And yet, world’s fairs live on. Though the U.S. no longer hosts them — our last was in 1984 in New Orleans — the last World’s Fair took place in Milan in 2015. Three cities, Osaka, Japan; Ekaterinburg, Russia; and Baku, Azerbaijan, have bid to host the 2025 event. This year marks the 125th anniversary of America’s greatest World’s Fair, the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and of Pittsburgh’s innovative contributions to it.
The concept of the World’s Fair was the brainchild of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, consort of Great Britain’s Queen Victoria. Taking place in 1851 in the famous steel-and-glass “Crystal Palace” designed by Joseph Paxton, it set the standard for future fairs with its displays of international culture, arts and technology. Fairs took place roughly every five to 10 years thereafter, with the United States first hosting in 1876, known as the Centennial Exposition, celebrating the country’s 100th anniversary.
The fairs became bigger and more elaborate with each passing event. The fairgrounds began to become as important, if not more, as the exhibition buildings themselves. The 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle set the standard of excess with the show-stopping debut of the Eiffel Tower, originally meant to be temporary.
The U.S. was again set to host a fair, just in time to commemorate Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World. But, with 1892 being an election year, organizers feared a large event might interfere with campaigning and voting, and so the fair was moved to 1893. Organizers had grand expectations for this fair, including monumental buildings as well as a spectacular, crowd-pleasing element to rival the Eiffel Tower. The latter process proved to be a struggle.
The fair’s supervising architect, Daniel Burnham of Burnham & Root, had the thankless task of overseeing the construction of over 200 buildings, most of which were designed by individual architects from each participating state and country. The landscape itself was at that point a muddy swamp, in the process of being transformed by the venerable Frederick Law Olmstead, famed for his earlier design of Central Park.
A novel consideration for this fair’s planners was the incorporation of electric lighting throughout the buildings and grounds. Outdoor electric lighting on this scale had never been attempted, and the organizers put the contract out for bid.
Lighting the White City
In a society in which electronic devices completely dominate modern life, it can be difficult to appreciate the darkness. While many U.S. cities were lit with gas streetlamps, much of the country was dark after sunset. Darkness governed the pace of life. And the fair’s organizers knew that seeing “the White City,” so named because every building’s exterior would be painted white, lit up at night with thousands of electric bulbs would make it the most spectacular fair yet.
Newly formed General Electric was considered the favorite to win the contract to light Chicago’s Jackson Park with an initial bid of $1.8 million, which fair president William Baker called “extortionate.”
“To the public, [G.E.] looked like a trust that was trying to gouge fair organizers and way overcharge for the lighting,” says Emily Ruby, curator at the Senator John Heinz History Center. Given a second chance to bid — and perhaps proving the defrauding accusation true — G.E., which was backed by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan, bid $554,000 to see its direct current (DC) approach prevail. But this still was not low enough to take the contract from Pittsburgh’s George Westinghouse, who offered $391,000 to wire the fair and supply 92,000 bulbs.
“Everyone saw this as a losing bid, not about making money,” says Ruby. “It was about Westinghouse’s belief in AC power.”
Westinghouse had less than a year to make good. His first task was to come up with a bulb design that he could produce without garnering the ire of Edison and General Electric. Westinghouse and his company were mired in a lawsuit with Edison over the rights to produce the latter’s “ST” model, a one-piece, straight-sided, tear-like shaped bulb. To avoid patent infringement, Westinghouse’s engineers developed a modified version of their patented Sawyer-Man bulb. Called the “stopper lamp,” this bulb consisted of two pieces: a balloon-shaped glass bulb, and a metal stopper that fitted into its bottom. The stopper was then put into the light fixture.
Westinghouse anticipated the inefficiency of these new bulbs and produced 250,000 during the course of the fair (fair organizers had only paid him for 92,000). The result was some of the most memorable imagery in the country’s history: the White City’s shining in the darkness of the Chicago night, reflecting on the waters of Olmstead’s man-made lagoon.
“In the end, I think it did make money for [Westinghouse] because more people were willing to invest in alternating current,” Ruby says. “The fair proved to the world that alternating current was safe.”
While electricity provided the fair’s greatest lasting spectacle, a smaller and more temporary Pittsburgh innovation became a staple feature for future fairs. Thanks to Westinghouse engineer George Washington Gale Ferris’s design for an enormous upright revolving wheel, the Columbian Exposition’s organizers were finally able to mount a challenge to Eiffel’s marvelous tower. While many of us have seen or ridden on Ferris wheels, even we would have been impressed by the original. Ferris’s invention was over 250 feet in diameter, pulling 36 cars, each of which could fit 60 adults. Each car was about the size of a railroad passenger car and had its own lunch counter. One 50-cent ticket bought passengers two revolutions of the wheel that took about 20 minutes.
Ferris experienced his own struggles with the Chicago landscape, having to blast through earth and 20 feet of frozen quicksand underneath to anchor his wheel. The contraption’s sheer size and the amount of steel involved in its construction might have confounded an inventor from another city. But having been a Westinghouse engineer turned owner of a steel inspection firm, Ferris had contacts with nearly every Pennsylvania-based steel concern. “No one shop could begin to do all the work, therefore contracts were let to a dozen different firms, each being chosen because of some peculiar fitness for the work entrusted to it,” Ferris later wrote.
Bethlehem Steel received the largest commission — the axle — which at the time of its production was the largest single-piece casting ever poured. Indeed, Ferris’s wheel is still larger than both the London Eye and the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel erected in Chicago in 1995.
The fair opened on May 1, 1893, and was largely unfinished. Westinghouse didn’t begin building its exhibit in the Electricity Building until May 2. For this reason, many fairgoers postponed their visits hoping for more to see in the summer months.
Louise McLeod Mitchell, granddaughter of Pittsburgh political boss Christopher Magee, received a letter from her mother from the fair on June 13:
“The Fair is full of beautiful things, lovely dolls from France, beautiful wigs from Germany, great trained lions and wild animals from Hamburg, tall camels from Egypt, and lovely little donkeys from Cairo. I am almost sorry that we did not bring you with us, darling. You could sail about the lagoon in a gondola and play about on a wooded island.”
A favorite childhood memento for many Pittsburghers also owes its start to the 1893 World’s Fair: the Heinz pickle pin. H.J. Heinz Co. had a large exhibit in the fair’s Agriculture Building, which housed both farming and food production displays. But, there was a problem: Heinz’s exhibit was on the second floor, where many fairgoers were loath to visit. Heinz, who had planned to give away small pickle-shaped charms emblazoned with “HEINZ,” came up with a way to get folks upstairs. He hired boys to roam the fairgrounds, distributing small gold tags that invited them to “present at exhibit of H.J. Heinz Co. — pickles and condiments, Agricultural Building, Gallery Floor Sec. F — and receive a novel watch charm.” Visitors came in droves, to the point where newspapers reported that the second floor of the building began to sag.
“Heinz was awarded a silver loving cup by the other food purveyors on the second floor for bringing so much traffic upstairs,” says Ruby. And the pickle charm proved to be such a popular marketing gimmick that the company kept it, changing the design and color slightly over the years. Now, instead of a charm to be attached to a chain, it’s a pin.
One Pittsburgher making some big plans at the fair was Edward Bigelow, then the city’s director of public works. In 1893, Bigelow was in the process of filling up a new plant conservatory given to city residents by Henry Phipps Jr. Phipps had already constructed one conservatory in Allegheny City (now the North Side) but this one would be far larger. Bigelow recognized that the exposition offered a choice opportunity to secure rare specimens for Pittsburgh.
“The fair wasn’t the reason for building the conservatory, but it was convenient for stocking purposes,” says Adam Haas, interpretive specialist at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. “It was happenstance, a fortuitous situation, that the fair was closing and the plant material was available.”
Bigelow’s efforts were well-documented. “Six carloads of ferns from Chicago arrived in the city early on Sunday morning for the Phipps’ [sic] conservatory,” reported the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bigelow’s representative in Chicago bid aggressively, obtaining an additional 8,000 plants “for almost nothing,” according to the Post-Gazette. “It will require some 15 cars to transport all of Pittsburgh’s purchases.”
Dec. 7 marks the 125th anniversary of the opening of the Phipps, and horticulture curator Jennifer Davit says there has been interest in determining whether any current plants came from the World’s Fair. “It would be highly unlikely that anything here now would be from that time,” says Davit. “Very few tropical things grow less than a foot a year!”
Complicating the research is the lack of plant records from the conservatory’s early days, Davit says. “The focus [in 1893] was really for this to be a display gallery, not a botanical garden, so there wasn’t any kind of record keeping like we do now.”
Haas points out that though it may not look exactly as it did in 1893, the spirit of Phipps’s intentions is still alive. “This was a very technologically advanced building when it opened and epitomized the design ethos of the time which was conquering nature and sort of institutionalizing it. Now, Phipps tries to emphasize the beauty of living in harmony with nature.”
Though built on a monumental scale, the World’s Columbian Exposition was always meant to be a temporary event. All of its buildings save one — now Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry — are gone. George Ferris’s magnificent wheel did get a second act at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, but was ultimately salvaged for scrap, though it required 200 pounds of dynamite to reduce it to an unrecognizable pile of rubble.
But Pittsburgh’s contributions have endured: The entire developed world uses alternating current on a daily basis, and every child knows what a Ferris wheel is. And the fair’s contributions to Pittsburgh have endured: The city boasts several major buildings designed by D.H. Burnham, including the Pennsylvanian and Oliver buildings downtown, and East Liberty’s Highland Building, all commissions offered to Burnham after his resounding success at the World’s Fair.