November 13, 2007
The Columbian Exposition of 1893: The View from New York
On February 1, 1891 The New York Times reported that "ground has been broken at last" for The Columbian Exposition. According to the reporter's observations, “things are to be done on a large scale at Chicago, whatever else may be said or thought of the undertaking."
New York, it seems, was not a good loser.
Chicago’s “cultural awakening “ had begun before the city decided to enter the competition for the Exposition, but even so, it was going to be a hard sell to Congress. Four major cities wanted the honor of hosting the fair: New York, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Chicago.
In Kenny Williams book, In the City of Men, she says "that the opposition to Chicago was based in the opponents’ belief that 'Chicago was not the city to invite the scrutiny of the world.' It was an issue of “dignity.” One senator pointed out that if he had to vote between Chicago and Hades as the site, he would be strictly neutral.” (Heise, Chicagoization, p. 11)
Chicago shrugged and a citizens committee, consisting of the city’s aristocracy including Marshall Field, George Pullman, and Potter Palmer, was formed in the summer of 1889 to secure the World’s Fair. It was a bold move only twenty-two years after The Great Fire, but the group was determined. “The men who have helped build Chicago want this fair and…they intend to get it.”
When the dust settled, hell didn't win. Chicago bested its eastern rival. But New York would take every opportunity to chide the boastful newcomer.
The "objective" reporter goes on to say,“New York ought especially to be represented in a manner worthy of her imperial position among the States, and the city should make a display of its own that shall illustrate its position as the commercial, industrial, literary, and artistic metropolis of the American continent."
Chicago may have won the right to host the fair, but New York still considered themselves to be superior to, well, just about everyone.
Reading newspaper reports from a period really provides great insight into an event. The New York Times has an extensive online archive collection dating from 1851. In fact, the first mention of Chicago is in that year. (Apparently a safe that had been purchased saved $4,000 worth of goods from a fire. I guess that was hot news in 1851.)
There are several recent books available on the fair, but I have a few lesser known favorites: Jeanne Madeline Weimann's 1981 book, The Fair Women; The Chicagoization of America, 1893-1917 by Kenan Heise (not solely about the fair); Celebrating the New World by Robert Muccigrosso. Weimann's book is a must have for every fair fanatic.
For more information on the Columbian Exposition, follow the links at the right. If you live in St. Louis or Washington, D.C. check the archives of your newspapers for a different perspective on the Fair. My guess is that The New York Times wasn't the only paper to report some sour grapes.