The World's Columbian Exposition

To mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, Chicago built a "White City" consisting of classically-styled buildings located along lagoons and canals. The fairgrounds were illuminated by 120,000 incandescent lights and 7,000 arc lights. Some 27 million visitors came to the fair, where they could see 65,000 exhibits including a 1,500 chocolate Venus de Milo and a 46-foot long cannon.

In 1871, Chicago, then a city of 300,000, had suffered a devastating fire that destroyed three square miles and left 300 dead and 100,000 homeless. Over the next two decades, Chicago's population had grown to 1 million, and the city had become the link between the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and the East. Its was the home of grain elevators, meat packers, and the two leading mail order companies, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck. It was also the city that pioneered the skyscraper.

At the fair, many Americans saw their first car. Products launched at the fair included the zipper, Aunt Jemima's syrup, Cracker Jacks, Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, and Pabst beer. The fair's symbol was the world's first Ferris Wheel, which stood 250-feet high. Its 36 cars could each carry 60 passengers.

The exposition's most popular feature was the Midway Plaisance. Along the Midway, visitors could watch a hootchie-koochie show, look at models of the Eiffel Tower and St. Peter's Basillica, and view a Javanese village. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show performed just outside the fairgrounds.

It was at the Columbian Exposition that historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis that the frontier, which the Census announced had been completely settled, had been responsible for shaping the American character. Turner argued that the frontier promoted individualism, nationalism, and democracy.


1. What does the White City tell us about its designers' ideals about cities and urban design at the end of the nineteenth century?

2. Describe popular reactions to the exposition.

Resources for the Columbian Exposition
(Links open in a new window; close that window to return to this page)

Copyright Digital History 2019