Chicago's Two World's Fairs

Two world’s fairs. Forty years apart. The year 2023 marks the 130th and 90th anniversaries of the World’s Columbian Exposition and the A Century Of Progress Exposition, both hosted in Chicago. Intended to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Americas, the World’s Columbian Exposition showcased new technology, fine art, horticulture, transportation advances, and displays from participating countries and US states. Four decades later, the A Century of Progress Exposition came to symbolize hope for Chicago’s and America’s future during the Great Depression. However, both fairs were marred by problematic representations of different cultures or a lack of representation of African Americans, women, other marginalized groups, and much of the world.

From May to October, CHM will cover several topics related to the fairs, from religious representation to transportation innovations to discourse around cultural erasure. We’ll also examine how the two fairs have affected the Museum’s collecting practices.

i025158_pm Bird's-eye view of the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. American Fine Art Co. CHM, ICHi-025158
i061640_pm Night view of the dedication of the World's Columbian Exposition world's fair on State Street, Chicago, Oct. 21, 1892. CHM, ICHi-0616403
i040939 Cover of the booklet "The reason why the colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition: The Afro-American's contribution to Columbian literature," by Ida B. Wells. CHM, ICHi-040939
i031117_pm Northerly Island and lagoon at the A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, Sept. 9, 1933. CHM, ICHi-031117
hb02271b_pm The Burlington Zephyr at the A Century of Progress Exposition, 1933. HB-02271-B, CHM, Hedrich-Blessing Collection
DN-A-1563_pm View of the Native American Village at A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933. DN-A-1563, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, CHM.

The Souvenirs and Stories of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

CHM curator of religion and community history Rebekah Coffman writes about CHM’s collection of souvenirs contemporary to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and how they inform the stories we tell today.


Ida B. Wells at the World's Columbian Exposition

As an activist, educator, and journalist, Ida B. Wells is the ultimate amplifier. In 1893, she protested the exclusion of African Americans from exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition. With contributions by Frederick Douglass, Irvine Garland Penn, and Ferdinand Lee Barnett, Wells published the pamphlet, “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition” and circulated 10,000 copies during the last three months of the fair. The pamphlet is addressed “To the seeker after truth” and contains essays, data, and photographs, with a topical focus on lynching, the prison system, and injustice within the legal system in the 28 years after slavery ended in the United States.


Poland’s Independent Presence at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE), Polish Chicagoans supported their homeland‘s participation despite colonizing empires, mainly Russia and Germany, resisting an independent Polish presence. Polish artists, musicians, and industrialists still displayed and performed for an international audience.


Commemorating 130 Years of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Chicago welcomed the convening of the Parliament of the World’s Religions at McCormick Place from August 14–18, 2023. CHM curator of religion and community history Rebekah Coffman writes about the event’s origins and its legacy as the genesis of the interfaith movement.


“What shall I wear at the World’s Fair in Chicago?”

CHM research and insights analyst Marissa Croft writes about the gap in experience between high society dress and visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition who traveled in from all over the world to attend.


Take me to the Fair

CHM is home to South Side Rapid Transit L car no. 1, which belonged to the line that transported people from the Loop to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Jackson Park. At the time, the city’s L trains were steam-powered, but technology was quickly changing. The electrically powered Columbian Intramural Railway was demonstrated at the world’s fair, and by 1897, Chicago’s elevated railways were operating electrically. With the advancement of the multiple unit control, L car no. 1 was converted from a locomotive-hauled coach to an electrified, self-propelled rail car, and it ran until its retirement in 1930. L car no. 1 was installed at CHM in January 2006, and we are currently busy cleaning and restoring it.

Southside L train