Jerry and I drove into the beauty of the lake front area that is home to Soldier’s Field, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and more on a sunny morning last week. Not finding the street that led to close parking for the Field, we pulled up to some workmen to ask questions. They were smiling and helpful. But one said to us, “Oh, you mean the old museum?” I’m sorry to say this turned out to be a prophetic statement. And not just because this grand museum celebrated opening day in May, 1921.



We made our way to the parking and soon we were climbing the stairs to the front entrance of the Field. Both of us had been there as children. I was especially interested in the exhibit of The Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair. Though neither my Dad nor my maternal grandmother actually visited the fair, both had talked about it often, telling me how fabulous it had been. They had seen buildings and parks left in the city after the fair.

That World’s Fair introduced the world to the Ferris Wheel. The Fair, called the Columbia Exhibition, was so popular that the Midwest author Hamlin Garland said, “sell the cook stove if necessary, but come to the Fair.”


Last fall, excited about this exhibit at the Field, I wrote a post “ Five Ways to Travel to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.” (Scroll through the November, 2013 archives to find the story.) Someone views it every day on this blog giving it most-popular status, no contest. Finally, a week before this exhibit closed, we were about to see it. I had so looked forward to this visit.


The lobby of the museum was filled with the large replicas of African Elephants I remembered from a previous visit. We found ourselves under the banner “Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.”


But as we entered that area, the museum seemed dark, and while some signs and placards explained things, others were brief, hard-to-read, and in light colors hard to see and find. The majority of the exhibit consisted of artifacts exhibited in 1893 such as minerals, gems, plumes, and other items from cultures in faraway lands. Very large grainy photos of some type gave a sense of the grand buildings, the exhibits, and the crowds that filled the Fair in 1893. Those photos made me believe the Fair had existed in a way that glass cases filled objects could not.

photo 2

From a personal standpoint, I enjoyed the plumes. My grandmother was a milliner who for several years at the beginning of the 20th century owned and operated a hat shop at the corner of Wabash and 28th street in Chicago. Later she trimmed hats all over the west, including in San Francisco. Here were examples of some of the plumes she had talked about, and shown to me over the years. These plumes from birds such as the snowy egret were used as ornaments in hats of the era.


photo 1


The actual Fair was located in Jackson Park––seven miles south of the Field––and this world-famed exhibition marked Chicago’s recovery from the Great Fire and offered visitors information of Western Civilization at that time. The many beautiful white buildings were known as “the white city.”


I had hoped to buy a book about the fair that would include pictures and supplement my knowledge of the event. Alas, the gift shop saleswoman told me they had all been sold and not reordered. These five titles, carried earlier in the gift shop, are available from Amazon. I sadly suggest one of these books is most likely a better investment than the Field Exhibit.


Titles are:
The World’s Columbian Exposition, Spectacle in the White City,
Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair,
America at the Fair,
Chicago World’s Fair of 1893
There is also a DVD from a 2 hour PBS Special titled Expo: Magic of the White City.

A 3D film about Ancient Egypt and mummification gave scant information. And so we went to the top of the museum hoping to see some of the reconstructed dinosaur skeletons we remembered from earlier visits. The stegosaurus pictured and others filled the third floor, and the spectacular views out toward Lake Michigan and into the city from the windows at the top of the building made our ride to the third floor well worth it.


We enjoyed our visit in spite of the disappointments. Maybe the intense anticipation robbed me of some of the joy. Most likely, I simply like turning the pages of a book better than looking in glass cases and reading placards. A good photo can be better than the real thing?



  1. Bonne Hall

    Interesting article Paulette…
    Two years ago I visited a special exhibit at the Pittsburgh Carnegie Museum. It was the Highlights from numerous Exhibitions. The reason I mentioned this as the Curator told us that the various exhibitions were actually “shopping malls” for the affluent!!! Then we went to Henry Frick’s Pittsburgh mansion and were shown the various items that he and his wife had ordered at several different exhibitions. I thought it was fascinating.
    Also Kudos for THE DEVIL AND THE WHITE CITY which Judith mentioned.

  2. Judith

    and to remind everyone … The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson offers a fascinating peek into the history of the Chicago World Fair as well as the story of a serial killer … soon to be a movie with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the murderer

  3. Lee T.

    Bob’s paternal great grandfather fell to his death from scaffolding in a church he was painting frescos for the World’s Fair.

    1. Post author

      Now that is a family story about the World’s Fair worth telling, though a sad one. Thanks for sharing that.


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