Did you ever wonder how so many of the things came about that we associate with America? For instance: The Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, Disneyland, Hershey’s Chocolate, Ragtime music?
It started at the fair, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as The Columbian Exposition.
The French had held national exhibitions beginning in 1844, but the idea for the first world exposition came from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband. It was held in the Crystal Palace, Hyde Park, London in 1851. The Chicago fair marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
Last week I read Lynn Austin’s book, A Proper Pursuit, a novel set against the backdrop of the fair. My curiosity was really piqued. So I did a little research. It was huge. Built on 630 acres, it contained 3 miles of canals with gondolas and a replica Viking ship sailed across the ocean from Norway. and hosted more than 25 million visitors. In fact once could arrive at the fair by boat and enter on a moving sidewalk.
Katherine Lee Bates was so impressed with her visit to the fair, that when she wrote her poem, America The Beautiful, she penned the phrase “alabaster cities” referring the the White City area. Frank L. Baum patterned the Emerald City after visiting. Walt Disney’s father worked on the construction.
George Ferris introduced his wheel (250 ft. high) and it was so popular, it saved the fair from bankruptcy.
Electric power was introduced to the American public. The white stuccoed buildings reflected the electric lights and people referred to that area as The White City. A 70 ft. tower of light bulbs was exhibited in the Electricity Building.
The term ‘Midway’ was first used.
Attractions included the first commercial movie theater.
Scott Joplin introduced the new Ragtime style of music. Also on the music front, Little Egypt danced to a tune that is now very famous (you know the one, it’s used for snake charmers in the cartoons or kids on the playground sing “In a land called France…”). It was an improvised tune, never copyrighted and now in the public domain.
Hershey Bars, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Cracker Jacks, Cream-of-Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix.
The fair played a huge role in introducing America on the world stage. One of the most permanent legacies was the Beautiful City movement which sought to rectify the neglect of American cities.
Only 5 of the buildings survive today, only one at the original site. Some were torn down. As stunning as they were, they weren’t built to last. Most of them were wood frame and a plaster mixture. A fire in 1894 destroyed even some that had been slated to be made permanent.
Admission price: 50 cents.
Youtube has a 4 parts of a series about the fair, narrated by Gene Wilder. At the end, click on the next part in the sidebar at the right of the page. Part 5 (and possibly subsequent parts) seem to be missing at this time but the link gives information about where to purchase the DVD. *August 8, 2011 update: This video has been removed from youtube but this one is a 2 minuted narrated slideshow. Also on youtube is another series. It’s unclear how many parts are available for viewing.
Youtube recording of Scott Joplin playing his piece “Maple Leaf Rag”. I can’t get this link to work, but if you type in Scott Joplin Maple Leaf Rag in the youtube search bar, this should be at the top of the list. It’s funny, because he plays it very fast. My husband loves to play Ragtime, and Joplin notes on his pieces to not play it fast; Ragtime is never played fast.