Last month when I was visiting my mom, she was very much in a mode of dispossessing herself of stuff around the house, and we found ourselves one evening going through a bookcase upstairs. We came across a musty-smelling, odd-sized tome entitled
The Dream City
A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition
This was the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 that served as the backdrop for Erik Larson’s The Devil in White City. I started this book sometime last winter, but left it in the seat pocket of an airplane, and haven’t yet acquired a replacement. It’s a selection of my online book club in the near future, though, so I’ll have to get back to it.
In the meantime, I’ll get the flavor of the time, perhaps better than even Larson did, by immersion in this photographic tour of the Exposition. The book has to have come to us from my great-grandparents, who lived in Waukegan during that era and surely would have attended at some point. The pictures in the book disclose a history of a remarkable, opulent undertaking featuring incredible structures and idiosyncratic exhibits. But most delightful in this book is the text accompanying the pictures, which, in its grandiose diction, whacked-out syntax and perhaps unintended candor, is incredibly entertaining. I presume that this book is an official publication of the Fair, but the author of the text, confident that he won’t be edited, takes a blogger’s license in his prose. I’ll just have to give you some examples. The binding is fragile and disintegrating, but I’ll try to scan some representative pages.
THE WOMAN’S BUILDING - Great interest attached to the fact that Congress authorized a “Board of Lady Managers” and gave them a Woman’s Building. The erection of this novel structure was entrusted to Miss Sophia Hayden, architect, of Boston. It is considered noteworthy that the female sex, celebrated for its love of ornament, placed in Jackson Park the plainest of its buildings.
GRAND PLAZA ON CHICAGO DAY - Monday, October 9, 1893…We look southeast across the Plaza and Basin, and the reader is to know that all the buildings, all the plazas, the island, the boats, the restaurants, and Midway Plaisance were thus engorged with humanity. The most terrifying music of China could this day be wreaked on the patrons of the Celestial Theatre, for there was nowhere to go to escape it.
THE GOLDEN DOORWAY OF THE TRANSPORTATION BUILDING - …It may be inferred that the architects, in producing these rich geometrical effects, were inspired by Wagner’s music. But whether there be or be not any practical relation between music and decoration, the people gave the seal of approval to the “Golden Doorway” … and Wagnerians who spoke in riddles, and the masses, who used shorter words, alike admired and praised the work.
THE PERSIAN SWORD-DANCE - The engraving presents two public entertainers who, with saber and shield, and in the presence of a referee, pass, posture and belay each other to the music of drum and pipe. … the civilized Caucasian finds but small satisfaction in the efforts of the Asian to be interesting and entertaining. … the dances and music of the Far East went begging on Midway Plaisance. The reason was easily found in the monotony and ear-piercing nature of the music to which all dancing must be done. It may be admitted that there was a peculiar rhythm to the Turkish drums, and a certain minor roulade in the pipe-tunes; but the unceasing repetition of these sounds, with the attendant misery to the hearer of an increasing tempo as the dance progressed, drove away the “Christian,” and kept him at a wise distance.
THE OSTRICHES - a learned lecturer, standing among a company of twenty-three full-grown Californian ostriches, expatiated on the habits of his great birds with undiminishing success. His solemn statements concerning the high development of female rights in ostrich communities were a never-ending source of satisfaction to the ladies and a matter of profound astonishment to all husbands. the self-forgetfulness of Ostrich, the pater familias, in building the nest, obtaining food, setting on the eggs a stretch of sixteenhours, while the mother sets but eight, and other subjugations of the male were recounted with a fidelity which was deemed to be dangerousy near to treachery by all prudent men.