The White City

1893 Chicago World's Fair and Exposition

Compiled 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, quoted in Michael Steiner's
"Parables of Stone and Steel" (2001):44

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" or "The Dream 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" (The Dream City, publisher's introduction, 1893).


The Machinery Building, World's Columbian Exposition, 1893
by Lewis Hickmott. The neo-classic buildings surround the Grand
Basin (reflecting pool) in the Court of Honor at the center of the
"White City." See these excellent photos of all the Fair buildings--
photo and photo tour and more photos.


A Night in the Grand Court (lit by that exciting, new
invention called electric lights) by Charles S. Graham.

Dream City, indeed! 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:

I have often thought since how those pessimists who up to that time had imagined that nothing of any artistic or scientific import could possibly be brought to fruition in America, especially in the middle West, must have opened their 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. . . . It was . . . as though some brooding spirit of beauty, inherent possibly in some directing over-soul, had waved a magic wand quite as might have Prospero in The Tempest or Queen Mab in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and lo, this fairyland. (Dreiser, A Book about Myself, p. 246).

The Bard's magic infused with a big dose of Emersonian transcendentalism! What more could visitors wish for!


Art Palace at Night, (currently Chicago's Museum of
Science and Industry)--by Charles S. Graham.


Frederick MacMonnies' Columbian Fountain in the Grand
Basin of the Court of Honor
by Mary MacMonnies.

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.


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


Palace of Fine Arts, Exposition
by Alice Brown Chittenden

For women painters, women sculptors, and women's architectural arts, 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 with established trans-Atlantic reputations, like American expatriate Mary Cassatt or French artist Rosa Bonheur, to women artists with more local or regional reputations within the U.S. or their countries of origin.  In fact, the more generous inclusion of women's art in 1893  (limited as that was) set a precedent for later expositions.


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

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).

For the exposition, Czech composer Antonín Dvorak created his famous New World Symphony and American songwriter Scott Joplin performed his ragtime hits. Inspired by the 'White City,' L. Frank Baum wrote about a fabulous Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. To advocates of "the city beautiful" movement which hoped to encourage moral and civic virtue through urban beautification, 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).

Others viewed the 1893 Exposition as a celebration of the new consumer society ushering in the Twentieth Century. At a seminar held at the fair, historian Frederick Jackson Turner would announce his famous thesis on "The Significance of the American Frontier in American History"--namely, that it disappeared in 1893 (source), and, as another source puts it, "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" was becoming evident to many: "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. tall and
very popular Ferris
Wheel created
by George Ferris
dominated the


Poster advertising
"Chicago Day" with
a grand chorus and
carnival with


Poster announcing
Buffalo Bill's Wild
West Show
both Indians and the
Rough Riders.


Charles C. Graham's
painting of Little
doing the
hootchy-kootchy to
The Snake Charmer

Even more serious criticism of the Exposition was offered by an up-and-coming American architect 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), described the influence of the Beaux-Arts architecture at the fair as a contagious virus and offered the following, oft-quoted prediction:

The virus of the World’s Fair, after a period of incubation in the architectural profession and in the population at large, especially the influential, began to show unmistakable signs of the nature of the contagion. There came a violent outbreak of the Classic and the Renaissance in the East, which slowly spread westward, contaminating all that it touched, both at its source and outward. . . .

The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind, effecting there lesions significant of dementia. (source)

Strong language! To innovative architects like Sullivan and his draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright, the White City was America's tribute to its Old World past rather than to its New World future. Sullivan's colorful design for the Transportation Building with its prominent "Golden Doorway" was a deliberate repudiation of the gleaming white Beaux-Arts style of the Court of Honor buildings. The French Commissioner of Decorative Arts, André Bouilhet, would later declare that it was the only "truly original " building at the Fair. He added, "and it has the special merit of recalling no European building" (source).


The Transportation Building, World's
Columbian Exposition 1893
Frank Russell Green. This "Golden
Doorway" designed by Louis Sullivan
broke with the neoclassic standards
of the White City.


The Water Gate, World's
Columbian Exposition,
by Charles Courtney
Curran. Typical Beaux-Arts
or neo-classical style.


Chicago World's Fair
(1894) by
Thomas Moran

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. Unfotunately, there was no satisfactory answer to give 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 also objected to the upper middle-class elitism of the Exposition in contrast to the social problems of the inner city (crowded slums, poverty, unemployment, crime).

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.


1893 World's Columbian Exposition: Links

The Literary Reception of the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, 1893"--dissertation. (Howells,Burnett, Burnham, van Deventer).

World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath--excellent site with many links; very readable.

World's Columbian Exhibition--photo tour.

Photos of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893--probably the longest and most detailed study online; many, many links.

World's Columbian Exposition of 1893--Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection.

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.

Louis Sullivan:  World's Columbian Exposition--Sullivan's comments on the architecture.

Black Presence at White City--participation of blacks in the World Fair.

Frederick Douglass' Speech in Chicago--lecture on Haiti given at the Haitian Pavilion.

Colored Americans Day at the World’s Fair 1893--covers the disagreement among black leaders about "Colored American Day"; excerpt from Frederick Douglass' speech.

The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World's Columbian Exposition--pamphlet by Ida B. Wells handed out at the 1893 World's Fair.

A People without a Nation--excellent article on the absence of African-Americans at the Fair by Barbara Ballard and published in Chicago History.

Cultural and Racial Stereotypes on the Midway--excellent article by Josh Cole.

How Did African-American Women Define Their Citizenship at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893?--links to articles published in 1893 on African American women and the Chicago world's Fair.

Bibliography: World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago 1893--long and excellent bibliography of print articles and dissertations.

Woman's Political Future--the speech delivered by Frances E.W. Harper at the World's Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World's Fair.

Stereotypes and Misconceptions of Pan-Arabic Culture at the columbian Exposition--good thesis on racial biases.

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.

Spheres of Influence: The Role of Women at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915--article by Susan Wels published in The Journal of San Francisco State History Students, 1999.

Parables of Stone and Steel: Architectural Images of Progress and Nostalgia at the Columbian Expositionand Disneyland--article by Michael Steiner published in American Studies 42.1 (Spring 2001): 39-67.

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.

World's Columbian Exposition (The Midway)--PBS presentation.



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These pages are for educational use only.

Text written by K. L. Nichols

Painting, top of page: Lydia Field Emmet,
World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago (1893)

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Suggestions/Comments: knichols11@cox.net
Posted: 6-25-02; Updated: 2-2-15