Skip to navigation – Site map
Images et musées

Dark City, White City: Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, 1893

Hélène Valance
p. 431-443


L’Exposition Universelle de Chicago s’ouvre, en 1893, sur un spectacle inédit: la Cour d’Honneur de l’Exposition, illuminée par des milliers d’ampoules à incandescence, bientôt connue sous le nom de "White City". Pour des millions de visiteurs, "White City" est une révélation, et la prolifération des vues nocturnes de la Cour d’Honneur, en images comme dans les textes, atteste de l’importance de l’événement. White City suscite les éloges quasi unanimes des visiteurs, qui semblent projeter sur les façades immaculées de l’Exposition leurs ambitions, fantasmes et angoisses. Malgré son ostensible neutralité, cette dernière révèle en effet plus sur son époque que ses admirateurs n’oseraient en avouer. A une époque où les identités se définissent par jeux de contrastes, White City se voit opposée à une "Dark City" protéiforme, une obscurité omniprésente qui participe de façon paradoxale à sa splendeur. Contrastes et contradictions abondent dans cette White City censée représenter non pas l’Amérique contemporaine mais son au-delà idéal. L’électricité, à la fois force de la nature et technologie ultra-moderne, joue un rôle central dans la célébration monumentale que les Etats-Unis s’offrent à eux-mêmes et au reste du monde : elle est l’étoffe des rêves dont se revêt l’Amérique, mais elle incarne aussi toutes ses ambiguïtés.

Top of page

Full text

Like the Gilded Age, White City straddles a divide: a consummation and a beginning.
Alan Trachtenberg, "White City", The Incorporation of America.

  • 1 "Lighting up the White City", July 3rd 1893.

1The 1893 International Exposition in Chicago, seen by many contemporaries and historians as a turning point in the cultural life of America, was perhaps in the first place a visual event. The Court of Honour or "White City" gathering the major exhibition buildings at the core of the fairgrounds was indeed a striking visual novelty for the Fair’s millions of visitors, especially when it was lit up at night by tens of thousands of electric bulbs. For a few months, White City was "the brightest spot on earth", displaying more electrical light every night than many had seen in their entire lives, surpassing by its immense power the light exhibits of the 1889 Paris Exposition (Nye 148). Almost every account of the Fair would culminate on the dazzling spectacle of White City at night, lavishing praise over its luminous, ethereal, unattainable domes (Fig. 1). "He who has not seen the White City at night has not seen it at all", affirmed a reporter for the New York Times.1 Even more than a "city", it was a vision, and the electric lighting probably helped visitors and commentators to project their own intentions, desires, fears and expectations onto the blank screen of the buildings in the Court of Honour. For one of the major paradoxes at the Fair was that White City was less supposed to represent the United States in 1893 than to give a glimpse of its glorious future. How was this "vision", however, also a reflection of the fin-de-siècle United-States? And what, especially, do night and electricity reveal about this monument of national pride and self-glorification? The story of White City is one of distinction, distancing and displacing: in deliberately highlighting certain aspects while leaving the others to obscurity, White City formulated a "dream" while allowing a certain return of what it repressed. Visitors were contradictorily encouraged to admire the illuminated White City and at the same time to see beyond it, leaving its essence in the limbo of ineffability.

Fig. 1. Columbian Illuminations.

Fig. 1. Columbian Illuminations.

Courtesy of the Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology <>

2Contemporary readings of White City, published articles, narratives, romances and poems, along with photographs and prints produced for the occasion, however, give a glimpse of what lay behind the façades of White City. Relying on text and images, one can establish a sort of typology, and unfold White City’s many facets, from the contrasted visions and Utopian dreams to their ambiguous materialization.

Land of contrasts

3Land of contrasts is the title of English journalist James Muirhead’s guidebook to the United States, a work specially published for those of his compatriots who would visit the Fair in 1893. Muirhead fully exploits the theme of contrasts, a favourite in 19th-century thought and writing, a rhetoric figure well adapted to a complex, rapidly changing world:

In some respects Chicago deserves the name City of Contrasts, just as the United States is the Land of Contrasts; and in no way is this more marked than in the difference between its business and its residential quarters. In the one—height, narrowness, noise, monotony, dirt, sordid squalor, pretentiousness; in the other—light, space, moderation, homelikeness. (Muirhead 207)

4The Fair was conceived as a series of contrasts: White City was frequently opposed to the "Dark City" or "Black City" of Chicago, the beauty and grandeur of its (smokeless) illuminations was contrasted with the soot of Chicago’s industries, the stench and dirt of the Stockyards, the moral filth of the infamous "Loop" neighborhood. Within the Fair itself, White City was repeatedly distinguished from the Midway Plaisance, a part of the grounds devoted to commercial, somewhat disorderly, sometimes disreputable entertainment. Commentators would highlight the differences opposing the two halves of the Fair. The Midway Plaisance, where visitors could stroll from "The Street of Cairo" (where the scandalous danse du ventre was first introduced to American audiences) and the Javanese theater to the German and Irish villages, appeared entirely devoted to fun, profit, sensationalism and consumption. White City, on the contrary, was a silent spectacle that turned minds to higher thoughts and poetic visions, a place of reverence and contemplation. These contrasts became even clearer at night, when, far above the riotous roar of the Midway, White City stood out against the dark skies. Hence the privileged position accorded to the pictures of the Court of Honour at night in the many publications that surrounded the Fair: night views were almost systematically inserted either at the center of the portfolios, or at their very end.

5Another example of the late 19th-century taste for contrasted images, The Victory of Faith (Fig. 2), exhibited in the Fine arts building, clearly indicates one of the main issues this insistence on black and white images covered. The painting comments on the happy outcome of the Civil War, in the somewhat complacent depiction of a white and a black female slaves, nude and asleep. Yet even this progressive image presents the white woman as a superior, protective figure. Her body, at the center of the composition, is slightly larger than that of her companion, and it seems as though the darker woman were here to enhance the white woman’s classical beauty. Contrast here ultimately serves the reassertion, however discreet, of a certain hierarchy.

Fig. 2. The Victory of Faith, engraving after the painting by StGeorge Hare, circa 1890.

Fig. 2. The Victory of Faith, engraving after the painting by StGeorge Hare, circa 1890.

Courtesy of the Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology <>

  • 2 Harper’s Weekly, 8/19/1893 and 11/04/1893.

6In many ways, indeed. White City embodied white supremacy. Black Americans were strictly confined to menial tasks in the construction works, their representatives were denied the right to participate in the Fair’s Congresses, and the only "black" official presence was that of the Dahomians on the Midway Plaisance, a group of African "cannibals" (Trachtenberg 220-21). Frederick Douglass, who was invited as representative of Haïti, denounced the Fair’s injustice towards black Americans. In a speech given outside the gates of the Fair, he reversed the white man’s dichotomy and called White City a "Whited Sepulcher"; pointing out that the "progress" exposed there was in large part the fruit of black labor. Historian Alan Trachtenberg showed how White City enacted unity at the expense of minorities, using the latter as mere foils (Trachtenberg 200-25), tactics that the contemporary media were eager to employ. Harper’s Weekly exploited the racial contrast in its series on the "Johnson Family", enthusiastically deriding the African-Americans’ ignorance and blunders. One scene, for instance, shows Mrs. Johnson scolding her husband for shaking hands with a Dahomian: "Ezwell Johnson", she exclaims, "stop shakin’han’s wid dat heathen! You want de hull fair ter t’ink you’s found a poo’ relation?" Mrs. Johnson’s fears might prove well founded, since the picture precisely works on the reader’s finding some "relation" between Mr. Johnson and the Dahomian. In a second caricature, Mr. Johnson meets "the Colonel, [his] old master". When the latter asks him, in a strong southern accent, what he is doing here, Mr. Johnson replies, in all the darkness of his own ignorance: "Wal, Sah, l’s lak a nole shoe dat’s been blacked –’bout time I’s gittin’some polish!".2 Heavily relying on the color scheme and the linguistic particularities of the heroes, these caricatures were meant to confirm the white, middle class, east-coast readership’s superiority over other social categories encountered on the fairgrounds. With the whole country (and even the whole world) meeting at the Fair in a dangerous mélange, it seemed necessary to reassert certain distinctions.

7Contrasts, then, were the surest way to promote social, and political order. Chicagoans wanted their White City to obliterate disorder, anarchy experienced for instance in the Haymarket riots in 1886, but also in the Pullman strike, a year after the Fair closed its gates. White City was a "vision" that could cure these traumas, as it could, in everyday life, counter the confusion of the city’s streets. Brentano’s Views of the City of Chicago published in 1892, strive to produce a well-ordered picture of the city, enhancing the quality of its parks, the magnificence of the millionaires’ villas and presenting bird’s eye views of the empty, neat and rectilinear pens of the Stockyards. The book could not, however, eclipse the teeming activity of the business and immigrant neighbourhoods:

[South Water Street] can hardly be called a thoroughfare, street and sidewalk being obstructed during business hours by barricades of barrels, boxes, crates, chickens coops, trucks, wagons and teams, leaving only a bare passage in the middle of the road. The traffic is heaviest during the early morning hours, and at that time the street offers an interesting spectacle of contusion, made picturesque by the characteristics of the traders, nearly all the nationalities and tongues of this world being represented among them, as is the produce of all countries and climes. (Brentano 40)

8On the Fair grounds, the Midway Plaisance offered an exotic, picturesque translation of this everyday hotchpotch of modern urban life. White City was to emerge from this chaos as the epitome of order, a beacon and a model for future cities. It had itself risen from the shapelessness of a reclaimed swamp, and did return to a jumble of ruins after the fires that burned down the buildings in 1894. White uniformity became central in the expression of this measured ideal. Most commentators saw Director of Works Daniel Burnham’s genius in his decision of imposing a uniform height, underlined by an identical cornice, and a uniform (non)color to all the buildings in the Court of Honour. Order also meant a certain neutralization, a purification of the general design from all uncomely elements. The weary, lost or stunned visitors were indeed expunged from the pictures of the court of Honour that almost unanimously presented vast, empty spaces, showing none but a few well-dressed, upper-class figures. Contrasts were most efficient, symmetry most striking at night, when darkness erased details and simplified the architectural landscape. Thus darkness provided the privileged setting for the edifying spectacle White City was to impress on visitors.

Electric city upon the hill: White City as Utopia

  • 3 "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us" J (...)
  • 4 Kiralfy was to take up Burnham’s work in a 1908 show in London. In his memoirs, he describes what r (...)

9Fairgoers were very conscious, even before they entered the Fair’s grounds, of its symbolical intent. The "Columbian Exposition", sister to the "Centennial Exposition" of 1876 in Philadelphia, was meant to honor the achievements of the New Continent since its discovery by Christopher Columbus. Behind the Fair was the optimistic, evolutionist-based view that the United States was the leading civilization of the world, a view expressed for instance in the ordinance of the exhibits on the Midway Plaisance, starting with the Dahomian "savages" and culminating with the German and Irish villages, representing the highest "civilizations" (after the American one) on the globe. White City was construed, taking the words the Founding Father John Winthrop used in his sermon on the Arbella, as a new "City upon the Hill",3 a light bestowed on the rest of the world. In Chicago, America’s torch turned out to be an electric, even pyrotechnic beacon. Imre Kiralfy, a Hungarian-born show businessman who specialized in electric pageants, grasped the importance of the event when he created two patriotic spectacles, America and Colombus for the occasion.4 The shows, gathering more than 300 dancers on the stage in colourful, minutely calculated choreographies, would re-enact the great founding "myths" and historical scenes of the nation, from the discovery of the new continent to the Pilgrim Fathers, the Civil War, and the parade of American Inventions. Flyers for the spectacles would advertise their "silent splendor", a term recurrent in the descriptions of the illuminated White City at night. Electric lighting, gigantic scale, and extreme ordinance: Kiralfy’s shows and the White City both appear as spectacular celebrations of the past, a conjunction of ultra-modern technologies, mass production, and traditional narratives.

10Electricity, which held a place of honour in the "Grand Ballet of American Inventions" in Kiralfy’s America, was both the instrument of celebration and the celebrated thing itself, the glaring evidence of America’s superiority. Kiralfy’s Ballet started with Franklin’s lightning-rod and ended on Edison’s Phonograph and electric light, followed by a re-enactment of the World’s Columbian exposition itself, leading to the show’s conclusion, "the Triumph of Columbia". An essential part of the display in the Fair as well, electricity gave the European-inspired architecture of the Court of Honour an American aura. It was the last and best of all discoveries, the ultimate achievement of the mastery over nature that was America’s "Manifest Destiny". This was clearly noted by commentators, who repeatedly compared the technological accomplishments visible at the Fair to nature’s wonders:

The Fair, considered as an electrical exposition only, would be well worthy the attention of the world. Look from a distance at night, upon the broad spaces it fills, and the majestic sweep of the searching lights, and it is as if the earth and sky were transformed by the immeasurable wands of colossal magicians; and the superb dome of the structure, that is the central jewel of the display, is glowing as if bound with wreaths of stars. It is electricity! When the whole casket is illuminated, the cornices of the palaces of the White City are defined with celestial fire. The waters that are at play leap and flash with it. There are borders of lamps around the Lagoon. The spectacle is more resplendent than the capitals of Europe ever saw when ablaze with festivals to celebrate triumphant peace or victorious war. It is all an electrical exhibit. (Halstead 578)

11This modern technology was read in terms of the eternal or the exotic: electric light was assimilated to an astral or magical light, or likened to marvelous jewels that seem to come out of the Arabian Nights. Little mention was made of the practical, industrial or even military power electricity could yield. Five years after the Fair, the "wands" of searchlights became a powerful weapon of dissuasion in the Spanish-American war, when Americans prevented their enemies from leaving the harbor of Santiago de Cuba at night by pointing their beams on the Spanish fleet. Yet this aspect of the show remains understated in the commentaries of the fair-goers. For the latter, electric light was a sublimating and transcending force, transforming the money of the Chicago millionaires who financed the fair into luminous, beautiful power. It made American civilization eminently visible while idealizing its productions. Asserting its superiority by electrical power, White City still presented itself as detached from baser motives, a city so ideal that its resemblance to turn-of-the-century America seemed sometimes lost: "the illusion of Altruria was very vivid at many moments in the Fair City, where I have spent the happiest days of my stay in America, perhaps because the place is so little American in the accepted sense" (Howells 221). Howells’s fictional character Homos, a stranger coming from Altruria, finds in White City a peer of his Utopian native land. Homos criticizes America’s selfishness and cruel capitalism, promoting by contrast an "altruistic" model, a "commonwealth" where money would be abolished and where men freely pursue the arts. Here again, his reflections arc spurred by the vision of the city at night: "For the moment I could not believe that so foul a thing as money could have been even the means of its creation" (Howells 220). In the Altrurian’s vision, the "Fair City" is the model by which all Americans should go. The fair’s architects and artists, working together instead of competing against each other, enacted Altruria’s principle of emulation (versus America’s capitalistic competition), and the millionaires who funded the Fair, renouncing profit, proved as good as Altrurian citizens. Homos sees in the White City a future version of the old "City upon a Hill": "After seeing the World’s Fair City [in Chicago], I feel as if I had caught a glimpse of the glorious capitals which will whiten the hills and shores of the east and the borderless plains of the west" (Howells 218). Dialoguing with a Bostonian he met on the grounds, Homos starts exposing "his views":

There is no competition among you a moment longer than you can help, a moment after one proves himself stronger than another. Then you have monopoly, which even upon the limited scale it exists here is the only vital and fruitful principle, as you all see. And yet you are afraid to have it upon the largest possible scale, the national scale, the scale commensurate with the whole body politic, which implicates care for every citizen as the liege of the collectivity. When you have monopoly of such proportions money will cease to have any office among you, and such a beautiful creation as this will have effect from a consensus of the common wills and wishes. (Howells 223)

12If Howells’s vision of White City is probably more elaborate than most visitors’, almost all observers agreed on praising the submission of money interests to the "higher goals" of science and art. The motto of the Congresses held during the Fair reflects this antimaterialism: "Not matter, but Mind, not Things, but Men". From its conception onwards, White City was to be a little more (or less) than the everyday. Henry Van Brunt, one of the main architects of the Fair, advocated a "symmetry" in the exhibits:

It is necessary that the Columbian Exposition should not only bring together evidences of the amazing productiveness which, within the century, has effected a complete transformation in the external aspects of life, but should force into equal prominence, if possible, corresponding evidences that the finer instincts of humanity have not suffered complete eclipse in this grosser prosperity... It is the high function of architecture not only to adorn this triumph of materialism, but to condone, explain and supplement it, so that some elements of 'sweetness and light' may be brought forward to counterbalance the boastful Philistinism of our times. (Van Brunt 89)

13While the World’s Fair could easily be interpreted as a gigantic commercial exhibition, on the Midway Plaisance as well as within the more dignified buildings of the Court of Honour, White City, seen from its glorious outside, still appeared to many as an alternative model to the American capitalistic experience. In contrasting the external grandeur of White City with the more mundane interests it sheltered, the Fair again cultivated contradiction. Night was traditionally seen as the moment when labour and commercial activities cease and men can devote themselves to "higher" pursuits. Thus darkness dissociated White City from the everyday and down-to-earth. It is yet another paradox of the Columbian Exposition to have highlighted the "pure", "ideal" and "utopian" values of White City by casting upon it the glare of electricity, this powerful emblem of America’s technological and industrial predominance. What allowed White City to detach itself from practical realities was precisely the last production of American ingenuity: yet there seems to be an essential affinity between electricity’s radical modernity and the classical appearances of White City. Both seem indeed to be immaterial and evasive to the point of illusion.

"Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On"

14Most commentators insisted, particularly when they described White City at night, on its immateriality, its unreality. Under the electric lights, White City was recurrently called a "miracle", a "vision", a "dream city". A year after the Fair closed, the buildings in Jackson park were destroyed by fire, an event which renewed interest in White City and spurred a series of eulogistic creations. Among those was H. H. Van Meter’s slim brochure, acclaiming the fragile yet eternal glory of the vision:

It has vanished like castles
Fancy buildeth in the air
But not we like weeping vassals
Wring our hands in mute despair. (Van Meter IX).

15Etherealized to the extreme, Van Meter’s convoluted verses intentionally present White City as a "castle in the air", the better to assert its distinctive and hence everlasting character. But this insistence on the ideality of White City had its trade-off, making it lose its substance. Indeed, many were also the writers who emphasized the city’s ephemeral character, calling it "a city for a single summer", "a transient vision", or "a passing dream". White City was so vaporous that it had, in the end, more reality as a vision than as a real city, becoming a veritable cosa mentale:

As a loving word rings in the heart when the voice that breathed it is still, as a beautiful face dwells in Memory’s kingdom after years have flown, and a noble deed still lives though its occasion be passed, so the beauty of the Fair, written anew in thousands of hearts each day of its continuance, lives in thought and arises in countless minds as a veritable 'dream city'. Flow many eyes still see its snowy domes and turrets against the sky of blue, as real now as they ever seemed when the flags were flying and the pennants waving! For the city must have existed first as only a dream of beauty was realized, and then, before fire and wind destroyed it, was translated into a million dreams, to be cherished until the dreamers pass away. (Robinson 493)

16A short-lived dream, White City could easily be perceived as a mere figment of the imagination. Alan Trachtenberg exposed the Fair’s unashamed shallowness as a "frank illusion", "an admitted sham" (Trachtenberg 231), showing that all visitors were consciously enjoying the illusion for its own sake. The fairgoers were dreaming with their eyes wide open, enjoying it precisely because it was presented as a dream. The whiteness of the buildings, their monstrous scale, and of course the electric lighting of the Court of Honour were then part of a self-conscious display, contributing to the artificiality of the spectacle. The "magic wands" of electric searchlights were appreciated as such, in as much as the fairgoers deliberately suspended their disbelief when entering Jackson Park. Many arc the visitors who comment on the "effects" of light on the buildings at night: one could construe the visitors’ poetic formulations as another "effect", conjured up, as the electric light, to foster an illusion all are eager to share.

17The fantasy of White city would reappear in a more ironic mode seven years later in Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The Emerald city is really a White City seen through green glasses, an illusion only an innocent child like Dorothy would not perceive. Like White City, it is a brilliant spectacle (and Baum fully exploited the ambivalent meaning of the word). The Guard at the City’s gates warns Dorothy: "If you did not wear spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day". More than a child’s dream, the Emerald/White City is a consumable illusion. As Stuart Culver has shown in "What Manikins Wants", Oz, published the same year as Baum’s The Art of Decorating Dry Good Windows, is really a fable on the consumer’s desire. Fiction and consumption converge in the image of White City: Baum’s handbook for window dressers even has its own version of White City, a Venetian palace entirely made of immaculately folded handkerchiefs. In the land of Oz, all things desirable are seen as through the window of a shop, or that of the glass cases of the Fair’s exhibits:

Many shops stood in the street, and Dorothy saw that everything in them was green. Green candy and green pop corn were offered for sale, as well as green shoes, green hats, and green clothes of all sorts. At one place a man was selling green lemonade, and when the children bought it Dorothy could see that they paid for it with green pennies... There seemed to be no horses nor animals of any kind; the men carried things around in little green carts, which they pushed before them. Everyone seemed happy and contented and prosperous. (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, chap. 11)

18Baum’s description of the Emerald City maliciously alludes to the spotless White City, from which horses were excluded, replaced by hired students pushing carts. Seen through the prism of Baum’s fiction, White City is revealed as a "prosperous", consumption-oriented place.

19Yet in Oz as in White City, the objects of desire and admiration remain out of reach. In the case of White City, the incommensurable height of the white domes is their very charm, while electric lighting making them recede into further inaccessibility but dematerializing it:

The unattainableness which is so pathetically constant an attribute of beauty that we can hardly conceive of visual perfection without it, was present here, 'thou may’st look at all my beauty of form and proportion', each building said, 'but thou may’st not touch. When thou touchest me my most delicate charm will pass away.' (Robinson 494)

20Culver analyzes the Ozites’ "profoundly insatiable appetite for an evanescent quality, for color alone", "an endless cycle of visual fascinations" (Culver 103). Given the affinities between Oz’s Emerald City and Chicago’s White City, one could partly apply Culver’s reading to the latter. What seems indeed to have most impressed the Fair’s millions of visitors is the "visual fascination" of the White City at night. More than anything, as the epithet soon given to the Court of Honour shows us, it is the whiteness of the White City to which visitors were attracted. Electricity, acting as a second, thinner layer of white paint on the façades of the Court of Honour, seemed to be the real object of the spectators’ desire: paradoxically, a somewhat immaterial object.

21The screen on which electricity was projected was in fact made on an inconsistent material, a modern-day substitute for the "stuff" of dreams:

  • 5 Bunner, H. C., "The Making of the White City", Scribner’s Magazine, October 1892 (emphasis mine).

This material was found in a combination of plaster and jute fibre, called staff, which combines adaptability to all forms of plastic handling with a stiffness and toughness almost like wood. This stuff has made possible effects of construction which could never have been attempted under the same conditions with any other material. It is prepared as quickly as water and plaster and fibre can be mixed together; it may be made coarse or fine, rough or smooth in surface as may be desired; it may be cast or molded; it may be colored; and when it is dry and ready for use it is handled almost exactly like wood-bored, sawed, and nailed. This, then, is the wash in which the great sketch of the White City is executed. It takes every form that is necessary to clothe and ornament the iron skeletons; it suggests rather than simulates stone, and, considered for itself as a building material, it has certain agreeable qualities of brightness and softness.5

22"Suggesting" rather than "simulating", staff would be the equivalent, in architecture, of Mallarmé’s famous injunction, a subtle, ideal "wash" for the artist-architect. Yet this quickly produced, highly plastic ersatz also flagrantly appears as the typical product of turn-of-the-century industrialized America. Consumers in the United States were getting accustomed to a world where commodities were produced outside the home and distributed on a large scale by "invisible" forces. Shifting from a rural, self-sufficient and frugal economy to an urban, incorporated and plentiful way of life, Americans were discovering an environment at once more materialistic and more elusive than what they had experienced in the past. Production now happened in a remote, unseen place, and commodities were brought to consumers (for instance through mail-order) as though by the touch of a "magic wand". Electricity, increasing the whiteness of the white paint and lightening the flimsy domes of the Court of Honour, was itself one such dematerialized commodity. It produced a cold, apparently inextinguishable and above all smokeless light, bereft of all the attributes of the more palpable flame of candles or even gas. It was distributed to homes and public places through a discreet network of wires, bringing the energy to the cities from distant power-plants. All that could be grasped of electricity was the glare it spread over the white surface of the Court of Honour and the sweeping beams of the searchlights over the fairgrounds. Electricity was, in a way, one of the most representative examples of the abstraction undergone by material culture in fin de siècle America. This would explain why fair-builders and fair-goers insisted so much on separating White City from "grosser prosperity" and on contrasting the ideal with the material. Contrasts here again served the reassertion of order in what could be felt as a diffuse and threatening world of intangibility. For commentators used to a system of values opposing the ideal and the material, electricity was a strange hybrid. Most felt that its odourless, colorless, intangible qualities made it an object of the ideal. Yet it was also deeply embedded in the commercial side of life. If indeed it was a symbolic as well as literal power, electricity could readily put its visual potential to the service of business. A few years after White City hovered in all its glory over Lake Michigan, New Yorkers would discover, at the corner of Fifth avenue and 23rd street, a six-story tall electric sign praising the "57 Varieties" of Heinz pickles. Just as Dorothy and her friends discovering the "wizard" behind the screen, America seemed to have passed onto the other side of the staff wall, from the Thousand and One Nights onto the Fifty-Seven Varieties.

  • 6 In the 1920s, Sullivan, whose Golden Door in the Transportation Building was the only colorful elem (...)

23In the wake of Sullivan’s denunciation of Burnham’s conservative architectural preferences,6 White City was read by many historians as a regrettable relapse into European neo-classicism, while modernity was to be found rather in the more subversive and innovative Midway Plaisance. This opposition added itself to the long series of contrasts formulated by contemporary commentators. It is important, however, to see the Columbian Exposition as a whole made of complementary or even analogous parts. White City ostensibly embodied the values of a class aspiring to racial, cultural and political hegemony, and acted as the screen onto which the dreams of the (white) nation could be projected. Yet it was not entirely of the past, and it was not entirely a Utopia. In many ways, White City was defending the same principles as the business-minded Midway Plaisance. When electricity illuminated its domes, White City emerged in the night as something that could be read as a beacon of modem times, an electric sign, exposing but also advertising the country’s many-faceted power.

Top of page


Bancroft, Hubert Howe, The Book of the Fair, Chicago, San Francisco: The Bancroft Company, 1893.

Baum, L. Frank, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Chicago and New York: George M. Hill Co., 1900.

Baum, L. Frank, The Art of Decorating Dry-Good Windows, Chicago: Show Window Puhb. Co., 1900.

Barker, Barbara, "Imre Kiralfy’s Patriotic Spectacles: 'Columbus, and the Discovery of America' (1892-1893) and 'America' (1893)", Dance Chronicle, 17 (2), 1994, 149-78

Brentano’s Views of the City of Chicago, New York: Brentano’s, 1892.

Culver, Stuart, "What Manikins Want, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Art of Decorating Dry Goods Windows", Representation, 21, Winter 1988, 97-116.

Douglass, Frederick, Introduction to The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Afro-American’s contribution to Columbian literature, Wells, Ida B. ed., From the reprint of the 1893 edition: Rydell, Robert W. ed., Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Halstead, Murat, "Electricity at the Fair", "A World’s Fair Number", Cosmopolitan Magazine, September 1893, 577-91.

Harris, Neil; Wim De Wit, James Gilbert, Robert W. Rydell, Grand Illusions: Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 1993.

Howells, William Dean, Letters of an Altrurian Traveller, "A World’s Fair Number", Cosmopolitan Magazine, September 1893, 218-32.

Muirhead, James Fullarton, The Land of Contrasts: A Briton’s View of his American Kin, Leipzig: Baedeker, 1893.

Robinson, Charles Mulford, "The Fair as Spectacle", Rossiter, John, History of the World’s Columbian Exposition, New York: Appleton, 1897-1898.

Rydell, Robert W., All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Sullivan, Louis, The Autobiography of an Idea, New York: Press of the American Institute of Architects, 1926.

"The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893" project, Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of Technology: <>.

Trachtenberg, Alan, The Incorporation of America. Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, New York: Hill and Wang, 1982.

Van Brunt, Henry, "Architecture at the Columbian Exposition", Century Magazine, May 1892, 81-99.

Van Meter, H. H., The Vanishing Fair, Chicago: Literary Art Company, 1894.

Top of page


1 "Lighting up the White City", July 3rd 1893.

2 Harper’s Weekly, 8/19/1893 and 11/04/1893.

3 "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us" John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1630), Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbaco, eds., The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985, 89-92.

4 Kiralfy was to take up Burnham’s work in a 1908 show in London. In his memoirs, he describes what reads as mere plagiarism if compared to the Chicago World’s Fair: "One night I lay awake in bed, and as if by magic, I saw stretched out in my mind’s eye, an imposing city of palaces, domes, and towers, set in cool, green spaces and intersected by many bridged canals. But it had one characteristic which made it strangely beautiful.... This city was spotlessly white. I saw it all in an instant and the next day I had jotted down the scheme of what London has learned to know as the 'White City'" (Kiralfy, "My Reminiscences," published in Strand Magazine 1909).

5 Bunner, H. C., "The Making of the White City", Scribner’s Magazine, October 1892 (emphasis mine).

6 In the 1920s, Sullivan, whose Golden Door in the Transportation Building was the only colorful element in the White City, claimed in his Autobiography of an Idea that the Fair set the course of American architecture back "for half a century from its date, if not longer" (325).

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Columbian Illuminations.
Credits Courtesy of the Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology <>
File image/jpeg, 240k
Title Fig. 2. The Victory of Faith, engraving after the painting by StGeorge Hare, circa 1890.
Credits Courtesy of the Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology <>
File image/jpeg, 235k
Top of page


Bibliographical reference

Hélène Valance, « Dark City, White City: Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, 1893 », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 431-443.

Electronic reference

Hélène Valance, « Dark City, White City: Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, 1893 », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 22 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Hélène Valance

Université Paris 7

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals