The World's Columbian Exhibition, which L. Frank Baum visited, was held in 1893 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing in America in 1492. London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 provided a model for the glittering and awe-inspiring exhibition. The Americans had mounted a world's fair in Philadelphia in 1876 but it lost money and its failure resulted in a crisis of morale for a country not far removed from a devastating civil war. Although New York and Washington D.C. wanted the honor of hosting the fair, the Windy City of Chicago lobbied intensely. On April 25th, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the act that designated Chicago as the site of the exhibition. The exhibition was a phenomenal success and has since become one of American history's most fascinating and crucial moments.
Dedication ceremonies were held on October 21st, 1892, but doors did not open to the public until May 1st of the following year. The exposition occupied 630 acres in Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance, a narrow strip of land between 9th and 60th streets. Over 27 million people visited the fair during its six-month installation.
Daniel H. Burnbaum, the expo's director of works, and George R. Davis, the director-general, looked to Europe's world's fairs for inspiration. Burnham wanted to make architecture central and looked to a plethora of architectural and artistic geniuses to design the main exhibition grounds. Luminaries such as Richard Morris Hunt, Louis Sullivan, and Charles McKim, William Mead and Stanford White were all involved. The architecture was decidedly neoclassical, derived from Greek and Roman influences. Some critics subsequently derided this approach for its pervasive influence on American designers while others praised it for its "civilized" appearance.
The Court of Honor, which exemplified the neoclassical style, was deemed "The White City" for its plethora of bright streetlights that were used to illuminate the boulevards. The buildings were designed to be temporary and only a handful outlived the fair.
The Smithsonian Institution's G. Brown Goode provided advice on classifying the encyclopedia of civilization that the exhibition was shaping up to be. It would have agricultural and technological offerings as well as fine art. Forty-six nations participated and built pavilions and exhibitions. Many of them also elected "delegates." There was even a Parliament of the World's Religions that marked the first meeting of eastern and western religious figures.
The Midway Plaisance blended education and amusement; it boasted an outdoor museum that displayed "primitive humans" in an African village as well as a massive wheel (264 feet high) designed by George Ferris, belly dancers, and many different cuisines from around the world. The Midway influenced places like Riverview Park and Coney Island, now iconic sites of Americana.
Several important American entertainers, entrepreneurs and inventions were showcased by the World's Columbian Exhibition. Though Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show was rejected by the committee, he set up next door to the fair, drawing considerable revenue. Several famous African American musicians played at the fair including Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy. Louis Tiffany constructed a gorgeous chapel of stained glass. Frederick Jackson Turner lectured for the first time on his frontier thesis and Eadweard Muybridge used his zoopraxiscope to show moving pictures to the public. The fair featured the first use of a moving walkway and the debut of a fully electrical kitchen and phosphorescent lights. The U.S. Mint offered its first commemorative coins and the U.S. Postal Service offered picture postcards and a commemorative stamp set. The concoction that would be named Cracker Jack in 1896 was first made available to the public at the fair.
The fair helped to initiate the City Beautiful movement, which was a reform philosophy that called for beautification and the installation of monuments in America's cities to make them aesthetically pleasing as well as promoters of civic virtue. The fair was inspiring for millions of Americans and heralded a new era for consumers. It also was an important moment for American intellectuals and entrepreneurs. Many of the exhibitions at the fair became part of the permanent collections of American museums. This World's Fair became the standard for such undertakings.