The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was an amazing moment in history, and not just because it introduced a large segment of America to the wonders of belly dancing.
Something truly amazing was happening along the shore of Lake Michigan during that time. It was something that brought more than 27 million people from all over the nation, actually the world, to 600 acres of what had been a marshy swamp that developers and architects crafted into a complex landscape of nearly 200 new buildings, canals, lagoons, and parkland.
Most people know it as the 1893 World’s Fair, but its official name is The World’s Columbian Exposition because it was intended to celebrate the 400-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World.
(Yes, the organizers realized they were a year off, but – in order to make the fair the big splash that they wanted it to be – they decided to ignore that detail.)
So this World’s Fair was a city within a city, In fact, that was a nickname many people gave it: The White City – because a good number of the most prominent buildings, crafted in the highly ornate Beaux Arts style, were painted a brilliant and startling white. They were gorgeous and palatial and intended to inspire awe.
The Administration Building at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair. Credit: C.D. Arnold via Wikicommons
As a side note, these building were also designed to be temporary. Although they looked impressive, they were made of plaster and never intended to last much beyond the fair’s closing date.
The 1893 fair was also only the third world’s fair in American history, after a centennial celebration of the nation’s birth in Philadelphia in 1876, and another in New Orleans in 1884.
And the folks behind the 1893 fair wanted this one to be bigger and better than anything that had ever happened before it. They particularly had their eye on the Paris Exposition, which had taken place only a few years before, in 1889, which had given the world what was then the tallest man-made structure in the world: the Eiffel tower.
Paris was a tough act to follow, but the 1893 organizers were determined. They intended to bring together the best minds, the best artists, the best inventors, and the finest innovators of the age.
And Chicago had to fight for the opportunity to do this. The city beat out Washington, D.C. and St. Louis, and even its greatest municipal rival, New York, for the right to host this fair.
That didn’t faze the shrewd Midwest businessmen behind the effort. They knew what an opportunity this would be for Chicago. They knew what it meant for future business, industry, and growth if Chicago could show that the city could outshine New York. They knew they had to prove to their own citizens, the country, and even the world, that Chicago was prepared to be the new center of American commerce in the Industrial Age.
The original Ferris Wheel debuted at the 1893 World’s Fair. Credit: Author unknown via Wikicommons.
A lot of firsts took place at the Chicago World’s Fair:
- It had the first Ferris Wheel.
- It was the first fair to have electricity.
- It introduced the first commercial movie theater.
- It even introduced a moving sidewalk to transport fairgoers along the Lake Michigan bank.
Some other fun firsts were:
- Cracker Jacks, though it wasn’t called that until 1896
- The hamburger
- Chili con carne
- Juicy Fruit Gum
- Breakfast cereals, including Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, and Shredded Wheat
Another thing to know about this fair was that it was intended to be very high-brow, very refined, and very respectable.
But anyone who has ever been to a fair knows that people don’t go simply to look at the exhibition hall collections.
The Egyptian Theatre on Cairo Street. Credit: N. D. Thompson Publishing Co. of St. Louis
They want to have fun.
And that’s where the Midway Plaisance came in. It wasn’t technically part of the fair. It was an amusement park tacked onto the fair’s backside. Literally. It was a mile-long park divided into sections where exhibitors presented mostly ethnic entertainments. There was a German village, an Irish village, a Laplander village. Native Americans, and Javanese.
But the attraction that was far and away the most popular was the one called Cairo Street.
A camel ride at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Credit: Conkey, W. B., co., Chicago, pub. (from old catalog) via Wikicommons.
It stretched about a city block, and it was pretty amazing. Imagine this: Fair visitors entered through a broad, low portal, into a brick courtyard of tiny booths and bazaars, filled with Arabs, merchants, Sudanese, donkey boys, performing monkeys, and snake charmers.
The mosque, complete with a minaret, had massive doors where regular services were held every Friday at noon. One of the highlights was the camel ride, where couples would get onto the seated camel and be thrown against each other as the camel rocked to its feet.
This was also where Egyptian women in gauzy garments with golden ornaments in their headdresses and tiny cymbals on their fingers danced in the attraction called the Egyptian Theatre.
Want to know more? Tune in tomorrow!
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THE GIRL ON THE MIDWAY STAGE is a lush historical novel rich with authentic period detail, discovery, and romance that will sweep you up in Dora’s struggle to understand herself, her quickly changing world, and her own unique journey to happiness.