Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Devil Went Down to Chicago

Remember Queen Elizabeth in Chicago? Well she is an excellent resource for reading material. She had been suggesting The Devil in the White City for some time and as things tend to happen, there it sat on the bookshelf of the beach house we rented last month. Of course, I didn't notice it until the night before we left, but I got halfway through the first chapter - enough to think that yes, maybe, this could be a good choice. So, I ordered it from my bookclub when we got home and just finished it yesterday morning. As promised, here is a brief history of the World's Fair and some fun Chicago World's Fair facts (since no one reading this was around in 1893 to experience them...and if you were, perhaps you should consider moving to Forks, WA).

World's Fairs started in Europe, hosted mainly by cities like Paris, London and Vienna. In 1876, however, it made the big jump across the pond to Philadelphia. I guess they figured we had kind of earned it, considering our ability to build a nation, we could probably handle a few big shiny buildings and parking. Typically there is a theme, ranging from the very broad (Transportation, theme from the Vancouver Expo in '86) to the much more specific (Leisure in the Age of Technology, theme from the Brisbane Expo in '88...which sort of sounds like overcompensation to me. I have no idea where Brisbane is and then they have to have this elaborate theme. Vancouver, on the other hand, went with simple and everyone knows where Vancouver is. Take a lesson, Brisbane). And world expositions are meant to do 3 things: present new inventions, facilitate cultural exchange based on a theme, and to brand a city, region or nation. And the third was the most important reason for Chicago to win the bid for the World's Fair of 1893...specifically to win it over New York City.

Chicago was considered a pig-butchering town and was best known for its stockyards. I've been to Chicago more times than I can count and the very last thing I would think of is stockyards, so I would say that Chicago was wildly successful in its city-branding. Michigan Avenue and an excellent art museum, yes...but stockyards, no. The legacy of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 includes:

  • An inspiration for L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz (apparently, St. Louis was not the vision for the Emerald City)
  • Walt Disney's father, Elias, had built some of the buildings for the "White City" and thus The Happiest Place on Earth was born, complete with screaming children and parents on the edge of divorce.
  • George Washington Ferris created the impossible...a wheel that held 36 carts and over 1000 people. And it actually turned. And it saved the fair from bankruptcy. It was meant to out-Eiffel the Eiffel Tower.
  • Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show raked in the money. Unfortunately, poor Buffalo Bill died penniless. Bad investments will get you every time. Just ask the Madoffs.
  • Most of the buildings of the "White City" are gone, but the last 2 standing now house the Field Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute of Chicago (remember what I was saying about an excellent art museum?).
  • The fair was illuminated by Westinghouse's alternating current. And then there was light....
  • And we had the introduction of Cracker Jack, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit, Cream of Wheat, Aunt Jemima, the quarter and the half-dollar, ragtime music, hula dancers, and the hamburger. All of these have survived since 1893 and Shredded Wheat has a nice little commercial now that reminds you of this.
Having not heard of any recent World's Fairs, I thought they had simply died out. Too little money, too much competition between great minds (I mean, imagine if you will, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the Google guy all sitting down for a cognac and discussing the next great invention...not the 3 next great inventions. It's hard to wrap your mind around, yes?). But, no! The most recent expo was in Zarazoga in 2008. Apparently, that's in Spain. I'm pretty sure even CNN missed the coverage on that one. Brian Williams missed the boat, too. The next one, in 2010, is in Shanghai (yes, thank you, I think I'll pass). And then 2015 is in Milan (a definite maybe). It will not, unfortunately, return to the US anytime in the foreseeable future. What I wonder though, is what new inventions are being presented at these fairs if they aren't even being covered by the press? I mean I have friends that take off the day of Apple's big unveilings and yet not even a blurb on the NY Times about inventions at the fair. I like the idea of a World's Fair. It seems very inclusive...like we are all holding hands and standing around a globe. Yet, somehow I don't think we'll be inventing anything to ship off to Shanghai.

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