America Takes Center Stage

It was quite common for a young American upper class gentleman of the 1870s/1880s (such as Theodore Roosevelt) to be treated by his father to a “European Tour” before entering college. Of course the family would be proud to be American, proud of America’s progress in its first century as a nation in so many areas—transportation, communications, industry, international trade, and more. But to be truly “cultured,” especially in such topic areas as art and architecture, America just couldn’t provide what was necessary to round out a young man’s perspective. That required soaking in the ambience of sites featuring ancient, medieval, and Renaissance architecture. Such as ancient Athens and its Acropolis:


And the grandeur of Rome and its Sistine Chapel:


…with its unforgettable Ceiling:


And who could say they understood splendiferous luxury until they had seen the French Palace at Versailles?:



…with its stunning interior:


Or understood the sublime until they had seen Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral:


The tour wouldn’t be complete without traveling about England to see its imposing castles, starting with Windsor Castle in London:


And don’t forget the charm of the architecture of Germany. There were plenty classic old buildings there too, that had been around for centuries.  But I’ll bet the American tourists were also attracted to a relatively “new” building, erected by Bavarian King Ludwig II in 1869, Neuschwanstein Castle. Here’s a rare “Photochrom” (early colored photo process) of the castle as it looked in 1890:


You can see by this much more recent brightly-colored photo from modern times…


…why this famous castle was the inspiration for another famous castle:

sleeping beauty

Yes, Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is a Disneyfied version of King Ludwig’s castle.

Upper class—and some upper middle class—Americans of the Gilded Age in America insisted on taking their families and many of their tourist dollars overseas on a regular basis. This was a source of frustration to many patriotic Americans—especially those entrepreneurs who hated seeing potential profits go to the “Old World.” How to solve this problem? The country just wasn’t old enough to have any truly imposing antique architecture. The best we could do was perhaps the Capitol Building, less than a century old, and some big ol’ rich people’s estates, built to imitate European architecture. For instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt paid quite a bit to have his “Biltmore” mansion constructed in 1889 in North Carolina:


Vanderbilt’s chateau was pretty flashy. But it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to the French chateau it was intended to imitate—the Chateau de Blois in France. THAT chateau was built from the 13th to the 17th century, and when completed contained 564 rooms, 75 staircases, and 100 bedrooms. The residence of a number of French kings, it was visited by Joan of Arc in 1429 before she embarked on her military career.


This is not to say that Vanderbilt didn’t try pretty hard to impress—Biltmore, with 250 rooms and a 70,000 gallon indoor swimming pool is still the largest “home” in the United States! But it is a drop in the bucket compared to the splendiferous castles and cathedrals all over Europe.

No, America didn’t seem to have what it took to be able to play in the cultural Big Leagues like the major European nations of the late 19th century. It just came off as a gangly teenager in cheap clothes in the eyes of the VIPs of the world.

What to do? What to do?! We didn’t have a collection of impressive “old stuff” to show off to the world so we’d seem “culturally mature”…and both keep our own tourist dollars here and lure tourists from the Old Countries to come and be impressed.

The answer came in 1888. The U.S. Powers that Be decided that year to embark on a plan to throw American wealth and ingenuity at the problem—they would create enormous historic-looking buildings out of nothing, fill them with astounding wonders of technology and progress, and invite the world to come and see the results.

invitation poster

It worked. As with so many things in America today…instant coffee, fast-food eating, instant Lotto millionaires…they created Instant Culture.

1893 court of honor

many buildings

The cultural, political, and economic leaders of the U.S. decided to host a “World’s Fair” the likes of which the world had never seen. The “excuse” offered was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery of America,” which would emphasize that we weren’t just born yesterday even though the official political nation had only been around since 1789. The plans ended up so splendiferous that they couldn’t be completed by 1892, so the World’s Columbian Exposition was held in 1893.

posterposter2 The centerpiece of the Exposition was the Grand Basin, surrounded by over a dozen GIGANTIC buildings designed in the “Neo-Classical” style. This made up the Court of Honor, otherwise known as the “White City.”

Bird’s Eye view of the Court of Honor:

birds eye view

Administration Building:


Most were “pavilions” designed to play host to a specific type of display—Transportation, Horticulture, Manufacturing, Fine Arts, etc.

Transportation Building:


The largest of the buildings on the Exposition grounds was the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, at 1,687 feet by 787 feet.

Manufactures Building:


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. Those who could afford it actually rented rooms in nearby Chicago and would make repeat visits for a week or more…some for even a month or more.

The cost to construct JUST the Court of Honor buildings…not the close to 200 other buildings in the Fair, nor the creation of the exhibition grounds and gardens, nor the infrastructure of roads/sewers/water supply/electricity and more, nor any of the contents of the buildings…the cost for JUST building the buildings was $8 million. That may not sound like much these days…but a dollar bought more back then. In modern dollars factoring in inflation and such, that is over $200 million.

Still, as you can see in the photos, those were a LOT of huge, cool buildings. So maybe it was worth it. Except for one thing.

Those buildings were not built, like Notre Dame Cathedral, or Windsor Castle, or even Biltmore chateau, to last “for the ages.” Or even for a century. They were built to last for…six months.

And then be torn down.

Unlike Notre Dame or the Sistine Chapel or Biltmore, they weren’t made out of marble or stone or even brick. They were mostly built out of wood or steel framework covered with a material called “staff.” It is made from mixing plaster and a binder (like horsehair or hemp) and water. Once dried, it looks very much like stone, and can be either molded or carved to look like just about anything. Painted white, you could definitely be fooled that it was marble. But unlike marble, it was not “solid.” It easily crumbled after being exposed to the elements, sometimes within months, surely within a very few years.

Most of the buildings of the fair, as well as most of the thousands of pieces of magnificent statuary…

columbian fountain


…were made from staff. Including that huge statue of a woman representing “The Republic” standing on a pedestal in the Great Basin.


It was 65 feet tall and covered with gold leaf…but under that gilded façade it was like all the rest…just staff that would soon crumble after the fair was over. In fact, it didn’t have time to crumble—it was destroyed by fire in 1896. In all, over 30,000 TONS of staff was used in the construction of the Fair.

Painted white, the Court of Honor buildings and the statuary gave the distinct impression of being made of marble. But actually they were much closer to being …giant pinatas! Designed for one BIG party, and then broken to pieces and swept away.

pinataBut of course that didn’t happen until all the guests from around the world had gone home. For the six months that the fair was open for business, it seemed like Rome or Athens or London. Long enough to impress the world with how much “high culture” the U.S. was capable of.

Well, and a bit of low culture. The most popular part of the Fair was by many estimates the less “official” mile-long area branching off the main Exposition grounds called the Midway (which loaned its name ever after to the entertainment sections of most fairs). There you could gawk at exotic people brought in from around the world, wearing their native costumes, performing their native music and dance, offering native foods, and more, some of them actually living in areas designed to look like their villages back home.

Lapland Village:

midway lapland village

Javanese natives:

midway javanese

“Streets of Cairo”:

midway cairo

There were many other carnival-style attractions, including dancers doing the hoochie-coochie, and rides, including the granddaddy of all rides, the original Ferris Wheel, designed and engineered by Mr. George Washington Ferris. The fair founders had wanted a gigantic “icon” for the fair to “vie with” the impressive stature of the Eiffel Tower that had been the centerpiece of an earlier French World Exposition.

eiffel 1889


Mr. Ferris’s wheel did the trick.

midway with wheel

To this day rotating observation wheels are called ferris wheels, but none can compare even a tiny bit with the enormity of that Columbian wheel! It was 264 feet tall (comparable to a 20-story sky scraper…) It didn’t have baskets holding three or four people like the ferris wheels at your local county fair…it had enclosed “cars” that were comparable in size to a street trolley. Each had 38 rotating seats, plus standing room, such that each could hold 60 people. And there were 36 of these cars, so its total capacity was 2,160. An average of 38,000 passengers a day rode the wheel.

wheel view inside


Let me be clear on this…although the buildings and statuary created for the Columbian Exposition were phony, the whole fair wasn’t just fluff. The contents of the buildings representing the U.S. at the fair really did dazzle visitors with the technological and manufacturing and economic progress of the Americans of the 1890s. This was during the heyday of the most famous of our inventors…Edison, Tesla, Bell. Visitors to the Fair were introduced to everything new under the sun. Forty seven states and territories had displays at the Fair, many of them in their own buildings, showing off their own “best of” everything. Such as this one from Illinois:

states ill

And 51 nations and 39 colonies also contributed displays, again many of them in their own separate buildings, such as this one for Brazil:

countries brazil

Yes, other nations were welcome to come and display their goods here at “our” Fair. It was, after all, an “international exposition.” But there was no question what impression the visitor was expected to take home with him. America built the stage, and America “took center stage” at the Fair, dwarfing the contributions of every other nation. There is no doubt that the fair promoters hoped that the primary “lesson” of the Fair was that America had finally come of age, and was ready to rightfully take its place as one of the Great Nations of the world. In fact, maybe it deserved to be Center Stage on the world scene from now on.

The creator of this cartoon below, which appeared as a centerfold in Puck magazine in October, 1893, certainly had no doubt what the main point was. (Puck was a satirical humor magazine, often specializing in political cartoons.) Notice that Uncle Sam is portrayed as a very mature elderly man—twice the size of the representatives of other nations, holding their hands as if he is a kindergarten teacher leading them in a jolly dance!

grand finale

The caption reads:

Grand Finale of the Stupendous, Spectacular Success,
“Uncle Sam’s Show.”

 It’s done. It’s done! The show and fun
We’ve had for six months past;
I’ve made the world stare
At my wonderful Fair,
And swear that nothing could compare
With the beautiful, wonderful things seen there—

But the end has come, at last.
And now, it’s over, we thank you all
For giving so hearty a curtain call;
And you all agree with me, I guess
That it’s been a howling, big success!

Chorus of ALL NATIONS—

For he’s a jolly good fellow,
For he’s a jolly good fellow,
For he’s a jolly good fellow,
Which nobody can deny!

I first heard of the World’s Columbian Exhibition about a decade ago. I’m not sure how I missed it in my reading over my lifetime, as I now realize it really was a pivotal turning point in many ways for a number of aspects of American history! You might say it was the opening volley in America’s serious aim at getting the world’s attention to its claims of “American Exceptionalism.”

I was attracted to look into the history of the Exhibition and its aftermath at first because of the impressive photos of the Court of Honor I stumbled across on the Internet while randomly surfing one day. As I read more about it, I was fascinated—I came to realize that it was perhaps even one of the primary influences that led eventually to the building of my favorite place on earth to visit—EPCOT in Walt Disney World, Florida. Collecting books and videos about the Columbian Exposition, and regularly surfing the Net to find more and more info about it, became one of my hobbies.

And then one day I discovered that it wasn’t an isolated event in American history. It was only the beginning of a whole series of similar Fairs leading up to World War 2! And as I began branching out to read about others, I discovered that there was a story deep “behind the scenes” of this series that changed the way that I have looked at history ever since. For they had a far greater lasting influence in many areas of American society than would first appear as a result of the ephemeral (“lasting for a very short time”) nature of their physical structures.

I hope you will join me as I share some of my discoveries in this new series on this Meet MythAmerica Blog.

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One Response to America Takes Center Stage

  1. Pingback: America Takes Center Stage | Currently StaRRing …

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