On tours, whenever I mention the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair – even using its official name: The Columbian Exposition – I see knowing nods and recognition. Some say they’ve read “Devil In the White City” and some are aware of the movie to be made based on the book (Scorsese/DiCaprio). “White City” themed tours are popular in Chicago and I’ve often had people request them. The 1893 Fair was a game-changing event for Chicago with fame that extended beyond the city.
But when I mention the OTHER Chicago World’s Fair, The Century of Progress (1933-34), I usually receive blank stares. I mention it when explaining Chicago’s wonderful city flag; the fourth red star stands for that second World’s Fair.
We focus on the Century of Progress during my Roaring 20s: Art Deco & Decadence tour and it is great fun to show the crazy-colorful images and video clips to people who may never have even heard of this Chicago World’s Fair. Here’s a short Technicolor film to give you a sense:
While the Century of Progress didn’t achieve the stratospheric fame of the 1893 Exposition, it was arguably just as mind-boggling, innovative, and well-attended for its time.
Intended to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Chicago’s founding, the Exposition occupied 427 acres of the city’s lakefront, from 12th-39th Streets. Held over two summers, it attracted 40 million visitors.
As I detailed in another post, the opening of the Century of Progress was triggered with a beam of starlight that left the star Arcturus the same year that the World’s Columbian Exposition had illuminated Chicago’s skies 40 years earlier.
The fair was all about modernism and scientific advances. The buildings were streamlined and sleek (the style later known as Art Deco). Color was used lavishly and playfully all over the buildings and grounds.
The Hall of Science was the cornerstone. And nearly two dozen corporations — contrasted with only nine at the 1893 Fair — erected their own pavilions and developed displays that persuaded Depression-weary Americans to spend money and modernize everything from their homes to their automobiles.
Instead of a Ferris Wheel as its focal point, the Century of Progress featured the Sky Ride:
The 1933-34 Fair did give a much-needed lift during the Great Depression, providing jobs, education, inspiration, and entertainment.
And one of the most popular attractions was Sally Rand, the burlesque dancer who seemingly danced in the nude with her ostrich plumes barely protecting her modesty. She performed at the Streets of Paris pavilion, which is featured in this short film (she begins at 2:37):
Rand was arrested (and released) four times in a single day during the Fair due to perceived indecent exposure — after a fan dance performance and while riding a white horse down the streets of Chicago– ! Was she really nude or was it a clever body suit? Who could tell?
Northerly Island, built in the early 1920s (and about to open as a new park), and newly-built Adler Planetarium (1930), were at the heart of the Century of Progress.
Another interesting result of the Fair was the opening of the Empire Room nightclub at the Palmer House in the Loop. Live music performed for hotel guests in a dining room during the Fair after the Fair became one of the most glittering nightclubs in the United States, lasting into the 1970s.
It is a Chicago event definitely worth more exploration and recognition.