The World’s Columbian Exposition and The Devil in the White City


Worlds Fairs range from the spectacular (The Great Exhibition in London in 1851, The Exposition Universelle  in Paris in 1889) to the middling (did you know Expo 2017 is taking place right now in Kazakhstan right now?) but surely none can have changed the world as much as the World’s Columbian Exposition which took place in Chicago in 1893. Among other things the fair saw

  • The first large-scale use of AC electricity, ending the war of the currents
  • The City Beautiful movement and the start of modern city planning
  • Eadweard Muybridge showing his moving pictures to a paying public in the first commercial movie theater
  • Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show fixing the image of the “Wild West”
  • The Ferris Wheel, designed and constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr
  • Scott Joplin, who became widely known for his piano playing at the fair and ragtime music, which had its first large-scale public exposure
  • The Pledge of Allegiance first performed by a mass of school children lined up in military fashion
  • The first moving walkway or travelator, which ran in a loop down the length of a lakefront pier to a casino
  • Cream of Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats and Shredded Wheat
  • Pabst Select being renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon following its win as “America’s Best” at the fair
  • The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world
  • Little Egypt introducing America to the suggestive version of the belly dance known as the “hootchy-kootchy”, to the tune said to have been improvised by Sol Bloom which now serves as the theme tune to anything exotically Middle-Eastern
  • Milton Hershey buying a European exhibitor’s chocolate manufacturing equipment and adding chocolate products to his caramel manufacturing business
  • A device that made possible the printing of books in Braille
  • The third rail, giving electric power to elevated trains
  • The first fully electrical kitchen including an automatic dishwasher
  • The first modern serial killer, Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, who killed up to 200 people in his specially-constructed “Murder Castle” three miles from the fair



The last of these was, naturally, not an advertised attraction, but the two are skillfully intertwined in the book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Both were immense, ambitious construction projects which required single-minded planning, and both architects exploited the industriousness and anonymity of the modern city, though to very different ends. Though at times the book feels like a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, with disconnected themes tied together with the flimsiest of thematic threads, it’s still both informative and very readable, and it’s hard to ask for much more in narrative nonfiction (I cannot speak for its accuracy, of course.)

Erik Larson – The Devil in the White City

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