As spectacular as it was, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was equaled or surpassed in many ways by the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition. In a time of economic strife and extreme hardship in depression-era America, the Century of Progress celebrated the 100 years of Chicago’s history, but also hope for Chicago’s and, indeed, America’s future.
Chicago suffered from the national recession like the rest of America after World War I, but also from its own negative events, including the 1919 Race Riots and the infamous gangster violence of the 1920s. Leaders were influenced by the successful world’s fairs and expositions in France and the British Empire, as well as the Philadelphia Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition in 1926. The fair was led by oil tycoon, Rufus C. Dawes and his brother, Charles G. Dawes, former U.S. Senator and vice president, along with Lenox Lohr, engineer and future president of NBC, who would direct the fair’s operations.
Everyone who has ever visited Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, and Soldier Field knows that the Fair was located south of the Loop on Northerly Island, which was developed as part of the Burnham Plan. As landfill and islands, the plan was to extend and expand the area for water sports and recreation all the way to 51st Street, however that never happened.
The influential Dawes brothers were able to enlist financial support from the most wealthy of Chicago’s business leaders, including Julius Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck and Company. In addition, they convinced Congress to build a government building for the Fair. This national participation and support prompted many other countries to want to participate in this event.
The motto of the Fair was: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms”, which gave voice to the overall theme conceived by Rufus Dawes, who wanted to reestablish the connection and mutual support of the sciences and business communities. Dawes enlisted the help of the National Research Council to further the theme, which led to the eventual construction of the Hall of Science, which was truly the heart of the Exposition. Its design expressed the art and architecture of the future, contrary to the architecture of the World’s Columbian Exposition that harkened back to classical and antique styles. The buildings of dozens of corporations incorporated pavilions that emphasized manufacturing products for the future ranging from appliances to cars to homes. One such display was George Keck’s House of Tomorrow, which was built with synthetic materials and had futuristic features such as air conditioning and a dishwasher.
The Fair’s task of architectural design was conveyed upon some of the most successful and well-known architects and firms, including Edward Bennett, Daniel Burnham, Jr., John Holabird, and more. As with the previous world’s fair, the architecture of the 1933-34 fair was criticized by many, most notably by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was not asked to participate in the fair’s design.
The Century of Progress fair was so successful in its first year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded the leaders to open the Fair again in 1934. Roosevelt felt that this type of event promoted consumer spending for consumer durable goods and helped to reinvigorate the economy. He was joined by Henry Ford, whose company had not participated in 1933, to build a pavilion to highlight Ford’s worldwide sales.
The Fair reprised the Midway with its ethnic and exotic villages from places around the world, the freak shows, and even a dancer named Sally Rand, who was famous for her fan dances. The most spectacular attractions included the Sky Ride in rocket cars traveling 219 feet above the exposition and an Enchanted Island for children featuring The Magic Mountain encircled by a moat where children could take boat rides, and Round the World Flyers, an airplane ride for the young.
As was the case at the 1893 fair, there was not much participation by African Americans in the planning and operation of the 1933-34 fair. There was, however, a replica of Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable’s cabin at the exposition. Also, the efforts of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, activists and state legislators helped further the cause of Civil Rights by getting the law to extend the Fair to 1934 to include a clause that there would be no discrimination against African Americans. Women’s causes were largely ignored by the directors of the Century of Progress fair, in spite of enormous gains for women including suffrage gained in 1920. The 1893 fair included a Woman’s Building, which had been dictated by the federal legislation enacted for that exposition.
The Century of Progress Exposition was a success looking at the economic state of America at the time. It was financially successful and afforded millions of people an entertaining look at the future and what could be achieved. After the Chicago fair several cities held expositions, including San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas, San Diego, and New York. There were no permanent buildings left from the Century of Progress fair, but part of the land was later used for Meigs Field, the tiny airport that operated from 1948 to 2003 before it was demolished by then Mayor Richard M. Daley, and McCormick Place, which is now the largest convention center in North America. The most important legacy of the Fair is the positive evidence of progress and the accomplishments of Americans in their quest for an improving nation and world.
Ask me about visiting your classroom to display the artifacts that I have or to arrange a lesson.
Bernard C. Turner