It was a remarkable World’s Fair. It introduced us to the Ferris Wheel, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum, diet carbonated drinks and Cracker Jacks – not to mention phrases like the White City and the Midway Plaisance.
Chicago’s 1893 Columbia Exhibition (marking, a year late, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in the New World) was one of a kind.
The Transportation Building was among the most popular stops. Inside, visitors could see everything from Daniel Webster’s horse-drawn carriage to the bicycle to the sleigh.
Webster’s carriage was well restored, showing off its “extra strong springs,” required for the “horrible roads” of the day. By comparison, President Polk’s car (also on display) was “in such a disgraceful state of decrepitude that it made the beholder wonder why it was preserved at all.”
They could also see locomotives and rail cars from “all the European countries,” and compare “the relative safety and comfort of the foreign systems and our own.”
Then there were the models of steamships and naval battleships, including a massive replica of the “ill-fated English cruiser Victoria.” It cost over $50,000 to build, and required a staircase so visitors could climb high enough up to see the deck of the vessel.
Fair organizers wanted to out-do their French predecessors who, at the Paris Worlds Fair in 1889, unveiled Gustave Eiffel’s sensational tower to the world. So they put out a call for proposals.
George Washington Ferris suggested a huge wheel with passenger cars, reaching over 250 feet skyward. The cars could accommodate over 2,000 people! It was a huge hit.
Then there was the beer competition. A Milwaukee company, founded in 1844, entered its product, Pabst Select to the cheers of the judges, who proclaimed it “America’s Best.” After the fair, the brewers renamed their award-winning brew “Pabst Blue Ribbon.”
Meantime, Josephine Garis Cochran was displaying her new invention, the automated dishwashing machine, which she constructed “in a shed behind her home” with the help of a mechanic named George Butters.
Cochran’s invention was an instant success, with restaurants and hotels immediately installing her equipment in their establishments.
Cracker Jack popcorn, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Aunt Jemima pancake mix all promoted their new products at the exhibition.
But the Electricity Building was perhaps the most popular attraction. President Cleveland threw the switch starting the massive 3,000 horsepower stream engine that powered the building.
The electrical inventions included lamps, sewing machines, an elevator and a typewriter.
Now to those aforementioned phrases, the Midway Plaisance and the White City.
The “Midway Plaisance” was an avenue through the fairgrounds specifically designed for amusement, something never done before at a world’s fair.
A few ingenious newspaper editors in Missoula quickly appropriated the phrase, using it to jokingly describe the red light district of Missoula.
The entire fairgrounds and its buildings were constructed quickly and expected to be nothing but temporary. So a new invention called a compressed air squirt gun was used to paint the buildings a generic white – thus, the “White City.”
There are those who say the “White City” was L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.”
The Northern Pacific Railroad promoted special rates and accommodations for travelers from Montana and beyond.
Its Grand Central Station in Chicago was “fitted up as a hotel, run on the European plan, with about 200 rooms handsomely furnished and each room is supplied with hot and cold water, electric lights, etc.”
It was estimated that 400,000 people attended the exposition on opening day, with huge crowds daily after that. The fair ran from May 1 to Oct. 30, 1893.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.