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Culture in Age of Great Inventions

Technology, the White City, and the Meaning of an Era

The Columbian Exposition of 1893—celebrating the fourth century since Columbus's landing and a century of remarkable progress in America—was the last and greatest of the nineteenth-century world fairs. It was also the most dazzling display of technology ever put together, and for many of the estimated 27 million visitors who came to see it, the fair seemed to embody the meaning of the era, of the very idea of progress, and even the identity of America as a whole.

Held in Chicago—the quintessential city of the industrial era—the Exposition transformed the 633 acres of Jackson Park into a marvelously constructed fairground, the centerpiece of which was the pristine White City. The model city was the fruit of an unprecedented collaboration between artists, architects, engineers, and planners. It was a chance to re-imagine America in miniature as the proverbial "city on the hill" for all the world to see and admire. And by all accounts, there was plenty to marvel at—from a moving sidewalk to the first Ferris wheel.

Most popular—and perhaps most dazzling—was the exhibition fairgoers usually saw last: the Hall of Electricity. Here, they found a futuristic model household stuffed with new electrical appliances. Artifacts from the history of electrification were on display: the world's first telegraph message, the first seismograph, and Thomas Edison's kinetoscope. Dominating the hall was Edison's 82-foot, 18,000-bulb Tower of Light.

Not surprisingly, the Hall of Electricity, the White City, and the entire Exposition's display of technological grandeur and abundance elicited strong reactions from visitors who took in the spectacle. The western writer Owen Wister probably captured the overwhelming experience for many in his diary: "I went to the fair at once, and before I had walked for two minutes, a bewilderment seized me...until my mind was dazzled to a standstill."15

For others, the spectacle addressed questions central to the era. Henry Van Brunt, a chief architect for the Exposition, expressed concern that while giving due prominence to the technological achievements of the era, the fair should, if possible, give "corresponding evidences that the finer instincts of humanity have not suffered complete eclipse in this grosser prosperity." To Eugene Debs, who would soon rise to national prominence as a socialist activist and organizer, the fair—"as vivid as electric light"—was "monumental of the achievements of labor." For these observers the wondrous display and the clear association of technology with progress spoke to urgent questions about the nature of progress—and about the direction America was taking.

In that vein, the ever astute Henry Adams may have seen the most clearly when he wrote of the fair that "Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity." For Adams, the Columbian Exposition of 1893 declared definitively that there would be one American way: industrial, capitalistic, and mechanized. American culture, like the fair itself, would be a product of business, industry, and technology brought forth for consumption by the eager masses.16

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