On May 1, 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago and soon took its place among the magnificent public entertainments of the modern age. The following is an excerpt from Chicago’s Grand Midway, by Norman Bolotin with Christine Laing, a walking tour and history of one of the Exposition’s most celebrated attraction.
Chicago faced an arduous landscape and construction task, not to mention securing foreign and domestic public and private participants with just thirty months to go until the original congressional goal of opening on Columbus Day 1892.
Although many observers cited what they believed to be Chicago’s failure to meet the deadline, any idea of reaching that goal had already been abandoned by the time the city was selected. Instead, the buildings and grounds would be dedicated in October 1892, and the actual opening of the fair would be six months later.
At this stage the Midway Plaisance as a part of the exposition was no more than a lovely boulevard adjacent to the main grounds. It was deemed a logical bit of land to add to the grounds of Jackson Park, but no one was quite sure how to use it as a complement to or a piece of the main fairgrounds.
The Midway Plaisance existed long before Chicago had any thought of hosting a fair. Hyde Park developer Paul Cornell had retained Olmsted, the acknowledged father of American landscape architecture, to develop plans for Washington Park and to consider creating a canal between Washington and Jackson Parks. The canal never came to fruition due to the water table and the relative elevations of the park and Lake Michigan—any such canal would have continually drained into the lake. These plans were developed more than two decades before construction on the fair began. Cornell envisioned the Plaisance as a centerpiece of a new community that would be home to a university and summer retreats for wealthy Chicagoans.
The Great Fire in 1871 put Cornell’s plans on hold, and the Plaisance remained a tree-lined boulevard. By the time the University of Chicago opened it was 1892 and Olmsted was designing the Venetian waterways of the fairgrounds. He developed ambitious and creative ideas to cut, slice, and rearrange the dirt and swamp of Jackson Park into what was arguably the most beautiful world’s fair site of the nineteenth—or any—century. Through it all, the Midway was the subject of much talk and virtually no action.
The Midway was a mile-long arrow pointing to the east and the main fairgrounds—to the Woman’s and Horticulture Buildings at the west edge of the grounds, and on to the main lagoon, Wooded Island, Fisheries Building, and Lake Michigan.
As construction of the fair moved ahead at a hectic pace, the first idea, never fully developed, of how to incorporate the Midway was to lead fairgoers along an ethnographic journey of human evolution as they walked its length to the main grounds. Ethnography was a new scientific discipline, and its preeminent scholar was on the fair’s staff. Frederick Putnam, the director of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, had been appointed the fair’s head of anthropology in January 1891. A condition of his taking the job was that the fair would provide him an ample budget to send crews around the world to collect specimens for display. With the benefit of hindsight, Putnam’s and early science’s rampage through villages and sacred sites around the globe has been justifiably criticized. However, exposition scientific teams did operate under strict guidelines developed for these early anthropologists and ethnologists. The fair developed comprehensive guidelines not only for the handling, labeling, shipping, and display of artifacts but for the conscientious gathering of specimens and respectful treatment of indigenous peoples and their lands. While the crews’ excavation and other processes were not nearly as sophisticated as contemporary work, they paid unusually close attention to any disturbances of the cultures they sought to display.
Thankfully, the early plan for the Midway related to Putnam’s ethnographic work was never realized. It called for visitors entering from the west to walk along a human evolution exhibit from one end of the Midway to the other. They would then enter the main grounds having seen the white Western human at the top of this evolutionary ladder. It was unclear who championed this idea, but the legacy of the fair would have suffered had it been undertaken. The nebulous idea as discussed among fair directors showing early man likened to other primates and moving through the ages, with the height of evolution being—of course—the civilized white man. History likely would have judged the fair and its Midway Plaisance as harshly as those fairs who presented “human zoos” of Africans and others. Fortunately for those who visited the World’s Columbian Exposition, Putnam was too busy to become involved in creating such an exhibit, and instead a young entrepreneur named Sol Bloom rescued the Midway.