How did the World’s Fair distort America’s notion of progress?
To imagine the World’s Fair of 1893, one would first have to imagine their most prized act of guilty pleasure, and then ramp it up by a thousand, and imagine it in every direction, inescapable in sight and sound, and feeling. This is what the World’s Fair of 1893 was to a virgin world. This is what it was to a world, for the most part, innocent, and unscathed by the promise of a future of constant pleasure and relentless kicks. It crystallized everything America wanted to become, and influenced pretty much everything it ever came to be. Progress was no longer defined by political and moral innovation, but by technology and ease of use. The World’s Fair of 1893 helped sentence America to a prison of helplessness, desire, and fear.
One way the fair did this was by centering our culture completely around consumerism, justifying it, instilling a sense of pride in it. Household products were given their birth in the fair, many like Cream of Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima syrup, and Juicy Fruit gum. You could go from stand to stand, and consume, and it was all presented with such flair, so you didn’t feel bad as you did it. The concept of consuming was made out to be fun, the “yellow brick road” to happiness. (*The fair actually was one of the prime influences for L. Frank Baum’s Oz). Hamburgers and carbonated soda made their first appearance in the fair, and it’s not like those went anywhere. It was the ideology of consumerism that was sold in the the concessionaires so well. That was the goal of the fair organizers, who were in fact the business owners and tycoons, to intricately and painstakingly sell the ideology of consumerism to an eager audience, while at the same time, promote their own goods. They promoted by making all the different concessions and products on display into a competition, with 1st, 2nd, 3rd prizes being given out to the best products. So the consumers, when buying the goods, could know, “oh, this won 1st place at the worlds fair, it’s gotta be good”. This is exactly what we see today with events like CES.
The architecture was so grand and epic in it’s Beaux-arts style, that one could not help but be baffled by its scope. The whole thing was a big show, almost like a strange dream. But the thing about this particular dream was that it was real and tangible, and promised that, one day, it could become reality, that it could come true with the aid of technology. The whole fair was a dream of “pleasure-town”, the same dream that America has been straining for ever since.The architecture surely was a big scam, in that it shamelessly imitated the Greeks and gave off a false scent of culture, and knowledge. The real scent of affairs was only a couple miles westward into the heart of the real America. The pit of a hell that was Chicago. The stench there was the smell the fair-goers, in a world of truth, should’ve witnessed. At the time, Chicago was an industrial cauldron. Smoke billowed from factories. Slaughtered livestock were tossed everywhere, into the rivers, streets, and lake. Fires were a plenty, taking dozens of lives per day. Machines were imperfect, loosely regulated, and unpredictable. Trains killed 2 people a day, drawbridges failed and dragged cars into the river. Horse carriages ran free into the streets causing frequent jams and accidents. Dead animals heaped into the streets, and excrement was everywhere. Working conditions matched the streets in their dread and uncleanliness. This was industry. This is what lent itself to the World’s Fair and the dream of a future it promised. This was progress. But these were sights the world audience never witnessed, as brilliantly orchestrated by the fairs organizers. Instead, the magnifying glass was placed directly on everything good in the situation, which was the relentless pace of industry and progress, and filtered out everything else- the yucky stuff, the death, disease, murder, and general human suffering that was the true cost of all this progress.
And who were the organizers? Who created this dream, this circus? As I’ve mentioned before, it was all schemingly crafted by the corporations, the business owners, the tycoons. This fair was no tribute to Columbus, it was a glorified advertisement for the latest and greatest. At the fair, entertainment and culture embodied itself not in noble arts, but in kicks and tricks, prostitution, and exploitation. This was seen with Wild Bill’s Wild West Show, which brought in acts making entertainment out of poor, ravaged native cultures, so the whole world could be amused by their primitiveness and feel a sense of pride in sophistication and power. National pride was instilled through the mythologization of gun-slinging heroes, as large knives became national symbols, as with the story of the Alamo, and Boone’s knife. Entertainment became an outlet to berate the idea of foreignness, and fill the balloon of national pride. Models of the Eiffel Tower and St. Peter’s Basilica, and other famous world monuments were on display. This kind of strategy is seen everywhere today, from Disneyworld, to Las Vegas. Concentrating the world into rides and thrills in one place, with one ticket! In fact, the World’s Fair came as the greatest inspiration for Walt Disney.
Perhaps the greatest weapon at the Fair’s disposal was electricity. Electricity was displayed in a grand showcase of elegant lights, powered by the massive generators also for viewing of the public. It was not only a glorious sight, but a symbol to the public of a bright technological future. With the lights of the fair, any doubts of industrialism and frightening technology were dispelled. It was a symbol of embracement. Finally, something to solve all of our problems! Technology. That’s what happened. National faith, from then on, was placed in technology, and that it would eventually sort out any issues. Agrarianism was dead. The world was finally ready for machines. From this fair, a drive for the sake of progress was born in the hearts of Americans. Progress was now defined by how nifty your steel-splitter 3000 was in contrast to how nifty the 2000 model was the previous year. Progress became an ideology, a mere tool for uniting a nation under less than humane corporate motives.
With a positive impact or not, the World’s Fair of 1893 was a pivotal moment in U.S history. It brought public attention towards technology, and radically influenced consumer culture. With it, progress in the traditional sense of politics and morals was abandoned, and technological advancement became the main idea associated with the word.
—this artist, Barbara Kruger, is a big fan of taking a slash at consumerism, so that fits well with my tone.