(Click here to go to the first entry in this blog series on the Gay ’90s to read the material in sequential order.)
In 1988 my husband, daughter, and I visited Walt Disney World’s EPCOT for the first time.
What a mind-expanding, soul-refreshing experience it was! As is typical for a Disney park, you stepped out of your mundane world into an alternate universe where nothing but the finest aspects of what man has accomplished, and the best of his hopes for accomplishing in the future, were portrayed.
Again, as with all Disney parks, the environment is beautifully, artistically landscaped, and spotless and perfectly groomed at all times. Not a gum wrapper on the sidewalk, not a petal out of place in the many gardens. Yet the grooming is so efficiently planned and scheduled that you almost never see a worker sweeping a sidewalk or trimming a hedge.
The first “half” of the grounds, designated Future World, features various attractions in themed pavilions that emphasize the history and the future of technology, invention, and progress—Energy, Transportation, Communications, Agriculture, and more.
The construction of each pavilion was done under the financial sponsorship of some major corporation, and major corporations continue sponsoring the ongoing maintenance of the attractions.
Which was fitting, as the main theme of the “Spaceship Earth” ride contained in it was originally the history and future of communications. There have been lots of changes in sponsorship of attractions at EPCOT over the years—and Spaceship Earth, remodeled a number of times, is now sponsored by the German multinational engineering and electronics conglomerate Siemens AG.
The second “half” of the EPCOT grounds, is designated World Showcase. It consists of…
…eleven pavilions, each themed and dedicated to represent a specific country. The eleven pavilions surround the World Showcase Lagoon, a large man-made lake located in the center of World Showcase with a perimeter of 1.2 miles… Each pavilion contains themed architecture, landscapes, streetscapes, attractions, shops, and restaurants representing the respective country’s culture and cuisine. In an effort to maintain the authenticity of the represented countries, the pavilions are primarily staffed by citizens of the respective countries as part of the Cultural Representative Program through J-1 visa agreements. Some pavilions also contain themed rides, shows, and live entertainment representative of the respective country. [Wiki]
At the time in 1988 I had never seen anything as splendiferous and mind-blowing in my life. It took two days to cover all the attractions in the park, and even then there were many nooks and crannies we didn’t have time to explore. I guess I must have thought I’d now seen the pinnacle of what American ingenuity was able to create in terms of educational and cultural entertainment. Surely, I assumed, it took until the late 20th century to be able to have the know-how and technology and grandiose planning to pull together such an impressive “tourist destination”!
How naïve I was.
Sometime around 2000, I happened to be surfing around the Internet and came across some pictures of an event I had never heard of—the “World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893” also commonly called the “1893 Chicago World’s Fair.” The pictures and the story that went with them were so astounding that at first I couldn’t quite comprehend what I was seeing.
Although I had heard of World’s Fairs that had been held in my lifetime, specifically one in New York in 1964 and one in Seattle in 1962, they were being held so far from where I lived in Michigan that they just barely registered on my conscious mind. When I heard the word “fair,” the only point of reference I had of personal experience were the events at the “fairgrounds” outside our town. The fairgrounds consisted of a big fenced-in field of dirt with a few permanent barn-like buildings at one end. Most of the year they sat empty. But for one week in the fall the whole fairgrounds came to life.
The farmers of the county—and their kids who were members of the 4-H Club—filled the barns up with livestock, the best of their herds and flocks, vying for blue ribbons that would show they had raised the best of the best. And often the “biggest of the biggest”—or most unusual.
Such as the huge hogs, like this record-setting 1,335 pound porker who won top prize at the Iowa State Fair in 2012.
Or the exotic, strange breeds on display in the chicken barn.
There weren’t just biggest animals, either. You could always count on seeing the county’s biggest pumpkin and biggest sunflower head.
The livestock barns were open-sided, to allow the fresh air in—and the not-so-fresh air out. (I was always amazed that the smelliest building of all wasn’t where the pigs were kept, but the one with the chickens.)
But there was one big enclosed building, where contestants, most often women, vied for other prizes for such creations as quilts and pies.
The largest section of the big dirt field was taken up with the “Midway,” a collection of exciting rides, and small tents and shacks featuring snacks, “games of skill” where you could win big stuffed animals, and more. This was brought in all in pieces on trucks and put together overnight by a company from out of state.
When I was in grade school in the mid-1950s, you could still go down to the far corner of the fairgrounds and find a “Girlie Show,” like this one from the 1940s.
And a “Freak Show,” with both live and preserved curiosities.
I think the freak and girlie shows disappeared by the mid-1960s.
There was also another tent or building, often called a “Penny Arcade” that had such “penny, nickel, dime” attractions as pinball games.
That’s where you’d find the “peep” shows…little boxes you’d peer into through a small hole, put your penny or nickel in, and turn a crank to watch a short “movie”—which was not on film. It consisted of a stack of photos on a rotating drum, which would flop down one at a time for you to see. As you turned the crank the successive pics would give the illusion of movement—faster and faster depending on how fast you turned the crank.
I’m not quite sure why this was an attraction to most people at the time. By then, everyone had television! But for some reason putting your coin in and being able to “control the action” of two guys boxing or some poorly-rendered cartoon characters acting goofy seemed exciting. And I suppose the most exciting for some adult males…were the peep show boxes with little movies with themes you couldn’t see on TV, with titles like “Bedroom Secrets”! These were clearly labeled with some notice like “For adults only.”
All of this would swoop into our fairgrounds for one week in September, and then be torn down, packed up, and removed a week later. It was the epitome of the term “ephemeral.” The main point of it all seemed to be to give the local farm folks an opportunity to brag about their productivity and vie with one another for honors, and to give the local populace a time to “party” outdoors before winter set in. The importance and excitement wasn’t in the facility itself—it was just a dirt field with ramshackle tents and buildings. It was in the bright colorful lights at night, the smell of popcorn, the bustling crowds, the thrilling rides.
And, if you were a farmer, farm wife, or farm kid, it was the chance to show off your stuff.
Yes, all this is what came to my mind when I heard the word “fair.” I had never even been to the Michigan State Fair, but I’m pretty sure I figured that a state fair was just a beefed-up version of our county fair, with a bigger dirt field fairgrounds, bigger crowds, bigger animal barns, bigger tents, more animals and pies, and more rides and peep shows.
Thus when I first heard the phrase “World’s Fair,” what popped into my mind was an equally ephemeral-looking scene. REALLY big tents, like in the largest Barnum and Bailey Circus events (they could hold 10,000 or more), even more rides and popcorn stands, and so on. I guess if I would have paid attention to TIME, LIFE, and LOOK magazine articles with glossy pics in 1964 about the New York World’s Fair that ran from April to October that year, I would have known better.
But that was the spring I graduated from high school and the fall I went away to college—and the year the Beatles came to America in February and August! I had a lot on my mind, and some event almost a thousand miles away from my small town that I would never get to attend was totally irrelevant to me at the time.
So when I ran across the Columbian Exposition of 1893 on the Web in 2000, my mind was a blank slate regarding World’s Fairs.
The first thing that startled me was to realize what utterly grandiose planning went into the event. No, it wasn’t going to be an overgrown circus with huge tents. It was to be, essentially, a model city designed by the foremost architects of the time. Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom covers barely 100 acres. EPCOT covers 300 acres, with less than a dozen large buildings/pavilions in Future World, and 11 main buildings, with a few smaller ones, making up the attractions of the nations around the lagoon.
The Columbian Exposition, in comparison, covered over 600 acres. Although it did have some areas of lovely landscaping, it was pretty jam-packed with buildings—over 200 of them. The main “Court of Honor,” dubbed “The White City,” had eleven huge classical buildings, each dedicated to one theme. The largest was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, at 1,687 feet by 787 feet.
At 130,000 square meters in “footprint” and 8,500,000 cubic meters in internal volume, at the time it was the largest building in the world. If it still existed today, it would be high on the top ten list of current largest buildings in the world.
It had a 140 foot tall clock tower inside the front entrance, was lit by 35,000 light bulbs, and hosted exhibits by numerous European, Asian, and South American countries, along with exhibits from thousands of American companies.
Its contents were just the tip of the iceberg for what was on view at the Fair. No, you couldn’t take in even a small percentage of the exhibits in just the main buildings in a couple of days, like a visit to EPCOT. Those who could afford it actually rented rooms in nearby Chicago and would make repeat visits for a week or more. For after the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building, there were over 200 more buildings and attractions to tackle. Including separate buildings for almost all the 44 states at the time, each crammed with examples of the arts, agriculture, and industries of their own state. Those who couldn’t afford the time or expense of an extended visit just ran themselves ragged trying to see as much as they could in whatever short time they had!
And then there was the “Amusements” part of the Fair. That midway with the cotton candy and tilt-a-whirl at your county fair? It gets its name from the “Midway Plaisance” connected to the Columbian Exposition. (“Plaisance” is a fancy French word meaning something like “Pleasure Ground.”) The Midway Plaisance was that one-mile “extension” out to the left on the map above. And it ended up being the most popular and profitable part of the Fair. (In spite of the fact that many of the Fair’s organizers had hoped to avoid having such a “low brow” feature at their high brow Fair.)
It was originally designed to be a narrow park-like set of paths that would connect two large parks in Chicago, Washington Park on the West and Jackson Park on the East. For the 1893 Columbian Exposition Jackson Park became the host area for the “formal” part of the Fair, and the Midway Plaisance was pressed into service as the “carnival” area. The home to a boisterous, noisy hodge-podge of all sorts of games, rides, food concessions, exotic displays and entertainment from foreign countries, wild animals, and…hootchie-cootchie dancers…it was kept separate from the supposedly more “educational” and “respectable” main fairgrounds.
After the closing of the Exposition, both Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance were transformed back to parklands. But from that day to this the section of fairs, festivals, circuses, or theme parks where you usually find fast-food, popular entertainment, and rides is called a “midway.”
This series of blog entries is about the mythology of the Gay 90s. The 1893 World’s Fair played a huge part in the development of that mythology. It was an enormously influential historical event. Even if you’ve never heard of it before, you are aware of numerous aspects of modern society that can be traced back to that fair. We’ll look at some of those, and get a more comprehensive look at the fair in coming blog entries.
Next in this series: