Monday, September 6, 2010

The Century of Progress: Chicago, 1933

A couple of days ago, I was looking for something on my bookshelves when I got waylaid by a couple of books I had inherited from my Dad when he passed away a couple of years ago.  The first book was entitled, "The Official Pictures of A Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago 1933."  The book was the glossy souvenir book offered at the Exposition for those "take home" memories.  The second, a book of the same title, was a series of watercolor paintings of scenes from the Exposition.

My father visited the Exposition when he was eleven-years old - and he never forgot it.  The Century of Progress was a marvelous display of the latest in technology and architecture.  Just 40 years earlier, Chicago had hosted the World's Columbian Exposition, the so-called White City.  The 1933 Exposition was deliberately designed to be the opposite of the White City.  The architecture of the buildings was entirely modern rather than classical.  The buildings were painted in vibrant colors rather than a monochrome white, engendering the name "The Rainbow City".  The Exposition intended to look forward, not back. The motto of the fair, "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms", was intended to be uplifting, even if today it carries more Orwellian connotations.

Despite the efforts to differentiate it, the 1933 Century of Progress had a lot in common with its earlier predecessor. Both expositions were held in the middle of a severe economic depression.  Both attempted to put on a brave face and look past the tough times.  Both were mostly compendiums of artifacts displaying what mankind had created. Both featured a major ride to awe the visitors (the Ferris Wheel in 1893 and the Sky Ride in 1933).  Both were built on the Lake Michigan shoreline and featured a Midway for amusement to complement the educational displays.  Most of all, both were proud proclamations by the City of Chicago showing that it was the leading industrial city in America.

Given that only 40 years had elapsed between the two expositions, many people could certainly have attended both.  But the differences between those two fairs were astounding. In 1893, automobiles were only in their earliest infancy.  By 1933, some of the largest pavilions were built by GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  In 1893, electricity had barely begun to be available in most homes and businesses.  By 1933, it was becoming ubiquitous.  The list goes on to include airplanes, radio, talking motion pictures, and the first experiments in television. There were clearly more technology changes in the 40 years between 1893 and 1933 than there were in the next 40 years from 1933 to 1973.

When I look at the photos of both of these past expositions, I lament how little of them remains.  Like the White City, the Rainbow City of 1933 - 1934 was quickly torn down after The Century of Progress Exposition was finished. Maybe that is as it should be.  Having visited Epcot at Disney World many times over the years, the excitement of the exhibitions begins to fade with repetition. I would guess that much of what was created for the 1933 Exposition was eventually destroyed.  That's a pity given the number of museum-quality displays and diorama that were built for the Exposition.

In 1933, the World's Fair was called The Century of Progress. In 2010, the World's Fair in Shanghai is called Expo 2010 - but it could easily be called The Century of Progress.  So far, every year marks a century of advancement. Given our current world problems, let's hope it stays that way.


First two are photos of my book jackets.
Second two from Wikipedia

Further Exploration:

Internet Archive film: Wings of a Century (1933). This is a 13 minute silent film but gives a good feeling for the Exposition.
University of Illinois at Chicago Photo Archive. About 1400 still shots taken at the Expostion.

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