The Fairest of Them All

"You could never imagine how wonderful the fair is," Jane Elliott Sever wrote to her aunt back home in Massachusetts while visiting the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. "Every day that we go, some new and more beautiful thing appears."

Jane's wonder and astonishment could be attributed to her youth (she was 16 years old when she traveled to Chicago for the fair). But her impressions are representative of how millions of other visitors experienced the relentless barrage of visual stimuli in the "White City" and along the Midway Plaisance. The fairgrounds' 700 acres—encompassing everything from the latest technological innovations to fine art and entertainment—exceeded any single person's capacity for description. At the end of the day, one simply stood in awe, searched for the right way to characterize the fair's epic grandeur, and fell back on words like "wonderful" and "beautiful."

The 1893 World's Fair was designed to elicit these kinds of reactions. As the grandest international spectacle in a great age of spectacles, the event shaped the expectations, experiences, and memories of audiences through a dazzling array of imagery. The Newberry's current exhibition, Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair, examines the fair’s immense visual power.

The images at the heart of the fair often spoke for themselves.

Marveling at the electric light that radiated across the fair at night, Jane Elliott Sever paid special attention to the fountains in the Grand Basin, bathed in "a pure shimmering white, then changing to rose, then a pale green, then blue, yellow, then green, rose and white together, making a most wonderful sight." Devoid of much detail, her breathless description captures the exhilaration she must have felt in the moment, following the lights as they danced on the water.

The World's Columbian Exposition was the first such event to be fully electrified. Merely to itemize the colors on display at night was to capture the wonder of the new technology.

The influence of the fair stretched far beyond the 700 acres it occupied on Lake Michigan. Those who couldn’t visit the World’s Columbian Exposition were able to experience it vicariously through books, magazines, and newspaper accounts. The fair’s iconic imagery was reproduced and widely disseminated as well. If you didn’t actually make it to the White City, you could at least have a poster in your home showing a bird’s-eye view of the fairgrounds—arrayed majestically on the lake, with the Midway receding inland and the Ferris wheel levitating in the distance.

Bird’s-eye views could be functional, helping fairgoers locate, say, the Horticulture Building at a glance. They also came to symbolize the World’s Fair itself. Essentially serving as the exposition’s visual identity, these views appeared on everything from posters, scarves, and playing cards to photo albums, hand fans, and postcards. Such items helped visitors remember their time at the fair and helped everyone else access the event in some small way from a distance.

Presenting the entire expanse of the World’s Fair in a single image fed the illusion that it was a Gesamtkunstwerk: a total, unified work of art. In reality, it was anything but. The fair was used as a platform for advancing a number of agendas. City boosters sought to position Chicago on the global stage as a cultured metropolis that had rebounded from the Great Fire of 1871; Daniel Burnham, the fair’s Director of Works, emphasized the exposition as an architectural showpiece; and entrepreneurial exhibitors capitalized on racist stereotypes to bring paying customers live displays of Indigenous peoples from around the world.

Meanwhile, people who’d been excluded from the fair or relegated to its margins strived for greater visibility. One notable example was Potawatomi leader Simon Pokagon, who saw the event as an opportunity to call attention to the history of his people in the Chicago area.

Protesting the Euro-centric nature of the World’s Fair, Pokagon gave a speech on “Chicago Day” in October and distributed a book made of birch bark. He began the book with these words: “I declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world.”

There’s that word again—wonder—only this time charged with a bitter irony you won’t find in Jane Elliott Sever’s letters.

By Alex Teller, Director of Communications and Editorial Services