Monday, July 29, 2019

The Far-Reaching Effects of the World's Fairs

You've probably heard that the world isn't fair.  I don't know who said it had to be, but people are obsessed with this idea of "fairness."  Of course, they're less obsessed now than they were in 1939.

1939 was the year of the largest World's Fair on record (by attendance).  World's Fairs were a cultural phenomenon spanning about 150 years, and while we don't think of them much today, we are still affected by the legacies they've left.

The first World's Fair is largely considered to be the 1791 Prague exhibition on industry held by King Leopold II of Bohemia.  (Not to be confused with King Leopold II of Belgium, who reigned in the late 1800s and was better known for being a total fucking monster responsible for the genocide of 10 million people in the Congo.  For more info about what a horrible person King Leopold II of Belgium was, I highly recommend the book King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild.  I came to know about King Leopold II from an infamous picture online of a Congolese man contemplating his child's severed hand and foot, delivered to him as punishment for not meeting a rubber harvest quota.  View at your own risk.)

World's Fairs erupted in popularity, with over 100 fairs or "expos" being held throughout the 1800s.  They reached their heyday in the early 1900s, but tapered off after WWII.  Massive affairs showcasing industry, technology, and architectural prowess, they faded into obscurity, leaving behind monuments taken for granted in the modern era.

The Unisphere was commissioned for the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, NY.
You might remember it from Iron Man 2; Stark Expo 2011 was held in Flushing Meadows.

The reason I have been thinking of World's Fairs is that I recently re-read a book that wasn't, thankfully, about King Leopold II of Belgium.  The book is called Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson, and much like King Leopold II of Belgium, it's terrible.  This book was part of the curriculum for one of my journalism classes and I can't stress enough how much I loathe it.  (The book, not the class.)  It's a sensationalist piece of garbage that's full of wild speculation and unwarranted medical diagnoses from an author wholly unqualified to give them.  The book focuses on two stories in tandem: the story of H.H. Holmes, considered America's first true "serial killer," and the building of the 1893 World's Fair.  

The parts about the fair were dry but informative.  The parts about Holmes were titillating only in their morbidity.  In fact, for our first assignment, here is an abridged version of what I wrote: 

I would like to begin my analysis with a disclaimer: I had already previously read this book, and loathed it.  As such I have a strong bias against the material.  (On re-read, I continue to loathe it.)

The  titular "Devil" referenced in "The Devil in the White City" is H. H. Holmes, the infamous doctor, con artist, and serial killer.  

My opinion of the characterization of Holmes ( Mudgett) is that, frankly, the author did a poor job.  As far as physical description goes, if Larson were taking this class, I wonder if he would not get a lot of feedback reminding him to "show, don't tell."  He is constantly describing Holmes as "handsome" without stating why (unless you count reminding us that Holmes has blue eyes every three pages or so).  We are treated to virtually no physical descriptions whatsoever; the only emblem we see through part 1 is Holmes's surgical valise on page 12.  Aside from this, we get vapid descriptions such as "he was handsome" or "he was charming," and little to substantiate it.  My favorite parts were mentioned above, wherein we see Holmes doing something instead of simply being told how he was.  On page 35 we get a strange physical description written by Capen that actually seems at odds with Larson's descriptions of handsomeness, in which Holmes is said to have thin lips, very wide eyes, a very thin frame, and tiny ears.  On page 63, it states Holmes is "handsome, warm, and obviously wealthy" without any more info (except, of course, reminding us that his eyes are blue).  Again on page 87 Larson states that Holmes is "handsome and clean and dressed well," without elaboration, unless you count the bit about how his gaze is "blue and forthright." And on page 91 Holmes is described as "good-looking, almost delicate, who conveyed an air of confidence and prosperity."  The very next line?  "He had striking blue eyes." 

Holmes isn't the only character who gets this treatment by Larson.  The other main character, Burnham, is constantly being described in such vague terms as "candid, direct, and exuding an air of leadership" (page 94) without explaining how or why.

Frankly a lot of it seems like conjecture on the author's part.  In the incident with the skeleton, for example, the author spins a completely imagined tale in which a young Holmes gazes coolly upon a skeleton and then back at his bullies, causing them to run away in terror.  That little piece of fiction had me rolling my eyes.  (At least the author, in this portion, restrained himself from reminding us that Holmes's eyes were blue.)

I believe if the author had spent half as much time describing the characters as he did the city, it would have been a much better book.  The city of Chicago is treated to beautiful, fantastic, detailed descriptions of color, smell, sound, and movement.  The characters are little more than talking heads.  At first, I thought the lack of descriptions of Holmes's outfits, movements, or voice were because of the author's unwillingness to speculate.  But then we get the skeleton scene and it struck me that the author doesn't mind speculation whatsoever.  (We also get speculation about Mudgett killing animals and keeping skulls as trophies, and speculation about the photography incident.)  The author simply doesn't care to describe any of the people aside from occasional flights of fantasy.  His first and only love is the city of Chicago, which gets ample description and demonstrates an ability to describe, making it all the more frustrating when the author fails to every time he introduces a character.
This book would have better been titled "The Blue-Eyed But Otherwise Nondescript Devil in the White City (Descriptions of Which Account for 60% of the Text)."

It is my belief that this book would never have been made into a best seller if not for the subject matter.  (Who doesn't love a good serial killer story?)  The sad part is, there were a lot of incredible people who attended the fair who (probably) weren't serial killers, including Thomas Edison, Buffalo Bill, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, George Westinghouse, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, Nikola Tesla, Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, Marshall Field, and others.

The other shame of the book is that, if you can get past the piss-poor writing, the book contains a wealth of incredible information on the World's Fair, the accomplishments of which are really overshadowed by Holmes's gleeful killing of bright-eyed young women.

 There is truly a meme for everything.

My familiarity with the concept of a World's Fair, before reading this book, was severely lacking.  In fact, I could think of only two real things associated with it, and both were fictional portrayals.  One was the Stark Expo in the first Captain America movie, where Steve and Bucky go see a flying car, and the other was a short cartoon from my childhood about the World's Fair that was included on a video cassette called "101 Cartoons."  I hadn't thought about that fanciful little cartoon for years but it came flooding back to me when I was reading.  Made in 1938, I was struck by how clearly influenced by the famous 1893 Fair this cartoon was.

The 1893 Fair came on the heels of the Paris Fair of 1889, and there was a lot riding on its shoulders at the time.  Long before the Space Race of the mid-20th century, countries competed in World's Fairs trying to outshine each other with their exhibits.  As the Olympics was to sports, so these fairs were to industry and architecture.  The 1889 Parisian Fair gave us the Eiffel Tower; the 1893 Chicago Fair gave us the Ferris wheel; the 1962 Seattle Fair gave us the Space Needle.

I had had no idea that these monuments had come out of fairs, but indeed they did.  The 1893 Chicago Fair (officially titled "The World's Columbian Exposition") resulted in over 200 buildings being built and drew a crowd of over 27 million people during its six-month run.  (It's also the reason we have Columbus Day.)  Though all the buildings were originally meant to be temporary, some still stand today; Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which is the largest in the Western hemisphere, was originally the Palace of Fine Arts.  To give you some idea of how goddamn big the fair was, here are modern pictures of the Museum of Science and Industry.

 Jackson Park today.

Jackson Park, the vicinity of the fairgrounds, is now a major hub in Chicago, and it was completely revitalized for the fair.  The lagoons were all man-made; the 200+ buildings were all built up in less than a year; Chicago's L train system was expanded and an intramural rail system was built solely for the fair, being one of the first to use electric traction motors.  A/C electricity was showcased, helping push the eventual adoption of A/C over D/C, and this was due for purely bureaucratic purposes: General Electric's final bid for the rights to illuminate the fair was $554,00, and Westinghouse undercut them with a bid of $399,000.  The world, and Chicago in particular, were never the same after the 1893 fair.

And then there's the Ferris wheel, a staple of pretty much every modern fair.  One of dozens (if not hundreds) of proposals, the wheel was suggested as a centerpiece for the Chicago Fair as an answer to the Eiffel Tower.  Also considered were a 9,000-ft. tower you could toboggan off of, a 1,500-ft. log cabin tower with a restaurant on top, and a 4,000-ft. tower with a bungee-jumping car. I'll let the stupidity speak for itself:

"... R.T.E. envisioned a tower four thousand feet tall from which he proposed to hang a two-thousand-foot cable of "best rubber." Attached at the bottom end of this cable would be a car seating two hundred people. The car and its passengers would be shoved off a platform and fall without restraint to the end of the cable, where the car would snap back upward and continue bouncing until it came to a stop. The engineer urged that as a precaution the ground "be covered with eight feet of feather bedding." (Larson, p. 156-7)

The late 1800s were wild. Thankfully for the attendees of the fair, the Ferris wheel was chosen over the bungee car proposal.  It turned out to be the right decision; the wheel raked in a gross profit of $726,805 in 1893 money (about $20.5 million, today).  After the fair, was relocated to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where it was later demolished using dynamite, because people back then knew how to fucking party.

Squint.  That's the original wheel at the 1904 St. Louis Fair, in the far distance.

Nowadays you'd be hard-pressed not to find a Ferris Wheel at a fair, World or otherwise.  Like the Midway, the Ferris Wheel became an iconic staple of fairs thanks to its impact at the 1893 Fair.  (The iconic midway of this fair was the first in which "amusement" attractions were separated from more educational "exhibit hall" features.) 

It would be easy to criticize World's Fairs as opulent displays of wealth, their extravagance a waste of time, money, and brilliant minds.  But I would argue the opposite.  Fairs inspire and influence and educate, and are perhaps one of the most fantastic peaceful achievements of our modern era.  The 1893 Fair provided tens of thousands of men with work in the midst of a massive recession or "Panic," as it was then called, and their work was limited to eight-hour days and included healthcare (to prevent them from unionizing, God forbid!).  The 1893 Fair had far-reaching effects on architecture, industry, technology, and labor that we are feeling even today, even if we don't know about it, and I find that a hell of a lot more interesting than some blue-eyed serial killer.

 There was a ghostly beauty to the construction of the fairs that had nothing to do with serial killers.

Why aren't we still having World's Fairs today?  Perhaps because of globalization.  The world is a smaller place, and you can get a lot of it from the internet.  But I don't know... is the internet really a good substitute for the awe-inspiring, inconceivably grand scales of a World's Fair in real life?  I doubt it.  No, I think that the arguments against World's Fairs are unsubstantiated.  In my humblest of opinions, having competitive, peacetime displays of industrial leadership and technological dominance are a good thing.  Like the Space Race, they have unintended and far-reaching effects that tend to benefit mankind.  (The Space Race gave us memory foam, freeze-dried food, ear thermometers, and a superior ballpoint pen.)

 Another shot of the 1904 St. Louis fair.

So what gives?  I say we should have another World's Fair here in America.  If we didn't in my lifetime I would really feel that I had missed out.  (The last one in America was four years before I was born, in Louisiana.  There was supposed to be one in 1992 in Chicago, but it was cancelled.)  I guess it's true what they say: life really isn't fair.

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