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Thursday, August 14, 2014

All the World’s a Stage: Researching the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 at the Archives Center

Between May 1st and October 30th of 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s journey to the New World. The people of Chicago had their work cut out for them.  Just twenty years after the Great Fire of 1871 and in the midst of labor strife, organizers set out to create a magnificent space in Jackson Park, located along Lake Michigan.  Known as the “White City,” the structures that were built were to be temporary and plastered with white stucco. They included the largest building in the world at the time, the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts building, in addition to the Woman’s Building designed by the first woman to receive an architecture degree from MIT, Sophie Hayden (1868-1959). Still standing today is the Palace of Fine Arts building, now known as the Museum of Science and Industry.
Silver gelatkin photographic print by unidentified photographer, 1893.  Kenneth M. Swezey Papers,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Many of the collections housed at the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center offer a glimpse into the World’s Columbian Exposition, where the Ferris Wheel and Crackerjack made their debut, and millions of people throughout the world journeyed to Chicago, which was considered by some as “the greatest marvel of rapid and substantial growth of any city in the United States” (Schneyer’s Illustrated Handbook, p. 2).  The Warshaw Collection of Business Americana has an exceptionally comprehensive collection of World’s Fair material. In fact, viewing this collection wouldn’t limit a researcher to just the topic of a World’s Exposition. The collection provides great historical context for anyone researching  Chicago at this time. The scope of the collection includes many guidebooks that provide calendars of events, maps, information on the many buildings of the fair, including their exhibits and layouts. Tourist information, including hotel costs ($2-$3 dollars a day for the Sherman House and the Tremont), places to shop (department stores Marshall Field’s and Carson Pirie Scott), and restaurants (over 700) can be found in these books as well.

New Indexed Standard Guide Map of the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, 1893, from Rand McNally's "Week at the Fair" booklet.  From World Expositions series, Warshaw Collection of Business Americana, Archives Center, NMAH 

In addition to the Warshaw collection’s World’s Exposition material, the Archives Center has two diaries written by attendees of the fair in 1893. The Paul R. Strain Columbian Exposition Diary, 1893 was hand written by fourteen-year-old Paul Strain of West Virginia, who kept a daily log of every building he visited and each exhibit he viewed. Inside the West Virginia exhibit, he saw a globe made of grain, and when he visited “the largest building on Earth” he noted the French gowns, pipe organs, and a two-hundred-year-old carpet priced at $15,000 on display.  Plooma Boyd’s Diary of the 1893 Columbian Exposition notes her surroundings in Chicago, including streets and neighborhoods visited throughout the city and exhibits within the Chicago Exposition.

The Larry Zim World’s Fair Collection has an extensive amount of 1893 Columbian Exposition material and contains printed ephemera such as advertisements and admission tickets. The stereographs in the collection detail the breath-taking architecture, interiors of buildings, exhibits, and attractions such as the Ferris Wheel.

Stereograph by B.W. Kilburn, 1893 (copyright 1894), from World's Columbian Exposition series.
Larry Zim World's Fair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Stereograph by B.W. Kilburn, 1893 (copyright 1894), from World's Columbian Exposition series.
Larry Zim World's Fair Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

In addition to the collections mentioned, there are Chicago Exposition materials interspersed throughout the 1350-plus collections in the Archives Center.  So take a journey back in time and experience the Chicago Columbian Exposition through the diaries, guidebooks, photographs and ephemera at the Archives Center.

Meghan Ryan, Intern
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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