1893 Columbian Exposition: World’s Fair Highlighted Agriculture in America

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| April 2010

  • A contemporary drawing meant to convey the spirit of the 1893 world's fair, the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago.
    A contemporary drawing meant to convey the spirit of the 1893 world's fair, the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago.
    The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition, William E. Cameron, published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co., Chicago; colorized
  • A forest of windmills at the Columbian Exposition.
    A forest of windmills at the Columbian Exposition.
    Farm Implement News, Aug. 24, 1893
  • Map of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
    Map of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
    The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition, William E. Cameron, published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co., Chicago
  • Machinery Hall at the Columbian Exposition shown on a Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card.
    Machinery Hall at the Columbian Exposition shown on a Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card.
    Courtesy Sam Moore
  • The Massey-Harris Co. Ltd. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
    The Massey-Harris Co. Ltd. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
    Farm Implement News, Sept. 28, 1893
  • A view of the Columbian Exposition’s Agricultural Building
    A view of the Columbian Exposition’s Agricultural Building.
    The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition, William E. Cameron, published in 1893 by A.B. Kuhlman & Co., Chicago
  • The Adriance, Platt & Co. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
    The Adriance, Platt & Co. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
    Farm Implement News, Aug. 24, 1893
  • A complimentary ticket to the Columbian Exposition.
    A complimentary ticket to the Columbian Exposition.
    Courtesy Sam Moore
  • A Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card touting the award the company won at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
    A Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card touting the award the company won at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
    Courtesy Sam Moore
  • Awards received by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. were shown in an 1887 McCormick catalog.
    Awards received by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. were shown in an 1887 McCormick catalog.
    Courtesy Sam Moore

  • A contemporary drawing meant to convey the spirit of the 1893 world's fair, the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago.
  • A forest of windmills at the Columbian Exposition.
  • Map of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
  • Machinery Hall at the Columbian Exposition shown on a Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card.
  • The Massey-Harris Co. Ltd. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
  • A view of the Columbian Exposition’s Agricultural Building
  • The Adriance, Platt & Co. exhibit at the Columbian Exposition.
  • A complimentary ticket to the Columbian Exposition.
  • A Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. trade card touting the award the company won at the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
  • Awards received by the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. were shown in an 1887 McCormick catalog.

Starting in about 1888, the idea took shape of staging a world’s fair in the U.S. to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

Cities such as Chicago, New York, St. Louis, Washington and Minneapolis vied for the honor and prestige of hosting the event. In February 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives met to decide the issue after months of intense lobbying by the hopefuls. It took eight ballots, but Chicago at last won the majority of votes and was declared the site of the Columbian Exposition.

City within a city

The site chosen was called Jackson Park, a mostly wild and unimproved area of 586 acres in southeastern Chicago along Lake Michigan. Ground was broken on Jan. 27, 1891. Two years later, on May 1, 1893, after many trials, tribulations and disagreements, President Grover Cleveland opened the grand exposition with much pomp, ceremony and oratory. The highlight of the ceremony came when President Cleveland pressed a gold telegraph key on the table in front of him. The key completed an electrical circuit activating a device called an “Electro-Automatic Engine Stop and Starter,” which caused a big Allis steam engine and Worthington pump to start up in Machinery Hall. The pump caused several huge fountains to spurt columns of water high in the air to the strains of the national anthem and the boom of guns from the warship USS Michigan, anchored nearby in Lake Michigan.

The exposition grounds included 400 buildings in addition to statues, fountains, basins and waterways, paved roads and paths (all impeccably landscaped), at a cost of more than $20 million (nearly $500 million today). More than 50,000 exhibitors came from almost every country in the world. Daily admission of 50 cents (about $12 today) gave entry to all exhibits, although photography was tightly restricted. A $2 permit was required to take a camera on the grounds (and no tripods were allowed); photography was prohibited in some buildings.

Dizzying array of exhibits

There were many, many interesting agricultural exhibits at the exposition, but one stands out in an account in The World’s Fair, A Pictorial History of the Columbian Exposition by William E. Cameron: a gigantic cheese – “weighing 26,000 pounds, standing 6 feet high and 9 feet in diameter” – that was part of the Canadian agricultural exhibit. A contemporary description reads, “To the construction of this monster 10,000 cows have contributed their lacteal bounty,” and “the mice of the universe might nibble (on the cheese) for years without making a material impression.”



At the south end of the grounds, facing a large basin of water, was the 500- by 750-foot Agricultural Building. Behind that was a 300- by 550-foot annex in which farm machinery exhibits were located. I can find no complete list of manufacturers who displayed their wares, but I’d imagine it would include most all of those then in existence.

An account in the Aug. 24, 1893, issue of Farm Implement News gushes: “The most complete and magnificent display of farm implements and machines that the world has ever seen is now being made in the Implement Annex at the great fair. It is a show of the latest and most improved machinery finished and decorated like objects of art and placed like jewels in the most attractive settings.”