The World's First Infomercial?

Kris Murray© 1997


Much has been said of the 1893 World's Fair as an example of Daniel Burnham's theory of urban planning. And that it certainly was. No detail left to chance, the White City literally embodied a view of the new urban America, a place where the finer instincts of "Man" could be nurtured and encouraged. The question, however, was what were these finer instincts? According to The Book of the Fair by Hubert Howe Bancroft (the official "debriefing" and souvenir par excellence of the Fair), the exposition was a place where people could come together to view "such an exhibition as, fostered by an entire people and the people's government, would display to the world the most perfect of our mechanical appliances, our most finished works of art, and the choicest productions of our farms and factories and mines" (38). Pride then; patriotism,  surely; and a sense of progress; these were the ideals and inspirations available to the "common man."  

But the Fair's Board of Managers, made up Chicago's movers and shakers, had perhaps a more personal agenda, a more personal version of these qualities. In Perfect Cities, author James Gilbert points out that what the Board had in mind was nothing less than "a redefinition of American culture," according to their own collective private visions. As Burnham himself proclaimed, "Gentlemen, 1893 will be the third great debate in our country's history!" (78) And the debate would be over no less than the creation of the "cultural ideals he [Burnham] tried to define at the Fair" (78).   

But what were these cultural ideals? Simply stated, they were those of traditional definitions, of the genteel times of the Board of Managers' youth-  

    Young men who grew up in the 1830s and 1840s and who rose to the leadership of   Chicago society retained the aspirations of their childhood experiences ....Identity...........radiated outwards from the individual to the family to the society, and emphasized  security and stability....[T]hey did not entirely cast off older notions of behavior, propriety, and culture (6). 
And it was these notions which were to be legitimized, symbolized, and prominently displayed at the Fair. The agenda then? To validate cultural expression. Based on what criteria? Their own, of course- "As the genteel tradition or upward movement developed, the people involved took it and themselves very seriously. The major goal was to elevate ‘taste.'........ Taste became the sword by which they cut through anything which did not please them" (Williams 358).  

There is no doubt that in many respects they were successful. The awe-inspiring quality of the Fair is attested to in the novels, short fictions, guidebooks, diaries, and journalism generated by the Fair. William Dean Howells, not one often given to flights of Romantic fancy, proclaimed "It is the greatest thing that ever came into my life. It gives verity and value to everything....There never was and there never may be again anything so beautiful" (Wagenecht 18). "Never before have I realized the effect that could be produced by architecture," wrote W.T. Stead. And from Theodore Drieser, "All at once, and out of nothing in this dingy city......had now been reared this vast and harmonious collection of perfectly constructed and showy buildings, containing, in their delightful interiors, the artistic, the mechanical and the scientific achievements" (18). Finally, Robert Herrick--  

    The long line of white buildings were ablaze with countless lights.........In that lovely hour, the toil and the trouble of men, the fear that was gripping men's hearts. Fell away from me, and in its place came Faith. The people who could dream this vision and make it real.....their sturdy will and the strong hearts would rise above failure, would press on to greater victories than this triumph of beauty  (19). 
Despite an archaic sense of noblesse oblige and an implicit agenda of hegemonic reinforcement on the part of the Board of Managers, there were good and worthy legacies embodied by the Fair- faith, hope, pride, and certainly a positive sense of the future; perhaps even the "permanent uplifting of the people," as William Chapple characterized it in a magazine article from the time (Rydell 69). And perhaps, most important of all, the beginnings of an American "voice."  "Chicago was the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there," said Henry Adams (360).  

But there were other less obvious legacies as well.  

History of Information 

In order to understand certain aspects of what the Fair culturally transmitted beyond those intended, we must take a short trip through history. In Perfect Cities, Gilbert argues that the Fair exhibited important characteristics of what we now call the postmodern- "a term thought to explain the contemporary eclectic mood in culture...the definition of culture in terms of pastiche, collage, juxtaposition...a substitution of commercial for aesthetic or moral considerations" (15). But there is another aspect of the postmodern that the Fair not only exhibited but lobbied for in the social awarenesses of both the organizers and the visitors. But to understand this aspect of the Fair's influence, it is necessary to explore the history of "information" and "discourse."  

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the Age of Exposition (as in expository writing, not Columbian), labeled as such by culture critic Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death, was passing through its death throes. Print as the main public medium of discourse was waning. "Information" was beginning to mean something other than what it had for centuries previously. As a result, how a person thought about the world was undergoing a drastic change-  

    From Erasmus in the sixteenth century to Eisenstein in the twentieth, almost every scholar who grappled with the question of what reading does to one's habit's of mind  has concluded that the process encourages rationality; that the sequential, propositional  character of the written word fosters what Walter Ong calls the "analytical management of knowledge." To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference making and reasoning....In a  culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas (51). 
And, in a print-based culture, information has a context and therefore a relevance (or at least a way of judging its relevance). It also has the quality of negotiation, through letters to authors or editors, articles written in response to other articles, and the like; it is easier to access the dialogue when it is in print.  

But, by the mid 1800s,  this prevailing definition of information was under attack from advances in technology.  In 1840, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, and, over the next ten years, photography was perfected to the point that multiple reproductions from one negative became  commonplace. With these two technologies came a shift in how we understood information, "and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse" (65). No less than Henry David Thoreau sensed this new meaning when he wrote in Walden--  

    We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine  and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate....We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough (520). 
Telegraphy gave a form of legitimacy to context-free information. The value of information was no longer defined by any purpose it served in decision-making or action. Rather, it became valued for its novelty. "The telegraph made information into a commodity to be bought and sold regardless of its uses or meanings" (Postman 65). It made relevance irrelevant. "The telegraph may have made the country into ‘one neighborhood,' but it was a peculiar one, populated by strangers who new nothing but the most superficial facts about each other" (67)

The drastic quality of this change from contextualized to decontextualized information may be glimpsed by asking oneself how often does the information contained in a news program or newspaper (other than weather forecasts) cause one to change one's plans for the day or take some action not originally planned, or provide some insight into a problem that needs solving? So far removed are we historically from the idea that all, or at least most, information should have what Postman calls "action value" that it is sometimes hard to see what being in the "Information Age" really means--  

    Prior to the age of telegraphy, the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies of their lives. What people knew about had action value...We may say then that the contribution of the telegraph to public discourse was to dignify irrelevance and amplify impotence (69). 
What then of photography? If telegraphy presented the American public with discrete bits of context free information, photography reinforced this shift by being the visual analogue to the decontextualization process. "Photography is pre-eminently a world of fact, not of dispute about facts or of conclusions to be drawn from them" (730). There is no such thing as a photograph being taken out of context because photos don't require a context. "....the point of photography is to isolate images from context so as to make them visible in a different way" (73). Whereas print presents the world as ideas, photography presents it as object, without commentary--  
    Like telegraphy, photography recreates the world as a series of idiosyncratic events. There is no beginning, middle, or end in a world of photographs, as there is none implied by telegraphy. The world is atomized. There is only a present and it need not be part of any story that can be told....For countless Americans, seeing, not reading, became the basis for believing (74). 
So, then, here was the future, a future of information so extensive and discursive that, little by little, context and value were sliding into the background. How Americans thought about things was changing. While the entrenchment of the print media of the nineteenth century was strong enough to slow the process down, its inevitability is demonstrated through the phenomenon of the "pseudo-context--"  
    Where people once sought information to manage real contexts in their lives, now they had to invent contexts in which the otherwise useless information might be pout to some apparent use. For example, the crossword puzzle became a popular form of diversion at just that point when the telegraph and the photograph had achieved the transformation of news from functional information to decontextualized fact........A pseudo context is a structure invented to give fragmented and irrelevant information a seeming use....the only use left for information with no genuine connection to our lives. And that of course, is to amuse (76).  

Models of- Models for 

Could it be then that the Fair was also one of the first large-scale pseudo events? Perhaps, but leaving the analysis at that does not make clear the dynamics which made, I believe, the Fair one of those pivotal moments in history that not only reflects a shift in culture, but is the vehicle for authorizing that shift. In order to understand this dynamic, we must look to anthropologist Clifford Geertz's cultural dynamic "models of--models for." The models of-models for dynamic explains the process whereby culture changes as new ideas are modeled to it but then naturalizes the new ideas by being the model for the ideas. As rhetorician James Carey explains when acknowledging this dynamic at work in the field of communication--  
    Finally, let me emphasize an ironic aspect to the study of communication, a way in 
    which our subject matter doubles back on itself and presents us with a host of ethical problems. One of the activities in which we characteristically communication about itself. However, communication is not some pure phenomenon we can discover, there is no such thing as communication to be revealed in nature... We understand communication insofar as we are able to build models or representations of this process... In one mode, communication models tell us what  the process is; in their second mode, they produce the behavior they have described (31). 
And as Geertz himself explains--  
    In the first [models of], what is stressed is the manipulation of symbolic structures so as to bring them into parallel with the pre-established non-symbolic to render them apprehensible; it is a model of reality. In the second, what is stressed is the manipulation of the non-symbolic system in terms of the relationships expressed in the symbolic; it is a model for reality....[C]ultural patterns have an intrinsic double aspect; they give meaning to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping it to themselves (93). 
What the Fair was shaping itself to, what it was a model of, then, was the new definition of information resulting from the advent of the telegraph and photography. And in the process of shaping itself to this new definition, this new "understanding," it became a model for the new definition--a model which 27 million Americans entered, assimilated, and then took home to share with their friends and neighbors.  

Is this to say that the ideals and goals of the Fair planners were mere illusions (as suggested in the title of the Chicago historical Society's 1993 retrospective titled "Grand Illusions")? Not at all. As Roland Barthes explains, the explicit goals of a social event were therefore what he calls a "first- order semiology. But the mythical and symbolic events, those events which have the lasting effect, work on a subconscious level and are of a second order semiology. That is, the power of the models for end of Geertz's dynamic is that it is implicit, subconscious, and, therefore, naturalized.  

Perhaps one of the clearest articulation of the models of end of the Fair was made by the young administrator from the Smithsonian in charge of classifying and organizing the Fair exhibits, G. Brown Goode. In an address entitled "The Museum of the Future," delivered in 1889, Goode made clear his attitude concerning the growing importance of the visual arts as embodied in photography. "There is an Oriental saying that the distance between the ear and the eye is small, but that the difference between seeing and hearing is great.....To see is to know [my emphasis]." And in the presentation of his initial work to the Fair managers, he characterized the Exposition as "an illustrated encyclopedia of civilization" (Rydell 44, 45).  

Obviously it was not Goode's intention to present a vast array of contextless information; in fact, he himself, saw the Exposition as "an exhibition of ideas rather than objects" (45). But, regardless of intent, and regardless of whether the exhibits were of ideas or object, the attention to the visual presentation of the exhibits was primary. And this was the models for aspect of the Fair. As Henry Adams observed, "Education ran riot." But, after haunting the Exposition, "[I am] aching to absorb knowledge and helpless to find it" (Adams 360), for Adams recognized that knowledge needs more than mere information to exist--it also needs a context and discourse.  

The Fair as Models For 

In his preface to The Book of the Fair, published within months of the close of the Fair, Bancroft waxes particularly eloquently on the scope, intentions, and success of the Exposition-  

    Among monuments marking the progress of civilization through the ages, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 will ever stand conspicuous. Gathered here are the forces which move humanity and make history, the ever-shifting powers that fit new thoughts to new conditions, and shape the destinies of mankind (3) 
It is only fitting, and hardly a coincidence, that the book itself should be part of the shaping and fitting. As Bancroft himself says-  
    But though the plan of the present international exposition arose in the desire to celebrate in a proper manner the discovery of America by Columbus, the originating idea was made subordinate to the purposes of progress, and the celebration soon became lost in the exhibition (4). 
That is, the context (the celebration) soon was overshadowed by the "information" (the Exposition). But just as the Fair presented overwhelming amounts of information as presented in row after row of walkways in building after building of exhibits, so to the book presents page after page of details and descriptions as well as hundreds of photos of the buildings, the exhibits, the displays, and the participants. And just as the Fair itself presented this ‘stuff' with little labeling or context, the book presents picture after picture with no more description than "Mexican table," "Satin and gold mantle," "Vase, Belgium," "A collection of British silverware," and so on. And the accompanying text is most often no more informative-  
    In addition to the home and foreign manufactures already described are certain collections classed under that department but housed in separate buildings, either through lack of space or for other reasons that need not be mentioned here (225). 
Why Bancroft felt the need to mention the housing situation in the first place is probably of more interest than his decision not to go into detail. After all, when all details are included without reference to any action value, how does one decide what to or not to include? If there is no context with which to assess the importance or value of the information, it is all the same--no fact more valuable than another, no idea or object more important or more interesting than another.  

That this new way of looking at information was beginning to creep into the American consciousness can be seen in several contemporary sources, not the least of which was the instructions given to visitors of the Fair by Mariana G. van Renssalaer when she encouraged Fair- goers to be "....wholly conscienceless--not like a painstaking draftsman, but like a human kodak, caring only for as many pleasing impressions as possible, not for analyzing their worth" (Rydell 47).  

But what of the Fair-goers themselves? What did they think? A small insight may be gathered by looking at the fiction generated during the Fair. Many novels using the Fair as the setting were written at this time, including the series The Century World's Fair Book for Boys and Girls by Tudor Jenks. Subtitled "The Adventures of Harry and Phillip With Their Tutor Mr. Douglas At The World's Columbian Exposition," it presented a tour of the Fair as seen through the eyes of the three characters. From the wealth of detail, it is obvious that Mr. Jenks most certainly attended the event himself, so it is instructive to note the characters' reactions to the vast number of displays and exhibits. Nowhere in all of the random yet detailed descriptions is there any attempt to relate what the characters are seeing to their own lives, no attempt to put a context to the incredible amount of information on display. There is also no clearly articulated sense of awareness on the author's part that this might be a problem, or at least questionable. But, occasionally, a scene or conversation shows at least an unconscious awareness--  

    "Now that we have a general idea of the displays, of the grounds and their arrangement, I think it would be wise to go at them a little more systematically. What do you think?"  

    "I suppose so, " said Harry slowly: "but I find it all too much for me. I find myself thinking more of the people I see than of the show" (85). 

    On their way home the boys walked through the Horticulture Hall, with its palm-trees, its flowers, and its lofty glass dome. By this time, however, they had learned to see without noticing, and they decided to come back some other day if they had time--a resolution already made in regard to perhaps one hundred and fifty other collections  (97). 
    "You see, a man can't get along without without food and clothes and things like that, but he need n't read if he doesn't want to-he can just spend his time over advertisements, and signs, and things people give away" (119). 
But perhaps one of the most telling moments in the book is the episode of the elevator in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Hall. Having decided to take a ride to the top of the Hall, the three all seem to have a distinctive reaction to the excursion. "All at once, [Harry] turned his head and saw the awful depth, where tiny figures moved noiselessly about....the sensation was one of appalled instinctive human shrinking before the immensity of space" (125). All three characters seem to have the same reaction and all sit down to gather their wits--  
    That one moment of dread did more to make the boys understand what a monster building they were in than columns of figures, comparisons, and statistics could have accomplished. About smaller buildings one can reason; but this can be comprehended only when one is awed by its immensity (126). 
Or when it has some action value for one's own life. To what degree Jenks was or was not aware of what the Fair was "saying" about information will never be known. But as an example of someone in the middle of this shift in how to think about information, that is, someone dealing with the new paradigm from within the old one, Jenks work is highly illuminating.  

Info, Info Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Think 

So what happens when information is presented without a context? The information itself becomes the context. The sheer amount of information becomes the point. The Fair did not tell visitors how each display and exhibit impacted their own lives or how an artfully arranged pyramid of Vaseline jars was going to help them make decisions. Rather, it told them that information in and of itself is good, that it no longer had to have an action value. But most importantly, it told them that information itself could be entertaining. The world was no longer what they thought it was, but that was OK, they needn't worry, because it now was what it should be.  

And while Burnham and the Fair managers' vision was telling the Fair-goers that they were all a part of the great "American Dream," the Fair itself was telling them what the dream had become.  The Fair managers may have been attempting to present the cultural ideals of their world, but little did they notice that they were in a debate with the Fair itself. In 1893, both sides scored a partial victory, but, clearly, a hundred years later we see that  the Fair won the war.  


Last Updated on October 26, 1997 by Kris Murray