100 Years Ago, Columbus Was a Symbol of Progress


In the exuberant 1890s, the United States celebrated the first voyage of Columbus with a giant world's fair in Chicago. For six months in 1893 (a year late), that brash, young Midwestern metropolis was the host for the Columbian Exhibition, a commemoration that drew 27 million admissions into a splendid White City built in neo-classical designs and a midway that boasted exotic anthropological displays from around the world.

Skeptics from New York and from Europe were impressed, even convinced of the message: Columbus had planted European civilization in the Americas, and now the United States, and within it, Chicago, was leading the world into a bright new era of production, consumption and social order.

If such a message today is unthinkable, that is a measure of the difference between our era and the first years of America's economic and political predominance in a maturing industrial world.

What has disappeared are assumptions that came easily to the Chicago businessmen and politicians who planned the fair. They believed firmly in progress, a future that could be imagined, defined and then built. They assured themselves that the United States, already a first among equals, was destined to outdistance all its European rivals.

While men like Marshall Field, George Pullman and the architect Daniel Burnham recognized the centrifugal forces already pulling the middle class into suburbs, there was to be no compromise; this was an urban Utopia, a city of crowds, business, spectacles and culture. They presumed that the energy, the dissonant cultures and the political power of immigrants and workers crowding the contemporary city could be contained and tamed. The urban world could be made secure and hospitable for the middle classes and the elite.

The fair they built was divided between an idealized White City of elite culture and consumerism and a midway of exotic delights and Social Darwinist anthropology.

The White City celebrated manufacturing, the liberal and mechanic arts, the fine arts, agriculture, transportation and so on. Grouped around lagoons, its neo-classical buildings, embellished with sculpture and art works, were linked by waterways complete with Venetian gondolas. Constructed upon huge wood and iron sheds, this was a very American design, despite the borrowed architectural motifs, because of its very audaciousness: an eclectic fantasy built upon a swamp, on the flat prairie of the Midwest.

Inside the principal buildings and in national exhibits erected by European, South American and Asian nations were the handicraft and industrial products of the world market. Row upon row of turbines, dishes and crockery, electrical batteries, agricultural products (some states erected huge figures out of plums, oranges or corn), vied for attention with exhibits of social progress, education and anthropology erected by nations and states.

Even the fine arts exhibit continued this international competition as American paintings strove for recognition in a world dominated by European standards and names. Despite the amazing variety of products and displays, the sheer, exhausting quantity of things to see, the fair supervisors had devised a system that gave a place to everything, a logical and visible order that reflected the exterior order of white plaster of Paris, of classical columns and arches.

The midway, on the other hand, began with an arrangement of exhibits that sought to demonstrate the superiority of European and American culture over less civilized representatives from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. If a visitor tried, he or she could trace the rise of civilization from its from its lowliest representatives at the far end of this thoroughfare of nations to the highest at the edge of the White City. But that was not all, for a huge and confusing variety of ethnic restaurants, beer halls, shops, girlie shows, circuses and other displays complicated the vision.

Next to this, the ideal White City so generously planned by Daniel Burnham, with its picturesque landscape ambience designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was an exclusive neighborhood. Participation by black Americans was actively discouraged, despite the demands of Frederick Douglass. Native Americans were treated as anthropological exhibits or praised for their acceptance of "civilization." White women had a far greater and more active representation. They had their own ++ building, controlled and designed by and for women. But there were limitations just the same, and efforts for full participation as equals were rejected.

Finally, unlike the vast city of Chicago that sprawled around it, the fair paid only the slightest heed to the industrial working class. Entrance fees were high for the time (50 cents) and leisure time for workers at a minimum. Two exhibits did refer to this vast group: displays on the midway and to the extreme edge of the White City tried to demonstrate that a frugal family could happily live in a small house on minimal wages.

Of course, Columbus was an important part of the fair. There was a reconstruction of La Rabida Friary from which he was called back to court by the Queen of Spain. Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria reproductions were anchored in one of the lagoons. Spanish royalty helped to commemorate the fair, but Spain, as well as the rest of Europe, was dwarfed by the vaunted accomplishments of the United States. A scale model of the Eiffel Tower, the hit of the Paris Exhibition of 1889, was diminutive compared to the huge Ferris Wheel erected at the center of the midway. Elements of European culture on the midway were treated as quaint (the German restaurant and French cafes, the Irish Blarney Castle).

Despite these grand designs and accomplishments, the fair did not succeed in suppressing the challenges to its vision, some of which continue to confront us today.

The Chicago World's Fair imagined a harmony of ethnic groups and denied the nation's racial complexity. It celebrated urban life, but with a vision of leisure and culture that could appeal only to the middle and elite classes. It assumed a continuous progress that may seem dubious to our generation. Most illusive of all, it expressed an encompassing faith in an order of nations and an identifiable social order within nations.

These are not, it seems to me, notions that we could confidently celebrate today. Nor could the fair itself achieve anything more than an ephemeral influence. In 1894, a severe depression washed over the city of Chicago (it had struck the rest of the nation somewhat earlier). A terrible strike at the Pullman works divided the city and embittered many industrial workers. And the White City itself burned down within a year (leaving only the Fine Arts building which has been preserved to house Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry).

James Gilbert, professor of history at University of Maryland, College Park, is the author of "Perfect Cities: Chicago's Utopias of 1893."

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