Saturday, September 11, 2010

All the World’s a Fair


Imagine being born in 1880 and, as a 13th birthday present, your parents taking you to visit the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Perhaps the most influential world's fair in American history, the 1893 Exposition was organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landfall in America.   (Those of you good at both math and history will notice it was a year late, mostly the result of horrendous weather during construction.)  And, while all world's fairs are designed to showcase the culture and technology of the host country, the real message from Chicago was that the United States had come together after the Civil War to become a true international power. 

As well, Chicago--Hog butcher to the world. . .City of big shoulders--had a particular chip on its (big) shoulder.  City boosters were intent on showing its rebound from the devastating fire of 1871, the Haymarket riot of 1886, and especially on silencing critics in Congress who doubted that the city could offer more than "a cattle show on the shores of Lake Michigan."   

Needless to say, the critics were wrong.

Take food, for example.  As a 13-year old at the 1893 Exposition, you would have had your first taste of Cracker Jacks,  Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat and Juicy Fruit gum.  You might even had have tasted the future staples of American life--a carbonated soda and hamburger--both introduced to the American public in 1893. 

Or culture.  At some point your father may have "slipped off" to the Midway, which featured the original Ferris Wheel (Chicago's answer to Paris's Eiffel Tower), and Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.  As for the real "slipping off" part, your dad might well have caught the performance of exotic dancers like Little Egypt doing the Hoochie coochie, a belly dance that was as much about sex as would have been publicly possible in the polite society of 1893. 

Unable to compete with the Hoochie coochie but of far greater lasting impact, a young historian by the name of Frederick Jackson Turner read a scholarly paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", before the American Historical Association during the fair.  Turner believed that America had been defined less by its Eastern roots and more by the frontier and Westward expansion--a theme entirely consistent with Chicago's own brand management.

The Columbian Exposition would undoubtedly have been the first time you heard or spoke aloud the Pledge of Allegiance, introduced at the dedication of the fair (and forever after in our schools).  Interestingly enough it was part of another kind of marketing campaign waged by Americans worried that their country had lost its patriotic fervor to Big Business and the almighty dollar.  (This was the Gilded Age, after all.) 

You most certainly would have remembered the Court of Honor formed by five massive, dazzling white, neoclassical buildings arranged around a formal lagoon at the southern end of Chicago's Jackson Park.  (L. Frank Baum did when he visited the Exposition and later created the "Emerald City" for his Wizard of Oz books.)  The Court of Honor featured the largest building in the world at the time, George B. Post's Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, sized at 787 feet by 1,687 feet.  None of the large buildings at the fair were meant to last, mind you; their exterior walls were made of staff, a mixture of plaster of paris and hemp.  One, however, was later stripped back to its steel form and rebuilt, and is now Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

In all, there were 65,000 exhibits displayed at the Exposition, from the John Bull locomotive to a Geissler Tube that projected moving images to a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo to a 46-foot cannon by Krupp, the German munitions manufacturer.   There were also a series of "living anthropology exhibits," or native villages that would inform fairgoers about primitive races around the world--some designed to educate and others, more like the Hoochie coochie, designed to titillate. 

The more scholarly anthropology exhibits, overseen by the Smithsonian, included a lab where visitors' measurements were taken to see how they measured up to the idealized types of Anglo-Saxon manhood and womanhood.  (The fact that capacity for civilization was defined by physiology was standard stuff in 1893, especially in an Anglo-centric country absorbing immigrants at the pace America was.)
Another important element of the Exposition was the emphasis on developing Latin American markets.  Six Latin American nations built their own pavilions in Chicago.  In addition, replicas of Columbus's three ships and the La Rabida, the monastery in Spain at which Columbus spent time, reinforced the Latin American connection and were among the fair's most popular venues.
At 13-years old, you would have been one of 20 million visitors to the Exposition, which turned a profit of $1.4M.  It was a sensation in every way.  Andrew Carnegie called it a "national reunion" and hoped for one at least every twenty years. 

Now, skip ahead to 1933.  You are 53 years old and have decided to take your family to the second Chicago world's fair, called "A Century of Progress." 
What a difference 40 years makes in the life of America.  Organizers for the 1933 Fair enlisted the help of a scientific organization formed during WWI, the National Research Council, to articulate the fair's central theme of scientific achievement.  Reflecting the success in recent European fairs of Modernism (Ezra Pound's definition: "Make it new!"), organizers worked to create buildings that reflected scientific progress.  The Crash and Great Depression further defined construction at the fair, perhaps best characterized as "Make it new, but make it cheap!"

As you and your family walked the fair, you would have been struck by the use of bright colors, an emerging theme in consumer products, underwritten by two industrial giants, Westinghouse and General Electric.  The largest venue at the fair, the Hall of Science, featured a working auto assembly line and an early form of television--both striking advancements over the Chicago fair of 1893.  Also new at the fair were dioramas featuring moving figures run by "animatronics."   International Harvester's exhibit featured a full-sized, moving cow, and General Motors' a mechanical Chief Pontiac. 
Progress had also come to the Midway, where the belly dancers of 1893 were replaced by Sally Rand and her fan dance, in which Sally raised her fans at the close of her dance to reveal her powdered-white nude body--a very popular attraction that reminded some of Greek or Roman statuary.
From Little Egypt and the Hoochie coochie to the fan-dance and classical statuary of Sally Rand: who could deny American progress?
Over two seasons, 1933's "Century of Progress" attracted 48 million visitors.
Now, skip ahead again.  This time you are 59 and have decided to take your grandchildren to the 1939 New York World's Fair.  Its theme, "Building the World of Tomorrow," is a far cry from your 1893 look back at Columbus.  The Fair of 1939, in the midst of the Depression and the rumblings of yet another war in Europe, was designed to emphasize the ways in which technology would provide for "individual fulfillment of human progress."
Spread over 1,200 acres of an old dump site in Flushing Meadows, Queens (made famous by F. Scott Fitzgerald as his "valley of ashes"), organizers planted modern buildings influenced by art deco.  Symbols of the fair were two futuristic structures, a 610-foot tower ("The Trylon") and a 180-foot diameter globe ("The Perisphere") whose interior featured a Utopian look at the year 2039.  Exhibits (funded by countries and individuals in 1893) were now sponsored by the largest corporations in the United States.  General Motors' vision of the country in 1960 was most popular as it squired visitors in moving chairs through an exhibit which emphasized (strangely enough :) the need to build highways, and highlighted well designed cities full of sunshine and fresh air.  Kodak, U.S. Steel, RCA and Westinghouse all hosted displays, the latter having Elecktro the Moto-Man who could smoke cigarettes.
Could anything better define American progress in a Depression than a robot who smoked tobacco?
Well, yes: The 280 acre Amusement Zone, renamed the Great White Way in 1940, featured the emerging cult of celebrity by treating visitors to a Living Magazine Covers exhibit of famous models.  Titillation and fame--now that's true progress.  (Alas, Sally Rand was in San Francisco in 1939 hosting "Sally Rand's Nude Ranch" at the Golden Gate International Exposition.  Perhaps we were attending the wrong world's fair?)
(Some of my material for this posting comes from Robert Rydell, John E. Findling and Kimberly D. Pelle's excellent overview of American fairs, Fair America.  The Wall Street Journal's recent article on the Unisphere, the centerpiece of the 1964/5 New York World's Fair, is here.  I attended that Fair, built on the site of the 1939 fair, and it made quite an impression on me.  Unfortunately it was snake-bit from the start and became a financial fiasco.)
The age of great American world's fairs is over.  The last in the United States was held in New Orleans in 1984, and it went broke.
What happened?  Disneyworld, I suppose.  Television.  The rich and far-reaching digital experience of the Internet.  The jet airplane.   Two-week, 5-city family European vacations—made affordable to the middle classes.
Maybe The Economist had it right, too, last December when it ran a piece entitled "Being Foreign."
For the first time in history, across much of the world, to be foreign is a perfectly normal condition. It is no more distinctive than being tall, fat or left-handed. Nobody raises an eyebrow at a Frenchman in Berlin, a Zimbabwean in London, a Russian in Paris, a Chinese in New York.
In other words, would you be itching to attend a world's fair in New York or Chicago to see the Chinese pavilion when you vacationed in China last summer?  And you stop through Chicago twelve times a year on flight connections?
I think, though, the story behind the end of the great American world's fair is simpler than all that: Sally Rand died in 1979