Look up in the Windy City, and there’s a good chance you’ll spot the flag of Chicago flapping above you. Featuring a clean design of two blue horizontal stripes on a field of white, it includes four six-pointed red stars that signify Fort Dearborn, the Great Chicago Fire, the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
The latter, otherwise known as the World’s Fair and made famous again in Erik Larson’s fantastic book, “The Devil and the White City,” opened its gates on May 1, 1893. Over the following six months, more than 26 million visitors flocked to the 600-acre fairgrounds and 200-plus buildings, where they were experienced exotic animals, international cultures and curious new products and innovations from around the globe.
This Friday, 120 years after the close of the World’s Fair, the Field Museum (1400 S. Lake Shore Drive) will unveil its new exhibition “Opening the Vaults: Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” featuring artifacts and specimens that the museum first shared during the Columbian Exposition, which also marked the Field’s grand opening.
The exhibit, which runs from Oct. 25 through Sept. 7, 2014 (learn more at fieldmuseum.org), is filled with objects that have rarely – or never – been displayed publicly since they wowed fairgoers more than a century ago.
Among them is a meteorite so feared that it was kept chained in a dungeon. With that oddity in mind, here are some other facts about the World’s Fair that you might not know.
Firsts in the Second City
The Columbian Exposition, meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World, brought to Chicago a number of firsts.
Among the commercial products that made their debut were Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Also unveiled for the first time were technological marvels such as the dishwasher and fluorescent light bulbs. Additionally, the U.S. government issued the country’s first postcards and commemorative stamps, along with two new coins commemorating Columbus (a half dollar) and Spain’s Queen Isabella (a quarter), which was the first U.S. coin to honor a woman.
Rescued by the Ferris Wheel
The World’s Fair featured countless genius innovations, but its business smarts weren’t always up to snuff. Construction cost overruns and the foolish decision to refuse event space to showman William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his Wild West extravaganza (he instead set up shop next door and siphoned off visitors) threatened to financially sink the fair.
However, in June 1893, the long-awaited new invention of Pittsburgh-based bridge builder and steel magnate George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was unveiled and saved the day. Intended to rival the highlight of the 1889 Fair in Paris (the Eiffel Tower), Ferris’ 264-foot-tall wheel was an engineering marvel and an enormous hit. It could fit 2,160 people at a time and cost 50 cents to ride – twice the price of a ticket to the fair itself.
White City to City Beautiful
At the heart of the fair was the stunning White City, an array of buildings featuring white stucco siding and streets illuminated with electric lights. Today, the Museum of Science and Industry is the only such structure still standing (sans the white stucco), but the White City – along with the lush landscaping by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park – left a lasting impact.
The World’s Fair sparked the “City Beautiful” movement, which drew municipal planners to begin introducing more open spaces and grand public buildings in dozens of other cities. That included Washington, D.C., where by 1902 plans were in place to create the National Mall and its surrounding monuments.