The Ferris Wheel, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Display of American Superiority

By Violette H.P. Ho
2016, Vol. 8 No. 04 | pg. 1/2 |

In May 1893, the gates to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago officially opened to visitors. The event was a grand celebration, commemorating four hundred years since Christopher Columbus’ arrival in North America. Often referred to as the Chicago World’s Fair, the scale and grandeur of this exhibition was beyond imagination. Visitors wept as they witnessed the splendor of the fair and used inflated to describe their experiences.1

Like previous international exhibitions, the Chicago World’s Fair glorified human achievements in science, , and trade, as well as showcasing different global cultures. The exhibition turned out to be a victorious event for American architects, engineers, inventors, and scientists, as they wowed the world with their latest inventions and innovations. The centerpiece of the fair—the Ferris Wheel—was regarded as a triumphant symbol of American technology.

Chicago World's Fair Poster 1893

Ferris Wheel from 1893 World's Fair

By utilizing the exposition’s historical records, books, and other literature, this paper suggests that the Chicago World’s Fair and the Ferris Wheel were built deliberately to compete with the European’s most famous events and structures, such as the Great Exposition of 1851 in Britain and the Eiffel Tower in .

As this was a moment at which machines, which could be understood in a broader sense to include technological, material, and architectural advancement, were used to judge human progress, the United States wanted to illustrate its superiority through a magnificent display of its scientific and technological prowess. This is important because Americans wanted to show that they could outdo the Europeans, who until then had considered them to be inferior, generally disdaining the American way of life.

Historical Background

From 1860 to 1900, the United States witnessed a rapid expansion in urban life. Mass and industrialization turned American cities into major metropolitan centers. In this period, the number of city dwellers doubled, jumping from 20 percent of the population up to 40 percent.

Urban centers, both old and new, such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, were flooded with job-seekers. A significant portion emanated from rural areas, where mechanization and manufacturing had lowered the demand for both women and men’s labor. Many of these job-seekers were immigrants. The majority of them came from Europe and , with a smaller portion from the Caribbean and Asia. Faced with hostility and discrimination from both Americans and other immigrants, newcomers grouped themselves into ethnic enclaves to enhance their chances of survival.2

The appearance of new technology such as electric lights and skyscrapers in urban centers prompted many to see cities as places of excitement and economic advancement. As more people continued to migrate, these American cities begun to suffer from overcrowding. In some areas, such as in New York City, the population reached as high as 334,000 people per square mile. Women made as little as 25 cents a day for working in a sweatshop. Most city dwellers barely earned enough to get by. They live in tenements with dozens of other families, with no access to safe drinking water. People sold food on the streets, which were lined with horse manure. In the second half of the twentieth century, slums, , criminals, and disease were par for the course in American urban life.3

In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr established what later was to become the most famous settlement house, Hull House, to provide service to Chicago’s poor. Similar settlement houses emerged as the poor and working class continued to suffer from the economic depression. The Panic of 1893 began with the collapse of the financial market, causing the most severe depression ever in the United States. Hundreds of banks and thousands of businesses closed, and unemployment skyrocketed to 18 percent for the first time in US history. In the winter of 1893-1894, these settlement houses served about 60,000 free lunches each day to the impoverished of the city of Chicago. Conflicts between workers and their employers over wages and working conditions continued to escalate, and worker exploitation had triggered some protests and strikes.4

While the working class people struggled to make ends meet, wealthy Americans continued to live an extravagant life, practicing what sociologist Thorstein Veblen has deemed “conspicuous consumption.”5 This practice, include building the most expensive homes in the most exclusive neighborhoods, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, and spending large amounts of money on lavish parties, each one hoping to be grander than the rest. The period from 1877 to 1900, which has been dubbed the “Gilded Age,” was a time in which many working-class Americans still struggled to make a living while the rich and famous lived lives of excess. The metaphor is clear: in the Gilded Age, America was akin to a piece of jewelry, its thin outer layer of gold plate serving to hide many the social ills that undermined the development and progress.6

The Beginning of the Fair

By 1890, recovering from the Great Fire of 1871, which destroyed almost the entire downtown area, Chicago had emerged as a powerful financial and economic center. The city’s population grew rapidly, numbering at 1.5 million in 1893.7 When the United States decided to organize the World’s Columbian Exposition, several cities competed for the right to host the exhibition. Chicago won. In the Act of Congress that granted Chicago this opportunity, the scope of the exposition was defined as follows: it was to be “an international exhibition of arts, industries, manufactures, and the products of the soil, mine, and sea.”8 The primary focus was undoubtedly on arts and machinery.

Daniel Burnham, an accomplished Chicago architect, was appointed the director of works, and was expected to oversee the entire construction of the fair. Burnham quickly assembled a team of illustrious visionaries of the time. Under Burnham’s supervision, prominent architects, landscape designers, and urban planners from across the United States worked together to create a magnificent complex that spanned over 600 acres of land alongside Lake Michigan. Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted’s believed that redesigning urban space could alleviate many social problems American urban dwellers were suffering, and the design of the exhibition was meant to illustrate this possibility. Burnham, a prominent architect, and Olmsted, a well-established landscape designer, advocated for the construction of large parks and public spaces that would be interconnected by grand-scale roads.9

The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 versus the Great Exhibition of 1851

Four decades before the Chicago architects gathered, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, hosted the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in Hyde Park, London, on May Day of 1851. The exposition was described as the largest enclosed space in the world. For the first time, cotton machines and all of the moving parts of the factory could be seen. As most people had never before seen a factory, the machinery area was the most exciting part of the exposition. Six million visitors, or one-fifth of the population of England, paid for tickets to visit the exhibition, which ran from May to October 1851.10

The Crystal Palace was intended to show off Britain’s prowess and ingenuity. The huge structure was filled with equipment. Raw materials were placed outside the building. The indoor space of the Crystal Palace displayed the whole world of consumer goods, items crafted in the colonies, particularly those that were encompassed within the British Empire. The exhibition brought together many nations and showed them the path to . An important message underlying this display of British power was the message that no one could achieve what the British had achieved without industrialization. The Great Exhibition of 1851, considered the first international exhibition, was so successful that people doubted that any other world’s fair could ever surpass it.11

As Chicagoans began to pull things together for the World’s Columbian Exposition, it was clear that they aimed to do just that: “When Chicago’s people entered into the contest for the World’s Fair, the cause for their action was undoubtedly that of civic pride.”12 In other words, Chicagoans wanted to host the Columbian Exposition to show the world how much they had accomplished, and to counteract Europeans’ ethnocentric views against Americans, who were dismissed as inferior and incapable of true creativity and innovation. Making the point explicitly, Burnham wrote:

[...], the Chief of Construction stated substantially that the material progress and commercial supremacy of the country seemed conceded, but, though the city of Chicago was one of the greatest centers of power in , commerce, and manufactures, our cultivation in higher and more refined interests, and especially regarding the fine arts, was denied.13

As the director of works, Burnham wanted to ensure that everything Americans built for this exposition would not only be bigger, but also better than similar structures built by the Europeans. The Americans’ exhibition also displayed products that were even more magnificent, and they procured the best artwork in the world. Represent his designing team, Burnham stated, “the designers would be strongly supported by the people in an endeavor to attain a superior result in the fine arts themselves; and that the Chief of Construction would therefore use all his power to remove this stigma placed upon our country.”14 Not only were Americans capable of designing and constructing the biggest buildings in world, but they were also able to achieve impressive aesthetic results.

In the competition with all other world’s fairs, and in its direct competition with the Great Exhibition, Chicagoans appeared to be the winner. The World’s Columbian Exposition was much grander in size, the number of items displayed far exceeded that offered at the Crystal Palace, and the number of people who visited the Chicago fair was greater than the number of visitors to any prior exhibition. Like Crystal Palace, the World’s Columbian Exposition was open for a period of six months, and from May to October 1893. In that time, the fair attracted over 27 million visitors; two-fifths of the US population paid for entrance tickets.15

Just as the organizers had hoped, the scale and grandeur of the Columbian World’s Exposition surpassed any previous international exhibition. It featured a grand display of nearly 200 buildings, and it brought in people and cultures from 46 countries. The fair’s buildings housed 22,000 lbs. of cheese, 50,000 roses, and a million tulips. It presented the biggest chorus in the world, with 2,500 singers. Its construction required 40,000 workers and cost $22 million—the equivalent of several billions of dollars in today’s economy. Many jobs were created as a result of this construction, providing temporary relief for Chicagoans during the Panic of 1893.16

The exhibit’s main building, the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, which had been designed in a Corinthian style, emerged as a new symbol of America’s manufacturing capabilities and aesthetic talents. Moses P. Handy described its architectural design as “more severely classic than almost any of its fellows” and proclaimed it “the greatest architectural wonder.”17 Occupying an area of over 30 acres—the size of 30 football fields, the building is three times larger than the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome, and four times larger than the old Roman Colosseum. The central hall was made of steel and glass, which allowed the light to enter. This central hall could sit up to 75,000 visitors comfortably inside. The amount of iron and steel used to construct its roof was enough to build two Brooklyn bridges, which was at the time the longest suspension bridge in the world. It was the largest building in the exhibition and “the greatest house the world has ever seen.” The organizers spent 1.5 million dollars to erect this building.18

Determined to make the World’s Columbian Exposition the grandest exhibition ever, the organizers were ready to do whatever it would take to collect the world’s best artwork for the 300,000 square feet Fine Art building—an area larger than six American football fields. To this end, the executive head of the Art Department travelled to the countries that were considered the finest producers of art. In his quick visits to England, France, Belgium, , Italy, and others, he held conferences, raised interest, and ensured that each would send their very best art to the American world’s fair. The values of the artworks were evaluated based on “the judgment of the most refined taste rather than upon commercial popularity.”19 The purpose of this action was to show the Europeans that Americans knew how to appreciate arts.

The display of fine arts was extremely important to the organizers, and the display in the Liberal Arts Building was impressive to any visitor. “The visitor to the galleries, who is familiar with previous exhibitions, realizes the fact that a better representation of the art of the world has been brought together here than in any exhibition that ever has been made.”20 The director of the Department of Fine Arts, Professor Halsey C. Ives, explained that bringing together the works for this collection had been his most difficult task, as “he hoped to demonstrate the fact that the work produced by Americans entitled our country to high rank among art-producing nations,” so it was of “the highest importance that a collection be of the finest quality obtainable.”21

There were many other magnificent structures at the fair. The Machinery Hall was the “loudest thing on this planet—beyond human endurance”22where the largest telescope in the world, at 65 feet long, was on display. The Palace of Fine Arts was designed as a fire-proof building to protect valuable paintings on display. This building was one of two designed to be permanent. Today, the Palace has become the Museum of Science and Industry. The other building that was the World Congress’ building, currently the Art Institute of Chicago. Another area at the exhibit, the Midway Plaisance, which was another popular place for visitors, also remains recognizable in Chicago even today. The Midway was designed as a separate area for amusement, and was filled with music, dancing, and animals.23

Thousands of electric lights brightened up the exposition. The fair used three times more electricity than the entire city of Chicago. In a report on the fair, Mayor Moses P. Handy, chief of the Department of Publicity and Promotion, mentioned that a total of 30,000 incandescent lamps and 7,000 arc lamps were used to light up the fair. The total lighting cost was 1.5 million dollars, and “is ten times as extensive as was employed at the last Paris Exposition.”24 In total, the designers of the fair used 120,000 electric lights, making the entire exhibition “the brightest thing ever on earth.”25 In a report on the fair, Mayor Moses P. Handy, chief of the Department of Publicity and Promotion, mentioned that a total of 30,000 incandescent lamps and 7,000 arc lamps were used to light up the fair. The total lighting cost was 1.5 million dollars, and “is ten times as extensive as was employed at the last Paris Exposition.”26

National Pride and American Identity

The exposition was full of grandeur, not only in its size, in the number of buildings, and in the quantity and quality of items on display, but also—and above all of these—in the Americans’ ability to make it happen, and to make it bigger and better than any previous exhibition, including those organized by the British and the French. At the Chicago World’s Fair, Americans competed with Europeans to show off the power of American’s industry and the American way.

As England and other European countries had always looked down on Americans’ domestic way of life, Americans wanted to prove them wrong. Michael Adas suggests, “In the industrial era, scientific and technological measures of human worth and potential dominated European thinking on issues ranging from racism to colonial .”27 Machines were used as the standard for measuring national superiority. The nations who had bigger, better, more advanced machines were superior. Until the second half of the twentieth century, England was the most industrially advanced country in the world. Showing that Americans could do better than the British seemed to be the easiest way to capture this top position.

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