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The World’s Fair Opens in Chicago: May 1, 1893

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

Administration building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, on opening day, May 1, 1893
Administration building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, on opening day, May 1, 1893

Henry Adams, great-grandson of President John Adams, stood in awe of all he saw at the Chicago World’s Fair. He wrote in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (speaking of himself in the third person), that at the World’s Fair “he found matter of study to fill a hundred years, and his education spread over chaos . . . The Exposition itself defied philosophy. One might find fault till the last gate closed, one could still explain nothing that needed explanation.” The exposition buildings, built around a lagoon, were all of simulated white granite or marble, and at night almost glowed in the electric light that illumined them. Some buildings had gold domes; and one, a crystal dome. Atop the dome that graced the Palace of Arts reared an enormous statue of a lady with spread wings. Adams called the fair “a scenic display, Paris had never approached it.” That the fair occurred in Chicago—the brash, new slaughter town of the Midwest—was “more surprising . . . than anything else on the continent, Niagara Falls, the Yellowstone Geysers, and the whole railway.”

But what truly amazed and befuddled Adams, heir as he was to an antique and (he thought) antiquated American family, was the display of America’s industrial might. The enormous dynamos (generators converting mechanical energy to electricity), displayed at the fair, inspired awe:

To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its oldfashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

Exposition grounds at the 1893 Columbian Exposition
Exposition grounds at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Exultation and Depression

The Chicago World’s Fair was a triumphant declaration that a new age had come—an age that the New World would dominate. The mechanical expositions were displayed not only to awe the likes of Henry Adams but to show old and tottering Europe the energy and power of America. What was truly amazing was that almost all the inventions displayed—the dynamos, the telephones, the great steam engines—had been born in the 30 or so years since the Civil War. Could any previous century—nay, millennia—boast such mechanical achievements?

The World’s Fair was not the only witness to the wealth generated by Americans since the Civil War. The bustling American cities of both the East and the Midwest showcased American prosperity. On account of fires and population growth, Eastern cities and Chicago had been largely rebuilt since 1870. New brownstone and brick buildings, monotonous but solid, lined the streets of America’s metropolises. The rich built their roomy, if gaudy, mansions in the whimsical American Victorian style. With the development of steel frames for buildings, the peculiarly American skyscraper began defining the skylines of American cities. In Chicago the Auditorium Building rose ten stories, beaten only by the 375-foot, 26-story World Building in New York, built in 1890. For the first time, rivers were spanned by steel bridges, including the famous Brooklyn Bridge over the East River in New York City.

[ . . . ]

“Newspaper Row” in New York City, 1903. The World Building rises on the extreme left.
“Newspaper Row” in New York City, 1903. The World Building rises on the extreme left.

On May 1, 1893, Cleveland was in Chicago to open the World’s Fair. Present with him were dignitaries from around the world, including the Queen of Spain, and a throng numbering around 250,000 people. About noon, the president pulled a golden lever that set the dynamo engines humming. Thousands of flags unfurled around the lagoon, bands began playing, and golden drapery fell from the golden figure representing the “Republic.” It was a moment of triumph for the Gilded Age and the American capitalist order.

So it was somewhat ironic that, in a matter of weeks following the opening of the World’s Fair, a series of bank failures collapsed the county into a deep depression—the Panic of 1893. Over the next several months, millions lost their jobs, and thousands wandered homeless. Many who, only months before, proudly strutted their prosperity, found themselves bankrupt and ruined. The business cycle had run its course from boom to bust, and discontent was rife. As the president and the politicians argued over the causes of the bust and proposed solutions, an increasing number of citizens began to think only one solution was possible or desirable: a complete overhauling of the country and its institutions.

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