The Big One
Preface & Reader Response
"At last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the mazes of modern commercial lines."
Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893
THE WHITE CITY: CHOOSING THE ROUTE TO CONSUMERISM, PAVING THE WAY WITH CAPITALISM
by Jackson N. H. Murley
* * *
This article was originally a high school paper written in fall 2000 and submitted to the National History Day Competition in the Historical Paper Category for the Senior High Division in Tennessee, which it won. It has not been altered, except for format adaptations for cleaner display online. The detailed illustrated appendix has been omitted as well.
* * *
It was appropriate that Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his speech on the death of the American frontier in Chicago at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. America was at a crossroads in the 1890s. The Indians had been driven onto reservations, and the United States spread to the Pacific, with no more frontier line according to the 1890 federal census.  The Gilded Age, with the boom of American industry and technology paralleling the rise of wealthy millionaires and their monopolies, was at its peak. Turner lamented the loss of the Frontier era of American history but announced the dawning of a new America: "At last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the mazes of modern commercial lines."  As the old American frontier was disappearing, all around him in Chicago, the Exposition glorified the birth of a new technology and trade-driven frontiers: imperialism and consumerism.
On May 1, 1893, up to five hundred thousand people attended the opening of Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition, and President Grover Cleveland proclaimed, "let our hopes and aspirations awaken forces which in all time to come shall influence the welfare, the dignity, and the freedom of mankind."  Indeed, looking back a century later, it is evident the Chicago Exposition was a portentous event in the rise of an American mass culture with consumerism at its core: it enticed people to accept technology and progress, popularized many important aspects of culture, and because of its success was the model and inspiration for expositions and amusement parks around the country, magnifying the fair's cultural effects.
In 1889 the effort began to bring the World's Fair to Chicago to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Edward Jeffery led a study on the 1889 Paris Exposition for ideas while prominent Chicago leaders and businessmen convinced Congress that Chicago should be the fair's location, as it was in the heartland of the nation and represented America's rapid population and industrial growth.  The Exposition aimed to outdo Paris (originally, the main requirement for its tower was to 'put the Eiffel Tower in the shade') while garnering respect for Chicago by presenting a unified, advanced, and expanding America. 
Daniel Burnham, the Director of Works, and seven thousand workers created the classical "White City" in only two years, transforming the swamps of Lake Michigan into a dazzling masterpiece. The flimsy construction materials made the buildings temporary, so they were aimed to make a single, lasting impression on millions.  The resplendent Court of Honor was the first sight for most visitors, and with its immense white neoclassical buildings around a basin, it was unforgettable. The 44-acre Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, at the time the largest building in the world, displayed industrial exhibits from all over the globe.  Contrasting this ideal world of high culture was the exotic Midway Plaisance. A contemporary novel compared leaving the "dirty and barbaric" Midway to walking out of darkness.  There were numerous foreign diversions including the mosque, camels, and shops of the "Streets of Cairo," a Hungarian "Orpheum," and models of Blue Grotto of Capri and St. Peters of Rome. George W. G. Ferris's 264-foot wheel was a wonder equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, and with its 2,000 horsepower engine and 2,160 person capacity, it was the most popular attraction of the exposition.  Accompanying the materialism of the fairgrounds, the scholarly and religious events of World's Congress Auxiliary discussed contemporary issues and ideas. The Congress, divided into twenty departments, hosted dialogues on every issue from Women's Rights to Temperance and scholarly conventions, led by such organizations as the recently-founded American Historical Association that sponsored Frederick Jackson Turner's delivery of his frontier speech. 
The culmination of the fair was Chicago Day, October 9, 1893, when 716,881 people packed the White City to see a grand concert and fireworks on the anniversary of the Chicago fire. There was much to celebrate, for there had been more than 21.5 million paying visitors by the closing of the exposition on October 31, 1893, and the fair was only one of a few in the world that generated a profit for its stockholders.  The total 27 million visitors (equivalent to one fourth of America's population at the time) primarily came by railroad from rural America, and many were so awestruck that they ignored the high cost of the visit, like a Midwestern farmer who remarked to his wife, "Well, Susan, it paid even if it did take all the burial money," or Hamlin Garland, who wrote his parents, "Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see this fair." 
The fair succeeded in thrusting Chicago onto the world stage, and as President Higinbotham of the Fair's Board of Directors reported, it emphasized Chicago's "position as a great metropolis and an abiding place of energy, business enterprise, and high ambitions."  The fair boosted city pride, improved Chicago's image, and balanced its importance in industry and commerce with art and culture.  No longer known as the "Black City" for its thick black smoke, Chicago became known as the "Windy City" for its determination to bring the fair to Chicago. 
Measuring the impact of any fair is difficult, but the best way to see its influence is the actions and movements inspired by it. There had been one other great American fair before White City, the Philadelphia World's Fair of 1876 during America's Centennial, and though it was successful in setting quantitative records for a fair (like acreage), there were three key differences: the paid attendance was only 8 million because there were few visitors from west of the Allegheny Mountains; the fair focused more on America's past than its future; and it was far below breaking even.  The key to the influence of the 1893 Columbian Fair was the sheer multitude of Americans it reached, who heard the songs and stories or read the articles and cartoons. The fair reinforced nationalism, engendered many cultural ideas and movements, and attracted many to technology and consumerism, a message more readily embraced during the Depression of 1893 to 1897. 
The fair would have a direct impact on city planning and architecture. The White City was a model municipality, with art, technology and planning combined to produce a "city on a hill." Among its amenities were an elevated Intramural Railway that looped inside the Fair (the progenitor of the modern-day monorail), a "moveable sidewalk" (the archetype of the electric walkway), fire and police departments (including many hydrants and hand extinguishers), an experimental sewage system, filtrated drinking water, and over four thousand public toilets.  The detailed planning of the Fair motivated men to return to and improve their cities in what would be called the City Beautiful movement, leading some like architect Charles Moore to pronounce, "the impulse to plan American cities for unity, amenity, and beauty was born of the Exposition."  The neoclassical architecture of the Court of Honor, would, according to the official history of the fair, "revive among the people of our country. . . a clearer appreciation of the subtle and satisfying value of classic architecture and of its perfect adaptation to buildings erected for large public uses."  Yet Louis Sullivan, the famous modern architect who designed the first skyscraper and the Fair's Transportation Building, believed the elitist architecture of the White City betrayed democracy and set back architecture at least fifty years. Indeed, numerous neoclassical public buildings would be constructed in America in the proceeding decades.  As the style spread nationwide, Daniel Burnham would be elected President of the American Institute of Architects and would help improve city plans for Washington, D.C. (1902), Cleveland (1903), San Francisco (1905) and the influential Plan of Chicago, 1909.  Detailed city planning and classical architecture would guide America as it became increasingly urban-oriented.
The fair had a myriad of other direct impacts on culture. In 1876, during Reconstruction, memories of the Civil War remained strong. While promoters asserted "it is our Centennial as well as the Centennial of the Northern people," many Southerners remained unconvinced.  But in 1893, unity and patriotism were central themes of the Fair. Boosting America's national pride by showing America as a rising world power, the fair led to the adoption of new ways to celebrate nationalism: Columbus Day, which had been a day of patriotism in public schools, and the Pledge of Allegiance. It elevated the careers of such entertainment figures as Lillian Russell and the first musical comedy show of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.  The White City inspired the writer L. Frank Baum to create the Emerald City of the Wizard of Oz. In honor of the fair, Dvorák composed the New World Symphony, and while Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was the rage, young Scott Joplin introduced ragtime, a new musical genre, while working at the fair. 
But what was its impact on the rise of an American culture driven by consumerism? First, it is revealing that such a massive cultural event was tightly controlled by an elite of businessmen and government officials. After Chicago leaders and businessmen successfully lobbied Congress to hold the fair in Chicago, a corporation was formed of about thirty thousand stockholders. With Chicago's mayor presiding, the board of directors chosen were business leaders such as Andrew McNally and Charles H. Schwab and members of Congress like Benjamin Butterworth.  As shown in President Higinbotham's report, contracts were haggled over, and as would be expected from an event run by businessmen, the primary issues were financial. The report chronicles every expenditure and financial squabble in great detail. The fair was directed by a combination of figures in government, business, and culture, and with the fanciful world of the White City it aimed to encourage Americans to become more avid consumers. 
The fair was run by a corporation, and its meticulous control was evident. The Fair, held in the 1890s during the shift of American culture towards consumerism, was an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to reach vast new markets.  Starting in 1890, the Exposition was extensively and deceptively advertised. Articles in dozens of languages were sent to thousands of newspapers around the world. The millions of documents, brochures and books dispatched presented a tightly controlled and scripted official image of the fair. Charles Dudley Arnold, the Director of Photography, created images of splendor and authority, which, despite the mostly rural and working-class attendance of the fair, only displayed the well-clothed wealthy. Lured to the Fair by such images of wealth and beauty, visitors expected to witness a superior lifestyle. 
A proclaimed goal of the Fair was education, but the public learned primarily about products of industry and commerce. Often industry controlled art at the Fair, supplanting new ideas with new products. Several who had attended the Centennial Fair in Philadelphia were disappointed to find in Chicago that there was no building solely dedicated to the exhibition of photography. The method for choosing the works displayed was competitive; as a result manufacturers dominated while amateurs were largely neglected. The Fair's directors aimed to make a profit on selling photography, and thus small cameras were permitted for a fee of two dollars, while tripods and larger cameras were prohibited.  The fair has been called a "dry run for the mass marketing, packaging, and advertising of the 20th century," and many of the educational exhibits, especially in the Agriculture and Manufacturing buildings, came with company names and price tags.  The account of the Exhibition buildings in the official history of the Fair is essentially hundreds of pages listing companies, their products, and their awards.  Indeed, the Exposition presented progress in a department store format, with thousands of shelves of industrial products. Awards were given to the best products, and American triumphs over foreign competitors contributed a great deal to national pride.  The recipients prominently featured these awards in their advertisements for months after the fair. 
With thousands of products shown, only the most unique and innovative attracted the notice of the mass public, but those that did became integrated into American culture. New technologies such as the zipper (then called the "clasp locker") and concrete paving were presented.  The Midway introduced numerous products, such as Texas chili, syrup as advertised by Aunt Jemima herself, Juicy Fruit gum, Cream of Wheat, picture postcards, and the carbonated soda and hamburger – modern symbols of American culture.  But the most revolutionary new product was most visible at night, when the Electricity Building and Midway glowed with tens of thousands of arc and incandescent lights. The conflict between Thomas Edison's direct current and George Westinghouse's alternating current was decided in favor of alternating current when Westinghouse won the contract for the Exposition and for a Niagara Falls plant.  At the fair, electricity powered everything: fountains, the "moveable sidewalk," elevators, automatic door openers, and even electric cigar lighters. Alternating current's spotless safety record proved it was safe, and it won over the public. Electricity was shown to provide fun and ease of living, and the director of electricity, John P. Barrett, proudly proclaimed that the Exposition "brought electricity to the people in the light of a servant not as an awful master." 
Technology was presented as amazing, beneficial, and safe. Visitors did not simply gaze at machines like Edison's kinetograph; more explored the town of Pullman's "Ideal of Industry" exhibit and gaped at a seventy foot tower of light bulbs.  The gargantuan Ferris Wheel inspired fear in many who felt it was dangerous, but its perfect safety record proved those fears baseless, and similar thrill rides would spread across the country.  Henry Adams, an historian and grandson of John Quincy Adams, dazzled by the electrical and mechanical displays and realizing they would radically alter American life, wrote that men like himself "who had never put their hands on a lever, had never touched an electric battery . . . had no choice but to sit down on the steps and brood . . . aghast at what they had said and done in all these years."  He and his friends rejected their "antiquated dislike of bankers and capitalistic society." In the ideal White City, products were shown as progress, capitalism as conducive to fun. In the words of architect Henry Van Brunt before the fair's opening, its design aimed "not only to adorn this triumph of materialism, but to condone, explain and supplement it, so that some elements of 'sweetness and light' may be brought forward to counterbalance the boastful Philistinism of our times." 
The Exposition's success in attendance and finance made the Court of Honor a model for future fairs and the Midway a model for Coney Island and carnivals. The extensive report on the Fair by President Higinbotham was intended to help guide "similar enterprises of the future, whatever benefit may be derived from our experience."  Indeed, the 1901 St. Louis fair and the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco were directly modeled on the White City in displaying culture and making a profit, while the goals of unifying America, glorifying technology and promoting education were adopted in expositions to the 1930s and beyond.  The 1893 Exposition began a boom in fairs around the United States, with seven large fairs in the following twelve years.  The Midway had an enduring impact on American entertainment. George Tilyou, who founded Steeplechase Park, had spent his honeymoon at the Exposition. Like the passing of the torch, the Ferris Wheel was moved to Coney Island along with the erotic danse du ventre (belly dance) of Little Egypt and the other oddities and thrills of Chicago.  The success of the Midway and Coney Island led to amusement parks all over the country and itinerant carnivals in rural areas.  These fairs and parks magnified the Columbian Exposition's effect of making culture more diverse, technology-based, and consumer-oriented.
Walt Disney, whose father worked for the Exposition as a carpenter, would create the White City of the 20th century, Walt Disney World (amusement park and ideal city) and EPCOT (foreign exhibits and celebration of technology).  The Disney company has become an American portal for drawing children into today's consumer-dominated culture, symbolized by fast food served at McDonalds and fast-paced, technology-based entertainment like the cinema. Truly, the World's Columbian Exposition was instrumental to the rise of this new culture. The largest exposition ever in American history at that time, it endeared many Americas to new technologies and capitalism by mixing it with "sweetness and light," equating fun and enlightenment with being a consumer. It popularized many important ideas, artists, and inventions (including electricity and hamburgers). And because of its success, it was the model and inspiration for expositions and amusement parks all over the country, magnifying the fair's effects. Henry Adams wrote, "Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving."  The American People chose the route paved by capitalism and propelled by technology, and they would steer humanity to new frontiers.
Frederick Jackson Turner, in acknowledging the end of the western frontier, proposed that America's development and history is based on the frontier: "This perennial birth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion – furnish the forces dominating American character."  The first frontier had closed, but the 1893 World's Fair symbolized and promoted new internal and external frontiers: the emergence from isolationism and the imperial nationalism that would shatter the Spanish-American collaboration of the Columbian Exposition; the technological and cultural frontiers that would shape American values and spread them worldwide. In 1939 abolitionist and anti-imperialist Oswald Garrison Villard wrote that "in many respects" the Fair "marked the coming of age of the United States."  Indeed, as the world's only superpower in the year 2000, one must wonder: what will be the next frontier for America, the mark for humanity's coming of age?
* * *
1. H.W. Brands, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s (New York: St.Martin's Press, 1995) 22-3, 42.
2. Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age, in the American Century series, ed. Eric Foner (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989) 14-15.
3. Reid Badger, The Great American Fair: the World's Columbian Exposition & American Culture (Chicago: N. Hall, 1979) xi-xii.
4. Harlow N. Higinbotham, Report of the President to the Board of Directors of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1898) 7, 9, 11.
5. John E. Findling, Chicago's Great World's Fairs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994) 12-13.
6. Brands 43-44.
7. Findling 18.
8. Clara Louise Burnham, "Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City," World's Fairs and the Dawning of "The American Century", eds. Robert Rydell and Kevin Randolph (Los Angeles: Organization of American Historians and The Regents, University of California, 1998) 55.
9. Badger 107-108.
10. Trachtenberg 213-214.
11. Badger 109.
12. Judith A. Adams, "The American Dream Actualized: The Glistening 'White City' and the Lurking Shadows of the World's Columbian Exposition," The World's Columbian Exposition: a Centennial Bibliographic Guide, David J. Bertuca (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996) xix; Brands 44-45.
13. Higinbotham 323.
14. Badger 114-115.
15. Findling 5-7.
16. Badger 20-21, 131.
17. Julie K. Rose, "The Legacy of the Fair," World's Columbian Exposition (xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/WCE/legacy.html) (9/29/2000) 5.
18. Adams xxiii-xxiv.
19. Badger 115.
20. Rossiter Johnson, ed., A History of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893; by Authority of the Board of Directors (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1897-98) 4:494.
21. Adams xxiv.
22. Badger 130; Findling 37.
23. "International Exhibition Guide for the Southern States," World's Fairs and the Dawning of "The American Century", eds. Robert Rydell and Kevin Randolph (Los Angeles: Organization of American Historians and The Regents, University of California, 1998) 18.
24. Badger 114.
25. Rose 2.
26. Higinbotham 13-15.
27. Trachtenberg 217.
28. Julie K. Brown, Contesting Images: Photography and the World's Columbian Exposition (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1994) 116.
29. Adams xxiii.
30. Brown 71, 115.
31. Rose 3.
32. Johnson 3:230.
33. Findling 153, 29.
34. Rose 2.
35. Adams xx.
36. Rose 2.
37. Brands 45, 49.
38. Adams xxi.
39. Badger 104.
40. Adams xxv-xxvi.
41. Brands 27, 33.
42. Trachtenberg 216-217, 219.
43. Higinbotham 5.
44. Rose 1.
45. Badger 132.
46. Adams xxvi.
47. Findling 28.
48. Adams xxv.
49. Brands 33.
50. Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," Words That Made American History Since the Civil War, eds. Richard N. Current, John A. Garraty, and Julius Weinberg (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978) 183.
51. Badger 114.
Burnham, Clara Louise. "Sweet Clover: A Romance of the White City." World's Fairs and the Dawning of "The American Century". Eds. Robert Rydell and Kevin Randolph. Los Angeles: Organization of American Historians and The Regents, University of California, 1998. 54-55.
This selection from a late 19th century novel set at the Columbian Fair reveals the fear and repulsion some felt about visiting the Midway.
Higinbotham, Harlow N. Report of the President to the Board of Directors of the World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1898.
A detailed report (almost 500 pages) on the planning of the fair, submitted by the Board's President, Harlow N. Higinbotham. It provides a fascinating look at how such a large fair was run (lots of bureaucracy, like a big business) and reveals the intentions and tactics of the administrators.
Howe, Jeffery. "World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago," A Digital Archive of American Architecture (www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/1893fair.html) (12/30/2000) 1-3.
This provides numerous pictures of the Exposition with brief descriptions - used for the Appendix (the fact that these pictures were part of an archive of architecture further show its influence).
"International Exhibition Guide for the Southern States." World's Fairs and the Dawning of "The American Century". Eds. Robert Rydell and Kevin Randolph. Los Angeles: Organization of American Historians and The Regents, University of California, 1998. 18.
The excerpt attempts to persuade Southern readers to come to the Philadelphia Centennial Fair, despite continuing Southern hatred of the North after the Civil War. As the fair was getting under way, the contentious election of 1876, which would result in the end of Reconstruction, was about to begin. Unlike the Philadelphia Fair, held during a divisive period, the 1893 Fair emphasized unity and nationalism. The author of this selection could not be determined.
Johnson, Rossiter, ed. A History of the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893; by Authority of the Board of Directors. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1897-98.
This four-volume set retells the history and planning of the fair (with a positive bias) but also lists all that was at the fair (filling hundreds of pages) and essays with reactions to the fair, revealing the intentions of the organization.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Words That Made American History Since the Civil War. Eds. Richard N. Current, John A. Garraty, and Julius Weinberg. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1978. 181-205.
Turner's famous speech at the Exposition, though little noticed at the time (it receives only two lines in Johnson's history), would emerge as the dominant interpretation of the role of the frontier in American history for over half a century. Turner describes the importance of the frontier to American democracy, yet even as he remarks on the closing of the westward frontier, the 1893 fair around him was providing a preview of new frontiers.
Adams, Judith A. "The American Dream Actualized: The Glistening 'White City' and the Lurking Shadows of the World's Columbian Exposition." The World's Columbian Exposition: a Centennial Bibliographic Guide. David J. Bertuca. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996. xix-xxix.
The introduction to the most comprehensive bibliography on the fair provides an overview of the impact of the fair, particularly on city planning and amusements. It includes an interesting section on the Fair's continuing influence through Disney World, and asserts that many Americans, through immersion in such illusions of happiness, have ignored real problems.
Badger, Reid. The Great American Fair: the World's Columbian Exposition & American Culture. Chicago: N. Hall, 1979.
Considered to be the best summary of the Fair and its influence, this book provides a broad view and interpretation of the history of the Fair. Badger, through focusing on a single event, aims to understand the decisive era before the opening of the "American Century." This source was used specifically to determine the success and cultural impact of the Exposition and contrast it with the Philadelphia Fair.
Brands, H. W. The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Brands provides a sweeping narrative of the 1890s, and weaves in the Fair, Turner's speech, and the Fair's impact on electricity and on individuals who attended.The history draws connections between the Fair and other events of the decade.
Brown, Julie K. Contesting Images: Photography and the World's Columbian Exposition. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1994.
This is an interesting study of photography at the Fair, revealing the administration's strict control, desire to make a profit, and preference of industry over art.
Findling, John E. Chicago's Great World's Fairs. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Findling describes the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the 1933 Century of Progress Fair. Provides important description of the 1893 Fair an focuses on its connection with Chicago.
Rose, Julie K. "The Legacy of the Fair." World's Columbian Exposition. xroads.virginia.edu/ ~MA96/WCE/legacy.html.
Part of an extensive website with a description, tour, and history of the Fair, this particular page provides in-depth coverage of the impact of the Fair on everything from syrup to consumerism.
Trachtenberg, Alan. The Incorporation of America: Culture & Society in the Gilded Age. In the American Century series. Ed. Eric Foner. New York: Hill and Wang, 1989.
Trachtenberg aims to draw the connection between the fair and elite business interests, calling the fair an "alliance" between business and government. In placing the Fair next to the Pullman Strikes, Trachtenberg seems to focus on the Fair's negatives.