“America’s Great World’s Fairs”; A New Book Idea

By Mark Anthony Wilson


My Great Aunt Katie got married on the first Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. She said her wedding vows in a Pullman railroad car suspended between two giant hoops of steel, as it swayed gently in the breeze 260 feet above the teeming Midway, with the blue waters of Lake Michigan shimmering in the distance. Tens of thousands of other couples did the same thing that year. Millions of American families have their own enchanting stories about ancestors who attended a world’s fair, or have vivid memories of going to such an event themselves. 

I believe a richly-illustrated, well-researched book on the ten greatest American world’s fairs would find a large and ready audience. These fairs are worthy of attention for two reasons. First, each of these ten events left an indelible imprint on the American character. The Ferris Wheel, the Midway, the ice cream cone, the monorail, the television broadcast of a live event, the escalator, the all-electric kitchen, the computer-controlled office building, and the talking robot were all American creations that were first shown to the American public at one of these world’s fairs. Second, these fairs have left a physical legacy in each of the cities that held them. Many of the structures and sites still existing from world’s fairs are among the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. The Space Needle in Seattle, the Palace of Fine Arts and surrounding Marina District in San Francisco, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Art Institute in Chicago, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, the Parachute Drop in New York’s Coney Island, and “It’s a Small World” ride in Disneyland, are all remnants from a world’s fair.

World’s Fairs have been a unique phenomenon in American history. These events have left a colorful and much-loved legacy, both physical and cultural, in the cities where they were held. Historians have calculated that over 100,000,000 living Americans have attended at least one of the World’s Fairs held in the United States, and most have fond memories of these events.. The popularity of films and books with World’s Fair themes is evidence of the enduring fascination millions of educated citizens have with this topic. The book “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson, a historical novel set during the Columbian Exposition of 1893, was on the New York Times best seller list for more than 6 months, and is now in its fourth printing and continues to sell well. The Hollywood film “Captain America”, had a major scene set on the grounds of the ‘World of Tomorrow” during the New York World’s Fair of 1940. This film grossed nearly $400,000,000 in box office receipts. And E.L. Doctrow’s 1985 autobiographical novel “World’s Fair”, which was set during that same New York World’s Fair, was a on the New York Times best seller list for over 20 weeks, and is still in print. In addition, American world’s fair memorabilia sells very well, as attested to by the sizable number of catalogs and websites devoted to such material. 

Several American cities will be having public events to celebrate the anniversaries of their own World’s Fairs, and the local media will be promoting these events, as well as publicizing the anniversaries of these fairs. These celebrations will include documentaries on local PBS and network news programs; lectures, exhibits, tours, and receptions hosted by local heritage groups at the sites of some of the fairs; and official ceremonies by civic leaders. The list of upcoming anniversaries includes: the 100th. anniversary of the 1915 San Francisco fair in 2015; the 50th. anniversary of the 1964-65 New York fair in 2014-15, the 100th. anniversary of the 1915-16 San Diego fair in 2015-16; the 75th. anniversary of the 1939-40 fairs in New York and San Francisco in 2014-15; the 125th. anniversary of the 1893 Chicago fair in 2018. Each of these events will provide perfect opportunities to create publicity and marketing tie-ins for a new book on the legacy of America’s most important World’s Fairs. No previous American book has documented the rich legacy of these ten great fairs in one volume with both text and photos. Below is my summary of the overall concept for this book, followed by a brief chapter outline. 


There would be a short introduction, explaining what a world’s fair is, why there were so many held in America, and how they differ from other expositions or theme parks. There would be ten chapters, one on each of the great fairs listed below. These chapters would be of varying lengths, but average 20 to 22 pages. Including the bibliography and index, this book would be about 240 pages. Each chapter would begin with a “grabber” image from that fair, such as a new color photo of one of the remaining structures, or a poster or archival image from that event. At the top of the first page of text would be a box, called “The Fair at a Glance”, containing information about that exposition; the official title and theme of the fair, its opening and closing dates, total paid attendance, site and size of the fairgrounds, number of foreign exhibitors, and whether it made a profit or loss. In each chapter there would be about thirty or so illustrations. These would be a combination of new color photography of existing structures or exhibits from that fair, color posters used to promote it, and archival images of its construction or the event itself. The final two pages of each chapter would be a collection of photos of souvenirs from that fair, with brief descriptions of each item. Thus, there would be a total of about 300 images in this book, about 200 color images and 100 black-and-white images. I would plan to work with Joel Puliatti on the new color photography, since he did a superb job on my book about Bernard Maybeck. 



The United States decided to put on its first major international exposition to celebrate the nation’s centennial. Several revolutionary inventions were first displayed at this fair, including: the telephone, the typewriter, an elevated railway line, and a steam- powered dynamo. The legacy of this exposition includes the Statue of Liberty, whose hand and torch were on display there to raise money for its completion. The remnants of this fair include several fountains, statues and two exhibit halls remaining in Fairmount Park, the site of the exposition and one of the largest urban open spaces in America. 



The Columbian Exposition, as this fair was officially called, was by far the largest public event ever held in the United States, in terms of attendance. Nearly 28,000,000 visitors came to see a breath-taking panorama of American ingenuity on the threshold of the 20th. century. The array of newly-invented technical marvels that were displayed in the main fairgrounds, called “White City” was remarkable: the Ferris Wheel, the movie projector, searchlights, electric launches, an escalator, a gasoline-powered automobile, all-electric public buildings, and a monorail, to name a few. Equally impressive were the attractions from around the world on view in the first Midway, the most famous of which was the first belly-dancer in America, Little Egypt. The legacy of this fair includes the origins of neo-Classis Beaux-Arts style public buildings in America, the Colonial Revival style for homes, and Japanese architectural design influences. Remnants of this fair include: the Chicago Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry and Lagoon in Jackson Park, several major artifacts from the fairgrounds now displayed at the Chicago Historical Society, including the room Abraham Lincoln died in and Christopher Columbus’s house; and the Midway greenbelt that runs through the University of Chicago campus. 



Besides being the inspiration for a charming song and later a wonderful movie with the above title, the Lewis and Clark Expedition brought us one of America’s most delightful inventions---the ice cream cone. This was the largest exposition in size ever held in the U.S., and was the first event at which the public heard their voices transmitted over a wireless machine; the forerunner of radio. This fair was also the first time that the public saw airplanes and dirigibles demonstrated. Besides these important developments, the legacy of this fair includes the first Olympic Games hosted by the United States, and several major exhibit halls that are now part of the campus of Washington University. 



The Panama Pacific Exposition was intended to be a grand celebration of San Francisco’s recovery from the ashes of the 1906 earthquake, and it succeeded beyond its promoter’s wildest dreams. Almost 19,000,000 people attended this fair. Though World War One had already begun by the time the exposition opened, several European nations participated, even as their homelands were being devastated by modern warfare, which lent a poignant air to their exhibits. However, most fairgoers concentrated on the exquisite beauty of the fairgrounds, which were the first to use colored lighting on all of the main buildings. The tallest edifice yet built at any American fair, the 433-foot Tower of Jewels, was literally breathtaking in its beauty when it was lit up at night. The legacy of this fair includes the Marina District, built on the landfill used for the fairgrounds, and the Palace of Fine Arts and Lagoon, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States.



Designed to be a companion event to San Francisco’s 1915 fair, the Panama-California Exposition was the first major American fair profitable enough to run for two years. The principal buildings at the fair were all in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, inspired by California’s recently restored Spanish missions. This fair celebrated America’s cultural legacy from Latin America long before such heritage was emphasized by journalists and politicians. The legacy of this fair includes one of America’s most beautiful urban open spaces, Balboa Park, which was the site of the fairgrounds, and several major exhibit halls which now house ethnic, science, and art museums, as well as a highly-respected Shakespearean Theater. 



The Century of Progress Exposition, which celebrated Chicago’s centennial as a city, was most remarkable for the fact that despite being held in the trough of the Great Depression, it ran for two years and attracted nearly 49,000,000 visitors in paid attendance, as well as turning a tidy profit. The exhibit halls were all brightly-colored versions of the Art Deco style, and incorporated such innovations as a domed suspension roof and aluminum wall panels. Attractions at this fair ran from Sally Rand’s notorious fan dance to the world’s first sky ride, with gondolas crossing 628 feet above the fairgrounds. The main legacy of this fair was the glimpse it gave average Americans of the workings of modern scientific manufacturing methods, including the assembly line and interchangeable parts. The fair’s remnants include Miggs Field airport, built on landfill used for the fairgrounds, and the second-most popular museum in the United States, the Museum of Science and Industry, which was installed in the restored palace of Fine Arts Building from the 1893 fair.



No other public event in American history so thoroughly lived up to its billing as did this fair, which promised to show visitors “The World of Tomorrow”. The fair opened with the first commercial television broadcast ever, a brief speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the fairgrounds. Families got a preview of what life would be like in postwar America when they toured the Town of Tomorrow, with its rows of detached, mass-produced ranch houses sporting all-electric kitchens. A talking robot, Billy Rose’s Aquacade with Esther Williams, and a chance to “see yourself on TV’ were among the most popular attractions. The symbols of the fair were the 700-foot-tall Trylon, and the Perisphere which housed a working scale model of a “city of the future” circa 1960. By the time the fair entered its second year, Europe was at war with Nazi Germany, and many of the visiting exhibitors were unable to return to their native countries and were spied on by enemy agents at the fair. The legacy of this fair was an optimistic view of the future through the scientific and technological advances that would improve the lives of millions of Americans, and the beginning of the United Nations which met for its first ten years in the New York State exhibit building on the former fairgrounds. Remnants of the fair include that building, Flushing Meadows Park, and the steel tower of the Parachute Jump at Coney Island. 



The Golden Gate Exposition was held to celebrate the completion of the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay bridges, and was the first American fair at which all the major nations of the Pacific Rim participated. It was staged on Treasure Island, a man-made island in the middle of the bay built by the Army Corps of Engineers in a remarkably short time. The buildings were all symbolic of Pacific cultures, with massive Art Deco motifs, and were illuminated by newly-invented fluorescent tubes and ultra-violet lamps in deep, rich hues. The most popular attractions were Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, and the epic show called “Pageant of the Pacific”, that featured real steam locomotives and stage coaches. The main legacy of this fair was the beginning of increased cultural and economic ties with Pacific Rim nations, and the first trans-Pacific commercial flights which took off from Treasure Island during the fair. The fair’s remnants include several exhibit buildings that house murals and artifacts on Treasure Island, as well as dozens of giant statues from the Court of the Pacific that are on public display.



Officially dubbed the “Century 21 Exposition”, the Seattle World’s Fair made a bold declaration to the world of America’s intention to forge ahead in the frontiers of space exploration, as symbolized by the elegant 600-foot Space Needle. Though occupying the smallest site of any North American world’s far, this was one of the best-planned, most practical expositions, since the main exhibit buildings were designed to be of permanent use to the city as a center for performing arts and an amusement park. It was also one of the few American expositions to return a healthy profit. The legacy of this fair was an increased public commitment to space exploration, and technological research. Besides more than a dozen buildings on the fairgrounds, the remnants of this exposition include the monorail which runs from downtown Seattle to the fair site, and is still heavily used by tourists and residents alike.



The theme of the New York World’s Fair of 1964 was supposed to be “Peace Through Understanding”, and yet this exposition was dominated by the many highly sophisticated corporate exhibits which emphasized the wonders of modern electronics. The Electric Utility Companies’ Pavilion, the “Tower of Light” was built of 600 aluminum prisms reflecting the warm glow of electric lights every night, and the Pepsi Cola and General Electric pavilions featured electronic models of fairy tale characters telling stories. The IBM exhibit presented a gigantic, 17-screen film demonstrating how computers process information in much the same way the human brain does. By far the most popular and innovative attraction at this fair was the one Walt Disney built for the Ford Pavilion, in which eerily life-like robots of famous figures from American history, such as Abraham Lincoln, talked to audiences about their legacy. There was also political controversy at the fair, when the Congress of Racial Equality protested the small number of minorities hired for the exposition, and heckled President Johnson’s speech on opening day. The legacy of this fair was that its heavy corporate sponsorship served as the inspiration and prototype for such modern corporate theme parks as Disney World and Epcot Center in Florida, and Marriot’s Great America. Remnants of the fair include the giant Unisphere globe at the Flushing Meadows Park site, and several Disney attractions relocated to Disneyland and Disneyworld, including “Meet Mr. Lincoln” and “It’s a Small World”.


If any viewers of this website know of any images or material they believe would be appropriate to include within the context of a book on America’s Great World’s Fairs, or have any contacts with publishers or editors who might be interested in producing such a book, please contact me via either this website, my personal email at markw@aol.com , or my voice mail at (510) 273-9383.