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FLEET LIBRARY | Research Guides

Rhode Island School of Design

A Day at the Fair: Remembering the World's Columbian Exposition: Exhibit

February 15 - April 28, 2023 - Second Floor, Fleet Library at RISD


The White City: A Symbol of Progress 

Nominally a 400th-anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus’s inadvertent “discovery” of the Americas, the World’s Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World’s Fair) of 1893 was a display of human achievement on a grand scale. After years of planning and construction, the Exposition opened in and around Chicago’s Jackson Park on May 1st and welcomed over 27 million visitors during its six-month run. The overarching theme of the Exposition was progress. Displays of everything from electricity to horticulture to fine art were lauded as manifestations of intellectual, technological, aesthetic, and moral growth. Buildings dedicated to the latest innovations in agriculture, machinery, transportation, and more, exhibited products from the United States and around the world. The capacities of human civilization, the Exposition’s leaders and participants declared, were endless.

Items on exhibit

The Midway Plaisance: Racism, Exoticism, and Colonialism on Display

A short distance from the main fairgrounds, the Midway Plaisance offered visitors a more brash and voyeuristic experience. In addition to carnival amusements like a Ferris Wheel, the Midway featured ethnographic villages complete with real humans. If the displays of manufactures and art in Jackson Park represented peak civilization, the Chinese Tea House and Dahomey Village were supposed to represent semi-civilization and savagery, respectively. It is clear today that racism, exoticism, and colonialism undergirded the World’s Columbian Exposition. “Oriental” and “Occidental” persons in stereotypical dress were immortalized in photo books, perpetuating the harmful notions that racial categories are legitimate and that most people—save White Americans and some White Europeans— exist outside of time and progress.

Items on exhibit

Making the Most of the Fair: Handbooks and Guides

Covering almost 700 acres and featuring almost 200 buildings, the Exposition necessitated a thorough visitor’s guide. A plethora of publishers printed guides to the White City and the Midway Plaisance, all promising to help visitors make the most of a multiday visit. Some guides contain maps or are bilingual. The density and amount of text in all the guides will surprise contemporary viewers. Each guide delves into the background and history of the Exposition and contains detailed descriptions of popular exhibits and objects.

Memories of the Fair: Souvenirs and Collectibles

Though it purported to be a pure display of progress, the Exposition was a huge commercial enterprise. Economic opportunities opened by the fair continued after its close. Businessmen and publishers capitalized on the Exposition’s popularity and worked to keep it in the public’s imagination by selling commemorative plates, postcards, photo books, and more. Consumers of subscriptions services could receive photos of the fair’s grounds, buildings, and sideshows each week. For those who had visited Chicago, this subscription was a way to relieve their experiences; for those who did not make it to the cultural event, flipping through photos could make them feel like they did.