Originally published in The Believer.
In 1893, Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition, a World’s Fair intended to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the New World.
Over the course of the summer and into the fall, over 27 million people trekked to the White City and its titillating side(freak)show, the Midway, including one enterprising man who boxed and shipped himself C.O.D., only to be apprehended upon arrival for not having a ticket (entrance fee: 50¢). Bigger than the Crystal Palace (London, 1851) and more glitzy, more ritzy, more flamboyantly French than the Exposition Universelle Internationale (Paris, 1889), the White City was a self-proclaimed fever-dream utopia built, as its host city had been decades earlier, directly on lush swampland.
Inside mammoth white palaces, the latest technological breakthroughs were on display, including an early movie projector and an early fax machine, which had been used during the Civil War. Mostly white, wealthy and American, fairgoers strolled along the massive promenades, talking about Frederick Douglass’s speech on “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition,” or they drifted down the labyrinthine waterways on gondolas commandeered by husky Venetians, debating the notion of that just-invented phenomenon, kindergarten, while in the distance Western Union’s network of two-hundred clocks chimed synchronously. Visits to the eleven-ton cheese or the 1,500-pound chocolate Venus de Milo resulted in hasty sprints to the food court. There, Cracker Jacks, Aunt Jemima Syrup, Cream of Wheat, Pabst Beer, Juicy Fruit gum, diet carbonated soda, or the hamburger—all concocted for the fair—where up for grabs. Afterward, they sauntered onto the Wooded Island for an afternoon’s respite followed by a spontaneous trip to Japan via the Ho-o-den Palace. Before braving the Midway, they stopped in on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Extravaganza, which featured gunslingers and braying stallions aplenty, plus a reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand. At night, the entire White City—including the mammoth Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, which was three times the size of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and like every other building made of plaster, readily combustible—was illumined, powered by Westinghouse dynamos.
Out on the Midway—the “Royal Road of Gaiety,” according to the Tribune—the emphasis was on all things exotic (and erotic). Day and night, Hungarian and German bands played at facsimile beer halls, Egyptians sold their bum-bum at the Cairo Street (“Alla good bum-bum, gypsy candy!”), Dahomans from “darkest Africa” (presumed to be cannibals) balanced palanquin on their heads, Laplanders frolicked with reindeers, Esquimaux played with their black-snake whips, and the Javanese plaintively struck their onglongs, mourning the dead. Wild-eyed, delirious, over-stimulated, fairgoers could visit the World’s Congress of Beauties (“Forty ladies from 40 nations”) or Hagenbeck’s Trained Animal Show or the Ottoman Hippodrome, where dromedaries raced. Also on the Midway, strong-man Bernarr MacFadden tested out his exercise machines, a nineteen-year-old named Ehrich Weiss, half of the Brothers Houdini, presided over bewildered crowds, and Farida Mazhar, the “Bewitching Bellyrina,” swiveled her hips for ogling millions, while trapeze artists spun invisible webs high overhead. Tethered by a line, a wind-lashed Captive Balloon provided many daredevils with their first experience of flight. But the fair’s most popular draw was the Ferris Wheel. The world’s first, it was gargantuan, with cars as big as buses and weighing nearly three million pounds. Every day, visitors charged the ticket booth, waiting in lines that stretched the entire length of the Midway, anxious to secure the best seat. On a clear day, it was said, from the top of the wheel, you could see Timbuktoo.
By mid-autumn, the reindeers and the laughing hyenas and the dancing Coryphies and the belly dancers were all shipped home, the Ferris Wheel was dismantled and crated to St. Louis to be reused in the 1904 exposition, the giant cheese moldered, the chocolate Venus de Milo was devoured, the synchronized clocks were silenced, the colored lights shut off, the waterways were drained, and, little by little, the Midway turned back into mud, and soon arsonists set fire to the abandoned white palaces, and the ink-black smoke plumed up, up.