History of the Chicago World’s Fair for Kids

Bedtime History

Imagine…

Imagine you are walking down a wide street overlooking a glittering blue lake. At the end of the lake is a tall, bronze statue of a woman holding a staff and staring out over the lake. Surrounding the lake are sparkling, white buildings. The street is crowded with people all heading in the same direction. Many of the people are from different countries around the world. Some of them are exotic clothing and colorful clothing. As you walk further down the street you see a gigantic Ferris Wheel stretching into the sky. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. It’s turning slowly then suddenly stops. You see people below standing in a line and waiting for a ride. Along the road, you see circus performers, musicians, new food being sold, and sights you’ve never seen before. It’s one of the most exciting days of your life as you visit the Chicago World’s Fair. 

Planning the Fair

In 1890 planning started for what became known as the World’s Columbian Exposition or Chicago World’s Fair. Similar world fairs had been held in cities like Paris and London. But the United States wanted its own fair to show off its recent progress and bring people from all over the country, and the world, together to put it all on display. Many leaders met together to plan the fair. They argued over which city should have the fair. St. Louis, New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago were the different options, but in the end, Chicago won because it raised more money to spend on the fair. Some argued that Chicago also made more sense because it had more open spaces and was closer to the West. It was also a major railroad center and was easy to access from places all over the United States.

They decided to hold the fair in 1893. One reason was to celebrate 400 years since Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World. For this reason, the fair was named “The World’s Columbian Exposition.” Columbian for Columbus, and “worlds” because the leaders wanted people from all over the world to attend. The United States had experienced a time of great progress. Businesses were doing well and people were being paid more. The country was becoming more wealthy. More people were immigrating (or moving) to the United States. Also, the country was industrializing — which means humans and machines were working together to create more things that people needed. It was also a time of many advances — which included railroads, steel production, oil production, mining, and the many inventions of engineers and business people such as Thomas Edison. This period became known as The Gilded Age. 

Architect, Daniel H. Burnam

An architect, Daniel H. Burnam was hired to be the chief planner of the Chicago World’s Fair. An architect is someone who designs buildings. Frederick Law Olmstead was another architect asked to design the landscape of the fair. He also designed New York’s Central Park. The fair’s landscape included grass, flowers, trees, and the gigantic man-made lake at its center to give beauty to the grounds. Surrounding the lake they built tall white buildings with columns in the classical style. Constructing the fair was a huge project that covered 686 acres, took 3 years, and cost $28 million dollars. But finally, it was ready to open on May 1st, 1893.

Opening Day

Chicago World's Fair

Opening day began with a parade led by the President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, who entered the fairgrounds first. Crowds of visitors came next, traveling by foot, horse and carriage, steamboats, railroad, and cable cars. Over 400,000 people visited the fair on opening day. 46 countries were represented in different areas of the fair. Ambassadors traveled from all around the world and people dressed up in costumes to represent the different cultures. Walking around the fair you might see someone dressed in Chinese traditional clothes, a Native American dressed in a feathered headdress, or a Turkish soldier with silk pants and carrying a huge curved sword. 

A newspaper wrote, “It was not only the supreme moment in the history of the land and the west but the moment of moments in the lives of a vast majority of the beholders. It was the most beautiful spectacle which man has ever created to please his own sensibilities or satisfy his vanity.”

Exhibits

On opening day, after the parade, President Cleveland stood before a huge crowd that had gathered at the center of the fairgrounds. The ceremony was so crowded that people began to climb up light poles and on balconies to watch. The President gave a speech and then finished by pressing a button that turned on nearly 10,000 electric lamps that lit up the city. Electricity and using electricity to create light was a new invention, so the crowd gasped as the buildings around them lit up and the machinery of the fairgrounds powered on. Electricity was also used to show off new inventions by people like Thomas Edison. Some of the inventions on display were the Morse code telegraph, a searchlight, a moving walkway, an electric dishwasher, an electric automobile, and a device that printed books in braille. Braille is a series of bumps on a page that someone who is blind can use to read. Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf, and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, were at the fair to show off this new device. Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, visited the fair with them. Thomas Edison was there to show off his kinetoscope, which was one of the first ways to watch movies. Most people had never seen a movie! Can you believe that? But with the kinetoscope, they could look into this incredible machine and watch some of the first moving pictures or movies.

At night the center of the fair, also called The White City because of the beautiful white buildings, was lit up with thousands of electric lights. For some visitors, it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen. Before this time candles were the only way they could see at night.  

Ferris Wheel

One of the biggest and most exciting attractions at the Chicago World’s Fair was the very first Ferris wheel. If you’ve ever visited a fair or amusement parks like Disneyland you may have seen or been on a Ferris Wheel. A Ferris wheel is a huge wheel that rotates on its side above the ground. People can ride up and around the wheel in passenger cars. It’s a thrilling experience if you ever get the chance. The last time we went on one my kids loved it, but as we got higher and higher my wife was very nervous and kept saying “I want out!” 

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. designed and built the first Ferris wheel for the fair. It was 264 feet tall with 36 passenger cars, which could each hold up to 60 people — in each car — holding a total of 2,160 people! That’s a huge wheel. From the top of Ferris’s wheel, visitors could look out at the breathtaking sites of the park below. 

I also learned that after riding the Ferris Wheel, one of the visitors loved it so much it inspired him to create America’s first major amusement park, Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, New York.

Exhibits

Famous artists and sculptors from around the world showed off their artwork and sculptures. There were also many talent shows such as a famous bodybuilder showing off his amazing strength. And Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist, put on a magic show. Musicians from far and wide came to perform at the fair and show off their variety of talents. This included Scott Joplin, hula dancers, a soprano, violinists, hula dancers, the Chicago Symphony, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. 

“Buffalo Bill” Cody was a famous showman who traveled to the fair. He and his Wild West Show didn’t get a spot inside the fair, but they came anyway and set up nearby. Visitors watched in fascination as soldiers and Lakota Sioux warriors rode around on horses and had a fake gun battle.

At the fair new foods were also on display. These included bubble gum, brownies, and Milton Hershey was there to show off his latest style of chocolate bar. 

The United State’s new pledge of allegiance, the one you might say in school, was first recited by school children at the Chicago World’s Fair.  

A football game was played in the evening and visitors could take hot air balloon rides.  

Christopher Columbus

The fair was called the World’s Columbian Exposition after Christopher Columbus. In his honor, three life-size versions of his ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and Santa Maria were shown at the fair. These ships were actually built in Spain and then moved all the way across the ocean to be put on display. They were a very popular exhibit. Even one of Christopher Columbus’s descendants, the Duke of Veragua, traveled from Spain to represent his family.  

The fair was open for 6 months, from May 1st until October 30th. During that time over 27 million people attended the fair from across the United States and the world. After the fair ended some of the buildings were removed and the Ferris wheel was relocated, but the lake, the statue, and the landscape are still there in what is now known as Jackson Park, which you can visit today.

Conclusion

Would you have liked to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition? I know I would have. Think of all of the amazing inventions shown at the fair and how advances like electricity have changed the world. We live in a time where we already have all of these inventions, which are easy to take for granted. This means we’ve always had them so we don’t realize how special they are and that many humans didn’t have them for thousands of years. The World’s Fair was also a good chance for people around the world to come together and meet each other and appreciate their unique culture, artwork, dress, music, and ideas. If you were to design your own fair what would it be like? What attractions would it have? Think of all the time and effort that went into designing and building the fair. Great things take time and effort, but like the fair, they end up being worth it!  

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About Bedtime History

Bedtime History is a series of educational, relaxing stories for kids and families. Learn about inspirational characters such as Jackie Robinson, Sacajawea, Neil Armstrong, and Maya Angelou. Other topics include space exploration, current events, and great feats of engineering such as The Transcontinental Railroad.