Format: video with audio
Running time: 14 min 23 sec.
Summary: Pinky takes you on a field trip to Chicago, Illinois, in search of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Included: a brief introduction to this important world's fair at the end of the 19th century; how the fair helped forge a new national identity; the role of the fair in redefining American attitudes toward the rest of the world; relationships between the fair and the development of U.S. imperialism; how the fair disappeared.
Pinky: Hey there. This is Pinky, coming to you from the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago, Illinois. Bunny and I are here in Chicago to look for the 1893 Columbian Exposition. I mean, yeah, I know we're about a hundred years too late and of course the Exposition is long gone, but that world's fair was one of the most important events in the U.S. during the late 19th century, and it had a profound impact on the course of American history. The fact that nobody seems to remember it - I mean, even most people who live in Chicago never heard of it - that only makes me all the more curious to find out how something so big and so important could have disappeared from public memory.
Here we are looking a bit southward now, and off in the distance - right there - that's where the Columbian Exposition was held, in Jackson Park. It was a huge event, let's go see what's left of it, let's see if any of it's still there.
Okay, here we are in Jackson Park, and so far.. nothing. It just looks like a regular.. park. But according to this history book, there's supposed to be a monument around here someplace...
Okay! Here it is! Tucked away among a.. bunch of trees. It's not very big. It's a recreation of the gold-covered original that used to stand very close to this spot, in a giant-size reflecting pool.
There we go. You can see from this old photograph, taken in 1893, that the original statue must have been more than twice the height as this reproduction one. See the little gondola with the tiny people in it near the bottom? Yeah, so the original would have been.. pretty big. This statue is named 'The Republic', and the Columbian Exposition was ostensibly held to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of the "New World".
So yeah, this statue, sitting in the middle of this quiet, empty park, marks the actual site of the Columbian Exposition's fair grounds. More specifically, it marks the exact spot of the fair's administration building.
Here it is. This is the administration building. It used to stand right here. Wow, look at all those people...
Oh, here's a photo of the administration building and the statue, in the pond...
and this is the pond as it is today... mm, pretty different!
Walking a short distance off, we now come to the south end of the Exposition's main lagoon. Along the way, in 1893, we would have seen the very impressive canals, all lined with huge buildings that were built for the Exposition.
Before we go on I think we should talk a bit about just how big the Columbian Exposition was. Over 630 acres. Over 200 buildings were constructed from scratch for the exposition, with many of them so large that they actually built buildings inside these buildings! The scale of the event can also be understood in terms of how many people attended - consider this: in the six months that the Exposition was open, over 27 million people attended - and that's at a time in which the entire population of the United States was only around 60 million. Can you imagine? Travel wasn't easy in those days - this is way before air travel mind you - but people thought it important enough to get out there, to the Mid-West, to Chicago, and see this amazing spectacle they called The White City.
A very important aspect of the Columbian Exposition was it's architecture. It was meant to be monumental and grand - a spectacular mix of European / Classical / Renaissance styles. But the architecture wasn't only meant to just be aesthetically pleasing - the emphasis on drawing heavily from easily recognizable European models was also heavily symbolic - it was meant to demonstrate to the visitor, in no uncertain terms, that America was the direct intellectual and cultural heir to the best traditions Europe had to offer. And the over-the-top displays inside these impressive buildings were simply the other half of the message - vast collections of the newest advances in technology, industry, science, agriculture, and commerce. The Exposition was, in fact, a huge classroom, and the citizenry were the students. The lesson being taught was that America was the most powerful emerging nation in the world.
Now this idea of American supremacy, well, this argument was made at the Exposition both directly and indirectly. The main area of the Columbian Exposition, containing the largest and most impressive buildings, occupied this area here. This area spoke directly about American progress - economically, politically, culturally, spiritually.
But there was also another area of the Exposition - this narrow area here... they called the Midway Plaisance - it was, in many ways, meant to act as a sort of polar opposite, an antithesis. The two areas worked together by providing a kind of 'compare-and-contrast': whereas the exhibition halls were high culture and progress, the midway was all guilty pleasure - full of beer, fighting, and exotic 'hoochie-coochie' dancers.
Civilization versus barbarism.
Christianity versus ...well, everything else.
At the Midway, a wide selection of people, animals, and objects were presented for visitors to gawk at: Africans, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, Orientals, ostriches, and of course, Indians. Lots of Indians.
The visitors were entralled. So much so, that in many visitors' accounts it was really the attractions at the Midway that provided them with the greatest pleasures and sense of astonishment. It was a rare opportunity for the American visitor to meet, in live-human diorama form, all these hideously backwards people who seemed to exemplify and embody the exact opposite of what the United States aspired to become. Here it was, all laid out in front of them in graphic and obvious terms, the differences between 'us'.. and 'them'. And through the lens of Americanism - these people must have appeared very very inferior, and perhaps even... very appropriate subjects for civilizing and spiritual rehabilitation, American-style.
Tens of millions of visitors experienced all this first hand - they returned to their lives and jobs with a new sense of national pride and basically, a new national identity.
In classrooms, in parlors, in bars,.. on the senate floor, people began speaking with more conviction of America's responsibility to exert its influence on a global scale. And of all the lasting legacies of the Columbian Exposition, I think this was its greatest impact - the sum total of all its various parts had the combined effect of narrating a compelling story of American superiority. And this narrative meshed quite nicely with the objectives of American politicians and businessmen who wanted the United States to extend its political, economic, and military power to the far corners of the earth. Together with other forms of coercion - most notably the sensationalistic 'yellow journalism' of the day - the Columbian Exposition performed an essential task - it molded and shaped the public's imagination in such a way that the very idea of subjugating foreign lands and foreign people could be seen as... natural.
Now, a little context. We need to consider the Columbian Exposition in relation to the overall historical context of American territorial expansion. A hundred years earlier, in 1783, we have a much smaller 'United States'. Then we have:
* The Louisiana Purchase - 1803.
* Florida - 1821.
* Texas - 1845.
* Oregon Country - 1846.
* Mexican Cession - 1848 - hey, the 1840's were busy years - manifest destiny, you know!
* Gadsen Purchase - 1853, and
* Alaska - 1867 - not on the map.
by 1890, the American frontier is officially declared 'closed'.
And then comes a pivotal moment - beginning in the 1890's - the exact historical moment in which we have the Columbian Exposition - the United States becomes an overseas empire by establishing colonial outposts in foreign lands:
* Hawaii - 1893.
* 1898 - Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
* Eastern Islands of Samoa - 1900.
* Cuba - 1898 or 1902, depending how you look at it.
Anyway, the point is, by taking foreign lands beyond it's continental borders, the United States of America, itself built upon lands seized from indigenous peoples within its continental borders, had now begun a new phase of American Imperialism that would define its foreign policy throughout the 20th century, and beyond.
Over the next hundred or so years, the United States would use it's military, all over the world, to enforce its policy objectives again and again. Not to mention even how our country uses it's tremendous economic and political leverage to exert pressure on others without the direct threat of missiles or bombs. And this, you could say, brings us 'up to date', to our current situation.
So I guess that's why I wanted to come to Chicago. I thought that maybe by actually being here, being at this place that was so important in shaping the American world-view at that time, that maybe it would somehow help me to understand how the people of this nation somehow came to give their consent to empire building. I want to understand this because.. well, we don't have world's fairs anymore, but we do have other institutions that perform similar functions - museums, schools, advertising, Disneyland - stuff like that. I think institutions like these tend to have a lot in common with each other in terms of how they work, and I figure, by studying world's fairs - sort of the granddaddy of modern propaganda-forms - maybe one day I'll be able to see very clearly, exactly how the ruling classes persuade the masses to see things their way.
Today the only building from the white city still standing is the old palace of fine arts. It's since been converted into the city of Chicago's Museum of Science. The rest of the Columbian Exposition is long gone. So.. what happened to all the other buildings you ask?
Well, to make a long story short, shortly after the Exposition officially closed, there was a big railway strike in the city of Chicago, and in the ensuing rioting, pretty much the whole 'white city' went up in flames. Whatever wasn't burned to the ground was demolished. The land was leveled, and in the coming decades the area would be used for a bunch of different stuff - first athletic fields, then a U.S. Army missile range, and then for a long period of time it was just a big flat nothing with a lot of weeds. Now it's sort of a nature preserve. But within only a couple of generations, the whole World's Fair had quietly slipped into the dustbin of history.
So that's basically how it all.. disappeared.
It's hard to comprehend. The only signs that the thing ever existed are.. well, signs. Innocuous, ugly little metal signs. It's beyond ironic that the most lavish and spectacular public event of its era would end up being 'remembered' - barely - in the most banal way possible. But I think that's how history often works, I mean, things like this happen all the time. What happened here did matter. And we are still living the ramifications of this disappeared place.
The Book of the Fair. Hubert Howe Bancroft (The Bancroft Company, Chicago, San Francisco, 1893).
The Chicago World's Fair of 1893: A Photographic Record. Stanley Applebaum (Dover Architectural Series, 1980).
Contesting Images: Photography and the World's Columbian Exposition. Julie K. Brown (The University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, 1994).
Facing West: The Metaphisics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building. Richard Drinnon (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997 edition).
From Wounded Knee to Iraq: A Century of U.S. Military Interventions. Dr. Zoltan Grossman.
< http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz/interventions.html >
The Great American Fair: The 1893 Columbian Exposition. Reid Badger (N. Hall, 1979).
The World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. Julie K. Rose (1996).
< http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA96/WCE/title.html >
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Kristin Standaert, Paul V.
Galvin Library Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of
< http://columbus.gl.iit.edu/index.html >
The Vanishing Fair. H.H. Van Meter, with illustrations by William and Charles Ottman (The Literary Art Company, Chicago, 1894).narration: Pinky
music: Bunny & Pinky
sound effects: Pinky
drawings & illustrations: Pinky
other images: titles by Pinky
[ image credits ]