Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

No author, Die Illustrierte Welt-Ausstellung Chicago, 1893

Chicago, 1893, published in German by Rand, McNally & Co.

‘This volume is published with two objects in view: first, to provide a fitting memento of the World’s Fair for those who made themselves familiar with its wonders and desire to keep its memories green; secondly, to delight the sixty odd million people of the United States who have not seen the Fair with a series of pictures.’

These are the opening words of the illustrated volume published by Chicago-based printing company Rand, McNally & Co. in 1893 about the second World’s Fair ever held in the United States of America. It contains over 100 plates, depicting the attractions at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The MoneyMuseum was able to acquire a copy of this high-quality historical source in May 2021 from Antiquariat Rezek in Munich. The book is a good example of why the many world’s fairs held between 1851 and the start of the First World War in 1914 were such an international success.

The World as a Guest – or – What is a World’s Fair?

But what is a world’s fair anyway? Prince Albert, husband of the English Queen Victoria, is regarded as their inventor. In 1851, he organised the first international exhibition of all nations in London’s Crystal Palace. The idea behind it was to make the latest developments in trade, communication and production known across the world, in order to boost international trade and increase the prosperity of all nations. Before the First World War, progress was not a dirty word, but rather a beacon of hope that could help to rid the world of all evils – disease, poverty and hunger.

But it wasn’t just specialists who flocked to the world’s fairs. These events became major public attractions that drew millions of people to one city. Shrewd entrepreneurs presented the curious visitors with some very special attractions, some of which are still around today. The most famous of these is probably the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But there are other surviving attractions too, such as the Palais des Mirages, an illuminated hall of mirrors that is now part of Paris’ waxwork museum, and the Moorish Kiosk at Linderhof Palace, which was also on display in 1867 as Prussia’s official contribution.

Of course, there was also plenty to see at the 19th world’s fair in Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition: for example, the first Ferris wheel in history, which is named after its inventor, George Washington Gale Ferris. This Ferris wheel, which cost 250,000 dollars to build, brought in 725,000 in admission fees.

The World’s Columbian Exposition

As its name suggests, this exposition was organised to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in America. An exhibition was planned to demonstrate how far the young United States had come since then. Four American states competed to host the event. Chicago won the bid under considerable financial constraints.

The gigantic size of the Columbian Exposition is best demonstrated by a few figures: the exposition site covered a total of 278 hectares, making it twice as large as the Hanover Messe, which is now the largest trade fair in the world. 81 hectares of the exposition space was sheltered. That’s twice the amount of space now occupied by the world’s largest public festival, Munich’s Oktoberfest. Around 70,000 exhibitors from 46 countries came to present their inventions. 27.3 million visitors – that was almost one third of the entire American population! – attended the fair to see life-size reproductions of ships, railway trains with the first sleeping cars, Edison’s phonograph and Hagenbeck’s menagerie. Genevan clocks were presented alongside the Krupp cannon, the first dishwasher and the latest jewellery creations by Tiffany, all on display for the guests to admire.

Architecture From Around the World

Unfortunately, none of these exhibits are pictured in the large album, and there’s a good reason for that: although photography was no longer in its infancy at the time this book was published, capturing interior spaces or photographing complex objects was still a challenge. That’s why the plates in the book are dominated by exterior views and it’s also why we usually only see people when they have been retouched into the image. The exposure times were simply still far too long for human movement.

But even the exterior views paint an impressive picture of all those who wanted to present their very best side. First of all, there were the various states of the USA, which constructed their own buildings. And then there were foreign nations, such as Norway, Japan and Germany, just to name the countries whose pavilions are pictured here.

A glimpse inside the pavilion devoted entirely to electricity, with the large stand of Edison’s company, General Electric, in the background.

Electricity: Tesla versus Edison

Of course, the organisers wanted to use electric light, which was so innovative at the time, for their exposition. Edison had offered to illuminate the site for 1.8 million dollars. But even though he later reduced his quote to almost a quarter of the original figure, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation won the bid with a significantly cheaper offer. They charged a flat fee of 399,000 dollars. They were only able to offer this bargain price because they were using the alternating current developed by Nikola Tesla. The Columbian Exposition therefore became the defining event that established alternating current around the world as the basis for industrial and domestic electricity use.

Electricity was the dominant theme of the entire World’s Fair. It even had its own pavilion, whose interior is pictured across two plates in this illustrated book, which is more space than the book grants to any other pavilion.

What Was the Need for a Human Zoo at the World’s Fair?

Nowadays, the fact that not only buildings, but also people from around the world, were presented at this Columbian Exposition like exhibits seems rather strange to us. Visitors could look at a caravan in an Egyptian street, and there was a German village where people in traditional ‘German’ dress presented the exhibits and sold ‘German’ specialities. But there were also other nations who sent representatives in colourful costume, similar to how traditional dress is still worn as a uniform in the hospitality sector today.

But we must establish a clear distinction between two functions of these masquerades. This was a way for tourist destinations like Germany and Egypt to attract visitors. At the same time, Germany, with its Krupp cannon and its own exhibition building, was demonstrating how advanced it was as a trading and industry nation. The past merely served as a type of screen to make the present shine even brighter.

And all the ‘underdeveloped’ inhabitants of Africa and Asia, not forgetting the indigenous people of North America, were supposed to demonstrate something similar. They were presented as people who could only benefit from the wonders of civilisation. We see it very differently today, but that shouldn’t make us blind to the fact that many people in the 19th century genuinely believed that they were doing the ‘savages’ a favour with their western values and industry.

And Why Did a Printing Company in Chicago Publish a German Book?

To finish, let’s take a moment to marvel at the fact that an American printing company published a German book to mark the occasion of this exposition. This serves as a reminder of just how many German-speaking people had emigrated to the United States. Chicago was home to a large German community, because it was regarded as a city where anyone could find a job if they didn’t shy away from hard work. Many of those immigrants managed to build a middle-class life for themselves, which provided them with the means not only to buy a day ticket for the whole family, but also to purchase one of these illustrated books – which were published in high numbers – as a souvenir of their visit.

Unfortunately, this fascinating book is not available to view online. If you wish to see it, you’ll have to come to the MoneyMuseum.


Other Things You Might Be Interested In:

The book was purchased from Antiquariat Rezek in Munich.

Learn the whole story of the first ever world’s fair in London in this two-part YouTube video “The story of the Great Exhibition”.

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