How Chicago hosted the historic 1893 World’s Fair

Fun fact: It had the world’s first Ferris wheel

Quick Notes:

  • It took a lot of convincing for Chicago to host the fair.

  • All about the attractions, exhibits, and inventions, including the Ferris wheel.

If someone were to time travel back to the late 1800s, they would experience a society much different from our own.

Not only was the fashion unique, but people attended live theatre performances, orchestra shows, museum gatherings, park outings, and fairs. In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbia Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World in 1492.

The fair featured a large water pool (representing Columbus’s long voyage), and many expositions of architecture, art, and the fair became a symbol of Chicago’s self-image and America’s industrial optimism. Everyone wanted to attend the fair, but what exactly was involved in the famous exposition?

Chicago wasn’t the first choice to host the fair

World fairs had proven to be successful in Europe; therefore, the United States wanted to mimic this success. The fairs were intended to bring together societies of different classes (upper class with middle class, and so forth). After the first world’s fair in Philadelphia in 1876, civic leaders wanted the fair to boost real estate values, generate profits, and promote American cities thriving during the Industrial Movement.

In the late 1880s, Chicago, St. Louis, New York City, and Washington, D.C. all submitted bids to host the 1893 fair. Eventually, the race was narrowed down to just Chicago and New York. Financial investors, including Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Waldorf Astor, and J.P. Morgan, wanted the fair to be in New York and even pledged to raise $15 million to cover the expenses.

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Chicago, on the other hand, received support from the city’s mercantile and meatpacking millionaires, including Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and Gustavus Swift. Lyman Gage, president of one of the largest banks in the Midwest, finally stepped in and arranged to invest millions in the fair. U.S. Congress, who was in charge of the selection, ultimately decided Chicago was the best city for the new exposition due to its practicality—being centrally-located, but also having ample space and accommodations for travel.

All the attractions

The World’s Columbian Exposition (running from May 1 to October 30, 1893) was the first world’s fair to feature amusements that were separate from exhibition halls. The area included carnival rides, among them the original Ferris wheel, life-size reproductions of Columbus’ three ships (the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria), a series of lectures on the Science of Animal Locomotion, a commercial movie theater, elaborate musical performances, dancing (including the suggestive belly dance), technology demonstrations (including the light bulb), the first moving walkway, a lakefront pier, a casino, and much more.

Also in attendance was Buffalo Bill Cody, who wasn’t invited to the fair, but he decided to come to Chicago anyway. He set up his Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show outside the exposition. Illusion acts were performed by magicians and artists presented stunning designs created specifically for the fair.

Architect Kirtland Cutter’s Idaho Building, a rustic log construction, was a favorite exhibit at the fair, visited by an estimated 18 million people. Throughout the fair, visitors snacked on several new food inventions, including Juicy Fruit Gum, Cream of Wheat, and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. An estimated 27 million people visited Chicago’s World Fair, from a total of 46 countries. It was a season no one could have forgotten.

Credit goes to the Ferris wheel

Even though the exhibition was funded by private investors and the U.S. government, it still had a huge budget deficit. When the fair first opened on May 1, 1893, it was losing money quickly—similarly to Philadelphia’s exhibition in 1876. But the fair’s finances received an economic boost in June with the highly anticipated debut of a brand-new invention from Pittsburgh-based bridge developer and steel magnate George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.: the Ferris wheel.

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The 264-foot-tall wheel was an engineering masterpiece. It could fit 2,160 people at the same time and it cost 50 cents to ride—twice the price of the entry fee to attend the fair itself. The Ferris wheel became so popular that it was moved to Chicago’s North side, where it remained in operation until the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

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