Tuesday 1 July 2014

The Devil in the White City

"Sell the cook stove if necessary but come to the Fair." (Hamlin Garland)
[It was] the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War." (Richard Davis)

Paris had the Eiffel Tower.  Chicago wanted to out-Eiffel Eiffel.  They brought in George Ferris who built a wheel twenty six stories high.  Boyfriends proposed to their girlfriends at its peak.  It would be the highlight of the Columbian Exposition of 1893, the most successful world's fair in history.

They decided to build a fairground seven miles south of the city on a swamp on the shores of Lake Michigan. The World's Fair drew "the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th Century", including the Central Park architect Olmstead.  He and others designed the plethora of buildings, which were assembled with staff, a mixture of plaster, cement and fibres.  Each was given a coat of white paint, hence the nickname "the White City".  

Workers from Illinois and its neighbouring states lined up to get work building the fairgrounds.  One worker, named Elias Disney, was so awestruck by the fair that he wanted to name his new son Columbus.  However, his wife won out and named him Roy.  Their next child, Walt, would grow up to be a cartoonist.  He would model parts of his Magic Kingdom after the World's Fair.

Elias and Flora Disney at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair courtesy

It is hard to grasp the size of the Chicago World's Fair.  Guests flocked to the fair in droves.  On its best day 700,000 visitors bought tickets at 50 cents a piece.  They came from out of town, out of state and out of the country.  They came dressed in bowler hats and bow ties, hooped skirts and shirtwaists.  They came ready to view spectacles they had never seen in their lifetime.

At the fair, Thomas Edison demonstrated his latest invention, the kinetoscope, which played moving pictures. His Tower of Light featured lights which flickered to the strains of the Danube Waltz.  His incandescent light bulb, which he had invented in 1879, illuminated the fairgrounds at a time when many cities still used gas lights.  While Edison lobbied to have his company illuminate the fair, he was beaten out by Westinghouse. The fair required three times the electricity of the whole city of Chicago.  

At the entrance to the fair, Buffalo Bill entertained guests with his sideshow.  Some patrons were so impressed that they could have gone home satisfied without seeing the rest of the fair.

Inside the gates, guests could view displays from various countries including France's Palace of Versailles replica, Germany's Bavarian Town Hall, Norway's Viking Ship and a Japanese Pavillion.  In a time before technology allowed us to connect with different countries and cultures, guests could view a live exhibit of Labrador Eskimoes.  Sadly, fair officials did not treat them well.  Their reindeer, some of the 1500 animals at the fair, sweltered and succumbed to the heat.  The Eskimoes ended up setting up shop outside the fairgrounds where they could do things on their own terms.

Art connaisseurs could take a peak inside the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, at the time the largest building in the world, built in a sturdy manner to protect the precious artwork inside. 

Food was a central part of the World's Fair.  Patrons tried new snacks for the first time like Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks and Wrigley's Chewing Gum.  Guests could sit down for a hot meal in one of the many restaurants.  At breakfast a new syrup called Aunt Jemima was drizzled on pancakes.  At supper, chili carne was served for the first time.  Or they could eat at one of the many snack booths.  The fair featured a French Bakery and a Chocolatier.  Thirsty patrons could visit one of the fairs beer gardens.  

Guests who wanted to take a leisurely stroll through the fairgrounds could admire the 50,000 roses growing in its gardens, the thousands of shrubs and trees.  They could walk across one of its bridges or take a gondola ride on the man made lake in the centre of the fairgrounds.    

But with progression came regression.  As the second biggest city in the country, Chicago attracted a criminal element:  pickpockets, thieves and con artists.  Major McClaughry warned the fair's organizers.  "Be prepared to meet the greatest congregation of criminals that ever met in this country."  

A young, charming blue eyed doctor opened a hotel to attract fair guests in the Windy City.  One by one, he charmed young, doe-eyed women who were visiting the metropolis for the first time.  And one by one, they started to disappear!  Life was not safe on Chicago's streets.

While the devious doctor deceived fair guests, the organizers of the fair were cleaning up at the box office. Chicago shattered Paris' record of 1889 receiving a total of 27.5 million visitors, at a time when America only had 65 million people.  That figure is three times of the size of metropolitan Chicago today.  

Note:  For more information, read The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America  (Erik Larson).  

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