The opening day of the 1893 World’s Fair was a big deal! Chicago welcomed visitors from around the world to the opening ceremony of the World’s Columbian Exposition on May 1st. We’re celebrating with a special event, “A Day at the 1893 World’s Fair” virtual tour on April 30 or May 9. In this one-hour virtual event we share what it was like to be among the throngs of people at the Columbian Exposition, seeing jaw-dropping sights and navigating the awe-inspiring exhibits. While researching the event, I wanted to know a bit more about what the opening day of the 1893 World’s Fair was like.
A Presidential Inauguration for the Opening Day of the 1893 World’s Fair
Chicago has a long, long list of notable presidential visits, but few had as much fanfare as President Grover Cleveland‘s visit on May 1st, 1893. He was one of dozens of civic leaders and dignitaries who paraded down to Jackson Park. The fair’s directors had even invited the Duke of Veragua, a direct descendent of Christopher Columbus. This was, after all, the Columbian Exposition.
The opening day of the 1893 World’s Fair, which garnered breathless press coverage from around the world, centered on President Cleveland’s speech. An estimated 200,000 people crowded into the White City on this opening day. Keep in mind that electronic microphones and amplification were not yet invented. Indeed, the usage of Tesla’s AC electricity to power the fairgrounds was startling and received wide commentary. Still, something tells me that not too many people heard that speech.
Regardless, the key moment needed no words at all. At precisely 12:08pm, on a platform at the head of the White City’s grand Court of Honor, the President pressed a golden telegraph key. According to the Salt Lake Herald…
“The electric age was ushered into being in this last decade of the nineteenth century today when President Cleveland, by pressing a button, started the mighty machinery, rushing waters and revolving wheels in the World’s Columbian [E]xposition.”
It must have been a moment of beauty. I often wonder what event, if any, could similarly excite and unite us now.
An Incomplete Experience
For all that fanfare, the opening day of the 1893 World’s Fair was an incomplete experience. Honestly, it’s sort of miraculous the fairgrounds were ready for visitors at all. Daniel Burnham, the legendary Director of Works, worked mightily to overcome a sea of troubles. The construction schedule was too short. Controversies had arisen over designs. Labor disputes further delayed everything. Thousands of people worked at a fever pitch all through the days leading up to May 1st. A ceaseless run of cold, rainy days (which sounds familiar this year) made laborers miserable. Rainwater swamped Frederick Law Olmstead’s immaculately designed lawns and poured through the roof of expo buildings, according to Erik Larson’s seminal The Devil in the White City.
Perhaps most notably, the star attraction of the Midway was still an unfinished eyesore. The magnificent Ferris Wheel was only a “half-moon of steel encased in a skyscraper of wooden falsework” on opening day. The wheel was Chicago’s attempt to “Out-Eiffel Eiffel” and build a structure as magnificent and romantic as the Eiffel Tower that wowed visitors to the 1889 Paris Exposition. All the same troubles that afflicted the rest of the fair delayed the wheel’s completion until over a month after opening day. Still, everyone marveled when it cranked to life amidst a shower of loose bolts on June 9th.
The World’s Fair was Initially Disappointing
It’s easy to forget from our perspective today that the event was initially a flop. Around 200,000 people crowded into the White City for the opening day festivities on May 1st, but only 10,000 people visited the World’s Fair on May 2nd. This precipitous decline was…less than ideal.
Things looked even worse when the Panic of 1893 set off a depression which sent unemployment skyrocketing to over 18% by the end of the year. Civic leaders expected that high attendance would wash away the stains of the clunky opening, but if no one was showing up…
Salvation eventually came in the form of the Ferris Wheel. The fair’s attendance took off when that crazy contraption finally got into motion in mid-summer. Some of that may simply correlate to the generally nicer weather in mid-summer. Still, it’s hard to understate the incredible draw of the Ferris Wheel. The White City might have been a fiasco if not for a ride that wasn’t even on the formal fairgrounds.
Reflections on the Opening Day of the 1893 World’s Fair
This gives you a hint to the bigger ideas that pervade our Day at the 1893 World’s Fair virtual event. This new experience puts you in the shoes of a visitor to the brief Columbian Exposition. Opening Day was on May 1st, 1893, and the somber closing day was on October 31st, 1893. This legendary event ran for all of 183 days. By contrast, it’s been 45,472 days since the fair ended. The fair is ancient history by Chicago’s standards; far beyond living memory. Yet it still captures our attention. We still look back to that one summer. Do we see glamour there? Hope? Pride? Wonder? Waste? Triumph? Tragedy? All were present, of course, even as our sense of what a visitor saw, heard, and did has shifted.
More than any single thing, thinking back to the opening day of the 1893 World’s Fair, we’re looking back to see if we can catch a glimpse of ourselves there. By looking back and seeing ourselves we confirm that our own glamour, hope, pride, waste, triumph, and tragedy has a precedent. Such confirmation lets us know that our own great-great-grandchildren might look back at us and our times in the same way someday.
– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide