Harmon’s Histories: The 1893 World’s Fair launched the Ferris wheel, Cracker Jacks

It was a remarkable Universal Exhibition. He introduced us to the Ferris wheel, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit chewing gum, diet sodas and Cracker Jacks, not to mention expressions like White City and Midway Plaisance.

The 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago (marking, a year late, the 400e anniversary of the landing of Christopher Columbus in the New World) was one of a kind.

The Transportation Building was among the most popular stops. Inside, visitors could see everything from Daniel Webster’s horse-drawn carriage to the bicycle to the sleigh.

Webster’s car has been well restored, showing its “extra strong springs”, necessary for the “horrible roads” of the time. By comparison, President Polk’s car (also on display) was “in such a disgraceful state of decay that it made the viewer wonder why it was preserved”.

They could also see locomotives and carriages from “all European countries” and compare “the relative safety and comfort of foreign systems and ours”.

Then there were the models of steamships and naval battleships, including a massive replica of the ‘unfortunate English cruiser Victoria’. It cost over $50,000 to build and required a staircase so visitors could climb high enough to see the deck of the ship.

The organizers of the fair wanted to surpass their French predecessors who, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, unveiled the sensational tower of Gustave Eiffel to the world. So they launched a call for proposals.

Big Wheel

George Washington Ferris suggested a huge wheel with passenger cars, reaching over 250 feet skyward. The cars could accommodate more than 2,000 people! It was a huge success.

Then there was the beer contest. A Milwaukee company, founded in 1844, presented its product, Pabst Select, to cheers from the judges, who proclaimed it “America’s Best.” After the fair, the brewers renamed their award-winning beer “Pabst Blue Ribbon”.

Meanwhile, Josephine Garis Cochran was showing off her new invention, the automated dishwasher, which she built “in a shed behind her house” with the help of a mechanic named George Butters.

Cochran’s invention was an instant hit, with restaurants and hotels immediately installing his equipment in their establishments.

Cracker Jack popcorn, Wrigley’s chewing gum and Aunt Jemima pancake mix all promoted their new products at the expo.

But the electricity building was perhaps the most popular attraction. President Cleveland flipped the switch to start the massive 3,000 horsepower flux motor that powered the building.

Electrical inventions included lamps, sewing machines, an elevator, and a typewriter.

Now let’s move on to the aforementioned phrases, the Midway Plaisance and the White City.

Midway 1893 – CD Arnold; HD Higinbotham – Project Gutenberg – Official views of the Columbia World’s Fair

The “Midway Plaisance” was an avenue through the fairgrounds specifically designed for amusement, something never before done at a world’s fair.

A few resourceful Missoula newspaper editors quickly appropriated the phrase, using it to jokingly describe Missoula’s red-light district.

The entire fairgrounds and its buildings were built quickly and were only meant to be temporary. So a new invention called an air gun was used to paint buildings a generic white – thus, the “white city”.

There are those who say the “White City” was L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz.”

The Northern Pacific Railroad promoted special fares and accommodations for travelers from Montana and beyond.

Its Grand Central Station in Chicago has been “developed as a hotel, run according to the European plan, with about 200 rooms nicely furnished and each room supplied with hot and cold water, electric lighting, etc.”

It was estimated that 400,000 people attended the exhibition on opening day, with huge crowds every day thereafter. The fair ran from May 1 to October 30, 1893.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula newscaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at [email protected] His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was”, a collection of 46 vignettes of western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.

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