fair before or since, the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 had a lasting effect on its visitors, the taste of the times, and the lusty community that brought it forth
October 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 6
At the main gate of the Fair, the Court of Honor confronted the visitor with its noble and breathtaking dimensions. At the south end of the lagoon lay the Manufactures Building, 1,687 feet long, 787 feet wide, and so tall that a ten-story building could have been carried through it without touching top or sides. To build it had required forty carloads of glass, seventeen million feet of lumber, and thirty tons of “staff,” the plaster-glue-gypsum mixture used to coat the buildings. Its nearest rival in size was the Palace of Fine Arts, 500 feet by 320 feet, with over 145,000 feet of wall space. The Electrical Building was especially attractive to a generation in which that still-mysterious force occupied in popular imagination the place held today by atomic power. The central station for the Fair was three times as powerful as those serving the rest of Chicago. “We hover about the beautiful terrible stranger, but we do not shake hands. His glance is blinding, his voice deafening, his touch is death.” People wondered whether the new force was “merely a dangerous toy or a new power brought to its knees in the service of man.”
Foreign buildings, too, were notable both for size and craftsmanship. The Emperor of Japan had sent his own workmen to erect the exquisite little structures known as Phoenix House (which survived until destroyed by fire during World War II). The Siamese Pavilion was a jewel box, glittering with tiny mirrors and purple-and-crimson glass. The German Building was a towering 150 feet of turrets, gables, dormers, and variegated tiles, costing $250,000. At Brazil’s huge and hospitable quarters free coffee was served daily. France’s contribution was a replica of the Great Hall at Versailles, and Spain duplicated the Lace Exchange at Valencia. At Victoria House, the British center, hours were short and visitors were hurried through the roped-off exhibits as though by a firm English “nanny,” a situation probably resulting from recent American tariff increases and acute commercial rivalry.
“Even more important than the discovery of Columbus” said Mrs. Potter Palmer, social leader of Chicago and chairman of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, “is the fact that the General Government has just discovered woman,” and she noted in passing that Columbus’ voyage would not have been possible but for Isabella. Her board had taken its job seriously. At first, most of the foreign commissioners would say only that women in their countries “did not participate in public efforts of this sort.” But the undaunted ladies wrote directly to Europe and elsewhere in the world, and they were rewarded by warm responses from artists, writers, and leading women, titled and title-less. Queen Victoria herself approved the venture, “with its special efforts for women,” though confessing herself unenthusiastic about fairs in general. Queen Margherita of Italy and the Empress of Japan agreed to help. The Queen of Siam, evidently no less progressive than the King, sent a special envoy “to find what educational and industrial opportunities were open to women, so that Siam may adopt such measures as will elevate the condition of her women.” The Infanta Eulalia of Spain actually came to the Fair in person and seemed to like it very much, though she fended off local party-givers.
And the ladies also had their own Woman’s Building at the Fair, designed by young Sophia Hayden, architectural graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Of classic simplicity, its principal ornament a delicate frieze of blue-green and white, it was described by one tired elderly visitor as “so light, it takes the weight off my feet just to look at it.” Beside it was the Children’s Building—housing a toy collection, a library, and a nursery—where trained attendants cared for infants and small children while their parents visited the Fair. Older children could read, listen to stories, or watch lantern slides.
The recreational area of the Fair, the Midway Plaisance, featured the famous Little Egypt, who introduced to the scandalized Midwest the danse du ventre. Her costume, by today’s standards, had the “covered-up” look. With flowing trousers fastened at her ankles, heavy velvet jacket and well-scarved midriff, she possessed, according to Charles Dudley Warner, “inordinately thick ankles and large, voluptuous leet.” Newspapers agreed that the dance was interesting “until it became monotonous.”
The Midway itself was a billowing babel of dust, drums, donkeys, camels, and noise. Cries of the “Whoopers-in” and the donkey-boys—"Look owet! Allah good—boom-boom!” drowned out the muezzin on his balcony. Among the Persian sword dancers, the Dahomey villagers, the Chinese and Algerian theaters, wandered the public, timid or titillated, in a kind of daze. “What language do these folks talk?” “Which ones?” “Well, they all speak the same, don’t they?” The popularity of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West—located just outside the grounds, as not sufficiently refined to be let in—so far eclipsed that of the Bedouin WiId East, in spite of sensational spear-play and magnificent horses, that most of the latter had to be sold for return-passage money. It was said that the North African tribesmen later vowed to roast alive any Chicagoans they might ever find in the desert, in revenge for their treatment.