World's Columbian Exposition,
Digital History Project

Paul Barrett
Chair/Associate Professor
Department of Humanities
Illinois Institute of Technology

For the business and civic leaders of Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition was the climactic event of a ritual by which the city “came of age.” [1] Chicago engaged in a long political struggle with New York and other Eastern cities for the right to hold the exposition: in the end, Chicago simply out-bid its rivals. Land and facilities were donated by business and the city, and most of the construction expenses were borne by local business.

A century ago, every major city aspired to hold a major exposition--indeed every sizable town hoped to be the scene of a county fair. But Chicago had special reasons to pursue the honor. Chicago was the economic center of the grain, meat and lumber trades of the “west” -- a region stretching all the way to the Rocky Mountains. The nation’s railroads had centered on Chicago since the 1850s, and by 1890 Chicago was the nation’s second steel-making center and was a major player in virtually phase of “modern” industry.” In spite--and in part because--of it all, Chicago looked “barbaric” to the elite of Eastern cities and to many middle-class city and town dwellers nation-wide. In creating its World’s Fair, Chicago’s business community sought both to display the triumphs of commerce and industry, but to demonstrate to the “world” that it did in fact have its “house in order.”

To many, the matter seemed to require proof first, because 70% of the city’s 1890 population was made up of foreign born people and their children. This population made up most of the immense industrial work force that moved the commerce and industry of the city. Inevitably, in a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization accompanied by low wages and cycles of employment and unemployment, this population also came to be identified with poverty, disorder, and incipient revolution.

At the end of the 1800s, it was not uncommon for the Eastern press to refer to Chicago as the “Red City,” because of its history of bloody class confrontations. In 1877 a largely spontaneous national strike had shut down Chicago along with other railroad cities and resulted in the importation of Federal troops to put the city back to work. A general strike in 1886 resulted in a labor-police confrontation remembered as the Haymarket Riot. This bloody event produced the nation’s first labor-related conspiracy trials, four hangings. The event was commemorated as “May Day” by socialist and communist unions and activists around the world, and is so to this day. In addition to, and surely related to this violence, Chicago had some of the worst housing and working conditions in America. To both “Conservative” and “Liberal” Chicago had much to prove.

Chicago business and government responded in many ways. Settlement Houses like Jane Adams’ Hull House represented one pattern of response to urban disorder. Increasing emphasis on job training --along with European languages -- in public schools was a part of the same response. Another response was preparation for repression, exemplified in the building of Fort Sheridan just north of the City.

In this context, the design of the “White City” is most telling. Not only were exhibits of foreign governments neatly separated from the central fairground and housed in “characteristic” buildings of each nation’s own devising, but concessions and commercial exhibits were confined to the “midway,” well away from the central fair-grounds. This “fair outside the fair” is especially well treated in Halsey Ives Dream City -- a part of the Galvin Library on-line collection. Indeed a glance through any of the Galvin’s books commemorating the fair reveals the same theme repeated again and again: everything is in “its place.”

Labor disorder did not in fact subside until the end of the 1930s. Evident inequality is as severe in the 1990s as in the 1890s. But -- in the words of Ives’ title -- the “Dream City” allowed Americans in general and Chicago’s elite to imagine that social problems could in fact be solved--and solved “beautifully” -- by building and planning, and without a redistribution or wealth. This is the dream embodied in this exposition--a particularly American dream that lives on, unrealized, to this day.

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Digital History Collection
Last Updated: February 26, 1999