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

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| April 2010

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.”