1893 World's Columbian Exposition

November 8, 2010

Everybody may love a parade, but when it comes to expositions, whole nations go crazy.
In 1893 the great Midwestern metropolis of Chicago threw a gala party and invited the world to attend. Opening Day was May 1, and during its six-month run 27 million people passed through the gates (at 50 cents each) to view the most spectacular and grandiose exposition ever seen up to that time. The World's Columbian Exposition celebrated Christopher Columbus' discovery of America 400 years earlier. Folks had long eagerly awaited its arrival.
The Chicago World's Fair, as it is more commonly called, signaled to the world that America had come of age and was ready to take its place as a leader in the council of nations. It lavished praise on our technological advancement and scientific genius, showcasing not only our great accomplishments, but our promise for the future.
The Exposition
In all, more than 150 buildings, including twelve gigantic exhibition halls, were constructed. Nearly every state and many foreign nations had special buildings, as did a number of American manufacturers.
The Fair's buildings were illuminated by electric lights, a novelty in the 1890's that would be copied and greatly expanded upon by future world's fairs. A lavish system of lagoons, upon which sailed canoes, barges, gondolas and other small craft, highlighted the Expo.
Bad weather delayed construction and a one-year postponement of Opening Day, from 1892 to 1893, had to be implemented. On May 1 of the following year, the World's Columbian Exposition was officially opened to the public.
The Midway, with its concessions, rides, and halls of entertainment, drew the most attention and interest. Everything else at the fair was educational, with exhibits of great inventions and advances designed to promote the great manufacturing and agricultural might of the United States. But on the Midway, it was all fun. Eateries featured foreign cuisine and everywhere there were exhibitions of all sorts by the natives and inhabitants of Egypt, darkest Africa, and Latin America.
Columbian Expo Antiques and Collectibles
So many novelties, toys, games, souvenirs, books and bric-a-brac, as well as tons of ephemera, were manufactured or published for the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 that collectors ever since have had huge amounts of materials to treasure and preserve. However, beginning in the 1960's, a surge of interest in such items has made them somewhat more difficult and expensive to find and purchase.
The city of Chicago itself and, indeed, the entire nation was a hotbed of expo mania in 1892 and 1893, and a goodly supply of mementos and memorabilia was produced and sold outside the fairgrounds. Guide books and commemorative booklets were on sale in practically every store and retail shop in the Windy City, and publishers throughout Illinois and in other cities were kept busy printing them.
Magazines, including Ladies' Home Journal, the various Harpers, and New England Magazine, filled their pages with articles and pictures of the fair. Many ads in these publications related to the expo.
There were exquisite lithographic pop-up books with three-dimensional pictures of Columbus' adventure or the Expo and an endless parade of picture and guide books.
At least 5,000 different stereopticon views were on sale. And at exhibits, large and small, trade cards were freely given to fairgoers who stopped by. Some estimates have placed the number of different trade cards as high as 6,000. Around the country, food sellers and vendors of everything from sewing machines to kitchen stoves distributed trade cards picturing views of the fair.
Admission tickets, as well as tickets for individual attractions on the Midway, are eagerly sought by exposition collectors, as are the decks of souvenir playing cards, with illustrations of fair buildings, that G.W. Clark Company published.
Silk bookmarks woven by John Best & Co. on a loom in the Machinery Building are much in demand. These picture various structures, such as the Woman's Building. Also depicted were important personalities like President Grover Cleveland and Mrs. Potter Palmer, Chicago society leader.
Across America the public was barraged by special music inspired by the happening in Chicago. Several special songs were written about the World's Fair, including "Cairo Street Waltz," "The Song of the Ferris Wheel," "Naughty Doings on the Midway," "Columbian Exposition March" (by D.W. Reeves), and "The White City March and Two Step." The beautiful illustrated sheet music of these and other expo ditties today, over a century later, fit into several different collectible categories.
Makers of board games of the Exposition include the firms of Parker Brothers, McLoughlin Brothers, Graham & Matlock, and others. Titles such as "Uncle Jeremiah's Trip to the Fair," a ring-toss game, became top sellers on store shelves coast to coast; and rank nowadays as prime collectibles.
As the millions of Expo visitors walked the broad boulevards and took in the wondrous sights, everywhere they found vending machines dispensing something brand new, something never seen before: souvenir postcards. In fact, one hundred of these special vending machines dotted the landscape throughout the Expo grounds.
Official licensee for postcards at the Columbian Exposition was New York City entrepreneur Charles W. Goldsmith. Only his postcards were sold through the vending machines and at the one kiosk. Special envelopes of 12 postcards were also available for 25 cents, in addition to singles at two for a nickel.
Though Goldsmith's cards were the only "officials," they were far from being the sole postcards of the Chicago Exposition. At least four other identified publishers and three or four anonymous ones flourished. All of their cards were sold off the fairgrounds, in the Greater Chicago area, and in other parts of Illinois.
Of enormous interest are the efforts of James Koehler, a New York City businessman who marketed a set of twelve World's Fair postcards to the folks of Gotham exclusively, people who were not going to Chicago but still wanted mementos of the Big Story of that year.
The great and wonderful World's Columbian Exposition, held over a hundred years ago in Chicago to celebrate America's maturity and our magnificent industrial and scientific progress, holds a very special place in 19th century history. Never forgotten by those who visited it, the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 has certainly never been forgotten by collectors.


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