1893 Chicago World's Fair - The World's Columbian Exposition
"The White City"


Brief Summary

postcard aerial shot of entire 600 acre fairgrounds
The Court of Honor
the magic of "a sudden bit of heaven" when the lights came on at night (also 1, 2, 3)
The World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World's Fair, was held in Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492. Chicago bested New York City, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis for the honor of hosting the fair. The fair had a profound effect on architecture, the arts, Chicago's self-image, and American industrial optimism.

The Exposition, designed by (building architect) Daniel Burnham and (landscape architect) Frederick Law Olmsted, was the prototype of what Burnham and his colleagues thought a city should be -- adhering to the Beaux Arts principles of design, namely French neoclassical architecture principles based on symmetry, balance, and splendor. It covered more than 600 acres, with 200 new (but purposefully temporary) buildings, canals and lagoons, and 50,000 exhibitors including people and cultures from 46 nations around the world. More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run, May-October, 1893. The scale and grandeur far exceeded the previous world fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism. The fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire which had destroyed much of the city just 22 years earlier in 1871. The Exposition inspired both L. Frank Baum (the Emerald City in the Land of Oz) and Walt Disney (the Disneyland theme parks). Landscape architect Olmsted is perhaps best-known for his design of Central Park and the Biltmore estate.

White City

The area at the Court of Honor was known as The White City. The classical architecture buildings were made of a white stucco, which, in comparison to the tenements of Chicago, seemed illuminated. It was also called the White City because of the extensive use of street lights, which made the boulevards and buildings usable at night. "It's not a White City, it's a Dreamland." -- The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.

Electricity at the fair

General Electric Company (backed by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan) had originally proposed to power the electric exhibits with direct-current at the cost of US $1.8 million; after this was rejected as exorbitant, General Electric revised their bid to $554,000. However, Westinghouse, armed with Nikola Tesla's alternating-current system, proposed to illuminate the Columbian Exposition in Chicago for $399,000, which won the contract. It was a historical moment and the beginning of a revolution, as Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced the public to alternating-current electrical power -- the high-frequency high-voltage lighting produced more efficient light with quantitatively less heat. General Electric banned the use of Edison's lamps in Westinghouse's plan in retaliation for losing the bid, but Westinghouse's company quickly designed a double-stopper lightbulb (sidestepping Edison's patents) and was able to light the fair.

"If evenings at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago. These were important engineering milestones, but what visitors adored was the sheer beauty of seeing so many lights ignited in one place, at one time. Every building, including the Manufacures and Liberal Arts Building, was outlined in white bulbs. Giant searchlights -- the largest ever made and said to be visible sixty miles away -- had been mounted on the Manufactures' roof and swept the grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. Large colored bulbs lit the hundred-foot plumes of water that burst from the MacMonnies Fountain." ... it "was like getting a sudden vision of Heaven." -- The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.

The Financial Risk Paid Off

As detailed in Erik Larson's popular history The Devil in the White City, extraordinary effort was required to accomplish the exposition, and much of it was unfinished on opening day, May 1. Frequent debates and disagreements among the developers of the fair had added many delays to all the projects, and escalated costs to over $20 million ($500 million today). Thus, the financial status of the fair was in doubt until its final weeks, as the deepening economic depression of 1893, plus the tardiness of completion of many of the exhibits, delayed attendance. However, fair attendance records were shattered on "Chicago Day" October 9th; businesses in Chicago had closed for the day, and over 750,000 people attended the fair, almost twice as many as the previous record (397,000 in Paris in 1889). The daily admission price was 50¢ ($12 today). The spurning of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show proved a serious financial mistake, as Buffalo Bill set up his highly popular show next door to the fair and brought in a great deal of revenue that he did not have to share with the developers. On the other hand, the famous Ferris Wheel, which was not finished until mid-June, six weeks into the fair (because it was approved so late due to indecisiveness of the board of directors), proved to be a major attendance draw and helped save the fair from bankruptcy. Overall, the construction and operation of the fair proved to be a windfall for Chicago workers during the serious economic recession that was sweeping the country.



Attractions and innovations

• The World's Columbian Exposition was the first world's fair with an area for amusements (the 13-block "Midway") that was strictly separated from the exhibition hall (map).
World's first Ferris Wheel
It was designed to "out-Eiffel Eiffel"
and thrilled 20,000 people a day starting on June 18!
• The Ferris Wheel (also called the "Chicago Wheel", designed and built by George Ferris) was 264 feet high and had 36 cars, each of which could accommodate 60 people -- over 2000 people at a time! The Ferris Wheel was designed as a noteworthy and innovative icon, bigger than the Eiffel Tower (besting the 1889 Paris World's Fair was a goal on many levels).
• The "Street in Cairo" was the most popular ethnographic attraction on the Midway. The Islamic architecture and Egyptian visitors formed a colorful stage set, where tourists could buy exotic souvenirs and ride on donkeys and camels. The scene was further enlivened by daily performances of local spectacles such as "The Arrival from Mecca" and "The Wedding Procession," as well as the popular dancer known as Little Egypt who introduced America to the suggestive belly dance called the "hootchy-kootchy". "Old Vienna" was also very popular with its 40 shops and open-air restaurants.
• Scott Joplin's performance at the exposition introduced ragtime to new audiences. Other music firsts included African-American Violinist Joseph Douglass, Indonesian music, hula dancers, and Eisteddfod (a Welsh choral competition with a history spanning many centuries), among others.
• Although denied a spot at the fair, Buffalo Bill Cody set up his Wild West show just outside the edge of the exposition. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave academic lectures reflecting on the end of the frontier which Buffalo Bill represented.
• The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions marked the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world.
• The International Exposition was held in a building which was devoted to electrical exhibits.
• The Electrotachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz was demonstrated, which used a Geissler Tube to project the illusion of moving images.
• The first commercial movie theater.
• The world's first public "moving walkway" was built along the banks of the lake, allowing patrons on the way to the casino to walk along or ride in seats.
• Louis Comfort Tiffany made his reputation with a stunning chapel designed and built for the Exposition (1, 2, 3).
• Works by noted feminists and African-Americans were featured; the Women's Building had been designed by a female architect (although she was paid 1/10 the fee of the male architects).
Idaho Building Architect Kirtland Cutter's rustic log construction was a popular favorite, and a major precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement.
• The John Bull locomotive was displayed, the oldest surviving operable steam locamotive in the world at 62 years of age; it was subsequently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution.
• The Viking, a replica of the Norwegian Gokstad ship was built in Norway and sailed across the Atlantic by 92 men. And of course, there were also replicas of Christopher Columbus three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
• Phosphorescent lamps (a precursor to fluorescent lamps)
• Cracker Jack (a confection of popcorn, peanuts and molasses) was developed by F.W. Rueckheim. Other consumer products introduced included Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, shredded Wheat, and the hamburger.
• The Congress of Mathematicians, precursor to International Congress of Mathematicians, met.
• Milton Hershey bought a European exhibitor's chocolate manufacturing equipment and added chocolate products to his caramel manufacturing business.
• The United States Post Office Department produced its first picture postcards and Commemorative stamp set.
• United States Mint offered its first commemorative coins: a quarter and half dollar.
• The "clasp locker," a clumsy slide fastener and forerunner to the zipper.
• To hasten the painting process during construction of the fair in 1892, Francis Davis Millet invented spray painting.

Epilogue: White City on fire

The fair ended with the city in shock, as popular Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated by Patrick Prendergast just two days before the fair's closing; closing ceremonies were canceled in favor of a public memorial service. Jackson Park was returned to its status as a public park, in much better shape than its original swampy form. The Midway Plaisance, a park-like boulevard which extends west from Jackson Park, formed the southern boundary of the University of Chicago, which was under construction.

the White City on fire
Almost all of the fair's structures were designed to be temporary; of the more than 200 buildings erected for the fair, the only two which still stand in place are the Palace of Fine Arts and the World's Congress Auxiliary Building. From the time the fair closed until 1920, the Palace of Fine Arts housed the Field Columbian Museum (now the Field Museum of Natural History, since relocated). In 1933, the Palace building re-opened as the Museum of Science and Industry. The second building, the World's Congress Building, was one of the few buildings not built in Jackson Park, instead it was built downtown in Grant Park. The cost of construction of the World's Congress Building was shared with the Art Institute of Chicago, which, as planned, moved into the building (the museum's current home) after the close of the fair. In July 1894 much of the fair grounds was destroyed in a fire.

When the exposition ended the Ferris Wheel was moved to Chicago's north side, next to an exclusive neighborhood, where it stayed there until it was moved to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair.

The exposition was one influence leading to the rise of the City Beautiful movement. Results included grand buildings and fountains built around Olmstedian parks, shallow pools of water on axis to central buildings, larger park systems, broad boulevards and parkways and, after the turn of the century, zoning laws and planned suburbs. Examples of the City Beautiful movement's works include the City of Chicago, the Columbia University campus, and the National Mall in Washington D.C.

For a more detailed summary, refer to the entry in the Encyclopedia of Chicago.


Oliver Perry Hay and his family lived but a couple miles due west of the Fair in Englewood, and an easy ride down 63rd Street. Surely the whole family went to the Fair, probably even son William Perry Hay who had moved to Washington, DC instead of Chicago (he likely took the train to Chicago to visit his family in the summer). In fact, the Hays were likely to have visited probably a dozen times -- it was widely accepted that two weeks were needed to adequately visit all the exhibits, and the Hays would have been quite interested in all the science exhibits as well as the world-theme exhibits. Daughters Mary (born in 1873) and Frances (born in 1876) both attended the University of Chicago, probably as members of the earliest classes there. Grandfather Robert Howsmon Hay would have been 11 at the time of the fair, and surely was mesmerized by the lights and foreign cultures.

Thinking of my Hay grandfather and great-grandfather attending the 1893 World Fair reminds me of attending the 1964 World Fair in NY and the 1967 World Fair in Montreal with my parents and siblings. For both of these Fairs, we motored our 46' Chris Craft cabin cruiser (the "Donelle") from the South River marina to a marina nearby each Fair and stayed at each site for several days, with many other cousins and friends. I was 14 and 17 on these memorable trips. -- Donna Hay

In 1892 Oliver Perry Hay had resigned his professor post at Butler University (he wanted to teach evolution at a Christian college) and taught in a public high school in Chicago in 1892-1893. In 1893-1894 he had a fellowship at the University of Chicago, and in 1895-1897 he was the Assistant Curator then Curator of Zoology at the Field Museum. It would appear that he chose Chicago as the place to move his family because of the impending opening of the University of Chicago, and the expected opening of the Field Museum. (Note that the Field Museum had been the Palace of Fine Arts at the fair -- and housed the Field Columbian Museum -- and was one of just two fair buildings that still exist; it was renamed the Field Museum of Natural History in 1905 and was housed in the Palace until it moved to a building downtown in 1921.)

In the Chicago directories Oliver Perry Hay is listed with the addresses below; in 1893 during the fair, the Hays lived just two miles from the site of the Fair, and by 1894 they had moved a little north, even closer to the University and the Field Museum:
1893 -- 6214 S. May Street
1894 -- 5626 Jefferson Avenue
1895-1896 -- 5711 Rosalie Court

It is unknown if other relatives visited the Fair. It is possible, perhaps even likely that Hay relatives did, and stayed with Oliver Perry and Mary Emily, especially his father Robert Lyle Hay and his siblings. Since Howsmon relatives of Mary Emily would have been living in Illinois at the time, it is thought quite possible that they might have visited as well. I think it is likely that Oliver Perry Hay and Mary Emily Howsmon Hay had a lot of friend and family visitors during the six-months of the fair, and particulary the last three months, as the newspapers reported on how spectacular and innovative it was, and probably the Hays wrote letters too.

It is unknown if the Bischoff family visited from Washington, DC, but thought to be unlikely. In 1893, Elizabeth Stiebeling and Charles Bischoff had four children, with Anna born just the previous November -- with three children under age 8, it is unlikely the family make this excursion due to distance and money.

It is also possible but unlikely that the Widmanns did from Iowa -- it was in 1893 that William's ironwork business in Sioux City failed and he moved back to Waterloo to work for the ICRR. Although he may have moved back before the end of the fair in October and may have had (free) railroad transportation to Chicago, it is thought that his recent financial reverses would preclude what might be considered a frivolous adventure, especially since his daughters would be young (Lulu and Alma would have been just 8 and 6 respectively), and their two previous children had died of "summer complaint" (and Chicago was not considered to be so healthy in the summer, especially the drinking water there). It is not known if any Dankenbring relatives visited the fair, but with no known relatives living in Chicago, and the economic difficulties at the time, it is thought unlikely that they would have traveled from Missouri to Chicago for this event. Particularly August Dankenbring did not seem too enthralled with modern technology (based on his not having a radio in 1930), so would not feel a draw to visit; grandfather George Dankenbring at age 14 would probably have wanted to visit, but would have been too young to do so alone.