Chicago World’s Fair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago displayed many of the most impressive technological advances of the nineteenth century, offered visitors intriguing speculations about technological advances, and marked a cultural watershed in American history.

Summary of Event

Also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair opened its five-month run on May 1, 1893. The movement to celebrate the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America with a world’s fair had begun in 1889, when four cities, Chicago, New York, Washington, and St. Louis, petitioned Congress for the right to stage a fair. Competition was keen. Most of the established cities regarded Chicago as a brash upstart and argued that they had the advantages of denser populations and longer traditions. Chicago, however, pledged to invest ten million dollars in its fair, and Congress, convinced of the midwestern city’s resolve, voted in 1890 to award to Chicago the World’s Columbian Exposition. Chicago World’s Fair (1893)[Chicago Worlds Fair (1893)] World fairs;Chicago Burnham, Daniel Hudson Architecture;Chicago world’s fair[Chicago worlds fair] [kw]Chicago World’s Fair (May 1-Oct. 30, 1893) [kw]World’s Fair, Chicago (May 1-Oct. 30, 1893) [kw]Fair, Chicago World’s (May 1-Oct. 30, 1893) Chicago World’s Fair (1893)[Chicago Worlds Fair (1893)] World fairs;Chicago Burnham, Daniel Hudson Architecture;Chicago world’s fair[Chicago worlds fair] [g]United States;May 1-Oct. 30, 1893: Chicago World’s Fair[5860] [c]Architecture;May 1-Oct. 30, 1893: Chicago World’s Fair[5860] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;May 1-Oct. 30, 1893: Chicago World’s Fair[5860] [c]Science and technology;May 1-Oct. 30, 1893: Chicago World’s Fair[5860] Hunt, Richard Morris McKim, Charles Follen Brunt, Henry Van Olmsted, Frederick Law Root, John Wellborn

Banker Lyman Gage Gage, Lyman was chosen president of the planning committee, and plans for what was to be the famous “Great White City” were begun. A committee of six thousand, the largest such body ever assembled, planned all aspects of the fair. The site for the fair was chosen on February 11, 1891, when Frederick Law Olmsted Olmsted, Frederick Law , the great U.S. landscape artist and city planner, selected Jackson Park, an undeveloped stretch of swamp and scrub bounded by Lake Michigan but accessible to the center of Chicago.

The architectural planning of the fair has engendered historical controversy. The distinctive part of the design, the unified architectural planning that made the Great White City a realization of classical architectural forms rather than a celebration of the new Chicago architecture, came about when five Chicago architectural firms asked five outside architects, mainly from New York, to help in designing the fair. John Wellborn Root Root, John Wellborn was the chief architect, but when he suddenly died before the designs were completed, executive authority passed to Daniel Hudson Burnham, one of the younger Chicago architects. Burnham offered no resistance to the New Yorkers, who were at the head of the architectural profession. Richard Morris Hunt Hunt, Richard Morris , Charles Follen McKim McKim, Charles Follen , and Henry Van Brunt Brunt, Henry Van were New York architects who took charge of the preparations. They determined that the Middle West should have a display of the best architecture, which in the New Yorkers’ eyes did not include the brash new designs of the Western, or Chicago, school.

The Electricity Building at the Chicago World’s Fair.

(Planet Publishing Company)

While celebrating the anniversary of Columbus’s opening of the New World, the fair was also to be both a tribute to the dynamic growth of Chicago Chicago;growth of as a new metropolis and a symbol to the rest of the world that the United States had come of age. The physical scale of the fair was vast, covering more than six hundred acres—nearly one square mile. The magnificent Roman classical architecture, which seemed even more miraculous in its juxtaposition with the brash and rough metropolis of Chicago, dominated the entire scene.

The Manufacturers Building was 1,687 feet (514 meters) long and 787 feet (240 meters) wide; a complete ten-story building could have been laid inside it. The Palace of Fine Arts was of equally enormous proportions, covering more than 600,000 square feet (55,740 square meters). It was the one building that would remain in place after the fair was over. Marshall Field, founder of the wholesale and retail firm that bears his name, was asked for one million dollars in order to establish an exhibit of exposition displays in the building. Preservation was not possible, however, as the original materials were meant to be temporary. Field hired Burnham to plan the new building.

A material called “staff,” Inventions;staff invented in France about 1876, was used heavily in the buildings of both the earlier Paris Exposition and at the Columbian Exposition. Staff was composed of powdered gypsum, with alumina, glycerine, and dextrine. It could be molded into almost any shape, was waterproof, and cost less than one-tenth as much as marble or granite. Sixty-five foreign countries built pavilions. The sixteen leading European and Asian nations constructed lavish buildings, within which they displayed their finest wares. The fair also had the first Ferris wheel Ferris wheel ever erected in America. Invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, it was a revolving structure that was 250 feet (76.2 meters) high, had thirty-six cars, cost fifty cents for a ride of two revolutions, and was filled day and night with riders.

Electric Electricity;and lighting[Lighting] Lighting;electric lighting was still new in 1893, and the fair used an electrical power station that generated three times more power than was being used for the rest of Chicago. The fair used eight thousand arc lamps and glowworm-sized incandescent lights, the first electric intramural train with a third rail electrically stimulated, and displays of boats of warlike usage. Companies that provided dynamos and other electrical equipment were Edison, Western Electric, and Westinghouse Westinghouse Electric Corporation . The Siemens-Halske Company (now Siemens) of Berlin sent a special 1,500-horsepower plant for incandescent lighting. The Palace of Fine Arts still survives in Chicago as the Museum of Science and Industry; the contemporary artist-sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens Saint-Gaudens, Augustus mirrored most public opinion when he asserted that it was the greatest building since Greece’s Parthenon.

The World’s Columbian Exposition was at the center of the great Chicago Chicago;cultural development cultural outburst and renaissance. The Chicago Symphony, the Public Library, the Art Institute, the Newberry Library, and the University of Chicago all began their development or rebirth in a new form during the same decade. As a national achievement, the fair was even more significant. Its Women’s Building was designed by a Bostonian, Sophia B. Hayden. A Board of Woman Managers and female commissioners worked in the administration of affairs with each state and in every foreign country. The official guide mentions that women exhibitors could compete with men in any department on a common level with men, with “sex not to be recognized or considered.” Specific mention is made in the guide that a “young lady of California is exhibiting specimens of wrought-iron work of her own design.”

The artificiality of the fair notwithstanding, many Americans became aware for the first time that there was such a thing as art in architecture; the large amount of building that followed in the growing American cities was done more carefully and produced better-designed buildings, regardless of style, than would have been built had the fair not taken place.

A new wealthy class had developed in the United States as a result of the profits from U.S. industrialism, and the newly rich wished to memorialize themselves by association with what they regarded as the eternal glory of art. The fair was one aspect of this desire; the beginnings of great American art collections was another and more lasting effect. The spirit of upper-class responsibility for American cultural leadership was symbolized and encouraged by the fair. Saint-Gaudens Saint-Gaudens, Augustus had exclaimed at a meeting of the planners, “This is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century,” and the same feeling was communicated to the American people, who could take pride in an indigenous culture for the first time.

For city planning, the fair was vital. When urban planners saw what planning could do for a section of Chicago swampland, there resulted, among other plans, the imaginative Burnham Chicago Plan of 1909, and the revival of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s L’Enfant, Pierre Charles plan for Washington, D.C Washington, D.C.;plan for . What followed was an important time for city planning in an increasingly urban United States. The main controversy of the fair revolved around the reactionary classical architecture, but that controversy was relatively unimportant. Tourists and critics visiting Chicago saw the work of the Chicago school of architecture and were impressed by it.

The great triumph of the fair was the cultural pride that it instilled in the United States—a pride that was sorely needed in the wake of the Panic of 1893 Panic of 1893;and Chicago World’s Fair[Chicago Worlds Fair] and the ensuing economic depression. The fair set a high standard to emulate, and it pointed the way for future cultural and urban aspirations. By associating themselves with ancient civilizations, Chicago and the United States were suggesting that America was the home of a new, more glorious Renaissance. The fair was as important to rising U.S. nationalism as Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier Frontier, American;Turner thesis thesis of U.S. history, which, like the fair, was presented in 1893 in Chicago.


By the time the Columbian Exposition closed on October 30, more than 27 million people had visited the exhibits that had been mounted by representatives from seventy-seven different nations. The exposition was one of the few world’s fairs to make a profit, returning 14 percent to its astonished stockholders, who had not expected to break even. The effect of the fair upon art, architecture, and urban development in the United States was profound, and its effect upon Europe’s recognition of the new United States is difficult to overestimate.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Columbian Guide Company. Official Guide to the World’s Columbian Exposition. Chicago: Author, 1893. Official guide to the fair, with prices for everything from baths to boat rides.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dybwad, G. L., and Joy V. Bliss. Annotated Bibliography, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Book Stops Here, 1992. Comprehensive bibliography of materials published on the Columbian Exposition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Findling, John E., ed. Historical Dictionary of World’s Fairs and Expositions, 1851-1988. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. Handy reference work with concise synopses of all the world’s fairs between 1851 and 1988, including the Chicago fair.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York: Crown, 2003. Best-selling history of the Chicago World’s Fair that centers on the fascinating lives of Daniel Hudson Burnham, who planned the fair, and Henry H. Holmes, a serial killer who built a hotel near the fair so he could attract his victims.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muccigrosso, Robert. Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993. Presents a layout of the fair, gives detailed information about its buildings and their contents, and highlights important inventions that were displayed at the exposition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Scholarly analyses of American fairs and expositions around the turn of the twentieth century that focuses on connections between them and American imperialism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. Fair America: World’s Fairs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000. Less dense than Rydell’s 1984 book, this little volume offers brief accounts of all world’s fairs held in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weimann, Jeanne Madeline. The Fair Women. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1981. Interesting account of the Women’s Building at the World Columbian Exposition.

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Categories: History