Chicago 1893

Midway Plaisance

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By Ricardo Gonzalez

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Essay on Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois created as a final assignment in World's Fairs: Social and Architectural History, HONR 219F, Spring 2001

Essays on the Material Culture of the World's Fairs
Edited by: Patricia Kosco Cossard and Isabelle Gournay
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Electronic version encoded on December 22, 2005

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Keywords:

  • World's Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.)
  • Libbey Inc.
  • Ferris wheels
  • Exhibition buildings
  • Essay
  • 1801-1900
  • North America
  • United States
  • Illinois
  • Chicago
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The Midway, as shown in the provided 61/2" x 6" stereoscopic picture, first came to being during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago as a bit of an accident. The world's fair scheduled for 1892 was pushed towards a higher standard than most others. The successes of the 1876 Philadelphia and 1889 Paris fairs drove the Chicago planners to produce something even greater. As stated by Richard Wilson, the Paris fair especially hit home for the Americans. The sheer magnificence of the buildings and exhibits made the United States look very backward indeed. While France and the rest of the Old World countries held their own with remarkable advances in art, architecture, and science, the U.S. appeared to be falling behind. America's relatively inferior showings didn't help to shake this harsh image. The U.S. was desperate for a new self-image. It needed an opportunity to establish itself as the superpower it felt it deserved to be. The Columbian Exposition gave the U.S. this chance. Fair organizers planned the fair on a grand scale. They gravitated towards a solemn Neo-Classical style, as exemplified in the all-white Court of Honor, a style which represented order, tradition, purity, and grandeur -- all the things that America was trying to display.

However, this new classical character impressed upon the fair's major buildings produced a conflict with a group of people that had already laid claim to the fair: the members of the entertainment industry. Even before the formal announcement of the Fair in 1890, requests for space from all sorts of vendors, musical and circus troupes, and restaurateurs. Amusement vendors had been set up at previous expositions, usually right outside the fairgrounds. There, they not only attracted more fairgoers than the regular exhibits would normally bring in, but more importantly, provided additional revenue to help defray the cost of the fair. Nonetheless vendors created a great hindrance for the fair planners. The intrinsic disorder and disjointed look of such a gathering would have been anathema for the dignified, traditional image that the US was trying to project. A compromise was reached by way of the small strip of land between the two areas of the Fair, Jackson and Washington Parks. This isthmus was dubbed the Midway Plaisance, or "the Midway" for short. While appearing to be simply a large freestanding, oddly placed circus, the Midway proved to be an immensely popular, almost essential part of the Columbian Exposition.

One of the most noticeable features of this stereoscopic view is the immense crowd of people, man and woman, child and adult, all gathered to experience the excitement of the Midway. The most obvious reason for the popularity of the Midway was its very purpose. Despite the numerous, novel exhibits of the main Fair, the Midway's "'Barnumesque eclecticism' and exuberant chaos" (Findling, p. 127) was simply designed to entice crowds with its bright lights and happy sounds.

Its makeup, as a rule, was kept diversified, with as many varieties of entertainment as there were people to be entertained. There were caged wild animals to be seen, and jugglers to be watched. Different traveling troupes put on all sorts of performances, from bawdy comedies to jolly songs. There were many vendors on hand to satisfy an appetite or rampant sweet tooth. International exhibits were also present. They could be categorized into two groups: the first was a stereotypical parody of a culture, a sort of caricature of the host country it represented, displayed as little more than a side show. This was especially true for cultures that were generally the subject of bias and underrepresented to begin with. There was a Dahomey village from "darkest Africa" which showed the "cannibal tribe". Indian "chiefs" and "braves" in feathered headdresses also were put on show, set into an environment of teepees and wigwams. The second category of international display was a bit more realistic and at least as legitimate as one could get at the Midway. These included the German beer halls, the noisy Egyptian bazaars, the controversial Algerian belly dancers, and the World Congress of Beauties, which showed representatives of forty countries in national attire. All these exhibits had their place in the Midway.

A somewhat more subtle reason for the appeal of the Midway can be observed in contrast to the main Fair. With an unspoken goal of topping the 1889 Paris fair, and the disparate influences of the amusement tucked away in the Midway, the fair planners were allowed to concentrate purely on creating a great fair under a unified, classical style. This single-minded focus brought about the monolithic buildings of the "White City". The temple-like structures loomed large over the Exposition, shining blinding white in the sun. With these buildings foremost in the visitors' minds, not to mention the thousands of exhibits, small international and miscellaneous pavilions, and meetings and "World Congresses", all held within a space that would have taken a person a half hour to walk across, the whole thing could quickly become very overwhelming, even for the city dwellers of Chicago. The Midway took the role of a valve that allowed visitors to relax and enjoy the Exposition without any pressure to "keep up".

As much a part of the fun as the sideshows, several exhibits brought a bit of the Exposition into the Midway by displaying new consumer products and innovative technology to the public, although with a more open mercantile motive. The Libbey Glass building, which can be seen on the right of the stereoscopic view, is an example of this new kind of fair exhibit. It was designed to resemble a palace. Twin towers flanked its entrance and a large 100-foot dome doubled as a chimney for the pavilion's furnace. Inside, the glass-making process was displayed in its entirety for the fairgoers, from its initial manufacture to the intricate arts of glass blowing and cutting. With shelves full of glass objects, from cut glass vases and bowls to spun glass ceiling coverings and tapestries, and walls covered with mirrors, it was a breathtaking Midway building done completely in transparent, shining glass.

Libbey Glass had relocated from Boston to Toledo, Ohio in 1888. By 1892, the company was beginning to turn a respectable profit. In anticipation of the Columbian Exposition, Edward Libbey, its owner, decided to set up a costly pavilion. Many of his advisors were against spending the company's relatively meager profit on such an unlikely attention ploy, but Libbey convinced them that the business could only benefit from added publicity. Unlike a few other glass companies that displayed their wares in the main fair, Libbey decided to set up the pavilion in the Midway. A shrewd businessman, Edward Libbey knew that the Midway would naturally attract more customers than the rest of the fairgrounds. The carefree atmosphere would also be more conducive to a commercial venture. Also, the main attraction of the open, "interactive" environment of the glass-making display harmonized more with the atmosphere of the Midway than the educational, "hands-off" displays of the main Fair. The large corporation pavilions in the 1930s Fairs would use the same technique in order to draw a large crowd.

Interactive display of process and product did prove very popular for the Libbey Pavilion, which recorded an attendance of over 2 million. Visitors ranged from the regular middle-class fairgoer to the more wealthy patrons and retail storeowners. A special visitor was the Princess Infanta Eulalia of Spain, who was attracted by the display of a spun glass dress made for Georgia Cayban, a famous actress. She soon ordered one for herself . Hence the Libbey Glass Co. could claim the title of "Glass Cutters to Her Royal Highness Infanta Do a Eulalia of Spain" (Keefe, p. 13). In the end, the Pavilion was a large success and did indeed bring new business, placing Libbey Glass in stores as far-flung as Tiffany's in New York, and James & Skinner in British Columbia.

The second aspect of the Exposition transplanted to the Midway, the display of innovative technology, is exemplified in the background of the picture by the looming figure of the Ferris wheel. A mechanical masterpiece, the "Great Wheel" reconciled the fields of applied science and recreation. With the 140-foot tall towers pushing the already huge wheel to a height of 240 feet, the 1893 Ferris wheel was a gigantic machine. By itself, it weighed 2,079,884 pounds; with its maximum capacity of 2,160 passengers, it could reach a weight of about 2,382,244 lbs., or 1,191 tons. The axle alone weighed 45 tons, and was the largest hollow forging in the world at its time. It was powered by a 1,000 horsepower steam engine located outside the fairgrounds and equipped with a Westinghouse Air Brake for starts and stops. The Ferris wheel has been compared to the Eiffel Tower. The idea of the Wheel did in fact come about in reaction to this Parisian landmark. In the early stages of planning for the Fair, chief of construction Daniel H. Burnham called together a group of architects and civil engineers to brainstorm ideas. To him, American civil engineers were unfairly ignored, both in their own country and abroad. The upcoming Exposition would give people a chance to see the industrial power of the United States through some distinctive engineering feature, something that would be to the 1893 Fair what the Tower was for the 1889 Fair.

At this, George Ferris, co-owner of a steel bridge company, began to formulate his idea of a large rideable, rotating wheel. Such an unprecedented feat was not as easy to implement as it looked. By 1892, the country was in the midst of a severe depression and initial funding for the Wheel was scarce. However, through persistence and conviction, Ferris eventually amassed $600,000 and brought his idea before the Commission Ways and Means Committee. At first, the design was rejected, deemed impossible to build, much less operate. After some arguing, Ferris did get a plot at the Fair, albeit in the small Midway strip rather than in the primary fairgrounds. By then, it was mid-January 1893, with four months to go until the opening of the Fair. Construction continued until June 9, when the first trial run of the Wheel took place. As it began its first motions, crowds formed around, entranced and frightened by the impossible sight of the large turning disk. Thereafter, the Ferris wheel was a runaway success, not only because of its mechanical significance, but mostly, for the thrill it gave as it rose hundreds of people into the air to a remarkable view of the Fair and city. It was admired by everyone, from visitors to dignitaries, as well as by engineers, who saw the Ferris wheel as somewhat of a masterpiece. The "Great Wheel" ran until the closing of the Fair without a mechanical problem. Despite its initial shunt to the Midway, the purpose and operation was ultimately better suited for this location, more at home as a rideable sideshow than a monument. The popularity it gained for itself carried onward, from other Wheels in subsequent Fairs to the smaller versions in future amusement parks.

The Midway was all these things and more. Replete with shows and exhibits, it was almost an exposition in itself. The enticing mixture of carnival and exposition stayed in the minds of Fair organizers, so that hardly any future Fair was without one. Where it was called "the Midway" in 1893, St. Louis hosted "the Pike" in 1904, while "La Ronde" delighted crowds at Montreal in 1967. This endurance of the idea of the Midway is a testament to its charisma, its power, and the high place amusement holds in the eye of society.


Works Cited

Richard Wilson. "Challenge and Response: Americans and the Architecture of the 1889 Exhibition." in Annette Blaugrund (ed.) Paris 1889. American Artists at the Universal Exposition. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 1989. 93-110.
Findling, John E. Historical Dictionary of World's Fairs and Expositions: 1851-1988. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.
Meehan, Patrick. "The Big Wheel." Chicago's Great Ferris Wheel of 1893
Rydell, Robert W. Fair America: World's Fairs in the United States. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.
Keefe, John WebsterLibbey Glass: A Tradition of 150 Years: 1918-1968. Toledo Museum of Art, 1968.