"I welcome the celebration you are now beginning. It is timely not only
because it marks
a century of accomplishment, but it comes at a time when the world needs nothing so much
as a better mutual understanding of the peoples of the earth"
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
An exposition which celebrated the centennial of Chicago, themed on The Century of Progress. It showcased future technologies and demonstrated to Americans what they could be capable of. At least, as much as it is possible to define humans by the progression of their science and technology.
From May 27 to November 1, 1933, the interest of a considerable part of the civilized world
is focused upon 424 acres of land that lie along the shore of Lake Michigan, edging Chicago.
A little while ago this site was placid lake. Now, shimmering beside the water, a dream city
is risen. It lights the sky with splendour, yet soon will disappear and be merely memory.
The event was particularly timely and poignant because it was held in the depths of The Great Depression, aiming (unofficially, at least) to show that there was, perhaps, some light at the end of the current dark economic tunnel. The World's Columbian Exposition of a few decades previous portrayed America as the product of its past: focusing with a fondly nostalgic and sentimental eye on the methods and traditions of the last century. The 1933 fair went the opposite way, encouraging grand (and comforting) visions of the future that awaited - drawing attention away from the current rather bleak situation - providing Americans with a source of pride and at the same time, reassurance.
As two partners might clasp hands, Chicago's growth and the growth of science and industry
have been united during this most amazing century. Chicago's corporate birth as a village,
and the dawn of an unprecedented era of discovery, invention, and development
of things to effect the comfort, convenience, and welfare of mankind, are strikingly associated.
The fair spanned over four hundred acres of (mostly landfill) land on the shores of Lake Michigan, and received more than 48 million visitors in the two years it was open. Originally it was to be open for 150 days then closed and dismantled; its immense popularity caused it to be reopened in May 1934, remaining until the end of October.
The true international character of the Exposition is indicated by the dramatic and exotic
displays from foreign nations. In response to the invitation of the United States many nations
are participating officially while others are represented by some phase of their industrial,
social, or cultural life.
Many thousands of exhibits were displayed at the fair, in many categories including art, science, architecture, technology, and accomplishments of individual countries; each that attended had their own display areas. These countries included Italy, Mexico, Great Britain, China and parts of Scandinavia. Many individual companies had their own displays as well, some in representation of their country of origin.
Here in the making, through years of financial crisis, was a several million dollar public
enterprise going forward steadily along lines not experienced in the history of our national
expositions. A Century of Progress was completed without one cent of taxation being imposed
upon an already heavily burdened citizenry.
A Century of Progress was the first international event to be paid for entirely by private funds. Corporate sponsors and a handful of the wealthiest citizens of Chicago paid for the show - contrast this to the Columbian Exposition which relied heavily on grants from various government agencies. A Century of Progress was actually also a non-profit organisation set up purely to "[hold] a World's Fair in Chicago in the year 1933".
Bold splashes of colour seem almost articulate with the spirit of carnival, a flaming expression
of fun and frivolity which is of the very essence of a Fair. "It would be incongruous
to house exhibits showing man's progress in the past century in a Greek temple of the age
of Pericles, or a Roman villa of the time of Hadrian,"
Aside from the individual exhibitions presented by the various participants, there remained the core site, which was designed as a model city of the future with clean lines and a 'hi-tech' style. Virtually all the constructions contained some element of reaching upwards, and all incorporated a marked focus on colour, new lighting concepts and the idea of movement and ascension to new heights. Whereas the Columbian Exposition conveyed its message through murals and relief designs on the outside of the buildings, for the most part the constructions at A Century of Progress did so entirely with use of form and colour.
The ascension theme was exemplified by the General Motors building with its gold-coloured concrete finger pointing to the sky, and especially the "Sky Ride", which was both an amusement ride and a means of transportation at the site. It consisted of two latticed towers 1850ft apart, which at the time were the tallest structures in Chicago. Suspended by wires 210ft above the lagoon that divided the site, glass-sided cable cars (called "Rocket Cars") would carry passengers across, commanded by certified pilots. Each of the two towers also had an observation deck at the top. This was reached by the "Skyride" elevators, which made the 628ft trip in less than a minute.
Many attractions and artefacts of various novelty were shown at the 1933 World's Fair, and more had been added by its conclusion in 1934. Several of these came from manufacturing companies, including possibly the largest thermometer ever, The Great Halvoline Thermometer: a 200-foot tower with neon temperature gauges on its three equally-spaced faces (though probably not a world record because strictly speaking it was not actually a thermometer - it was lighting, controlled by a master thermometer). Many of the attending companies demonstrated their production processes and new products to the attendees - including the infamous Dymaxion Airflow - a hugely ambitious (and esoteric) car designed by Buckminster Fuller, who also premiered the Dymaxion House at A Century of Progress. Several glorified workplaces were constructed at the site including the GM building which incorporated an entire Chevrolet production line, and the Hollywood section of the fair which included soundstages, broadcasting studios and several outdoor sets on which motion pictures were filmed daily.
Mindful of the forward-looking spirit of the World's fair of 1933, most of the countries
participating have blended, in interesting and dramatic fashion, modern day scientific
accomplishments with the ancient arts. Nine nations are exhibiting officially in response
to the President's invitation; four more are displaying their arts, sciences, industries or
Many countries from all over the world responded to the invitation from FDR to present their cultures at the fair. These countries included Japan, Italy, Sweden, Egypt, Czechoslovakia and China. Many constructed their pavilions in demonstration of their typical architectures, and inside displayed artefacts and presentations of their respective ways of life. China's exhibits included a precise replica of a seven-storey temple from that country. It stood 50 inches high, and was carved out of a single block of jade. Even with the work of many individuals, the model took more than 10 years to complete.
A Century of Progress was conceived and created to meet your tastes, however varied
they may be. On the one hand, science beckons to serious interest, and, on the other,
fun and carnival crook inviting fingers.
It was no coincidence that the 1933 World's Fair was held on the 40th anniversary of Chicago's previous World's Fair. Then, as now, many had a passing interest in astronomy; around the time the fair was to be held, astronomers were measuring distances to various objects in the universe. During these studies, they found the Arcturus star system to be 40 light years away and it was decided to incorporate this into the opening of the fair (yes, I know it's actually 36 light years away but measurements were less accurate then, and it's close enough, ok?). One of the many new technologies created around the time was photocells, and in demonstration, one was used to turn on the lights at the opening of the fair. Both of these ideas on their own, while captivating to the enthusiast, were insufficient to draw the attention of the general public; so they were combined. What was basically done was a telescope was pointed at Arcturus, and the other end focused on a photocell. Once it had gathered enough 40-year-old light (which left Arcturus when the last World's Fair was at Chicago in 1893), it tripped the switch that turned on the lights for the fair's opening ceremony.
The Twelfth Street Entrance is the main gate to a land of magic, education, thrills and
entertainment. New buildings, sixteen picturesque villages, transplanted to the shore
of lake Michigan from Ancient Europe, from the mysterious east and from historic times
in this country, unique water spectacles built out over the lagoons, great additions to the
scientific and industrial exhibits, a new Midway built along the island beach on the lake side,
every spectacle on the Exposition grounds enlarged and improved, the World's Fair
of 1934 will seem a different place to those who saw it last year.
Visitors to the 'New' Chicago World's Fair saw a number of new displays and attractions, including the largest fountain in the world which adorned the centre of the site's lagoon. Entire sections of the fair were given over to precise reconstructions of villages from various participating countries; a total of sixteen villages were constructed, carbon-copied from such locations as the Black Forest, Tunisia, Sahara and Ireland. Plaster casts were actually taken of buildings in the country of origin to add to the accuracy. The Black Forest village even had an attendant air conditioning plant so that snow and ice could cover the town.
More new buildings and displays featured in the other areas of the fair, including a new factories constructed by Chrysler and Ford which showed many aspects of their automobile design and manufacturing processes. Further, the entertainments were augmented with new open-air concert facilities: a half-domed open-air theatre was constructed, set out into the lagoon. Watched by audience stalls on the shore, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performed daily for the public.
A Century of Progress considered two things in planning the types of building construction.
First, here was a city built for 150 days of life, not for the 30 years that is the anticipated
life of a modern building. Second, in construction as well as in architecture, it was
intended that here should be a huge experimental laboratory, in which home builders and
manufacturers can study, and from which they might borrow for their buildings of the
This was a nodeshell. Due to disagreeing sources, minor errors may be abound here and particularly on the details of the 1934 fair, on which there is little information. Please /msg me with corrections, or stuff I should include.
Italicized text in w/u taken from online publication of parts of the Official Guide Book of the Fair 1933, via <http://hometown.aol.com/chicfair/index.html> and accompanying pages.
- Brooks, Monica G.; "The Good Housekeeping Stran-Steel House
Chicago World's Fair, 1933";
- Murray, Elizabeth; Healey, Erin; Hengl, Suzanne; "1933 Chicago World's Fair: A Centry of Progress";
- Miles, Kathy; Peters, Charles F.; "Starlight sets off 1933 World Fair";
- Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago; "Streamlining Hits the Road";
- (Author unknown) "Streamliners";
- Network Chicago; "A Break in the Clouds:
Chicago's 1933 World's Fair";
- (Author unkown) "A Century of Progress International Exposition
- Tryon, Dean G.;"1933-1934 World's Fair";
- Chicago Historical Society; "Century of Progress";
- (Author unknown) "The Chicago World's Fair of 1933"
- mPenick@aol.com; "1933 Chicago World's Fair-'A Century of Progress'"