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'
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--
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-
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
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--
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--
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 engage....is 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).
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
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-
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--
"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).
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