The Exposition covered more than , featuring nearly 200 new buildings of classical architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from around the world. Over 27 million people (equivalent to about half the U.S. population) attended the Exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world fairs, and it became a symbol of then-emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.
Dedication ceremonies for the fair were held on October 21, 1892, but the fairgrounds were not actually opened to the public until May 1, 1893. The fair continued until October 30, 1893. In addition to recognizing the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World, the fair also served to show the world that Chicago had risen from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, which had destroyed much of the city in 1871.
The exposition was located in Jackson Park and on the Midway Plaisance on 630 acres (2.5 km²) in the neighborhoods of South Shore, Jackson Park Highlands, Hyde Park and Woodlawn. Charles H. Wacker was the Director of the Fair. The layout of the fairgrounds was created by Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Beaux-Arts architecture of the buildings was under the direction of Daniel Burnham, director of Works for the fair. Renowned local architect Henry Ives Cobb designed several buildings for the exposition. The Director of the American Academy in Rome, Francis David Millet, directed the painted mural decorations. Indeed, it was a coming-of-age for the arts and architecture of the "American Renaissance", also showing neoclassical architecture style.
Most of the buildings were based on classical architecture. The area at the Court of Honor was known as The White City. The buildings were made of a white stucco, which, in comparison to the tenements of Chicago, seemed illuminated. It was also called the White City because of the extensive use of street lights, which made the boulevards and buildings walkable at night. It included such buildings as:
Louis Sullivan's polychrome proto-Modern Transportation Building was an outstanding exception to the prevailing style, as he tried to develop an organic American form. He believed that the classical style of the White City had set back modern American architecture by forty years.
As detailed in Erik Larson's popular history The Devil in the White City, extraordinary effort was required to accomplish the exposition, and much of it was unfinished on opening day. The famous Ferris wheel, which proved to be a major attendance draw and helped save the fair from bankruptcy, was not finished until June, because of waffling by the board of directors the previous year on whether to build it. Frequent debates and disagreements among the developers of the fair added many delays. The spurning of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show proved a serious financial mistake. Buffalo Bill set up his highly popular show next door to the fair and brought in a great deal of revenue that he did not have to share with the developers. Nonetheless, construction and operation of the fair proved to be a windfall for Chicago workers during the serious economic recession that was sweeping the country.
Early in July, a Wellesley College English teacher named Katharine Lee Bates visited the fair. The White City was later to inspire the reference to "alabaster cities" in her poem, America the Beautiful.
The fair attracted the famous and the ordinary. Famous visitors to the fair included Thomas Edison, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Scott Joplin, Annie Oakley, Eadweard Muybridge, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Frederick Douglass, Henry Blake Fuller, J.P. Morgan, Henry Adams, Andrew Carnegie, W.D. Howells, Hamlin Garland, Swami Vivekananda, Helen Keller, Octave Chanute, John J. Montgomery, Nikola Tesla, Pierre de Coubertin, and President Grover Cleveland.
There is also a very detailed and vivid description of all facets of this fair by the Persian traveler Mirza Mohammad Ali Mo'in ol-Slataneh written in Persian. He departed from Persia in 20 April, 1892 especially for the purpose of visiting the World's Columbian Exposition.
Of the more than 200 buildings erected for the fair, the only two which still stand in place are the Palace of Fine Arts and the World's Congress Auxiliary Building. From the time the fair closed until 1920, the Palace of Fine Arts housed the Field Columbian Museum (now the relocated Field Museum of Natural History). In 1933 the building re-opened as the Museum of Science and Industry. The cost of construction of the World's Congress Auxiliary Building was shared with the Art Institute of Chicago, which moved into the building (the museum's current home) after the close of the fair.
Two other significant buildings survived the fair. The first is the Norway pavilion, a building preserved at a museum called Little Norway in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. The second is the Maine State Building, designed by Charles Sumner Frost, which was purchased by the Ricker family of Poland Spring, Maine. They moved the building to their resort to serve as a library and art gallery. The Poland Spring Preservation Society now owns the building, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The main altar at St. John Cantius in Chicago, as well as its matching two side altars, are reputed to be from the Columbian Exposition. The other buildings at the fair were intended to be temporary. Their facades were made not of stone, but of a mixture of plaster, cement and jute fiber called staff, which was painted white, giving the buildings their "gleam". Architecture critics derided the structures as "decorated sheds". The White City, however, so impressed everyone who saw it (at least before air pollution began to darken the façades) that plans were considered to refinish the exteriors in marble or some other material. In any case, these plans were abandoned in July 1894 when much of the fair grounds was destroyed in a fire. (The fire occurred at the height of the Pullman Strike.)
The fair ended with the city in shock, as popular mayor Carter Harrison, Sr. was assassinated two days before the fair's closing. Closing ceremonies were canceled in favor of a public memorial service.
Jackson Park was returned to its status as a public park, in much better shape than its original swampy form. The lagoon was reshaped to give it a more natural appearance, except for the straight-line northern end where it still laps up against the steps on the south side of the Palace of Fine Arts/Museum of Science & Industry building.
The Midway Plaisance, a park-like boulevard which extends west from Jackson Park, once formed the southern boundary of the University of Chicago, which was being built as the fair was closing. (The University has since developed south of the Midway.) The university's football team, the Maroons, were the original "Monsters of the Midway". The Exposition is mentioned in the university's alma mater: "The City White hath fled the earth,/But where the azure waters lie,/A nobler city hath its birth,/The City Gray that ne'er shall die."
The north side of the Museum of Science and Industry was fronted by a paved parking lot for many years. In the 1990s, an ambitious project was undertaken to build an underground garage surfaced by natural grass, thus extending the park completely around the building.
The International Exposition was held in a building which was devoted to electrical exhibits. General Electric Company (backed by Edison and J.P. Morgan) had proposed to power the electric exhibits with direct current at the cost of one million dollars. However, Westinghouse, armed with Tesla's alternating current system, proposed to illuminate the Columbian Exposition in Chicago for half that price, and Westinghouse won the bid. It was an historical moment and the beginning of a revolution, as Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced the public to electrical power by illuminating the Exposition.
All the exhibits were from commercial enterprises. Thomas Edison, Brush, Western Electric, and Westinghouse had exhibits. The public observed firsthand the qualities and abilities of alternating current power.
Tesla's high-frequency high-voltage lighting produced more efficient light with quantitatively less heat. A two-phase induction motor was driven by current from the main generators to power the system. Edison tried to prevent the use of his light bulbs in Tesla's works. Westinghouse's proposal was chosen over the less efficient direct-current system to power the fair. General Electric banned the use of Edison's lamps in Westinghouse's plan, in retaliation for losing the bid.
Westinghouse's company quickly designed a double-stopper lightbulb (sidestepping Edison's patents) and was able to light the fair. The Westinghouse lightbulb was invented by Reginald Fessenden, later to be the first person to transmit voice by radio. Fessenden replaced Edison's delicate platinum lead-in wires with an iron-nickel alloy, thus greatly reducing the cost and increasing the life of the lamp.
The Westinghouse Company displayed several polyphase systems. The exhibits included a switchboard, polyphase generators, step-up transformers, transmission line, step-down transformers, commercial size induction motors and synchronous motors, and rotary direct current converters (including an operational railway motor). The working scaled system allowed the public a view of a system of polyphase power which could be transmitted over long distances, and be utilized, including the supply of direct current. Meters and other auxiliary devices were also present.
Tesla displayed his phosphorescent lighting, powered without wires by high-frequency fields. Tesla displayed the first practical phosphorescent lamps (a precursor to fluorescent lamps). Tesla's lighting inventions exposed to high-frequency currents would bring the gases to incandescence. Tesla also displayed the first neon lights. His innovations in this type of light emission were not regularly patented.
The concert band of John Phillip Sousa played there daily.
Eadweard Muybridge gave a series of lectures on the Science of Animal Locomotion in the Zoopraxographical Hall, built specially for that purpose on Midway Plaisance. He used his zoopraxiscope to show his moving pictures to a paying public. The Hall was the first commercial movie theater.
Another popular Midway attraction was the "Street in Cairo", which included the popular exotic dancer known as Little Egypt. She introduced America to the suggestive version of the belly dance known as the "hootchy-kootchy", to a tune improvised by Bloom (and now more commonly associated with snake charmers). The man who created it was American and never copyrighted the song, putting it straight into the public domain.
Although denied a spot at the fair, Buffalo Bill Cody decided to come to Chicago anyway, setting up his Wild West show just outside the edge of the exposition. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave academic lectures reflecting on the end of the frontier which Buffalo Bill represented.
Louis Comfort Tiffany made his reputation with a stunning chapel designed and built for the Exposition. This chapel has been carefully reconstructed and restored. It can be seen in at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
Architect Kirtland Cutter's Idaho Building, a rustic log construction, was a popular favorite, visited by an estimated 18 million people. The building's design and interior furnishings were a major precursor of the Arts and Crafts movement.
The John Bull locomotive was also displayed. It was only 62 years old, having been built in 1831. It was the first locomotive acquisition by the Smithsonian Institution. The locomotive ran under its own power from Washington, DC, to Chicago to participate, and returned to Washington under its own power again when the exposition closed. In 1981 it was the oldest surviving operable steam locomotive in the world when it ran under its own power again.
Also on display in Chicago was an original frog switch and portion of the superstructure of the famous 1826 Granite Railway in Massachusetts. This was the first commercial railroad in the United States to evolve into a common carrier without an intervening closure. The railway brought granite stones from a rock quarry in Quincy, Massachusetts so that the Bunker Hill Monument could be erected in Boston. The frog switch is now on public view in East Milton Square, MA, on the original right-of-way of the Granite Railway.
Norway participated with a replica of a Viking ship, a replica of the Gokstad ship. It was built in Norway and sailed across the Atlantic by 92 men, led by their helmsman Magnus Andersen. In 1919 this ship was moved to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was relocated in 1996 to Good Templar Park in Geneva, Illinois, where it awaits renovation.
The 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions, which ran from September 11 to September 27, marked the first formal gathering of representatives of Eastern and Western spiritual traditions from around the world.
Forty-six nations participated in the fair, including Haiti, which selected Frederick Douglass to be its coordinator. The Exposition drew nearly 26 million visitors. It left a remembered vision that inspired the Emerald City of L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz and Walt Disney's theme parks. Disney's father Elias had been a construction worker on some of the buildings at the fair.
The work of noted feminist author Kate McPhelim Cleary was featured during the opening of the Nebraska Day ceremonies at the fair, which included a reading of her poem "Nebraska".
After the fair closed, J.C. Rogers, a banker from Wamego, Kansas, purchased several pieces of art that had hung in the rotunda of the U.S. Government Building. He also purchased architectural elements, artifacts and buildings from the fair. He shipped his purchases to Wamego. Many of the items, including the artwork, were used to decorate his theater, now known as the Columbian Theatre.
Memorabilia saved by visitors can still be purchased. Numerous books, tokens, published photographs, and well-printed admission tickets can be found. While the higher value commemorative stamps are expensive, the lower ones are quite common. So too are the commemorative half dollars, many of which went into circulation.