Your ticket to the White City

120 years after the World’s Fair in Chicago, you can walk a mile in the shoes of the typical visitor.

October 23, 2013

Tricia Bobeda and Andrew Gill

The Field Museum unveils a new exhibit this week about the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

The World’s Fair was held in Chicago’s Jackson Park and—for six ballyhooed months—brought together ancient cultures, cutting-edge technology and a Ferris wheel that makes Navy Pier’s look pint-sized in comparison.

It was a monumental feat for the growing metropolis, made even more impressive by the fact that the city was just two decades past the infamous and devastating fire.

Millions of travelers who flocked to Chicago for the Fair were faced with the stark juxtaposition of architect Daniel Burnham’s White City and the soot-stained, crime-ridden urban environment beyond the fairgrounds.

Curious Citizen Michael Dotson wanted a more complete picture of what the Exposition was like for someone who bought one of the 27 million tickets sold, so he asked two fair-related questions. We couldn’t resist this one:

What was it like to be a visitor at the 1893 World’s Fair?

The bestselling nonfiction book The Devil in the White City offers a vivid portrait of the Fair from the perspective of two men: the aforementioned Daniel Burnham and the serial killer H.H. Holmes.

But to help us understand what a day at the Fair was like for people who weren’t building cities or elaborate death traps, we used a different book: Chicago by Day and Night: The Pleasure Seeker’s Guide to the Paris of the America.

Think of it as Lonely Planet circa 1892. The travel guide’s anonymous author (likely authors) provides a detailed look at Chicago’s architecture and entertainment options. It contains plenty of boosterism, but also some frank advice about avoiding con artists and adventuresses (women well-practiced in charming a man out of his wealth).

An archive of original text of Chicago by Day and Night is available online, but earlier this year Northwestern University Press published a new version edited by historians Paul Durica and Bill Savage.

These guys know a thing or two about Chicago history and, as you can see in the video above, they’re not opposed to donning period garb when it gets people geeked about the city’s past. Durica is responsible for the Pocket Guide to Hell historical reenactments and teaches at the University of Chicago. Savage is a senior lecturer at Northwestern University. The duo added a new introduction and notes to the 1892 text.

For the fullest time travel experience possible, we suggest curling up with some Cracker Jack and a PBR and reading this 1892 guide for Chicago tourists. Then spend an afternoon strolling through Jackson Park and exploring the Field Museum’s exhibit of about 1,000 of its massive collection of Exposition artifacts.

As you do, keep these facts in mind:

  • Daily admission to the Fair cost 50 cents, which is the equivalent of the cost of a 3D movie today (about $12).
  • A ride on the Ferris wheel cost 50 cents.
  • A night in one of the city’s finest hotels cost $5 (about $125 in modern dollars). In this era, the trendiest accommodations also offered something new to Chicago diners: a prix fixe menu.
  • The Fair spanned 686 acres. Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Epcot could fit squarely inside.
  • Some of the performers in ethnic villages on the Midway got fed up with the Fair’s rules, long hours and unreasonable demands. A group of Eskimos, for example, was required to wear traditional fur-lined garb during a Chicago summer. They opened their own shows outside the fairgrounds.
  • The massive crowds at the Fair made it a prime location for premiering and marketing new products. Cracker Jack, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum and Cream of Wheat date back to this time.
  • Pabst won some awards for its beer at the Fair. But it didn’t win a blue ribbon. Contemporary PBR fans ... you’re drinking a 120-year-old lie.

Tricia Bobeda and Andrew Gill are WBEZ web producers. Note: Tricia Bobeda assisted in the production of a website about Chicago by Day and Night.