In interviews, Erik Larson has said that the most incomprehensible part of The Devil in the White City for modern readers is why Chicago wanted to host the World’s Fair so badly. One answer to this question is that Chicago wanted to prove itself to New York and other established American cities. In the 21st century, Chicago has a reputation as a great American city, full of rich culture and history, but in the 1890s, this wasn’t quite the case. Chicago was one of the largest cities in the country, but it was more than two hundred years younger than New York City or Boston. More importantly, most of the wealthy families in Chicago made their money from slaughterhouses — not exactly a glamorous way to get rich. By hosting the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago wanted to show that it had its own unique culture and spirit, that it wasn’t just a “dirty place.” In order to make a good impression on the rest of the country, Chicago newspapers often omitted information about setbacks or failure, so that the Fair would seem as successful as possible.
At the same time that Chicago was using the World’s Fair as a vehicle for competing with New York City and other major Eastern cities, the United States as a whole was trying to assert its power to Europe, the cultural center of the Western world. The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris had been a great success, and Americans wanted to “top” the architectural achievement of that fair – the Eiffel Tower — this was what inspired George Ferris to design the Ferris Wheel. More generally, though, America’s architectural competition with France was only one part of its general competition with Europe. The United States was still just a little more than two decades out of the Civil War, and though its economy was growing rapidly, it still lagged far behind the massive European empires of the time — the British Empire, for instance, controlled one fifth of the world’s population. Through a successful and impressive World’s Fair, the United States hoped to send a message that it was a major architectural power, a major technologically power, and even a major military power. (Only five years after the World’s Fair, the United States used its superior military technology to crush Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American war and to annex Spain’s territories in the Americas.)
Chicago’s civic pride and its patriotism sometimes complemented each other, but often they worked against each other — for instance, architects from Eastern American cities initially refused to work on the Chicago World’s Fair because of their own loyalty to their cities. But ultimately, the World’s Fair was a success because the designers were able to put aside their civic rivalries and work together as Americans. Larson notes that the patriotism that compelled Burnham and his colleagues to complete the Fair is almost inconceivable today. At the same time, late 19th century patriotism arguably took a darker form than it does today. Many of the exhibits at the World’s Fair consisted of humans transplanted from Africa or other “exotic” locations, to be gawked at by Westerners. In many ways, America’s patriotism depended on putting the rest of the world — not just Europe, but non-Western countries — in a demeaning position. The Fair brought out America’s racism as well as its patriotism; indeed, patriotism and racism may be two sides of the same coin. The patriotism at the World’s Fair, then, represents what’s most admirable and awe-inspiring about the late 19th century, but also what’s most outdated and offensive about it.
Civic Pride and American Patriotism ThemeTracker
Civic Pride and American Patriotism Quotes in The Devil in the White City
So far the year had been a fine one. Chicago’s population had toppled one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York.
Though Chicago was rapidly achieving recognition as an industrial and mercantile dynamo, its leading men felt keenly the slander from New York that their city had few cultural assets.
The exposition was Chicago’s great pride. Thanks mainly to Daniel Burnham the city had proved it could accomplish something marvelous against obstacles that by any measure should have humbled the builders.
As Wright’s academic star rose, so too did Sullivan’s. Burnham’s fell from the sky. It became re rigueur among architecture critics and historians to argue that Burnham in his insecurity and slavish devotion to the classical yearnings of the eastern architects had indeed killed American architecture. But that view was too simplistic, as some architecture historians and critics have more recently acknowledged. The fair awakened America to beauty and as such was a necessary passage that laid the foundation for men like Frank Lloyd Wright …
The fair’s greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. It primed the whole of America — not just a few rich architectural patrons — to think of cities in a way they never had before.