Chicago’s Field Museum opens vaults on 1893 World’s Fair

Artwork provided by The Field Museum.
Artwork provided by The Field Museum.

At least one-third of America – 25 million people – made their way to Chicago 120 years ago. What they found were astounding and amusing signs of progress in their young nation.

Many rode the world’s first Ferris wheel (250 feet tall), heard music later known as ragtime and saw thousands of light bulbs brighten the night over 630 acres. It was an electrifying experience, literally, but this was just a part of what made the trip amazing.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893, about 400 years after the New World arrival of Christopher Columbus, gave average people an opportunity to make a few discoveries of their own.

For the first time, they could look a lion in the eye, size up dinosaur bones, examine exotic minerals and ancient fossils. This is where Cracker Jack, Juicy Fruit, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Aunt Jemina pancakes and shredded wheat were introduced.

“Opening the Vaults; Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair,” a new exhibit at The Field Museum, shares 100-plus fair artifacts that the public has rarely or never seen since then.

They put into context the average person’s world, America’s eagerness to feel superior and Chicago’s comeback from the fire that had devastated the city only 22 years earlier.

The Field Museum exists because of artifacts that survived the fair: Peruvian mummies, Zulu war shields, Javanese theatrical masks, Pacific Island drums, Gamelan musical instruments and myriad other introductions to the world beyond America.

Add now-odd apparel: a lace shawl made from tree bark, skirts from coconut fibers and pine needles, a loofah sponge hat. New gadgets – bed warmers, radiators, hot plates, fans – were introduced as home improvement devices. All were part of the 65,000 exhibits at the World’s Fair.

The event was one part American showmanship and one part exotic culture. Curators acknowledge that displays and demonstrations from foreign nations were made to portray these countries as less advanced. Poor work conditions prompted some invited international groups to quit participating, then set up multicultural demonstrations outside of the fairgrounds.

The World’s Fair cost $46 million to build ($1.2 billion in today’s dollars) and earned Chicago a nickname: the White City, because of the many stucco buildings constructed for exhibits. The sight of it all reportedly inspired author Frank Baum to create the Emerald City in his “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” book.

Only one 1893 World’s Fair building survives. It is today’s Museum of Science and Industry, which was moved to its present lakefront location in 1921, after fires and neglect destroyed other fairgrounds property.

Another compelling, albeit darker, new Field Museum exhibit is “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda,” in place until Feb. 2.

Film clips, photos, posters and other artifacts explain how the Nazi Party in four years went from being a minor to leading player in German politics. Economic hardship and political instability were pivotal factors.

What began as a grassroots movement mushroomed through the tailoring of messages to address voters’ fears, hopes and practical needs during the Great Depression. Political spin and strategy included easy-listening music, a celebrity treatment of Hitler and widespread distribution of Mein Kampf (even as a government gift to newlyweds). Hitler’s background in visual arts boosted this effort.

The World’s Fair exhibit stays in place until Sept. 7, 2014, at The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Christmas; special exhibits require a timed-ticket entry., 312-922-9410

Admission to all exhibits is $30 ($21 for ages 3-11 years, $25 for students and ages 65 or older). Basic admission, which does not include the World’s Fair or other special exhibits, is $15 ($10 for kids, $12 for students/seniors).

Enrich an in-person visit by downloading the museum’s free app, for customized virtual tours and a behind-the scenes look at the research and people who make the exhibits possible. You’ll find the app at Google Play and the iTunes Store.

Visiting Chicago before year’s end, maybe for the Packer-Bear game on Dec. 29 at Soldier Field? Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Bus Co. passes top city sites during the 2.5-hour, narrated Holiday Lights Tour.

Riders board near the Hancock Plaza tree, 875 N. Michigan Ave., and disembark twice, at Lincoln Park Zoo and the traditional, outdoor German holiday market on Daley Plaza.

The $29 ticket ($19 for children) includes hot chocolate and a brownie., 773-648-5000.

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