Walkabout with Montrose: World's Fairs and White Cities

In 1893, the money and influence of Chicago industrialists and meat packers beat out New York’s bankers and merchants, and the Columbian Exhibition, one of the most important World’s Fairs, was held in the Windy City. In addition to celebrating Columbus’ 400th anniversary of arriving on our hemisphere, the CE was a masterpiece of architectural, cultural and technological wonders. The Fair covered 600 acres, featured 200 new buildings, manmade canals and lagoons, and showcased the people, cultures, and products of the world. During its 6 months run, over 27 million people attended, which was equivalent to half the nation’s population at that time. The Columbian Exhibition gave us the Ferris Wheel, hamburgers, Cracker Jacks, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit Gum and Aunt Jemima Pancake mix. Mr. Hershey discovered chocolate at the fair, and America was introduced to Scott Joplin’s ragtime, the hula, and the wonders and power of electricity.

One of the most far reaching effects of the Columbian Exhibition was its appearance. Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, along with Frederick Law Olmstead, brought in many prominent architects of the age, including New Yorkers McKim, Mead and White, and they designed what came to be called “The White City”, following Beaux Arts principals of European classical architecture. The central part of the fair featured vast buildings set on wide avenues, with lakes and lagoons. All of the buildings were covered with white stucco or paint, and the city was lit with thousands of electric lights, creating a gleaming city, the source of the “alabaster cities” in the song “America the Beautiful”, as well as the Emerald City in L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, and later, Disneyland.

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