Compared to the famous World’s Columbian Exposition—The White
City in 1893 or the New York World’s Fair of 1938, Chicago’s Century of
Progress is not well remembered outside of its home town. But the city thought so much of it that they made
it the fourth and final red star on
the city flag, the others
representing the Ft. Dearborn Massacre, the Great Chicago Fire,
and the afore mentioned 1893 shindig.
The fair opened on May 27, 1933, the depths of the Depression.
It had been a long time coming.
The idea germinated among civic
boosters in the mid 1920’s eager to find a way to showcase the city in a
way that would erase it already established
image as a gangster riddled, corrupt city wracked by recurring labor violence. Harkening to the
success of the Columbian Exposition, still vivid in civic memory, they decided
to stage another big fair and invite the world.
In 1927 Rufus C. Dawes, an oil magnate, was elected Chairman of an organizing committee and he brought his brother, Charles H.
Dawes, the sitting Vice President of the United States, on as
chief finance officer and fundraiser. With their clout,
they rounded up big donations from the city’s business elite. They pressed forward even after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Led
by Sears and Roebucks President Julius
Rosenwald $12 million dollars in gold notes was raised to seed construction of the fair. Additional
money was raised by selling shares to
the public that included passes to the fair when it opened. Major
corporations built pavilions or
participated in other exhibitions.
And, of course, admission tickets
brought in revenue once the fair was opened.
Beyond infrastructure and making land fill along Lake Michigan south of the Loop,
relatively little public money went
into the fair. But the lakefront site was worth a fortune stretching
south from the Museum of Science and Industry and including Northerly
Island, separating the grounds by a lagoon.
McCormick Place now stands
on the lake shore portion of the grounds and for years after the fair Meigs
Field occupied Northerly Island until it was plowed under by Mayor
Richard M. Daley and converted to a park.
Construction for the Fair was put in the hands of operations
manager Lenox R. Lohr, a former military engineer and destined to become
President of NBC.
Originally the theme of the Fair was to be a celebration of Chicago history since the city’s incorporation in 1833, hence the name
Century of Progress. But as it grew nearer Dawes agreed to turn the fair
into an exposition of science and
industrial development. At the urging of scientists Dawes also agreed
to erect a Hall of Science as one of the signature exhibits at the
fair. But the science being celebrated was not head-in-the-clouds basic research. It was science in
service to industry. The Hall of Science motto said it all, Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man
The Burlington Zephyr on display contrasted to a 19th Century steam locomotive and cars.
More than two dozen major corporations jumped
on the bandwagon with pavilions of their own including General Motors
with its working assembly line, Chrysler, Firestone, Havoline
Motor Oil—a 21 story sky scraper
adorned by a giant working thermometer—and
Sears and Roebucks among others. The Travel and Transport Building featured
a railroad exhibition that included
the stainless steel clad streamline
train the Burlington Zephyr, a big hit with the public.
There were several model homes
including a House of the Future that predicted the automatic dishwashers and air
conditioning would become standard in American homes.
A committee of leading architects and designers
was selected to plan and execute the various exhibit and entertainment
areas. In keeping with the theme of scientific advancement, architectural
styles were modern, streamlined and influence by the Art Deco
movement. Instead of the gleaming white of the Columbian Exposition,
buildings embraced a bold color palette.
Innovation in styles, construction, and materials was encouraged.
The Century of Progress grounds with the Lagoon separating the Lake Shore land fill and Northerly Island spanned by the towering Sky Ride.
Unemployment was rampant and the Depression in full swing when construction on the mammoth project got underway employing thousands. When the fair opened thousands more got work on site or in the burgeoning tourist boom it brought to the city. The work was welcome, but union labor was excluded where ever possible and wages kept low.
The corporate dominated exposition was a symphony to a brighter consumer future. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was impressed enough by the fair’s power to stimulate spending on consumer durable goods, and complement the Federal government’s efforts to jump-start the economy, that he urged Fair organizers, dominated by Republicans openly hostile to the New Deal, to reopen the fair for a second season in 1934. Largely in order recoup the large private investment in the fair, organizers were glad to do so.
Corporate domination, of course, filtered much of what the Fair presented. Unlike the Columbian Exposition, which included many liberals and progressives among its organizers, the Century of Progress ignored minorities, women, and the contributions of labor. There was not a Women’s Progress Pavilion as in 1893. Women were excluded from planning functions and participation. They were depicted mostly as idealized homemakers eager for the labor saving gadgets of the future or as entertainers.
Blacks fared even worse. Virtually their only presence was in a Darkest Africa exhibit where some were displayed as ignorant savages. They were excluded from almost all Fair jobs except for the most menial cleaning work. And to top it off, many of the exhibitors, food vendors, and entertainment venues openly refused them admission. It took a concerted effort by Chicago Black legislators who threatened to bolt and join anti-Chicago downstate representatives in blocking the necessary re-issuance of a state charter to reopen in 1934, to include a ban on racial discrimination on the fairgrounds in the legislation
The Graff Zeppelin over the fairgrounds.
profile visitor to the fair never set foot on the grounds but stirred
controversy. The German dirigible Graf Zeppelin, newly
festooned with the Swastika symbol
of the Nazi regime that had come to power a year earlier, circled
overhead one day drawing huge crowds. But the powerful local German
community was deeply split over the new government and erupted into a war of
words and recrimination in competing left and right wing publications.
Despite these problems, visitors swarmed to
the exposition. In its two years, the fair attracted 48,769,227 visitors
including 39,052,236 paid admissions. In addition to the spectacular commercial
exhibits, they were drawn by the signature Skyride, with rocket cars carrying visitors 219 feet
above the fairgrounds, the answer to 1893’s Ferris Wheel. There
were also the Enchanted Isle for children, the Odditorium freak
show, and ethnic villages with food
from around the world. Several venues provided entertainment. The first Major
League Baseball All Star Game was held in conjunction with the Fair in Soldier
Sally Rand may have been the most talked about attraction
But the most successful of all was the Streets of Paris which offered Sally Rand and her proactive Fan Dance. The exotic dancer became as much a symbol of the fair as Little Egypt was at the Columbian Exposition.
When the fair finally closed on October 31, 1934, it had actually turned a small profit—something virtually no other international exposition or world’s fair has ever done.
Despite complaints about traffic and noise, Chicago was sorry to see the Century of Progress go. Thousands were back among the unemployed at a time when jobs were scarce. Hotels, restaurants, shops, and transportation companies felt the pinch of lost revenue. And a sparkle of gaudy gaiety in bleak times was gone.
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