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Columbian Exposition

The World's Fair Columbian Expedition Was Held in 1893 in Chicago

By Adam Sowder, Guest Writer

The World's Fair of 1893 took place in Chicago as a celebration of Christopher Columbus' founding of the New World. Previous World Fairs were highly successful, including the first World Fair to be held in America, the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Chicago fair, conceived by influential people around the world, exhibited the success and bright future of the United States as a world leader in the new industrial age.

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago’s population of one million was blessed with 2,000 acres of parks, linked together with wide boulevards. The city was a major transportation hub, with 24 different railroads converging. Because of these great features, the city council assembled a 100-man team to present their case for hosting the fair to Congress. There was great competition from around the nation, each city submitting their bid in the form of a resolution.

Upon receiving word that President William Harrison had approved a joint resolution for naming Chicago as the host of the World's Fair, a designer was sought. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead was called for the task of transforming the Chicago terrain. Olmstead had previous experience with the 600-plus acre Jackson Park, making plans to create a functional place, replacing the flat and dreary forest with beautiful lagoons. His plan was approved. Next, construction began with excavation of the canals, using the soil to create hills and knolls. The waterways stretched for three miles, totaling 61 acres, winding around buildings and statuary. A 16-acre Wooded Island was home to a Japanese temple and gardens.

The whole project required over 18,000 tons of iron and steel and over 75 million board feet of lumber for over 63 million square feet. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts building was the largest at 31.5 million. For statuary and building facades, staff (a mixture of plaster, cement and hemp or other fiber) was used in the amount 30,000 tons. Significantly, the fair required 64 million gallons of water per day and treatment of 6 million gallons per day. This sewage, equal to a city of 600,000 people, was chemically treated and pumped into the lake.

In attendance were 27.5 million people, with fairgoers and workers representing nearly every state of the Union. They were eager to see the latest innovations in technology and urban America. Electricity was on display along with a host of other modern conveniences and fresh ideas. These included: Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, Juicy Fruit gum, carbonated soda, hamburgers, and the internal combustion engine (which influenced Henry Ford to build the horseless carriage) and the Ferris Wheel, named after designer George Ferris (completed six weeks after the fair).

It is in this same spirit of innovation that World’s Fairs have continued to impress people since 1851. Evolution in the ideals, hopes and aspirations of people make each fair unique and celebratory of contemporary life. With a tradition longer than the modern Olympics, World’s Fairs continue to showcase the breadth of human capacity.

The end of the Columbian Exposition was marked by several horrible events. First, during the middle of the summer of 1893, an epidemic of smallpox emerged, spreading throughout the Chicago by fall of that year. Second, Mayor Carter Harrison was assassinated just before the closing ceremonies. Finally, a major fire destroyed many of the buildings in the fairgrounds.

Despite the tragic ending, over 27 million people had visited and been influenced by the World's Fair of 1893. A precedent had been set, marking the dawn of America's role as leader in the new industrial age.

Adam Sowder is a fourth-year senior at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is studying Urban Geography with a focus on Planning.

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