World's Columbian Exhibition Photographs by William Henry Jackson

Vol. XVIII No. 4 - FALL/WINTER 2007

This exciting exhibit is a display of photos published at the end of the exhibition in 1893 by William Henry Jackson. On October 20 at the Edgewater museum, curator Robert Remer presented background information about how the 1893 World’s Fair was put together by business and civic leaders. What came across in his presentation is the Herculean effort it took to transform the swamp land that is now Jackson Park into the fairgrounds called the White City. This effort began with a plan generated by Daniel H Burnham, Director of Works for the Fair.

With the design in place the engineers had to create land where there was swamp and create waterways that connected many parts of the exhibition. When you see the photographs, it becomes clear how much water was a factor in the design. Because this fair was a World’s Fair, countries from all around the globe were invited to build structures and present exhibits. Some like Sweden actually shipped their building in parts and had it constructed on site; when the Fair was over they were shipped home.

A map of the fairgrounds gives an overview of the Fair. Early in the planning process, the fair organizers knew that they needed a building that would be as significant as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, which was part of the previous World’s Fair in 1888. In one book in this exhibit, you can see a proposed structure that would have filled that role but was never built. Instead the first Ferris Wheel became the signature icon of the Fair. It is in memory of that wheel that Chicago has a Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier.

The World’s Columbian Exhibition was scheduled to open in October of 1892 but, because of a recession and problems with financing, it did not open until May 1st of 1893. Among the special events of the fair was Chicago Day on October 9, 1893, which brought in some 761,972 attendees. In all, some 27 million people attended this Fair.

In addition to the Fair grounds there was a separate section called the Midway Plaisance. Along the midway were all kinds of entertainment activities, including the Ferris Wheel and special performances by dancers like Sally Rand. What may seem ordinary today was considered exotic in 1893. In the exhibit is a case filled with items from the Midway.

Perhaps one of the most interesting facts that Mr. Remer shared with the audience was the information about the electricity at the Fair. A separate generator had to be built to power all the lights at the Fair. The electrical use was phenomenal – three times that of the use of electricity in the City at the time. Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. At the time of the Fair, electricity was not available all day long throughout the city. In many places, the lights came on for only a few hours at night. Imagine the sight of the White City lit up at night. There are a few photos that show this in the exhibit.

There is a great film about the World’s Columbian Exhibition: “Expo - Magic of the White City,” narrated by Gene Wilder. It was shown at the museum on October 20th. You may be able to buy it from a catalogue. The exhibit at the Edgewater Historical Society Museum will continue through January 26, 2008, so stop by some Saturday for a visit and learn more about the great White City.

In conjunction with the exhibit of the Jackson photos, Mr. Remer has provided a bibliography of references and resources about the Fair. The documentary on the Fair may be shown on a Saturday afternoon upon request.