Friday, February 11, 2011

The Summer of 1893

No, I was not alive then, so skip this if you're looking for a diary of my summer camp memories or a journal of sewing activities.

I've been catching up on some reading I meant to get around to in the last year or so and recently finished reading this fascinating book - The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and had to tell someone.

Larson tells  the incredible, factual story of the building of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago intertwined with the drama of a serial killer at large. A tiny bit gruesome in parts but still a fascinating history of American culture at the end of the 19th century. Chicago history is a particular favorite of mine since I'm a Chicago girl.

For about six months and into the summer of 1893, Chicago was home to one of the largest and most spectacular events of the 19th Century - the World's Columbian Exposition, called by its creators as, simply, "by far the greatest Exposition ever held."

Nicknamed the "White City" for its glorious white buildings, the World's Columbian Exposition was an extremely popular and influential social and cultural event. Filled with  an amazing display of 65,000 exhibits, the Fair depicted some of the best achievements of modern civilization and a wonderful array of the arts and sciences.

I love this quote from novelist Hamlin Garland, written to his parents in 1893 - "Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see the fair." I also got a little sense of the excitement people must have felt when I transcribed Adelia's diary entries (from my book Remembering Adelia) telling us about her trip to Chicago to explore the State Fair in 1861. I can only imagine what she thought of the World's Fair, years later, if she atttended. (Adelia died in 1899, at the age of 57.)

The Fair housed the largest exhibition of American art ever held in the United States, displaying 10,000 pieces of artwork.  There was also a Women's Building highlighting women's work and accomplishments and  featuring  several famous suffragist leaders - Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony - as speakers.

Some famous cultural icons and brands of our popular culture were introduced at the Fair - a huge wheel designed by George Ferris placed on the Midway, revolving high above the fairgrounds; Cream of Wheat; Shredded Wheat; Pabst Beer; Aunt Jemima syrup; Juicy Fruit gum; Cracker Jack (noted by some as the first junk food); carbonated soda; hamburgers; and . . . ELECTRICITY! Not to mention belly dancers and the "Hootchy-Kootchy."

Here's something I found  really interesting. Walt Disney's father was a construction worker for the Exposition, and often relayed stories of the Fair to his children as they were growing up. The author of the book cites it as a legitimate source of inspiration for his son Walt and the Disney kingdom he would eventually create.

If you haven't already read it, The Devil in the White City is a great book and a fascinating read. But not necessarily for the squeamish, although you can skip some parts - I did just a little at times. I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio has bought the movie rights. 


  1. What a fascinating story, nice to know how the Ferris wheel got it's name!!! Love all the old pictures, it would be great to go back in time and visit an event like that. Thanks for sharing your latest read!

  2. I read that book several years ago! It was amazing how they worked to get everything ready in time!

  3. Thanks for the heads up on The Devil In The White City. Our grand daughter away at college sent this book home with her Pop to read..Maybe I will grab it first!

  4. i love a good thriller & this book sounds like it would make a great movie!
    i felt a tinge of excitement while reading your informative post about the world's columbian exposition..i can only imagine how amazing it would've been!
    btw i love all the wonderful b&w photos of that place & time.

  5. Great Story. Chicago Architectural Foundation has a terrific Devil in the White City tour,that takes you through the area of where the World's fair stood, and how many of the actual buildings are still in use from the fair. If you get the chance take the tour. One gentleman in our group had a program and a ticket from the fair. I would love to take the tour again!!

  6. I'll put it on my summer reading list!

  7. I watched a PBS special on the Fair last year which showed what was left of the area. That tour sounds very interesting too.

  8. I'm a Chicago girl too (living in TX now) and I had heard of the book before. I think I'll check it out. Looks very interesting!

  9. I read this a couple of years ago and found it fastinating.

  10. My husband and I listened to this book on tape during a trip a few years ago. It was facinating. Hubby liked it because of the architectural and engineering references since he is an architectural draftsman. Plus we both love history.

  11. I also listened to the unabridged audio version of this book and was tranfixed! I've been recommending it ever since.

    Was able to hand stitch many a seam while listening...

  12. I don't read nearly as much as I used to, ever since I started quilting. But I work it in now and then, and this recommendation is going to the top of my list. I enjoyed the photos and reading all your tidbits of history Thanks!

  13. I love that book and have read it several times. Larson's Isaac's Storm and Thunderstruck are great, too.

  14. I read the book several years ago and it was an amazing look at the fair. Your post was terrific as always. Connie204


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