- 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
“Chicago has chosen a star,” said Mayor Carter Harrison on United Cities’ Day (October 28, 1893), “has looked upward to it, and knows nothing that it will not attempt and thus far has found nothing that it cannot achieve. It was nothing but a swamp when I came into the world. I intend to live for half a century still, and at the end of that time New York will say ‘Let us go to the metropolis of America.’” Unhappily he was not to see such a day. That very evening he was shot and killed as he opened his door to a demented office-seeker. Two days later, October 30, had been set as the close of the Exposition, a day of parades and rejoicing. Instead, the crowds, shocked and silent, gathered to hear the simple announcement, to join in resolutions of sympathy to the Harrison family, and disperse to the Beethoven Funeral March. All day the flags hung at half-mast, and fell at sunset to a twenty-one gun salute, as the Fair passed quietly into history.
During that fall the nationwide financial collapse grew worse. It was harder on Chicago than on other cities, partly because of the strain of carrying the Fair. At the north edge of the Midway, President William Rainey Harper had to reassure the faculty of his young University of Chicago that the payroll would be met. But the men who had sponsored the Fair stood up to their responsibilities; it closed with all bills paid, and a 14 per cent profit to its surprised stockholders, who had “hoped for nothing more than that the Fair would pay for itself, though this was a secondary consideration.” In San Francisco the friendly Argonaut reported that “Even the bitter sneering New York dailies were forced to admit that [the Fair] had been such a success as no man had dreamed of.... Admission was wrung from them. But it was at the end, and only at the end.”
Though fire and the wreckers’ picks soon disposed of the vast plaster shells that had been the White City, its spirit remained. The Midwest was stirring, beginning to break ground in ideas as an earlier generation had broken sod. The following years were to bring municipal associations, institutes, and museums in a steady tide; and material from the Fair was to form the basis of collections for the Art Institute and Chicago’s Museum of Natural History.
London’s Crystal Palace of 1851 had had over six million visitors, Philadelphia’s Centennial almost ten million, Chicago—more than twenty-seven million. Seventy-seven countries had participated. The Fair had been not only for Chicago but for the new West, from the Alleghenies to California, “the first time,” as Julian Hawthorne said, “that the whole American people had met itself in one place.” In England Sir Walter Besant called it “The greatest and most poetical dream that we have ever seen....”
The momentum of the forces that produced the Fair continued well into the twentieth century, losing energy only when the national needs of two world wars diverted activity to a central channel. The surge of postwar prosperity, the changes brought about by prohibition, and the economic crash of October, 1929, dissolved the remnants of the spirit of 1893. Its elements have not been lost but have taken, and will take, other forms. Edgar Lee Masters, describing Chicago before 1915, understood and expressed this earlier ardor: “Chicago rioted in the feelings of youth and strength and liberty. All America, for that matter, seemed a land of liberty and happiness, approaching an era of enlightenment and wisdom.” This was the animating spirit that gave the Fair its unique quality—a spirit of open-minded inquiry, of an almost universal sympathy, unspoiled by cynicism, an unparalleled surge of creative energy, a cultural fountain for the thirsty Great Plains.