The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 attracted more than 20 million visitors to Chicago, as well as hundreds of dignitaries and representatives from nations across the globe. For many of these observers, the Fair reflected what they believed to be a new era in Chicago. Even as critics like William T. Stead described a "Wicked City" of corruption, pollution, and crime, many commentators looked to the Fair--as well as Chicago's acclaimed symphony orchestra and the University of Chicago (opened in 1892)--as evidence of a new level of cultural sophistication. No longer merely a trading post on the western prairie or an expansive manufacturing center devoid of culture or aesthetic charm, Chicago began to appear as a place capable of world-class cultural charms. The event also revealed a prevalent racialized view of the world, exemplified by the distinctions that Exposition planners identified between "high" culture in the White City and "primitive" cultures on the Midway.
The Court of Honor was the architectural showpiece of the exposition. At the right is the Columbian Fountain, designed by Frederick MacMonnies. Machinery Hall is visible behind it, and the Agricultural Building appears at the left. The ensemble of neoclassical palaces and Venetian waterways set a tone of imperial splendor and aesthetic sophistication, which Chicago's fair supporters hoped would counter the city's reputation as commercial center lacking in refinement and high culture.
The center of the exposition was the assembly of titanic buildings around the Basin in the Court of Honor, located approximately where the area between 64th and 66th Streets meets the lake. At the north end of the fairgrounds was the Palace (or Gallery) of Fine Arts, future home of the Field Columbian Museum and now of the Museum of Science and Industry. To the west, between 59th and 60th Street, lay the attractions of the Midway Plaisance, including the first Ferris Wheel.
Organizers of the World's Columbian Exposition invited foreign governments to participate in the fair by building exhibitions that might highlight their nation's cultural, economic, and technological contributions. Exposition organizers published detailed guidelines in 1891, specifying the process that should be followed to plan, construct, and equip these exhibits according to fair regulations and relevant federal law.
The Haitian building at the World's Columbian Exposition served as a platform for Frederick Douglass, who represented Haiti at the fair. Douglass used the visibility of his position, as well as the building's meeting and office facilities, to continue his advocacy of equal rights and his efforts to call attention to the inequities faced by African Americans in the United States.
Some Fair officials envisioned the Midway portion of the Exposition as a lesson in ethnography and human development. The villages created in the Midway were supposed to provide visitors with glimpses of "primitive" cultures, in contrast with "civilization" as presented in the White City. Most visitors, however, went to the Midway not for its alleged anthropological insights, but for entertainment and shopping, enticed by the Ferris Wheel and other attractions and concessions.