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Dr. Andrew Wood
Office: HGH 210; phone: (408) 924-5378

Notes the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Chicago World's Fair
Between the first of May and the end of October, an estimated 27 million people attended Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition -- officially planned to celebrate the European "discovery" of the New World -- and marvelled at the Exposition's neo-classical vision of ordered community, cultural displays, and artistic exhibits. The WCE, situated on a 1.3 mile long strip in Jackson Park, Chicago, introduced a wealth of inventions to America and the world that ranged from cracker jacks, zippers, and the Ferris Wheel to innovations in architecture, machinery, and child care. Not only did the Exposition provide a subject for countless pages of "official" guidebooks, editorial responses, and novelized depictions (Dybwad & Bliss, 1992), it also spurred the City Beautiful movement that dominated twenty years of architectural practice and inspired generations of planners (Throgmorton, 1996). In most of the popular press, the WCE epitomized to America and the world the inevitable betterment of humankind that would follow the embrace of civilization and science, the twin gods of progress.

An inescapable utopian impulse energized the WCE. The belief that science, discipline, and rational planning could build organized and happy cities emerged most clearly in the 1888 publication of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 -- the most widely read utopian novel of the nineteenth century. Bellamy's depiction of a post-capitalist Boston, in which the 'civilization' of the nineteenth century was revealed for its hypocrisy, inspired millions of Americans to imagine emancipation from the crises of the day through the betterment of their communities through the eyes of the novel's protagonist:

At my feet lay a great city. Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller enclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, along with statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late-afternoon sun. Public buildings of a colossal size and architectural grandeur unparalleled in my day raised their stately piles on every side. Sure I had never seen this city nor one comparable to it before. (p. 44)

Writing in The Forum, Van Rensselaer (1893) affirmed that Bellamy's vision was to be realized in the Exposition:

Beautiful groups, beautiful perspectives, a stupendously beautiful architectural panorama is what the Fair will show us. It will be the first real object-lesson America has had in the art of building well on a great scale; and it will show us how, on a smaller but still sometimes a very large scale, our permanent streets and squares ought to be designed. (p. 531)

Indeed, the White City did serve as a prototype for the kind of grand-scale planning that was to emerge in the twentieth-century. Yet, the WCE as a structure was, like utopia, ephemeral. Wright (1980) observes that the Exposition offered an "imaginary world of progress and pleasure" that lasted only for a moment. Speaking of the 'hyperreality of the fair' Biemiller (1993) notes that "[f]or better or worse, the fair changed the course of American architecture and city planning, even though it was little more than a three-dimensional stage-set itself" (p. A43). Like most sets, WCE did not survive when the players left the stage. An 1896 Scientific American article recalls that almost all of the buildings that comprised the White City were reduced to ashes in a fire on July 3, 1894 or simply dismantled.


Bellamy, E. (1888/nd). Looking Lookward: 2000-1887. New York: Penguin Books.

Biemiller, L. (1993, July 28). A grandiose exposition that changed the course of american architecture. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A43.

Dybwad, G.L., & Bliss, J.V. (1992). Annotated bibliography: World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. Albuquerque, NM: The Book Stops Here.

Staff. (1896, October 3). Fate of the chicago world's fair buildings. Scientific American, 75, 267.

Throgmorton, J.A. (1996). Planning as persuasive story telling: The rhetorical construction of Chicago's electric future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Van Rensselaer, M.G. (1893). The artistic triumph of the fair-builders. Forum, 14, 527-540.

Wright, G. (1980). Moralism and the model home: Domestic architecture and cultural conflict in Chicago: 1873-1913 Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Vintage Seattle