Pictures From an Exposition – Visualising the 1893 World’s Fair

Newberry Library, Chicago

Open: September 28th – December 31st, 2018  (Free)

Curator: Diane Dillon

Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair, Newberry Library

Between 4th and 9th November 2018, I spent  days in Chicago working on the Visit1862 project. Sponsored by the Caxton Club (a bibliophilic society founded in Chicago in 1895 to promote the book arts and the history of the book), the main purpose of my trip was to give a public talk at the Newberry Library about visitors’ experiences of nineteenth-century international exhibitions (a recording of the talk can be found on the Newberry Library’s website). While there, I was able to cram in much more. I was interviewed by Elizabeth Cummings about the 1862 International Exhibition for the Newberry Library’s podcast series shelflife. I visited the site of the 1893 Chicago World’s fair (watch out for further blog posts about this), spent some time in the Newberry Library’s archival collection, and saw the library’s brilliant exhibition ‘Pictures from an Exposition – Visualising the 1893 World’s Fair’. It is this exhibition that this blog post will focus on.

Pictures from an Exposition: Visualizing the 1893 World’s Fair, Newberry Library

‘Pictures from an Exposition – Visualising the 1893 World’s Fair’ celebrates the 125th anniversary of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair through the display of many (but by no means all) of the Newberry Library’s collection of books, prints, maps and ephemera associated with the event. Organised through two rooms, the exhibition introduces the prominent and spectacular characteristics of the 1893 World’s Fair and uses thematic boards to tell interesting stories about the process of its construction, the way in which it was advertised, the artistic purposes of the event, how people travelled to the event, and how it was remembered.

Last remaining building from the 1893 World’s Fair Site, Chicago © Ruth Slatter

Held on the south side of Chicago, the 1893 World’s Fair was a giant complex of buildings, which displayed objects, people and practices from each of America’s states and many international countries. Therefore, in many ways the 1893 World’s Fair was very different  to the 1862 International Exhibition in London (find out more about that here). Not only was it held in a much larger space, with many buildings rather than one, it also included various displays which aimed to entertain the crowd, rather than simply educate them. However, what struck me most when visiting the Newberry Library’s exhibition was that, despite these differences between the 1893 World’s Fair and the 1862 International Exhibition, the exhibition’s collection illustrated striking similarities between the nature and content of the material held in the Newberry collection and the material I have engaged with in relation to the 1862 International Exhibition.

Newberry Library, Chicago © Ruth Slatter

Firstly, the development of the Newberry Library’s archival collection related to the 1893 World’s Fair is remarkably similar to the assembly of international exhibition related collections in London’s National Art Library (NAL) and Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). 1893 was not only the year of Chicago’s World Fair, but was also the year in which the Newberry Library, first established in 1887 through the bequest of Walter L. Newberry (1804-68), moved into its permanent building. Therefore, the Newberry Library was aggressively collecting items of local historical value for its rapidly expanding collection in 1893, resulting in an extensive collection of material related to the 1893 World Fair. This process is markedly similar to that undertaken in South Kensington during London’s 1851 Great Exhibition and 1862 International Exhibition. The South Kensington Museum (the forerunner of the V&A) was established immediately following the 1851 Great Exhibition, its collections initially containing many items from the exhibition itself. Similarly, when the 1862 International Exhibition was being planned, built and undertaken across the road from the South Kensington Museum just over ten years later, the museum collected many contemporary publications related to it and subsequently purchased many items that had been on display in the exhibition. The similarities between these two collection processes has resulted in similar sorts of objects related to the 1893 World’s Fair and the 1862 International Exhibition being held in the Newberry Library and V&A’s NAL. These include many maps, contemporary press cuttings, guidebooks, catalogues, and high quality images. However, there is one very noticeable difference between the two collections. While the V&A and NAL’s collections generally include contemporary published sources, the Newberry Library’s collection also contains a range of handwritten letters, autobiographies, diaries and recollections left by ordinary individuals who visited the 1893 World Fair. These are invaluable sources for gaining insights into individuals’ experiences of these events and I cannot wait to explore them further in the future.

In addition to these similarities between the sorts of archival material related to the 1893 World’s Fair and 1862 International Exhibition, the Newberry’s Library’s exhibition also highlighted a number of ways in which visitors’ experiences of these spaces would have been comparable. Most interestingly, the exhibition has an entire section devoted to visitors’ journeys to the 1893 World Fair and this event’s position within broader tourist activities. Some of the most interesting items in this section include ephemera related to the Columbia Rolling Chair Company, from who you could hire a wheelchair like contraption and be pushed around the exhibition and personal reflections on journeying to and through the exhibition from Eugene Ernst Prussing and Francis, Kate and Jane Sever (amongst others). Similar stories are regularly found in sources related to the 1862 International Exhibition, including guidebooks in foreign languages that provided overseas visitors with information about the exhibition space, how to get there and things to see in London while visiting the exhibition. Furthermore, there are regular complaints in the contemporary press about how busy London’s omnibuses and cabs became while the exhibition was open. All of these sources highlight the importance of positioning international exhibitions and world’s fairs within their geographical context and including the other spaces, places and experiences that visitors had while travelling to and from them within narratives of visitors’ experiences of these events.

1893 World’s Fair handkerchief, Newberry Library

Some of the objects included in the Newberry Library’s exhibition also suggest that visitors’ experiences of the 1893 World’s Fair were not limited to the period between May and October when the exhibition was open. Various trinkets and souvenirs within the display illustrate how the World’s Fair lived on long in the memories of those who had visited it long after it had closed. For instance, there is a bird’s eye view of the 1893 World’s Fair printed on a cloth handkerchief, a walking cane with a pull out map of the exhibition rolled up inside of it and paper fans made by John W. Green decorated with artistic representations of the exhibition’s buildings. Visitors’ who purchased each of these items are likely to have cherished them as important reminders of their time at this spectacular event. Similar themes are identifiable in the archival material I have engaged with in relation to the 1862 International Exhibition. For months after the exhibition was closed, contemporaries were still publishing articles about what they saw at the exhibition and what they thought about it and I recently received an email from a metal detectorist, who found this metal souvenir from London’s 1862 International Exhibition in Nova Scotia.

I would highly recommend a visit to ‘Pictures From an Exposition – Visualising the 1893 World’s Fair’ if you are in Chicago this November or December. Most particularly, although it does not explicitly reflect on visitors’ experiences of this event in its text boards, many of the items it includes are powerful illustrations of how individuals’ experienced nineteenth-century international exhibitions and world fairs.

© Ruth Slatter

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