© 2019, Sea Lion Press.

  • facebook-square
  • Twitter Square

Chains of Consequence: Chicago 1893, Fountain of Modernity

By Tom Anderson


Chicago World's Columbian Exposition 1893, with The Republic statue and Administration Building. Photo by C.D. Arnold

In these ‘Chains of Consequences’ articles, I have generally explored a single strand of consequence from a happenstance event, looking at all the things we take for granted—cultural touchstones as well as political events—which rely on that event many years ago. However, it is also instructive to look at focal points in history from which many such strands flow as their starting point. How different would our world be if that original focus had been knocked off course? The existence of such points is fairly obvious, and indeed forms much of the bread and butter of alternate history fiction. It is clear to anyone that the world would be quite different if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963 (or indeed if he had lost the presidential election to Richard Nixon three years earlier). We may even be aware of the ‘for want of a nail’ effect, in which the initial change need not be something recognisable at the time as a big difference. The obvious alternate history cliché in this case would be an important historical figure, such as Adolf Hitler, dying whilst still a nameless nobody (such as, in his case, in a World War One trench). Yet not all such focal points need be so crude. There is more to the world we live in than the blood and smoke of warfare or the acrid cut and thrust of politics. Sometimes the exploding flower of possibility can come from an expression of the best of humanity, not its worst. Which brings us to the World’s Fairs, also known as International Expositions or Expos for short. The origins of the World’s Fairs lies with the French Revolution. The First French Republic, then under the moderate but corrupt and unstable regime of the Directory, launched a number of themed national Festivals to celebrate its revolutionary achievements. One of these, in 1798, was a festival of industrial development, intended to show that France could compete with Britain during the Industrial Revolution; the new metric system of measurements headlined this first, relatively hurried and ramshackle, exhibition.


The idea was successful enough, however, to be repeated in following years regardless of which revolving-door regime was running Paris at the time: under Emperor Napoleon I, under the restored Bourbon Kings Louis XVIII and Charles X and their ultra-royalist reactionary rule, under the Orléanist monarchy of the Citizen King Louis-Philippe, and under the Second Republic (not long before it became the Second Empire under Napoleon III). Among the French achievements presented at these national expositions included the Jacquard loom worked by punch cards, the ancestor of the computer revolution, and the first mass-produced Daguerrotype camera. Many of the exhibits which won awards were not grand breakthroughs but improvements in manufacturing everyday products which seem trivial now, yet we now take for granted—such as the first mass-produced rolls of wallpaper. Dedicated buildings and features were built, sometimes with the architects winning awards in their own right. Pure industrial celebration also began to overlap with culture; Adolphe Sax presented the first Saxhorn, a new musical instrument at one of the festivals (he is, of course, better known for his other eponymous musical invention the Saxophone).


The Crystal Palace in it's new location as photographed in 1854 by Philip Henry Delamotte.

These French national industrial expositions (in particular the successful 1844 one under Louis-Philippe) helped inspire Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, and Henry Cole, to create a British rival in 1851: the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Better known simply as the Great Exhibition, it was housed in the remarkable Crystal Palace of glass built by Sir Joseph Paxton in Hyde Park, which survived (in a new location) until it burned down in the 1930s. As one can tell from the name, the British craftily undercut the French by celebrating the works of all nations (44 countries outside the British Empire sent exhibitors) but in such a way that made it clear Britain was firmly on top. As with all grand projects, it was loudly called a white elephant by men of small mind before opening, who all then (as always) went very quiet when six million people (a third of the population of Britain at the time, though some were foreign visitors) attended the Exhibition. It featured a number of ‘firsts’, of which the most prosaic may be the first recorded pay toilets! The Great Exhibition inspired other nations to try their hand at this game, and because it was the first explicitly international festival, it was retroactively considered the first of the World’s Fairs it inspired. Entire articles could be published about the impact of any of these events, particularly at their height in the nineteenth century; after concerns over spiralling costs in the 1980s, they are now more muted and rarer events in our time. Yet I’m going to focus specifically on what many people consider to be the single greatest of all the World’s Fairs: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, USA. As every schoolchild once memorised, in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue. Throughout the 1880s, the great and the good of America began discussing the idea of commemorating the four hundredth anniversary of his voyage to discover their continent. Many cities were in the running to host an exhibition, including New York City, Chicago and Washington DC. The wealthy men of New York and Chicago (such as financier JP Morgan for the former and farming equipment magnate Cyrus McCormick for the latter) went into a bidding war of millions of dollars’ worth of donations for Congress’ favour. Chicago eventually won thanks to the fundraising efforts of banker Lyman Gage. Chicago also had the advantage of being easier to access as a central location, especially for the inhabitants of the growing Western states. (Though the fair did not strictly open until May 1893, it was formally dedicated in 1892 to make the anniversary). The Chicagoans were brave to take the plunge. Their city had burned down in 1871 and its rebuilding relatively recent. The United States had only hosted one World’s Fair before, the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, and it had been a financial failure. Nonetheless, the establishment and people of the city threw their weight behind making the 1893 event one to remember. A series of buildings, intended to be deliberately temporary, were constructed by civic architect Daniel H. Burnham and dubbed the ‘White City’ as they were in a neoclassical temple style. The 1893 Expo was the first where countries had dedicated national pavilions. To say the World’s Columbian Exposition was a success would be a dire understatement. Twenty-seven million people attended the festival in its 6-month run, seven days a week (thanks to petitions that the fair run on Sunday to allow working men and women to attend). The eyes of the world were on a city they had known little about save it had been destroyed by fire, and they were impressed both by Chicago and by the rising nation of America. Some trace the international awareness of American exceptionalism to this event. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, was one of the international visitors. Others came from as far afield as Persia (Iran); one such visitor, Mirza Mohammad Ali Mo’in ol-Saltaneh, wrote an extensive travelogue of his experiences in Persian. Art and architecture as well as industry was emphasised at the festival, and it has become the centrepiece for the ‘American Renaissance’ period that coincided with the Gilded Age. But to really see the impact of the World’s Columbian Expo, we have to run through a list of firsts. In an expression of America’s national reputation for both a can-do attitude and bringing what other nations might consider populist crassness into centre stage, this Expo was the first to have a separate area for public amusements apart from the pavilions. This was the brainchild of Sol Bloom, a young music promoter who in later life would become a politician campaigning on behalf of Jewish refugees during and after the Holocaust. This amusement area, though temporary, inspired the visitor George C. Tilyou to create the world’s first true permanent ‘amusement park’ on Coney Island in New York four years later. Its centrepiece was the world’s first Ferris Wheel, named after its inventor George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. Far larger than most modern ones, it used Pullman railway carriages as its capsules! The impact of this first wheel is illustrated by the fact that many Spanish-speaking countries still refer to them as rueda de Chicago or ‘Chicago wheel’.


The original Chicago Ferris Wheel, as photographed by the New York Times.

Music was a huge part of the event. Czech composer Antonín Dvořák and ragtime pianist Scott Joplin (today best known for The Entertainer) were only two of many influential figures from that world. The gamelan music of Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), the first eisteddfod held outside Wales, the first performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir outside Utah, and one of the first performances of hula dancers outside Hawaii all made an impact on American and global public awareness of those traditions. Frederick Douglass was one of a number of African-American campaigners to write a critique at the exclusion of official involvement by the organisers from black American culture, but his grandson Joseph, a classical violonist, received recognition there for his music. (Douglass himself was also chosen by the Republic of Haiti to attend the Expo as a delegate on their behalf). Finally, the incidental music used for over a century to signify ‘Middle East street scene’, known as the ‘Arabian Riff’, appeared and was popularised by Sol Bloom thanks to the activities of a scandalous belly dancer named ‘Little Egypt’ as part of a synthetic Cairo street scene. Consider for a moment how different many films would be if that one small point in history had never happened, never mind everything else! It also gave us the phrase ‘hoochie-koochie’. In September 1893, the Parliament of the World’s Religions was held, which was the first serious attempt at ecumenicalism to include representatives of both Eastern and Western religious faiths. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the Hindu monk Swami Vivekanada, who began an iconic speech with “Sisters and brothers of America!” To more material concerns: a number of iconic food products made their first appearances at the Expo. These include Wrigley’s chewing gum (specifically Juicy Fruit, which is still sold to this day), Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Quaker Oats, Shredded Wheat and the first ever chocolate brownies (invented by Bertha Palmer for the expo). Milton Hershey was also inspired to go into chocolate manufacturing by observing European chocolatier equipment there; well, I didn’t say all the consequences of the Expo were positive ones. A number of early versions of important technologies received their first glimpses at the Expo. The Travelator or moving walkway, now found in most airports, first appeared there, designed by Joseph Lyman Silsbee and likely inspiring some of H. G. Wells’ science fiction stories. Early zip fasteners, aerosol sprays and fully-fitted electric kitchens were joined by, remarkably, the first practical electric car—designed by the chemist William Morrison. Electricity was a major theme, with lighting powered by Westinghouse Electric’s alternating current system (at the end of their war with Edison’s direct current). A number of new electrical innovations were presented, including memorable demonstrations by Nikola Tesla. Eadweard Muybridge and Ottomar Anschütz, meanwhile, exhibited early ways of projecting moving images, distant ancestors of television and animation. More prosaically, the Expo also introduced the first examples of machines which press souvenir designs into elongated pennies, which remain commonplace at tourist spots in the US to this day.


Nikola Tesla's 'Egg of Columbus'

Despite the focus on modernity, the organisers did not forget the Columbian inspiration for the exhibition, and replicas of Columbus’ three ships were built in Spain and then sailed to America for the festival. For a more modern exhibit of naval technology, the US Navy craftily got around the Rush-Bagot Treaty with Britain (which forbade warships to operate on the Great Lakes, and still does) by building a full-sized and highly detailed fake Indiana-class battleship, the Illinois. Few things can better illustrate the remarkable American can-do attitude which impressed so many visitors. Although the Expo was a remarkable success, it ended in tragedy when two days before its end, Mayor of Chicago Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated. His assassin was a man upset he had not been given a political job for supporting Harrison’s re-election, the same motivation for why President Garfield had been killed two years earlier. The closing ceremonies were cancelled in favour of memorial ceremonies. Though much of the Expo had always been intended to be temporary (though this did not stop buildings such as the Eiffel Tower from sticking around at other Expos), only a year later much of its buildings also burned down during the bitter Pullman railway strike. Despite this sour ending, the World’s Columbian Expo put Chicago on the map—and brought America’s rising power to the world’s attention. Almost exactly 40 years later, Chicago would again host a World’s Fair, the Century of Progress International Exhibition of 1933-4; that festival’s opening ceremony was started by automatically when the ray of the star Arcturus were detected, which lies about 40 light-years away. In other words, the light of Arcturus that reached the festival in 1933 had started out from the star as the 1893 Expo had ended. It is clear that the 1893 Expo had a massive effect on the city of Chicago itself. Yet hopefully this article has illustrated just what a fountain of modernity it was for the world. How many trivial things that we take for granted rely on that single event? If New York’s financiers had won the bidding war, would we now be unable to talk about kicking ass and chewing bubble gum, would we have no jaunty ragtime tune to put on our cat food adverts, would we be unable to agonise over whether to stick to healthy shredded wheat and porridge oats for breakfast or eat last night’s leftover brownie? What would we do without Ferris wheels at our funfairs or travelators at our airports? On the other hand, in another timeline, what commonplace things might our doppelgangers take for granted which were created at the allohistorical New York festival, things which may look and sound vaguely familiar or completely unknown to us? Of such things is alternate history made!

Discuss this article

Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth