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updated: 8/26/2011 6:16 AM

Arlington Heights hosts 1893 World's Fair memorabilia

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  • An engraving shows some of the 10,000 construction workers leaving after a day's work building the 1893 fair.

       An engraving shows some of the 10,000 construction workers leaving after a day's work building the 1893 fair.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • The Singer Sewing Company taught people from around the world how to use their machines and produced a collection of trading cards for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

       The Singer Sewing Company taught people from around the world how to use their machines and produced a collection of trading cards for the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • This demitasse cup from Coalport, England was hand painted for the Exposition. Debbie Smart is displaying pieces from her collection at the Arlington Heights village hall.

       This demitasse cup from Coalport, England was hand painted for the Exposition. Debbie Smart is displaying pieces from her collection at the Arlington Heights village hall.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • The American Cereal Company gave out cards showing its exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

       The American Cereal Company gave out cards showing its exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • A piece of embroidered fabric was used at an official dinner celebrating the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

       A piece of embroidered fabric was used at an official dinner celebrating the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • A small coin purse from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago features the landing of Columbus in the Americas.

       A small coin purse from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago features the landing of Columbus in the Americas.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Student documentary on the fair

 
 

The 1893 Chicago World's Fair has kept a grip on the imagination of citizens of the region for more than a century -- especially collectors like Debbie Smart.

Smart, who has expanded to thousands of items the collection started by her grandfather and her mother, is exhibiting part of it at the Arlington Heights village hall through September.

"Debbie's collection is on the brink of becoming world-class because of its condition and diversity," said Lloyd Levin, an Arlington Heights collector and dealer who has helped Smart find items. "Some of the pieces that she has might be one of a kind."

Erik Larson's 2003 best-seller, "The Devil in the White City," revived interest in the fair -- also called the Columbian Exposition to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World -- said Smart and Levin, and they predict another surge in memorabilia popularity if Leonardo DiCaprio goes ahead with a movie version.

And yes, Larson's book is pretty accurate, said Smart, a history buff and member of the Arlington Heights Library Board.

A glass hatchet commemorating President George Washington and handblown in the Libbey Glass exhibit is one of Smart's prized possessions shown in the village's display cases.

The fair served as the national "launch" for Libbey and many other companies and inventors, said Smart, and an online report from the University of Toledo said the event actually returned Libbey to profitability.

One of the most popular collectibles are from a set of brightly colored cards issued by the Singer Sewing Machine Co. Each shows people from an individual country -- such as India, Italy and Japan -- in national dress they made after a day's training on the machines.

The three cases in village hall also display everything from a small coin purse and personalized ruby glass pieces to milk glass plates bearing the likeness of Christopher Columbus, companies' catalogs given out at the fair and other books about the event.

One booklet named "From Forest to Foot" turns out to be a company's story of how rubber from the Amazon was made into shoes.

A piece of paper folded origami style into a flower shape is so fragile Smart has it in an airtight container. On the other hand, wooden post cards made from veneers of curly maple and Spanish cedar look very sturdy.

And no, that blue ribbon that Pabst beer brags about did not come from the fair, insists Smart.

Village Clerk Rebecca Hume, whose office opens onto the hallway with the exhibit, says people with business in village hall linger over the memorabilia.

"I have noticed people go from display case to display case. They show a lot of interest," she said.

In a former job, Hume worked with senior citizens, and she thinks they have a special tie to the fair because so many heard tales or have souvenirs from older relatives who actually attended.

Smart verifies that with a tale from the other side of her family, not the collectors.

"The Smart family business journal I found has an entry that says they sent some cattle to the stock exhibit at the fair," she said.

The saga started for Smart with her grandfather, Laurence Herman, who collected stamps and envelopes. This inspired Smart's mother, Pat Herman Smart, to concentrate on the World's Fair, and Debbie Smart expanded it to everything she can find on the exposition.

"My mother is still collecting with me. It's a hobby we can enjoy together," she said.

Some of the items in the exhibit, including tickets for special days such as Manhattan Day or Chicago School Children Day, were shown at the Smithsonian, said Smart.

The fair was held on 633 acres of undeveloped land that is now Chicago's Jackson Park, and the reconstructed Palace of Fine Arts is part of the Museum of Science & Industry.

Smart can talk on and on about the importance of the fair itself, how it marked the rebirth of culture and architecture after the devastating 1871 Chicago Fire and gave birth to many movements, institutions and companies. The exposition was so cleverly organized and marketed that it made a profit of $2.7 million, she said.

And where would we be without the Ferris wheel -- invented as a symbol and draw for the fair.

"Chicago showed the world it was no longer a cow town but a cultural center," said Smart. "People came from all over the world, and countries outdid each other with their exhibits. Spain sent the three replica ships because it was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus, so Norway had to send a Viking ship because they say the Vikings were here first."

The replica Viking ship that sailed from Norway also survived and is open for tours on certain dates in Good Templar Park, 528 Eastside Drive in Geneva.

Smart doesn't know how many pieces are in her collection, but she does have everything cataloged.

"I read and learn about history, the fair and the souvenirs. Every day you learn something new," she said. "Most people specialize in certain areas, advertising cards or postal items or glass. I collect everything."

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