In 1892, when Christopher Columbus was still considered a hero, the United States wanted to hold a world’s fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his mis-navigation. Chicago, which existed on the blood of slaughterhouses and continued to rise from the ashes of its Great Fire of 1871, threw in a seemingly hopeless bid that nevertheless beat the more cosmopolitan cities of New York, Washington D.C., and St. Louis. Dedication ceremonies occurred on October 21, 1892, and the public started visiting on May 1, 1893. The Chicago World’s Fair was born.
The Fair attracted one of the first documented serial killers (H.H. Holmes) and witnessed a political assassination (Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr.). Up until its closing ceremonies in October 1893 it gave fairgoers the opportunity to observe the latest groundbreaking inventions. That year, these items were met with wonder and enthusiasm. Today, they blend into the landscape of our modern world.
10. Commemorative Stamps and Coins
In this century, commemorative stamps and coins are commonplace. Very few post office visits or glances into a change jar are without one, and you can blame the frenzy on the Chicago Fair. News of the Fair and America’s excitement about it spread, and the U.S. Post Office jumped on that momentum with its first set of commemorative stamps they called the Columbians. Designed for collection and unusable for mailing, postmaster General John Wanamaker referred to them as “souvenir” stamps.
Commemorative coins arose from a similar fundraising idea. To celebrate the Fair’s opening and Columbus’ anniversary, the U.S. Mint issued a half-dollar with a profile picture of the explorer, predictably named the Columbian half-dollar. First sketches of the design generated controversy because historians and enthusiasts considered the picture inaccurate, but a portrait was eventually agreed on.
9. Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit
Chewing gum wasn’t a new invention, but it wasn’t yet being mass-produced. William Wrigley, Jr., a soap and baking powder salesman, handed out gum to his customers as an incentive to buy his products. He discovered the candy was more popular than his wares, so he started mass-producing chewing gum in 1892. Juicy Fruit was the first featured flavor — Wrigley revealed it to enthusiastic Fair attendees right before introducing Wrigley’s Spearmint. More than 100 years later, Juicy Fruit remains the favorite brand of chewing gum in the United States and is sold all over the world.
8. Pabst Blue Ribbon
The punch line of every beer snob joke started from humble beginnings in 1844, but it didn’t become a blue ribbon favorite until it hit the national stage at the Fair. German immigrant Jacob Best started brewing the well-known lager under the name Empire Brewery in Milwaukie, Wisconsin. It became Phillip Best Company after his son took it over, and later it became Pabst Brewing Company in 1889.
The signature beer of Pabst, Best Select, won ribbons at local and state fairs, but company president Gustave Pabst had greater ambitions. He entered the Best Select in the Fair’s brewing competition, where it won yet another blue ribbon. From that point the name changed to Pabst Blue Ribbon, and the brew for the budget-wary has stayed in popular culture ever since.
7. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix
Drenched in overtones unacceptable by today’s standards, the original Aunt Jemima was Nancy Green, a slave born on November 11, 1817. Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood were owners of Pearl Milling Company and developed a packaged self-rising pancake flour. He named it Aunt Jemima after a black-face character in a vaudeville show who sang a tune by the same name. Lacking business sense as well as racial sensitivity, Rutt and Underwood were out of business and broke by 1890. They sold the formula to R.T. Davis Milling Company. Needing assistance to market the new product, they discovered Nancy Green and hired her to play Aunt Jemima.
Green and the pancake mix made their debut at the Fair, where she produced instant pancakes for public enjoyment. Between warm food and an even warmer nature, Green was a hit with the public. Police officers had to control foot traffic to keep people from loitering at the booth. At the conclusion of the Fair R.T. Davis Milling Company received 50,000 orders, and Green received a lifetime contract. Aunt Jemima products are now part of Quaker Oats and the company updated her image in 1989 to help her appear less like a stereotypical African-American housekeeper and more like a middle-class homemaker.
6. Cracker Jack
Before it was a staple at baseball games, Cracker Jack started as a mix of popcorn, peanuts and molasses that supposedly debuted at the Fair. Unfortunately, there’s not much solid information on how or why this snack was invented. Lewis and Frederick William, aka F.W. Rueckheim, invented the treat but not the name — that was attributed to an unknown Frito-Lay sales representative. Seeing an opportunity, the pair marketed it at the Fair to good results, keeping the brand in the American mainstay ever since. At least, that’s the story told by its manufacturer — there’s actually no hard evidence it was sold at the Fair, so this may very well be a myth. But true or not, the story has become a key part of Cracker Jack’s place in American pop culture. It’s a better way to be remembered than its other claim to fame — some historians argue that Cracker Jack was the world’s first junk food.
5. Squashed Pennies
You’d be hard-pressed to visit a tourist trap without seeing the squashed penny machine. For a total of 51 cents, you can flatten a penny into a decorated token as proof of your adventures.
These handy money collectors started their careers at the 1893 Fair. Those squashed pennies were simpler, with only raised letters stating “Columbian Exposition 1893.” Each machine had seven different designs for the lettering so tourists could pick their favorite and treasure an elongated coin for the ages.
4. The Zipper
Until you dabble in historical reenactment and deal with corset lacings, hooks and loops, you may not quite appreciate the invention of the zipper. Now so commonplace as to be taken for granted, the zipper started out as a Fair novelty. Elias Howe, sewing machine innovator, started playing with the zipper concept in 1851, patenting it as the “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.” However, he was more fascinated with his sewing machine, so he neglected the zipper.
It took 44 years before Whitcomb Judson discovered and developed Howe’s zipper concept. He invented the “clasp locker” with Colonel Lewis Walker and started the Universal Fastener Company. The two decided to introduce the device at the Fair, but it wasn’t successful. However, the brave debut allowed the concept to receive notoriety and development. After studying the clasping technology Gideon Sundback, an electrical engineer at the Universal Fastener Company, started improving the design until it became our modern day zipper in 1913.
3. Spray Paint
Spray paint wasn’t an exhibit at the Fair, but unbeknown to everyone who attended they could see it on display daily. Even as the Fair started, several buildings remained under construction. The ones that were ready for visitors needed to shine, and fast. To hasten this effort, artist Francis Davis Millet developed a way to spray exterior paint on the buildings to cut back on preparation time. The aerosol sprayer we’re familiar with wouldn’t be invented until 1949, but do-it-yourself home improvers and graffiti artists can thank the Fair for planting the seed for their favorite tool.
Today we argue over how to load it and who gets to empty it. But in 1893 the dishwasher, part of a fully-electric kitchen Fair display, was the stuff of dreams.
Inventor Josephine Cochrane filed the patent on her dishwashing machine on December 31, 1885. She explained it as a system of baskets and levers that would splash soapy water on dishes. Although she continued to develop the concept for the next four years, she wouldn’t get a chance to demonstrate it until it appeared at the Fair. Her company gained momentum, later became KitchenAid, and continued producing appliances for the modern kitchen.
1. Ferris Wheel
Paris hosted a World’s Fair in 1889 and unveiled the Eiffel Tower. This feat proved that large buildings could be constructed out of steel, and the architectural world was in awe. Fair architect Daniel H. Burnham called on engineers and designers to build something even bigger — a tower 500 feet taller than the 984 foot Eiffel Tower.
But let’s face it — towers are boring. At a meeting of engineers and architects headed by Burnham, everyone demanded a unique, novel and flashy structure as a show of American prestige. Among them was a quiet engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., who until he revealed his idea had only worked on railroad and mining projects. Needless to say, his proposal was a bit of a departure.
The original Ferris Wheel definitely met the qualification of enormity. Supported on two 140 foot towers and a 45 foot axle, it had a diameter of 250 feet and a height of 264 feet. It included cars that were 24 feet long and 13 feet wide, and each carried up to 60 passengers. A single revolution took nine minutes.
Construction started in late 1892, and the wheel was operational on June 21 the following year. The first passengers, including Burham, Margaret Ferris, and investors, boarded a car while onlookers held their breath in anticipation of disaster or success. It ran without any difficulty for the duration of the Fair, and some accounts believe it’s responsible for keeping the event out of financial ruin — it made $395,000 in profit.
The original Ferris Wheel moved to St. Louis in 1904 for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. With no one willing to move it again, it lived in neglect until it was blown apart on May 11, 1906. It required a total of 300 pounds of dynamite and, without ceremony or sentiment, the steel was sold as scrap. But the concept, like much of what the fair brought us, remains beloved to this day.
Jocelyn Mackie is an intrepid researcher and web content provider with a fascination for events, buildings, and technology that is 100 years and older. You can see more of her work at www.jocthewriter.com.