What the World’s Columbian Exposition Meant for African Americans and the Role that Commerce Played in the Development of the City of Chicago
The World’s Columbian Exposition, which was a fair in 1893 that commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America, meant much for Chicagoans since it would allow the city to gain much needed revenue for the city which had endured a fire more than two decades ago in 1871. In addition, the fair promised Chicago the exposure that it needed to place much of the aspects of the American culture on display to the world. Chicago became the host for the fair after vying for competing with cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, Missouri (“The World’s Columbian Exposition,” par. 1). Although it can be argued that the World's Columbian Exposition was to highlight Columbian's 400th anniversary, and to place focus on the host of the fair, the World's Columbian Exposition 1893 hosted by Chicago underscored both the positive and negative aspects of the city because it illustrated the important role that commerce played in the development of the city of Chicago and it showed the racial inequality being experienced by African Americans living in this city.
As mentioned previously, Chicago won the right to host the fair in 1893, and beat cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, Missouri. Chicago prepared for the fair by allowing exhibitors to put on display consumer products that are now prominent today. Some of these products include Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Pabst Beer, Aunt Jemima Syrup and Juicy Fruit Gum (“World’s Columbian Exposition: The Legacy of the Fair” par. 5). These products were placed prominently in the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building (“World’s Columbian Exposition: The Legacy of the Fair” par. 5). Moreover, the fair played an instrumental role in introducing “two staples” of the modern American diet—“carbonated sodas and hamburgers” (World’s Columbian Exposition: The Legacy of the Fair” par. 5). These foods products that were introduced to the American public at the World’s Columbian Exposition mirrored the advances that Chicago had made in improving food production and distribution to its citizens. William Cronon, a historian, explains on the PBS documentary, “Chicago: City of the Century,” that even the waste products of the meat were not thrown away after the butcher was finished cutting and preparing the meat for sale. Cronon mentioned that scientists were hired to figure out how to transform the material into “soap or buttons or new forms of meat that had never been sold before” (“American Experience: Chicago: City of the Century, p. 2). The narrator added that waste products from the meat-packing industry in Chicago, for instance, were used to create “hair stuffed cushions,” “combs,” and even “Jell-o” (“American Experience: Chicago: City of the Century, p. 2).
On the other hand, there are those who argue that although the World’s Columbian Exposition showcased the advances that were made in Chicago as it relates to commerce, the preparation and staging of the fair underscored the fact that the city had issues pertaining to racial relations. Robert Rydell in his article, “World’s Columbian Exposition (May 1, 1893-October 30, 1893)” mentioned the fact that requests for African Americans to showcase their products at exhibits were “rejected out of hand” by all-white state committees (par. 11). In fact, African-Americans were furious that the fair was corrupted by the politics of “exclusion and tokenism” (Rydell par. 11). Unfortunately, the racist policies promoted by the all-white state committees of the fair assisted in paving the way for “national acceptance of the separate-but-equal” doctrine that would become legalized in 1896 (Rydell par. 11).
In conclusion, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 had helped to showcase Chicago’s advances in the area of commerce, especially in the meat-packing industry. However, the policies used to prepare for and stage the fair helped to expose the lack of progress in the area of racial relations during the post-Emancipation era. In the light of the above, the World’s Columbian Exposition mirrored both positive and negative aspects of Chicago’s citywide culture at the end of the nineteenth century.
PBS. PBS. Web. 29 June 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/chicago/filmmore/pt_2.html>.
“History Files - The World's Columbian Exhibition.” History Files - The World's Columbian Exhibition. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo.html>.
Rydell, Robert. “World's Columbian Exposition.” World's Columbian Exposition. Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2004. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html>.
“World's Columbian Exposition: The Legacy of the Fair.” World's Columbian Exposition: The Legacy of the Fair. Julie K. Rose. Web. 28 June 2015. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma96/wce/legacy.html>.