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The White City

by K. L. Nichols

Say not, "Greece is no more."
Through the clear morn
On light winds borne
Her white winged soul sinks on the New World's breast.
Ah! happy West--
Greece flowers anew, and all her temples soar!

from  "The White City"  (1893)    
 by Richard Watson Gilder           

Make [the Chicago World's Fair] bigger and better than any that have preceded it.  Make it the Greatest Show on Earth.

  P. T. Barnum (source)                

Costing over a half billion in today's dollars and covering 686 acres, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair in Chicago was a grand sight to its 27 million visitors--a planned layout of large, classically-inspired buildings (what we now call the "Beaux Arts" style) all built on the same scale and all painted white--hence, the nickname of "The White City."  And within and around those white buildings was the most amazing display of 65,000 exhibits depicting (to quote the Exposition promoters) "all of the highest and best achievements of modern civilization; all that was strange, beautiful, artistic, and inspiring; a vast and wonderful university of the arts and sciences, teaching a noble lesson in history, art, science, discovery and invention, designed to stimulate the youth of this and future generations to greater and more heroic endeavor" (source).

The neo-classic buildings surrounding the Grand Basin (reflecting pool) in the
Court of Honor at the center of the "White City." See also this
 Here are another photo and a
photo tour (or here) of all the Fair buildings.

Night-time view of the Court of Honor, lit by that
exciting, new discovery called electricity,

That wasn't just advertising hype as far as many fairgoers were concerned.  "Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see this fair," exclaimed the writer Hamlin Garland in a letter to his parents back in Dakota (source).  Western writer Owen Wister was nearly stuck dumb with admiration: "Before I had walked for two minutes, a bewilderment at the gloriousness of everything seized me ... until my mind was dazzled to a stand still" (source).  Even Theodore Dreiser, the naturalistic writer of Chicago's urban realities, was overcome with idealistic awe:  "... America, especially in the Middle West, must have opened [its] eyes as I did mine at the sight of this realized dream of beauty, this splendid picture of the world's own hope for itself" (source).

Daniel Chester French's gilded "Statue of the Republic" in the Court of Honor.
 (Peristyle and arch in background are also decorated with statues.)

To the art world, the 1893 Exposition offered the opportunity for world recognition.  About 10,000 artworks were on display. It was also the largest exhibition of American art ever held in the United States.  Having made rather poor showings in earlier international expositions, America was especially eager to establish itself as a significant force in the art world. The art exhibition, as a whole, was divided into three parts: contemporary American art (art since 1876), nineteenth-century European art from private collections in America, and a retrospective exhibition of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century American art.

Palace of Fine Arts (currently Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry).

Palace of Fine Arts, Exposition
by Alice Brown Chittenden

For women painters, women sculptors, and women architects and interior designers, the opportunity to exhibit to large national and international audiences was unprecedented, and the exhibition records read like a "Who's Who" of late-nineteenth century women artists, ranging from major artists like American expatriate Mary Cassatt and other women artists with established reputations in Europe to women artists with more local or regional reputations in the U.S.  In fact, the more generous inclusion of women's art in 1893  (limited as that was) set a precedent for later expositions. Women artists' participation in world expositions rose from 3.5% of the exhibited art in the second half of the nineteenth century to 25% by 1900 (source).

For many awestruck visitors, the grand displays of art and other examples of American industrial, cultural, and technological accomplishment were a source of national pride: "By displaying the diverse forces that'd made us, it drew us together and helped shape a national identity. It reminded us of what we wanted to be. No wonder poet Katherine Lee Bates visited the fair and then went home to write America the Beautiful. The startling thing about that was her phrase, 'Thine alabaster cities gleam.' For that line described the pavilions of the fair far more accurately than any existing American city!" (source).

To the emerging urban planners and reformers, the 1893 Exposition was also an exciting opportunity to advance their ideas about "the city beautiful."  With its coordinated layout and styles, the "White City" would become the model for city planning  in Washington, D.C. and for public buildings in general for at least the next fifty years (source-1 and source-2).

Chicago University's 70-ton
Yerkes Telescope in the
  Manufactures/Liberal Arts Building.

Others viewed the 1893 Exposition as a celebration of the new consumer society ushering in the Twentieth Century: "This last great fair of the 19th century, nominally honoring Columbus' voyages of 400 years prior, actually celebrated America's transformation from a society of farms and owner-operated businesses at the start of the 1800s to the industrialized, corporate-controlled urban society evident by the 1890s. For the exposition, Dvorak wrote his New World Symphony and Scott Joplin wrote his ragtime. Inspired by its 'White City,' L. Frank Baum wrote about an Emerald City in his Wizard of Oz. The exposition ushered in a new age of consumerism with introduction of brand names -- Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemina's syrup and Juicy Fruit gum-- destined to become as much a part of Americana as the Ferris Wheel, carbonated soda and hamburger, which also were popularized at the fair." (source).


Souvenir items, like these coins honoring Columbus' "discovery"
of America, were good money-makers for the Fair sponsors.
(Left) Queen Isabella, designed by Caroline Peddle Ball;
 (Right) Columbus, designed by Auguste Saint-Gaudens.

However, more skeptical voices could also be heard. One source noted that the Exposition's popularity may have had more to do with the Midway Plaisance which was a cross between a carnival and a kind of nineteenth-century Disney World: "While the public may have been awestruck by the grandeur of the architecture and impressed by the array of consumer products, what kept them at the fair was the Midway Plaisance, a commercially-sponsored self-contained amusement area. It featured popular entertainment such as German beer halls, the original Ferris Wheel, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and exotic dancers." (source).


 The 264 ft. (and very popular)
Ferris Wheel created by George
 Ferris dominated the horizon.
Two Entertainment Posters: A carnival with fireworks and the Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show starring both Indians and the Rough Riders (poster date unknown).

     The titillating Little Egypt (or
     here) did the hootchy-kootchy
       to The Snake Charmer song.  

Even more serious criticism of the Exposition was offered by two up-and-coming architects with new ideas about the future of American identity and architectural design.  Louis Sullivan, inventor of the skyscraper and designer of the Exposition's Golden Doorway (see below), lamented that "the damage wrought by the World Fair will last for half a century from its date if not longer" (source).  His student Frank Lloyd Wright was also disappointed with the fair.  According to one source, "The fair's message--empty, classical piles of snowy white plaster palaces, their arrangement in axial order--represented the antithesis of Wright's training under Sullivan and of his own instincts. . . . As Turner declared the closing of the frontier as a consequence of the industrial juggernaut, Wright saw an opportunity to transform the hackneyed architecture of old Europe into a new sensibility that would grow out of the purebred colors and home-grown vistas of the American landscape" (source). To these innovative architects, the White City was America's tribute to its Old World past rather than its future.

Louis Sullivan's Golden Doorway (Transportation Building)
broke with the neoclassic standards of the White City.

Other critical voices were heard from women activists lamenting the exclusive image of bourgeois femininity promulgated by the Women's Building and other exhibits (source).  Racial minority groups pointed out how "white," in terms of race, the "White City" really was, but the Exposition organizers could provide no satisfactory answer to Ida B. Wells' question:  "Why are not the colored people, who constitute so large an element of the American population, and who have contributed so large a share to American greatness, -- more visibly present and better represented in this World's Exposition?" (source).  Many working-class people and social reformers objected to the upper middle-class elitism of the Exposition in contrast to the urban problems of the inner city.

Despite the variety of opinions, the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Fair in Chicago was one of the great cultural events of the Nineteenth Century--not to be missed, whether the viewers loved it or quarreled with it.  It made art history, set attendance records, boosted national pride, and signaled the United States beginning to emerge as a world economic and technological power. 

For more on the impact the Exposition had on American culture and self-perception, see The Legacy of the Fair.  An in-depth study of the contradictory meanings of the 1893 Exposition can be found in Chapter 7: The White City in Alan Trachtenberg's book The Incorporation of America:  Culture and Society in the Gilded Age.


Chicago World's Fair
(1894) by Thomas Moran


1893 World Exposition Links

The World's Columbian Exposition--good quick overview, with photos.
World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath
--excellent site with many links; very readable.
Revisiting the White City

World's Columbian Exhibition--photo tour
Interactive Guide to World's Columbian Exposition
Photos of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition
The Dream City
World's Columbian Exposition of 1893--probably the longest and most detailed study online; many, many links
1893 Exhibition--note on "America the Beautiful" being written in response to the "White City."
The City Beautiful Movement
The White City and After--1905 article on city planning and the unique qualities of the Exposition
The White City--from essay on history of Chicago and city planning; click on links for rest of essay.
Political Beauty: The Association for  The Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco--impact of "city beautiful" movement
Literary Impact of the World's Columbian Exposition
--writers' responses
Women's Buildings and World Exhibitions--scholarly article on the history of Women's Buildings at world fairs; middle section is on the 1893 Women's Building in Chicago. Critiques the mixed gender messages of the Fair.
Louis Sullivan:  World's Columbian Exposition--Sullivan's comments on the architecture
Reforming the City, 1837-1894--good middle section on the White City, the World Congress Auxiliary, and the 1893 Depression.
World's Fairs and Expositions, 1876-1916--many links
Black City--Afro-American response to the White City
Afro-American Women and the Chicago World's Fair--black women respond to being excluded from the Fair.
Black Presence at White City--participation of blacks in the World Fair.
Race Relations at the World's Columbian Exposition--links to articles on the topic

Rediscovering America--critical views of the "White City"; Frank Lloyd Wright's reactions included
Frederick Douglass' Speech at Colored American Day--about being excluded from the 1893 World Fair.
Forms of Representation and the Redefining of Chicago at the Fin-de-Siecle--scholarly article on Chicago World Fair of 1893; includes comments on reformer Jacob Riis, artist Childe Hassam and Sister Carrie.
Posters and Book Covers--advertising art for the 1893 World Fair
History of the Columbian Theatre: The 1893 Columbian Paintings--evidently the only remaining paintings from the 1893 World Fair are in Wamego, Kansas; the other stored paintings were lost in a Chicago warehouse fire.
Notable Sculpture at World's Fair--examples of men's sculptures (the women were not included)
Age of Expositions--American artists exhibiting at expositions from 1876-1904; focus on women exhibitors in Chapter 3.
The Incorporation of American: The White City--Alan Trachtenberg's detailed discussion of the White City's themes
The Dream City--an 1893 article in Harper's by Candace Wheeler, interior decorator for the Women's Building. Images included.
Women and the Pan-American--article in Harper's Weekly 1901 looking back on the 1893 World Fair from the perspective of the 1901 Fair.
World's Columbian Exposition (The Midway)--PBS presentation.

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Text written by K. L. Nichols

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Posted: 6-15-02; Updated: 5-11-12