“Sell the cookstove if necessary and come. You must see the Fair.”
— Author Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents
Whether sparked by tales of ancestors who traveled to the great fair from small towns across the country or visiting the actual Chicago site, the 1893 Columbian Exposition grabs our imagination — despite the 120 years since.
Erik Larsen’s wildly popular book, “The Devil in the White City,” eliminated any chance interest would flag, and two of Chicago’s major museums have intimate ties. The Museum of Science and Industry is in what was once the Palace of Fine Arts, the exposition’s only permanent building, and the Field Museum was founded to house 50,000 artifacts after the fair closed.
The Field displays a fraction of those artifacts in its new exhibit, “Opening the Vault: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” which will be open through Sept. 7, 2014.
The fair — just 22 years after the great fire all but destroyed the city — signaled Chicago was back. And its legacy lives on today.
Open only six months, the fair reportedly inspired Frank L. Baum to create the Emerald City for his “Wizard of Oz” books and gave us icons like Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit gum, the Ferris wheel and Columbus Day. (The fair celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition — a year late.)
The world came to Chicago, bringing millions of items to show an estimated 25 million visitors. Besides buildings for fields like agriculture, manufacturing and horticulture, including a California tableau of the Liberty Bell made from citrus fruit, each state and a myriad countries had their own buildings.
One of the most dramatic parts of “Opening the Vault” features huge projected versions of black and white pictures of the fair, plus added video of modern people dressed in period clothes. Viewers see them stroll through the Court of Honor and pop into a few of the 200 neoclassical buildings, making it easier to imagine actually being there. And yes, the Ferris wheel turns, and organizers remind visitors that it was 100 feet taller than the one on Navy Pier and could hold 2,160 people.
The epithet “White City” probably came from the color of the white stucco buildings at the fair, but also could refer to the lighting.
“At night, the fair was lit by hundreds of thousands of electric light bulbs that created a truly magical scene. However, the many types of electricity, beyond just the light bulb, were what made the electricity displays at the fair so significant,” reports “Book of the Fair” by Hubert Howe Bancroft.
Carl Akeley’s taxidermy was one of the stars of the fair, and the Field shows a photo of the pioneer, who later joined the museum staff, standing proudly next to a leopard he strangled with his bare hands — thus Akeley’s sling and bandages. The skin of that leopard, who did not go easily, is part of the exhibit. Nearby a huge Steller sea lion is shown in its storage crate.
A variety of items were for sale at the fair, and some of the Field’s great fossils still wear their 1893 price tags, often $2 or $5. That was actually quite pricey, considering admission was 50 cents. Visitors can run fingers across a large, smooth slab full of 400 million-year-old fossilized corals, advertised at the fair as a construction material.
Exhibitors stressed the economic value of exotic materials. They presented fossils as fuel, not specimens for studying evolution. Thus, visitors can see gloves and muffs crafted of “sea silk” or byssus, filaments from clam-like pen shell bivalves. There’s also a lace shawl made from tree bark.
One of the exhibit’s digital setups allows visitors to play an Indonesian gamelan, a musical ensemble consisting of a variety of instruments, including percussions and strings. The instruments were used for musical performances in a 1,000-seat theater in the heart of the Java Village in the Midway section of the fair. Today, the gamelan is one of the museum’s most treasured artifacts.
Current Field anthropologists are embarrassed that “primitive” people were also brought to Chicago for the pleasure of gawking fairgoers. They were set up on the Midway outside the main fairgrounds as part of the “amusement” portion. One group — Laplanders — rebelled, quitting because they did not get the promised food or fresh water. It probably didn’t help that they were wearing their furs during a sweltering Chicago summer.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.