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The Columbian Exhibition and Chris Ware

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We’re actually in Chicago for a wedding, soaking in the sights. Chicago is, of course, a great town in general and a great comics town as well, home to some of the greatest ‘tooners working and great shops like Chicago Comics. After staying in Rosemont for years, it’s a thrill to actually visit downtown and some real neighborhoods.

While soaking in the great architecture we’re reminded of Chicago native resident Chris Ware, who has mentioned he was influenced by images of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, a vastly influential cultural event of the day, and other great Chicago exhibitions of the turn of the century.

The Exposition covered more than 600 acres, featuring nearly 200 new buildings of European architecture, canals and lagoons, and people and cultures from around the world. Over 27 million people (about half the U.S. population) attended the Exposition over the six months it was open. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world fairs of the time, and became a symbol of then-emerging American Exceptionalism, much in the same way that the The Great Exhibition became a symbol of the Victorian era United Kingdom.

Of the hundreds of buildings erected for the Exhibit, only one remains standing — they were all only temporary buildings, and despite their splendor, were never meant to last. In addition, most of the fair burned down in 1894 in a fire possibly set by striking Pullman workers. And in a final lugubrious note, the closing ceremonies were cancelled when the mayor of Chicago was assassinated two days before the close.

You can see how both the Beaux Arts architecture and fleeting nature of the exhibit would have appeal to Ware. There are several online galleries of contemporary photos, however — you can see one here.

More: Wikipedia

  1. For an even queasier angle on the Columbian Exhibition than Jimmy Corrigan, read The Beast of Chicago: The Murderous Career of H H Holmes, part of Rick Geary’s series A Treasury of Victorian Murder. It’s about a real-life serial killer who found visitors to the Exhibition to be ideal victims.

  2. FYI, Ware isn’t a Chicago native. He was born in Omaha (which happened to have its own expo in 1898, but it nowhere near as big as Chicago’s). Both are impressive for the amount of temporary construction that was made.

  3. Seeing as I just read DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (a fantastic read and highly recommended), I’ll add my two cents and say there is no evidence whatsoever that Holmes used the grounds of the fair to find victims, however he did in fact take more than one young lady there that was never to be heard from again. What was it they said on Reading Rainbow? “To learn more, read DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson!” And no, it’s not “Larsen” there’s no additional comic connection to be had with the author.

    But indeed Chicago is a great place to visit, and this time of year is just about the best, in my eyes. I’m a bit shocked to see The Beat didn’t mention that the one remaining building from the fair is now known as….The Field Museum.

    The fair is also notable for an engineer with a crazy idea for a ride for folks to take, and also where part-owner Frederick Pabst’s beer won the competition for America’s best beer (the prize of course being a blue ribbon).

    Oh how I love stories of this era. I guess I’ll read Larson’s THUNDERSTRUCK next which also sounds fascinating….

  4. Saw Larson speak in Portland this year at a symposium my grad program sponsored. One of the few celebrities I esteem highly enough to be nervous to meet in person! I find it intersting that Ware and Larson are each into the Exposition, seeing as how they’ve each fueled my own work and interests. As for me, my own souvenier collecting skews more toward the mid-20th century. I’m staring at my ’62 World’s Fair Space Needle ashtray as I type this, a handy desk trinket for holding paperclips.

  5. Dr. Worm is correct. Mr. Ware is from the Great State of Nebraska. (We patronized the same comicbookstore, The Dragon’s Lair.) As with most famous Midlanders, he had to move elsewhere to become famous.
    As for Chicago, take an architecture tour, either in Oak Park or Downtown. The new Millenium Park is spectacular, the Washington Library is fantastic, and the Picasso, well, it should be the symbol of the city.
    To understand the Second City, read any of Mike Royko’s columns, or his book, Boss.

  6. If you wish to see an example of the Columbian Exposition, many of the craftsmen were employed by the Library Of Congress in the construction of the Jefferson Building,completed in 1898. It is one of the great secrets of the District of Columbia, with lots of treasures (including a world class collection of comics illustrations)!

  7. “the one remaining building from the fair is now known as….The Field Museum.”

    Actually, the building you’re thinking of is now known as the Museum of Science and Industry. The Field Museum used to be there but it moved out decades ago.

  8. There is more than one building remaining from the fair. The Norway is in Blue Mounds, WI and the Maine is in Poland Spring, ME.

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