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Image of the Columbian Exposition of 1893
Columbian Exposition of 1893

How Art Shapes Our Lives: The Columbian Exposition

By Sal Maccarone

It is always entertaining to try and imagine what the world will be like a century from now. Even though it is impossible to fully comprehend what the future has to hold, we need only to look at the strides taken during the past one hundred years to get some clues. For instance, my grandparents were born during the 1890’s at a time before cars, planes, or electrical appliances. There were only a few rudimentary telephones in use then, and efficient electrical power was just beginning to emerge, but behind the scenes there were many other creative irons-in-the-fire. Far out concepts like the X-ray, the radio, the television and other wireless contraptions were all in their infancy. And, as my grandmother would say as each new discovery would materialize, “What will they possibly think of next?”

Image of Columbian Exposition of 1893.

View from the Ferris Wheel of the Columbian Exposition of 1893

The year 1892 marked the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s famous journey to America. So, in celebration of this centenary event, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 was dedicated (on October 21, 1892) as “The World Columbian Exposition”. There were many exceptional individuals that would come together to make this an extraordinary event. First of all, the 647 acre exposition was co-designed by Daniel Burnham, an urban planner, and Frederick Law Olmsted, who is now considered to be the father of Landscape architecture. Olmsted’s balanced symmetrical layout for this [model city] included over two hundred French neoclassical style buildings situated between many lakes, canals, and fountains. A massive sculpture of Columbus designed by head sculptor, August St. Gaudens, greeted guests as they entered the fair grounds. The whole expanse was on a grand scale that came to represent an American renaissance in the areas of art, architecture, science and technology.

Image of Nicola Tesla.

Nikola Tesla

The central hub of the exposition was given the nickname, “The White City”, for more than one reason. The buildings were all finished in a white stucco, but more significantly, at night the streets were illuminated with electrical lighting. Much to the dismay of Thomas Edison, his two rivals, Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse, won the coveted lighting contract with their alternating current (AC) system. This achievement was to pave the way for the construction of our entire electrical grid. That is not to say that Thomas Edison was not present in the palace of mechanical arts showing off his many other inventions.

Image of the first Ferris Wheel.

First Ferris Wheel

Another of the many firsts introduced at the exposition was the original Ferris Wheel designed by bridge builder, George Ferris Jr. A piece of art in itself, the wheel stood almost three hundred feet high. It was comprised of thirty-six pivoting passenger cages, (which would accommodate as many as sixty people each), all outfitted on a steel structure connected to a seventy ton revolving axle. The total human capacity of this giant contraption was an astounding two thousand, one hundred and sixty passengers. At one time!

In all there were forty-seven nations that sponsored the sixty thousand exhibitors. While the whole affair ended up costing a staggering twenty-five million dollars to build, ($721 million in today’s dollars), the six month long event attracted nearly thirty million visitors, and showed a two million dollar profit. Here are some interesting facts related to the Columbian Exposition:

Frederick Law Olmsted was the father of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. who contributed so much to the design of Yosemite National Park, and for whom Olmsted Point is named.

Image of St. Gaudens double eagle.

Augustus St. Gaudens’ Double Eagle

Augustus St. Gaudens went on to become the chief engraver of the U.S. mint, and designed many of our most beautiful coins such as: The Double Eagle

L. Frank Baum was inspired by the White City before he wrote “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, but he called his magical vision, “The Emerald City”.

Elias Disney was a construction worker in Chicago who worked on parts of White City eight years before his son Walter was born in 1901. Walt later studied photos of the exposition while planning his theme park in Anaheim.

John Muir, and Samuel Clemens both attended the exposition and were guests of Nikola Tesla. Muir who was also campaigning for the conservation of Yosemite at the Exposition approved of Tesla’s clean approach to energy.

Francis Davis Millet, who was the famed director of art for the exposition would become a victim of the Titanic tragedy in 1912.

Here is a link to a great commercial free video about the fair: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOTlNf9u8t0

Sal Maccarone


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