The Women's Pavilion

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By Anna Burrows

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Essay on The Women's Pavilion 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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  • World's Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.)
  • Women's Building. World's Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.)
  • Exhibitions
  • Exhibition buildings
  • Women
  • Essay
  • 1801-1900
  • North America
  • United States
  • Illinois
  • Chicago
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The Columbian Exposition was notable for its impressive architecture and large international attendance. Of particular importance was the Women's Pavilion. The first of its kind to have been designed by a female architect, it revealed much about the social plight of women at that time, and the need for further progress in the movement for equal rights. While its existence did not trigger significant changes for the Women's Movement, this pavilion was certainly a promising first step that would set a precedent for women's involvement in later years.

All aspects of women's involvement in the Chicago fair were overseen by the Board of Lady Managers. This governing body, the first of its kind, had authority over all the decisions regarding the Women's Pavilion. It was headed by Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago, and composed of a diverse group of women from all over the United States. There were two women members from each state and territory as well as nine from Chicago. Invitations were extended to women across the world for their participation. Delegations from England, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Russia, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Brazil, Argentina, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, Algeria, Siam and Japan all participated in the planning ,and particularly the interior decoration. Many of these organizers belonged to the upper-class or even aristocracy of their societies.

The first women's pavilion had been erected in 1876 in Philadelphia. The previous year, women had been given their own section in the main fair building, but at the last minute this decision was revoked. Instead, women were told if they wanted a display, it would have to be in their own building and from their own funding. They did collect enough funds for construction of the pavilion, but Mrs. E.D. Gillespie, President of the Women's Executive Committee said that, "..weary and longing for rest, we never thought of employing a woman architect...."(Greenhalgh, 175) Even among women themselves, it was generally thought that there were few reliable female architects and indeed there were few women in the field at the time. Those that were in the field also received little public acknowledgement. At this Philadelphia fair, November 7th was chosen was "women's day", based on the assumption that the women should take advantage of the fair while the men were casting their ballots. This angered the suffragettes, who proceeded to boycott the fair. The women's pavilion placed "...particular emphasis on those activities generally acknowledged to be within the women's sphere" with little information in the areas of science and discovery. (Greenhalgh, 175) Most of the art work done by women was nowhere to be found in the women's pavilion, but instead was in the main Fine Arts building.

While the Board of Lady Managers was supposed to have "general charge and management of all interests of women in connection with the Exposition", they were denied a say in the selection of the actual architect. (Ralph, 170) This decision instead was made by a board of men. In order to select the architect, work was examined from fourteen distinguished women in the field. It is noted that none of these applicants was over the age of twenty-five. The woman who was chosen was Sophia Hayden, who had just graduated from the School of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The image on our website is a print approximately 7 x 10 inches, from a collection of 28 photogravures made from drawings taken at the fair. This rendering shows the main facade set on the lagoon. It is rather idealistic as no other buildings can be seen in the background. People can be seen as they strolled around the waterside watching a lone dingy. Detail on the building itself has been simplified while the trees and shrubbery on the edges of the lagoon and the sun reflecting off the water are vividly rendered. This image also makes the building appear a little larger than it actually was. However, since the larger surrounding buildings are missing, the scale is left more to the imagination. The Women's pavilion was located just north of the Horticulture building, with its eastern front facing a man-made lagoon. The scene was picturesque, with a terrace extending to the tip of the waterline. The building which measured 388 by 199 feet and cost nearly 150,000 dollars, was "Grecian" in character, with decorative elements such as terraces, porticos and colonnades derived from Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. On the ground level, a landing and stairway led up from the lagoon to a terrace six feet above the water. Upon ascending another staircase, one would enter the pavilion, set back about 108 feet from the water. The first terrace contained lovely flora ??? low shrubs and flowerbeds ??? that transported one immediately to a villa in the Italian countryside. The first story was set ten feet from the ground line, with a wide staircase rising to the central pavilion. There were a triple arched entrance and open colonnade on the second story. The front elevation was graced with a low pediment accented with a bas-relief. Attached by open colonnades were corner pavilions; here can be seen the "Hanging Gardens". As they entered the main pavilion, visitors were greeted by a forty- foot wide lobby which preceded a domed hall that measured 70 by 65 feet and extended the entire height of the building. The hall was surrounded by a two story open arcade. The ceiling of the rotunda was enhanced with an elaborate skylight; the overall effect was that of a "thoroughly Italian court-yard". (White, 437)

Inside, every inch of available space was used for various displays, accomplishing a true feat of space efficiency. The first floor contained scaled-down models of a hospital and a kindergarten. Behind a curtain opposite the main entrance were the library, bureau of information, and records. The second story held a lady's parlor, committee rooms, and dressing rooms. In the second story, the north pavilion featured a great assembly room with an elevated stage for speakers, as well as a clubroom, the south pavilion a model kitchen, refreshment room, as well as a reception room.

There was a great deal of competition among many talented female artists for the honor of showing their work here, either inside or outside the pavilion. Figures in high relief covered the 45 foot long pediment along the outside border of the building. There were also two smaller clusters of statues over the cornice. The focal point was a grouping of winged figures which stood ten feet high. These were then supported by smaller figures, which were intended to symbolize womanly virtues such as "Love", "Charity", "Sacrifice" and "Maternity". In addition to these were two other statues entitled "Women as the Spirit of Civilization" and "Woman's Place in History".

Inside the pavilion, there were several large paintings. At the end of the gallery of honor were two large murals, each measuring 14 x 58 feet. Perhaps the most notable of these was "Modern Woman" by Mary Cassatt. The other was entitled "Primitive Woman" by Mrs. Mac Monnies. These paintings were juxtaposed to emphasize the progress of women over the centuries. On the south side was one painting of young Puritan girls, by Mrs. Sherwood and Miss Emmett. On the north side was a painting by Mrs. Fairchild and Mrs. Sewell. In the library there was a central display by Mrs. Dora Wheeler Keith of two male figures and one female figure, interpreted as Science, Romance and Imagination.

Displays, both national and international, were extremely varied. In the library there were many books by female authors, as well as their autographs. There were also statistics which had been gathered on the conditions faced by women around the globe. Furthermore, there were canvas panels with images measuring 5 x 9 feet, intended to represent several occupations performed by women. In the southwest corner lay the national displays of France, Mexico and Italy, and in the opposite corner the German exhibition. In the southernmost section the Spanish display, designed in Moorish style, presented the famed swords of Isabella, as well as portraits and jewels belonging to the queen. This was especially appropriate since the fair marked the 400-year anniversary of Columbus' landing in the New World, with Queen Isabella as his patron. Adjacent to Spain were displays from Siberia, Siam, Japan, Norway, Austria, Belgium, India, Sweden, Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope. Upstairs, one would find the United States exhibit which had information on American women's colleges, particularly Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and LaSalle. There were also state rooms, other national exhibits, a cooking school display, and rooms for education, inventions and discoveries. At the other end of this floor was a room of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and other women's organizations which exercised a great deal of influence at the time.

The building did have a notably smaller scale than many of the other exhibition buildings. It also was surrounded by other grand structures such as the Horticulture building, which seemed to emphasize its smallness. Due to its limited dimensions, Sophia Hayden deemed it more effective to concentrate attention on the outside details. For these reasons, the building was criticized for too easily revealing the sex of its designer. The open arcade surrounding the rotunda was deemed "delicate and chaste in design". Furthermore, the roof garden was described as " a hen coop for petticoated hens, old and young....". (Greenhalgh, 181) These attitudes reveal expectations of the "womanly qualities" should possess. One critic even wrote: "...Its fault is one which makes it especially suitable for the purposes for which it is to be used-it is chaste and timid." (Ralph, 162-163) Unfortunately, just prior to the opening of the fair Sophia Hayden suffered from a nervous breakdown and was not able to oversee the completion of her work. This is understandable, given the pressures of the exhibition committee, the prospect of such a global audience, and given that she had only recently completed her education. However, many individuals who were skeptical of women entering the architectural field took advantage of this occurrence, bolstering their argument that they were not physically capable of such a demanding career.

This fair was a benchmark in terms of women's roles in the fairs and the way in which they were represented at these events. In the past, women had been displayed as mere sexual objects and as the subordinates of men. The reality of the inequality faced by women at this time was reinforced by their presence at fairs as cleaners, ticket vendors, and booth operators. Despite the progress made at the Chicago Columbian with a pavilion designed by a woman, and displays on the accomplishments of many female artists and inventors, there was still a long road ahead. In the fairs of the 1930's, such as the Golden Gate Exposition, the role of the Women's Board was limited to what can be aptly called the "macrocosm of the housewife."(Greenhalgh, 192) Women's responsibilities were limited to functions of hospitality and the beautification of the fairgrounds. While in 1893 the cause of suffrage did receive some attention, this was not always the case. In later fairs, the political aspect of Women's displays would be dominated by anti-suffrage groups, and attention would be taken away from the women's social movement. More emphasis would be placed on women's accomplishments in the domestic arts. In subsequent fairs the women's pavilion would also become the place of "leftovers", for items that could not be placed anywhere else. For the first couple of decades after the Chicago Columbian Exposition, there was a significant decrease in the prominence given to the women's building. One might ask if the 1893 building was meant as an appeasement for women, as an attempt to curb their appetite for further actions towards equality. Furthermore, this event highlighted class divisions among women. The Board of Lady Managers, as previously mentioned, was composed almost exclusively of the female elite. There was little representation of the women workers, such as those who swept the streets of the fair. While there was an effort to project the call for equality of all women, this aspect was still shaped by the feelings of women who had fewer complaints about their social position. The needs of the lower and middle class women still needed to be addressed. While the women's pavilion at the Chicago Columbian was a meaningful step in the right direction, there was still a long way to go on the path to equality between the sexes.

Works Cited

White, Trumbull. The World Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. Philadelphia: P.W. Ziegler & Co., 1893. .
Ralph, Julian. Harper's Chicago and the World's Fair. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1893. 161-172.
Bolotin, Norm. The World's Columbian Exposition: the Chicago World's Fair. Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1992.
Greenhalgh, Paul. "Women: Exhibiting and Exhibited." Ephemeral Vistas: The Expositions Universelle, Great Exhibitions, And World's Fairs, 1851- 1939. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988. 174-195.
"World's Columbian Exposition of 1893." Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of Technology. ( ).
Torre, Susan. "Women in Design." Design Book Review. 1991. Spring n20. Pg.74-76. ISSN 0737-5344.