The Fair that changed America by C.K.

Chicago, 1983. The World’s Columbian Exposition has forever changed the United States. Prominently designed by Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead, The biggest World’s Fair in history would be known as the White City. By evolving the status of country on the world’s political and industrial landscapes, and changing the culture of the nation, it kicked off a revolution that would turn into the industrial revolution of the turn of the century. Changing the nation in various ways, the World’s Fair became the one of the most influential peaceful events in US history (“Progress Made Visible: American World’s Fairs And Expositions”).

Following the Paris World’s Fair, the architects of the United States knew they had to put something on that was like nothing that had ever been seen. What followed can only be called the biggest city planning collaboration thus far in American history. Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead led a board of architects, and over 40,000 construction workers to create a 600 acre city. With over 200 buildings, and two distinct regions, and less than 3 years to design, engineer, and build it, the communication, and leadership of Burnham was essential to completion of the project (Wikipedia, World’s Exposition). The White City was created to contrast the dark, dreary colors of  Chicago and represented the ideal city.  The beautiful color choices, architecture and landscaping inspired what would become the city beautiful movement. The city beautiful movement was a change in urban planning and architecture in cities to introduce beautification and grandeur to the nation’s cities (“The City Beautiful Movement”).  This movement changed how cities were planned and can be linked directly with Burnham and the other architects creating the white city. The start of the city beautiful movement along with general movement towards urban areas and the beginning of consumerism signified the change of the US from a producer nation to a largely consumer society.

Consumerism can be traced back to the World’s Fair, especially in terms of food.  The Hamburger was first introduced here. Other products such as carbonated soda, Pabst Beer, Crackerjacks, and shredded wheat were also introduced (“World’s Columbian Exposition: The Legacy Of the Fair”).  These products, especially  hamburgers  (a product that is consumed around 50 billion times a year by America  alone, (“Hamburger Trivia”)  and carbonated soda (selling around 44 gallons per person per year, (“By The Numbers: What Americans Drink In A Year” ).  changed the diet of America forever. At the fair there were concessions and shops everywhere urging people to buy, to consume. Advertising, packaging, and marketing reached a huge audience for the first time. At the fair, consuming was essential to making the event what it was, and has resonated in the country ever since. Consumerism is now a defining characteristic of the United States, being the country that consumes the most stuff in the entire world. The US takes taking up almost 27 percent of the world’s consumer market in 2013 with almost 11.5 billion in consumer spending (“Wikipedia largest consumer markets”).  With consuming being such a large part of our culture, it is no mistake that the roots of advertising, marketing, and some staples of our diet can all be traced to the same event.

Advancements in technology at the World’s Fair, especially electricity, shaped what would illuminate the country for the next century. General Electric and Westinghouse were the two bidders to provide the lighting. GE was sponsored by Thomas Edison and represented Direct Current. Westinghouse was sponsored by Nikola Tesla and represented Alternating Current. The battle between AC and DC had been raging, but even though “Edison urged the fair to use direct current, DC, the prevailing standard” (Larson 131).  the White City was the beginning of the end for DC. Because of a low price estimate, “The exposition went with Westinghouse, and helped change the history of electricity (Larson 131). AC was much cheaper and more efficient than DC. It could travel much further than DC without needing large power stations. The safety and efficiency of AC, along with the wonder they created at the  fair created showed the power of Westinghouse and Tesla’s AC (“Lighting The 1893 World’s Fair: The Race to Light the World”). In his book, The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson describes the night lights of the Fair: “If evenings at the fair were seductive, the nights were ravishing. The lamps that laced every building and walkway produced the most elaborate demonstration of electric illumination ever attempted and the first large-scale test of alternating current. The fair alone consumed three times as much electricity as the entire city of Chicago. These were important engineering milestones, but what visitors adored was the sheer beauty of seeing so many lights ignited in one place, at one time. Every building, including the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, was outlined in white bulbs. Giant searchlights—the largest ever made and said to be visible sixty miles away—had been mounted on the Manufactures’ roof and swept the grounds and surrounding neighborhoods. Large colored bulbs lit the hundred-foot plumes of water that burst from the MacMonnies Fountain” (Larson 254).  The wonder generated by those lights would accelerate the growth of Alternating Current and over the next couple years, AC became the light source for 80% of the nation. It is now is used in almost everything from lights to toasters.

Not many peaceful events can invoke such change in a nation, but from Consumerism, to Urban Planning and architecture, to Electricity, the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago has impacted the United States in the last 125 years, and continues to do so today.


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