Centuries of Progress: Museum looks back on World’s Fairs
The 1933 World's Fair in Chicago celebrated color and light and brought out the Art Deco style.
‘Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs, 1853-1982’
1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, Oct. 26 to Jan. 6, 2013
Elmhurst Historical Museum, 120 E. Park Ave.
(630) 833-1457; www.elmhursthistory.org
Updated: October 25, 2012 4:02PM
Today’s international relations could learn a lesson from World Fair etiquette.
And that’s just what Lance Tawzer, curator of exhibits at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, hopes their latest exhibit, “Centuries of Progress: American World’s Fairs, 1853-1982,” illuminates.
The exhibit will feature photographs, posters, video display and artifacts from the World Fairs held in the U.S. There will also be a supplemental exhibit focusing on artifacts from the museum’s collection from both of Chicago’s Fairs – the 1892 Columbian Exposition and the 1933 Century of Progress.
In their heyday, World’s Fairs brought together the best and brightest minds from around the globe. They not only highlighted technical achievements but they also forged a sense of cultural unity within a country.
“For me, this exhibit really celebrates the spirit of cooperation and celebration of one’s culture inherent in the World Fairs,” said Tawzer. “They were a way for visitors to get a life’s worth of experience of circumnavigating the globe without leaving the fair ground.”
Patrice Roche, marketing and communication specialist agrees, “In any era, the fairs brought the world to the doorstep of people who would never otherwise be able to experience the people, art, culture and customs of exotic and far-off realms.”
Truncated versions of World’s Fair’s still exist today, although on a much smaller scale. Tawzer points out that the way the world is structured today just isn’t conducive to countries getting together to celebrate their respective cultures. And that’s what makes the World’s Fairs of the past so intriguing and worth revisiting.
The fairs themselves were a blend of technical advances and lighthearted fun. Some exhibits were more about the spectacle than the scientific advancement. Some had sculptures made of soap or butter or something quirky such as a huge fountain of perfume.
On the other hand, the Ferris wheel, a marvel of technology at the time, was unveiled at the 1893 Fair. The typewriter, X-ray machines and even the horseless carriage were all presented with much fanfare at World’s Fairs.
“There was an element of (countries) trying to out-do each other,” said Tawker. “(Some exhibits) seem campy now but in many ways they were trying to create a culturally significant spectacle.”
Depending on the weather, most fairs lasted around a year, during which millions of people would visit from around the world.
The Elmhurst exhibit includes plenty of great material about the two Chicago World’s Fairs, which were drastically different in many ways. The 1893 Exposition was the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’s voyage and had a very neoclassical feel. Dubbed “The White City” for its luminous white-stuccoed buildings, it was the setting for Erik Larson’s wildly popular book, Devil in the White City.
The 1933 Fair was more about pushing progress and showcasing the latest and greatest marvels. It brought the Art Deco style to light and celebrated color and light.
“I was personally fascinated at the process of bringing the fair to the rough-and-tumble cow town that was Chicago after the Great Fire,” said Loche, referring to the 1893 Exposition.
The museum was fortunate to uncover in its archives an extensive collection from a local resident, Dorothy Brush, who not only kept a detailed scrapbook but also preserved copious amounts of memorabilia from her seven visits to the 1933 fair.
One of Elmhurst’s founding fathers, Thomas Barbour Bryan, was considered instrumental in bringing the 1893 Fair to Chicago. He persuaded the country to select Chicago and then served as an international representative, promoting it across the globe and persuading countries to participate, before being elected to the World’s Fair Board of Directors.
“The World’s Fairs were really a coming together of nations in a cooperative way,” said Tawzer. “Sort of like the Olympics, they had noble intentions of everyone celebrating and championing success and progress.”