Chicago’s Columbian Exposition Comes to Life at the Field Museum

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Springtime in 1893 was not an optimistic period in the United States. Bank failures and a run on the gold supply combined to create the country’s worst economic depression.

Montana Mining exhibit at the 1893 World's Columbian ExpositionIt didn’t seem like the greatest time to open a massive world’s fair, either. But that’s exactly what took place on May 1, over 630 acres in Jackson Park in what had been a swamp. The Columbian Exposition ran through October 31 and was a huge success, welcoming 25 million visitors. To put that in perspective, the U.S. population was 67 million at the time.

The sights, sounds and atmosphere of the 1893 World’s Fair are now on display at a special exhibit in the Field Museum. The exhibit, “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” runs through September 7, 2014.

It’s an accurate and fascinating look at how Chicago staged this massive undertaking. Wall-sized enlargements and projection screens of period photos offer a feel for the scale of the fair, known as “The White City” for the color of the buildings. The fair also was the coming-out party for electricity, wired by Westinghouse (who beat out GE for the gig).

The scale of the representation will impress aficionados of architecture. Daniel Burnham and New York design architect Frederick Law Olmsted led the design and construction team. The fair had 65,000 exhibits and celebrated cultural and industrial progress.

Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World's Columbian ExpositionIconic images from the Columbian Exposition still resonate 120 years later, like the 250-foot Ferris wheel, designed for the fair by George Ferris. It was 100 feet taller than the current Navy Pier Ferris wheel.

This exhibit makes good use of a hundred Fair artifacts and specimens from the Fair. Some have never been displayed previously. The Fair itself helped lead the country into a new era of cultural and industrial progress. It’s considered one of the most successful world’s fairs of all time.

Besides the legacy it brought to the City of Chicago, we can also thank the Columbian Exposition for the introduction of Shredded Wheat, diet soda, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix, and of course, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum.

Arc light outside the Agriculture building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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