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World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

World's Fair 1893. Fish and Fisheries Building, Trade Card, Jas. F. Corbett, Leading Dealer in Dry Goods, Cloaks and Carpets,  Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Historical Collections
World's Fair 1893. Fish and Fisheries Building, Trade Card, Jas. F. Corbett, Leading Dealer in Dry Goods, Cloaks and Carpets, Baker Library, Harvard Business School, Historical Collections.

After the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the next American effort at mounting a World's Fair was the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. It was intended to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World but was delayed a year. Chicago was booming: the city's population had more than doubled in the preceding decade, but it had a dubious reputation as a rough frontier city. The fair served as a "coming-out party" for Chicago as a world-class city: by the time the fair closed at the end of October, 21.5 million people had paid for admission. Like the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Columbian Exposition celebrated American progress, and even more than its predecessor set the American intellectual and cultural agenda for the following decades.

Accompanying the exhibits were a series of congresses at which various issues of the day were debated and discussed. At the meeting of the American Historical Association, for instance, Frederick Jackson Turner proposed his famous frontier thesis, which remained a dominant idea in American historiography for a century. One of the themes of the fair reflected the trend in society at large for the creation of organizations. Examples of this are the American Historical Association, founded in 1889, which met in Chicago during the fair; and the World Congress of Religions, which encouraged ecumenicism and spurred the creation of lay religious organizations, including the National Council of Jewish Women. At a world congress on labor, speakers included Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor, and noted reformers Henry George and Henry Demarest Lloyd. The World's Congress of Representative Women opened on May 15, and attracted 500 delegates representing 27 countries and 126 organizations. A good many of the delegates were suffragists, and the congress provided helpful publicity for their cause. Unlike in 1876, African-American women were not excluded, and Ida B. Wells attended the congress.

The Women's Building

The Women's Pavilion at the Centennial Exposition had been controversial because of the way in which it was funded and for the perception that it was in a second-class category. In contrast, the Women's Building at the Columbian Exposition was seen as proof of female inclusion. "The General [i.e. federal] Government has just discovered women," said Bertha Honoré Palmer of Chicago, who led the organization of the Women's Building. Much of the change in attitude, however, was due to the women themselves, not to their reception by men. The Columbian Exposition marked a generational turning point in the women's movement. Leadership was changing from the original group of eastern patrician women typified by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe. Bertha Palmer, a Chicago society grande dame, and the daughter and husband of important Chicago businessmen, was typical of the type of women to whom the women's movement passed its leadership in the 1890s. The new leaders were often the wives of Gilded Age industrialists with their own ideas of social and cultural progress. These progressive women were more soft-spoken, well-mannered, and well-integrated into established Chicago social structures. They included such pioneers as Jane Addams, and set the stage for the next generation of women reformers who professionalized reform and social work.

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