Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair

By Alex Bean on May 1, 2018

TOURSDAILY

The 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair is this year! In fact, Chicago welcomed visitors from around the world to the opening ceremony of the World’s Columbian Exposition on this day 125 years ago. We explore some of the fair’s incredible legacy during our 1893 World’s Fair Tour every week. The nerds at Chicago Detours will also take any excuse to do some research for things like an auspicious anniversary.

125th Anniversary of the 1893 World's Fair Court of Honor crowds
Imagine giving a speech to that crowd with no microphone. Image via Wikimedia.

A Presidential Inauguration

Chicago has a long, long list of notable presidential visits, but few had as much fanfare as President Grover Cleveland‘s visit on May 1st, 1893. He was one of dozens of civic leaders and dignitaries who paraded down to Jackson Park. The fair’s directors had even invited the Duke of Veragua, a direct descendent of Christopher Columbus. This was, after all, the Columbian Exposition.

The opening festivities at the park, which garnered breathless press coverage from around the world, centered on President Cleveland’s speech. An estimated 200,000 people crowded into the White City on this opening day. Keep in mind that electronic microphones and amplification were not yet invented. Indeed, the usage of Tesla’s AC electricity to power the fairgrounds was startling and received wide commentary. Still, something tells me that not too many people heard that speech.

Regardless, the key moment needed no words at all. At precisely 12:08pm, on a platform at the head of the White City’s grand Court of Honor, the President pressed a golden telegraph key. According to the Salt Lake Herald…

“The electric age was ushered into being in this last decade of the nineteenth century today when President Cleveland, by pressing a button, started the mighty machinery, rushing waters and revolving wheels in the World’s Columbian [E]xposition.”

It must have been a moment of beauty. I often wonder what event could similarly excite and unite us on the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair.

An Incomplete Experience

For all that fanfare, the World’s Fair was an incomplete experience on its opening day. Honestly, it’s sort of miraculous the fairgrounds were ready for visitors at all. Daniel Burnham, the legendary Director of Works, worked mightily to overcome a sea of troubles. The construction schedule was too short. Controversies had arisen over designs. Labor disputes further delayed everything. Thousands of people worked at a fever pitch all through the days leading up to May 1st. A ceaseless run of cold, rainy days (which sounds familiar this year) made laborers miserable. Rainwater swamped Frederick Law Olmstead’s immaculately designed lawns and poured through the roof of expo buildings, according to Erik Larson’s seminal The Devil in the White City

125th Anniversary of the 1893 World's Fair Ferris Wheel Lincoln Park construction
This photo of the Ferris Wheel being reconstructed in Lincoln Park maybe gives a sense of what it looked like on opening day in 1893. Image via Wikimedia.

Perhaps most notably, the star attraction of the Midway was still an unfinished eyesore. The magnificent Ferris Wheel was only a “half-moon of steel encased in a skyscraper of wooden falsework” on opening day. The wheel was Chicago’s attempt to “Out-Eiffel Eiffel” and build a structure as magnificent and romantic as the Eiffel Tower that wowed visitors to the 1889 Paris Exposition. All the same troubles that afflicted the rest of the fair delayed the wheel’s completion until over a month after opening day. Still, everyone marveled when it cranked to life amidst a shower of loose bolts on June 9th.

The World’s Fair was Initially Disappointing

It’s easy to forget from our perspective on the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair, but the event was initially a flop. Around 200,000 people crowded into the White City for the opening day festivities on May 1st, but only 10,000 people visited the World’s Fair on May 2nd. This precipitous decline was…less than ideal.

Things looked even worse when the Panic of 1893 set off a depression which sent unemployment skyrocketing to over 18% by the end of the year. Civic leaders expected that high attendance would wash away the stains of the clunky opening, but if no one was showing up…

Salvation eventually came in the form of the Ferris Wheel. The fair’s attendance took off when that crazy contraption finally got into motion in mid-summer. Some of that may simply correlate to the generally nicer weather in mid-summer. Still, it’s hard to understate the incredible draw of the Ferris Wheel. The White City might have been a fiasco if not for a ride that wasn’t even on the formal fairgrounds.

125th Anniversary of the 1893 World's Fair small crowd White City
There’s a rather noticeable lack of crowds here… Image via Wikimedia

Reflections on the 125th Anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair

This gives you a hint to the bigger ideas that pervade our 1893 World’s Fair Tour with Bars (which you can join three days a week). We always end the tour by discussing the brevity of the Columbian Exposition. Opening Day was on May 1st, 1893, and the somber closing day was on October 31st, 1893. This legendary event ran for all of 183 days. By contrast, it’s been 45,472 days since the fair ended. The fair is ancient history by Chicago’s standards; far beyond living memory. Yet it still captures our attention. We still look back to that one summer. Do we see glamour there? Hope? Pride? Wonder? Waste? Triumph? Tragedy? All were present, of course.

More than any single thing, on the 125th anniversary of the 1893 World’s Fair, we’re looking back to see if we can catch a glimpse of ourselves there. By looking back and seeing ourselves we confirm that our own glamour, hope, pride, waste, triumph, and tragedy has a precedent. Such confirmation lets us know that our own great-great-grandchildren might look back at us and our times in the same way someday.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide