The White City

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As dusk fell, the fair transported the crowds lining the lagoon to the Electric City of the coming age.

Ferris took the first ride on June 21 with his wife. At the top of the wheel’s revolution, a point higher than the crown of the Statue of Liberty, they could make out the tops of the business towers of Chicago.

“The World’s Greatest Ride” was a carnival attraction to beat them all. More than 1.4 million riders paid fifty cents apiece for two revolutions in one of its thirty-six wood-veneered cabins, each larger than a Pullman car. But skeptics were persuaded of the wheel’s strength and safety only when it withstood hurricane winds of a hundred miles per hour. Ferris, his wife, and a reporter rode out the gale in one of the cars. The windows shook, the blasts were deafening, but the wheel “hardly shivered” as it made its slow, majestic orbit.

When the fair closed, the Ferris wheel appeared at two other sites before it was dynamited and sold for scrap metal. The father of all entertainment wheels, it helped bring in the age of the amusement park. After visiting the fair on his honeymoon, George C. Tilyou ordered a wheel half the size of Ferris’s and built his Coney Island Steeplechase Park around it. “We Americans,” he told a journalist, “want either to be thrilled or amused, and are ready to pay well for either sensation.”

Tilyou was persuaded of this after visiting the Midway. “A place of great and genuine wonders,” it had the exotic, the informative, and the just plain ridiculous: mosques and pagodas, German and Irish villages, Hindu jugglers, a young escape artist named Harry Houdini, boxing exhibitions by Gentleman Jim Corbett, an exhibit featuring a two-headed pig, an International Beauty Show, Hagenbeck’s Trained Animal Show, and a model of Blarney Castle, where, for a charge, a customer could kiss a piece of the Blarney Stone, which turned out to be a segment of Chicago paving block.

The White City was a pictorial and passive experience. In it you were a spectator—a student in a lecture hall—and many earnest sightseers sat on benches and took notes. The Midway, on the other hand, was a rousing urban drama, with fairgoers playing the parts of both actor and audience. The architecture was a riot of Turkish domes, Dutch peaks, and Venetian arches. People could play the clown on a camel in the Streets of Cairo exhibit, the fool in an Indian palanquin, or the child on the Ferris wheel, and observers spoke of a “Midway spirit,” a sensation of “reason desert[ing] you when you entered the Nighttime.”

The Court of Honor was too stiff and didactic for many of Chicago’s working-class people, and the exhibits of modern machinery seemed too uncomfortably close to their lives. “A wurruld’s fair is no rollin’-mills,” Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley tells one of his barroom customers. “If it was, ye’d be paid f’r goin’ there. ‘Tis a big circus with manny rings an’ that’s what it ought to be.”

Burnham tried to counter the pull of the Midway by enlivening the White City. Open-air concerts featuring the rousing military marches of John Philip Sousa were staged in the Court of Honor, and there were gondola regattas and swimming contests in the lagoon, tugs-of-war between various nationalities, donkey races, and tightrope-walking performances. But nothing rivaled the animation of the Midway, where a black pianist named Scott Joplin played a new kind of music called ragtime.

The impresario of the Midway was Sol Bloom, a twenty-two-year-old Polish immigrant. Originally the Midway was to have been a serious archeology exhibit under the direction of a Harvard scientist, F. W. Putnam. But when Bloom was given charge of installing the exhibits, he used his theater experience to turn it into the world’s first amusement park, with Putnam’s ethnological displays in a subordinate position. Putting Putnam in charge of the Midway, Bloom said later, was like making Albert Einstein manager of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

Bloom loved Middle Eastern exotica and placed his Algerian Theater and related exhibits in the most prominent places on the Midway. His feature performer, “Little Egypt, the Darling of the Nile,” performed the danse du ventre . “When the public learned that the literal translation was ‘belly dance,’” Bloom recalled, “they delightedly concluded that it must be salacious and immoral. The crowds poured in. I had a gold mine.” To combat such “lasciviousness” and use the opportunity of the fair to convert the “wickedest city in the west,” the revivalist Dwight Moody organized a massive evangelical campaign that drew tens of thousands of fairgoers to his tent tabernacles, which spread out around Jackson Park like the camp of a besieging army.