As soon as Congress awarded Chicago the Fair in 1890, planning began. Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and New York landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted led the Fair’s design and construction.
The Fair’s Dedication Day took place on October 21, 1892. Intended to honor Columbus’s arrival in America in 1492, planning and building delays pushed opening back a year to May 1, 1893.
During its six-month run, the Fair welcomed over 25 million visitors—almost half of America’s population at a time when its citizens numbered around 67 million!
Fairgoers could travel the whole world in a visit, although guidebooks suggested at least two weeks to see all 65,000 exhibits.
Though the Fair was intended to be educational, nearly everything was for sale. Prizes were awarded to outstanding exhibitors, prompting innovation and product development. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer is a well-known award recipient.
Another big winner was Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which still supplies universities and museums with scientific material. The Field Museum’s first large purchase at the end of the Fair was Ward’s entire display of animal taxidermy, fossils, gems, and meteorites—bought for $95,000.
The Passenger Pigeon was one of the most abundant birds in the 19th century. But by 1893, it was rapidly disappearing from the wild even as laws were enacted to protect it. Within two decades of the Fair, the species became extinct due to unrestricted hunting and loss of natural habitat.
The population of many other North American birds represented at the Fair—such as the Snowy Egret, a popular decoration on women’s hats—also declined frighteningly, until America’s first enforced wildlife preservation act helped pull them back from the brink of extinction.
Study specimens from the Fair are part of The Field Museum’s earliest collections. They now help scientists in ways unimaginable in the 1890s:
Some of the objects from the Fair—such as a lace shawl made from tree bark and a skirt made of coconut fiber—may seem odd, if not downright uncomfortable. But they tell us about the late 19th century, an era of colonialism that provided access to new lands and unfamiliar plants.
In 1893, these objects show that Fair exhibitors were more interested in what could be made out of the world’s plants than in plant diversity and conservation. But at the close of the Fair, exhibitors donated or sold many of their displays to the new Museum, which later broadened its mission to include preserving plant species and habitats.
When it fell, the Fair’s famous Ensisheim meteorite was thought to be a good omen and was kept in a church and blessed.
But the Elbogen meteorite, another Fair marvel, was instead considered a wicked thing when it fell. One legend claims that it was shackled in a castle dungeon to keep it from flying away.
Recent studies of the Fair’s Brenham meteorite have revealed it to be a fragment of an asteroid’s interior—a rare type of meteorite.
In the 1870s, coal-mining operations in Northeast Illinois unearthed a mother load of fossil plants and animals: the Mazon Creek assemblage. At the Fair, multitudes of these fossils—thought to form coal— highlighted the mining industry.
Companies and private collectors also displayed coal from Pennsylvania, clay from Illinois, quartz from Colorado, and gold from California.
The new Museum received many things from the Fair’s Mines and Mining Building, including the Mines, Mining, and Metallurgy Department’s Chief, Frederick Skiff, who became the Museum’s first director after the Fair.
Sixty Labrador Inuit lived in a village on the fairgrounds as an anthropology exhibit. Visitors watched them perform “native” tasks in traditional fur garments—stifling during the hot Chicago summer.
The Inuit had been recruited for the Fair with promises of rations and a better life. But increasingly poor treatment—like lack of fresh water and low-quality food—prompted them to take action.
Members of the group filed suit against organizers, left the village, and set up their own paid exhibit outside the Fair’s gates.
As the Fair drew to a close, a popular campaign to commemorate it with a museum surged. On September 16, 1893, the Columbian Museum of Chicago was chartered amidst a flurry of activity.
Bolstered by a $1 million contribution (more than $26 million in today’s currency) from department store mogul Marshall Field, a group of wealthy Chicago businessmen set out to create a museum.
Over the last 120 years, we’ve steadily added to the original World’s Fair objects, and Field Museum scientists continue to conduct groundbreaking research on the ever-growing collection.
© The Field Museum, A114989d_014A, Photographer John Weinstein
These tiger-lions adorn the saron, a xylophone-like instrument. It’s one of 24 instruments that were once part of the Fair’s Javanese gamelan ensemble.
Within the Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair, you can listen to a recording of gamelan music played by the people who lived in the Fair’s reconstructed Javanese Village. And you can create your own music on the Fair’s historic gamelan at a nearby touch-table.
©The Field Museum, GN90799d_WFWC
The Fair covered 630 acres, including Chicago’s Jackson Park and the Midway Plaisance—a narrow strip of land designated as an amusement area. The Midway skyline was dominated by the 250-foot Ferris wheel, designed by engineer George Ferris.
The famed wheel may have been an engineering marvel and the largest attraction; but it wasn’t the most groundbreaking innovation at the Fair. New technologies such as alternating current and the electric light bulb—used throughout the grounds at night—made the Fair the largest user of electricity in the 19th century.
© The Field Museum, CSZ5974.LS
Among the Fair’s many taxidermy displays, Carl Akeley’s were exceptional. The Museum’s first zoology curator took notice and hired Akeley as Chief Taxidermist. In 1896, during Akeley’s first collecting trip to Africa for the Museum, he had to use his bare hands to kill a leopard that attacked him.
Akeley transformed taxidermy from the practice of stuffing skins with straw to a process that included mounting skins over life-like sculptures. The elephants in the Museum’s main hall are an example of his work.
© The Field Museum, Botany Collections
As the Fair closed, esteemed botanist Charles Millspaugh gathered exhibits for the new Museum and became the first botany curator. He immediately went into the field, setting the course for our botany collections.
The stamp seen here on his herbarium sheet—the method botanists use to preserve plants—notes the Columbian Museum of Chicago, a name the Museum possessed only briefly before it opened to the public.
© The Field Museum, CSGEO3251c
Initially thought to be from a large Brontosaurus, the huge femur (thighbone) in the plaster cast on the left is actually from Brachiosaurus, a dinosaur discovered by Elmer Riggs (center). He declared it the “largest dinosaur ever known.”
In addition to collecting specimens like this one for the Museum after the Fair closed (the Fair displayed no real dinosaur bones), Riggs carried out research that shaped the field of paleontology. He’s credited with removing Brontosaurus, the name given to a misidentified Apatosaurus, from dinosaur vocabulary.
© Chicago History Museum, ICHi-19615
Fair visitors could observe Native peoples from all over North America, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and several other exotic places. These exhibits allowed visitors to “travel” to distant and unfamiliar lands with the understanding of “to see is to know.”
However, these exhibits gave an oversimplified view of cultural groups and reinforced cultural differences and stereotypes. They often encouraged judgment by presenting people as “lesser” human beings.
© The Field Museum, GN78508
The Field Columbian Museum, known today as The Field Museum, opened in the former Palace of Fine Arts building in Jackson Park on June 2, 1894.
It wasn’t until 1905 that the Museum was organized into the natural history museum you know today. In 1921, the Museum moved from its original location on the fairgrounds to its current location in Chicago’s South Loop.