the inflection point of 1893 – 12/20/21

Today's selection -- from The Last American Aristocrat by David S. Brown. The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, made such an impact on those who visited it that many felt, as political commentator Henry Adams did, that it “represented a definite turn in American if not global civilization”:

"In 1893 Adams traveled twice to Chicago, eager to absorb the World's Columbian Exposition, a six-month celebration commemorating the four-hundred-year anniversary of Columbus's arrival in the New World. Extolling America's power and progress barely a generation removed from the Civil War, the fair featured a hastily built plaster 'White City' of exhibits that spilled over Jackson Park and into the adjoining Midway Plaisance. An incredible twenty-seven million visi­tors from around the world passed through its ornate gates. Henry had come to Chicago believing that the city, the industrial capital of the ascendant Midwest, the country's dominant political region following the collapse of the old southern plantocracy, represented a definite turn in American if not global civilization. It combined the country's lib­eral, democratic qualities with an unprecedented technological prow­ess that pointed toward a new chapter in human history. Meditating some years later on the Exposition's importance, he wrote, 'Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time whether the American people knew where they were driving .... Chicago was the first expression of Amer­ican thought as unity; one must start there.'

"By 'unity' Adams supposed Chicago to be the epitome of the dynamic urban-immigrant-industrial process coming to define the nation's surging metropolitan areas. The country's fourth-largest city in 1880, it more than doubled in population to some one million by 1890, second only to New York; fully three-quarters of its residents were the offspring of foreign-born parents. Chicago's rapid rise, its questionable distinction as the roiling center of newly erected mills and machine shops littered about a thick brick forest of foundries, received a boost when the city, following a fierce competition with New York and St. Louis, won the right to host the Exposition. Ostensibly a quadricentennial of America's accomplishments, one could easily have interpreted the fair more narrowly as a tribute to nineteenth-century industrial development, or still more precisely as a coming-out party for its host. Barely two decades earlier (1871) the Chicago Fire had ravaged over three square miles of the city, left more than 100,000 homeless, and gutted much of the central business district; some three hundred per­ished. The October blaze, its exact cause unknown, followed a summer drought and originated near a barn belonging to Catherine and Pat­rick O'Leary in an area choked with wooden buildings. An enterpris­ing reporter for the Chicago Republican claimed the O'Leary's cow had kicked over a lantern and started the inferno, though he later owned up to the fib. In the fire's aftermath arrived the new Chicago, a bank­ing, commerce, and manufacturing phoenix; its buildings, insinuat­ing the architectural imagination of Louis Sullivan, were scaffolded by iron and steel and soared high above whatever indifferent infrastruc­ture had survived the flames. This birth of the skyscraper, a mechanical civilization's reply to the pyramids of Giza and the medieval Towers of Bologna, announced the city as an avatar of a coming age.

"Not everyone, of course, appreciated the extraordinary energy emanating from Chicago. The British writer Rudyard Kipling, like Henry an inveterate global traveler, condemned the city's empha­sis on dollar-chasing in a teasing piece, 'How I Struck Chicago, and How Chicago Struck Me: Of Religion, Politics, and Pig-Sticking, and the Incarnation of the City among Shambles,' written shortly after the Exposition ended. 'This place is the first American city I have encoun­tered,' he confessed, before hastily adding, 'I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages .... They told me to go to the Palmer House [hotel] which is a gilded and mirrored rabbit-warren, and there I found a huge hall of tessellate marble, crammed with people talking about money and spitting about everywhere.' The Italian poet and playwright Giuseppe Giacosa also toured America and, much like Adams, saw in Chicago the incarnation of a fresh civilization: 'I think that whoever ignores it is not entirely acquainted with our century and of what it is the ultimate expression.' The nature of that expression caused Giacosa to think that 'the dominant characteristic of the exte­rior life of Chicago is violence.' ...

"One could not hope to find continuity in Chicago, [Adams wrote,] for the city represented nothing so much as a pronounced 'rupture in his­torical sequence!' Eager to identify the forces behind this upending of the old cosmic order, Adams designated the Exposition a celebration of the 'watt,' the 'ampère,' and the 'erg,' units of energy that symbolized, both literally and metaphorically, the harnessing of hitherto untapped physical and chemical resources."



David S. Brown


The Last American Aristocrat




Copyright 2020 by David S. Brown


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