The Columbian Exposition and the Woman's Building, Chicago, 1893

Central court of the Columbian exposition, with view of the back of the statue of the Republic, looking toward the Administration Building, 1893

At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893, a gigantic statue by Daniel Chester French, a 65-foot female figure on a 35-foot base, represented the Republic, and by extension, the nation, as a type--a particular type of womanhood.  We've already seen several different image-types of women, being used to communicate narratives or myths about the country: the captive, the Republican mother, the American girl (beauty or charmer), the True woman, and by the 1890s, the New woman.  Narratives of women's lives were changing, but the Exposition revived the Republican mother because it fit with the overall messages of the fair.  But this image may have been more successful as a symbol of the fair than as a symbol of the lives of women in the end of the century.

In general, the Columbian exposition was committed to displaying American cultural and technological achievements and communicating a sense of national pride and unity.  Although this message was intended as a message to the world community, it was also an attempt to counteract the loss of faith in American institutions that people were experiencing by the late 19th century.  International fairs had been growing throughout the 19th century, and the Columbian was the largest of them all.  No longer a single building, this fair was large enough to be an entire city, which is how most visitors saw it.  And in fact, it became a testing ground for ideas about city planning that would influence town and urban development in the U.S.

Administration Building (designed by Richard Hunt); dome height = 277.5 feet Agriculture Building (McKim, Mead and White)

The basis for the design of the fair was a central court surrounding a lagoon, with buildings in a formal and monumental style.  Neoclassicism was chosen as the primary style.  This made the fair seem to have more in common with Versailles and European baroque cities than with the new styles of architecture developing in the United States.  It was a somewhat controversial decision, given that the fair was dedicated to the celebration of the discovery of America and that it was located in a city believed to be the home of modern architecture.

The central court (the lagoon and its classical and monumental buildings) housed the accomplishments of white European-Americans.  Stretching from the center was a strip of land called the Midway Plaisance.   Here one could find replicas of villages and markets and other gathering places of non-white, non-western ethnic groups. In other words, the center was dominated by Anglo-Saxon male culture, most notably American, while the cultures located at the point farthest from the center were Oceanic, native American-Indian and African.  It may be significant to note that the transitional building, located between the Midway and on the edge of the exposition core, was the Woman’s Building.

Fine Arts Building, 1893 (Charles Atwood) (the only building which still stands, today it is the Museum of Science and Industry)

The fact that the largest buildings were neoclassical and American, and that they were designed with a consistency not seen in the eclectic collection of pavilions representing other countries, allowed the architecture to communicate a message about the new role of America as an imperial power.  Sullivan's Transportation Building, with its golden arched entrance and polychromatic walls, was the single exception to the white walled, classical design of the rest of the central court.

Transportation Building (Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler) illustration from Art and Architecture (The Official Illustrated Publication, 1893)

The Woman's Building

cover, Art and Handicrafts in the Woman's Building, 1893 Sophia Hayden: Woman's Building, 1893

When the managing board of the fair agreed to "allow" women to participate, they created a separate Board of Lady Managers and allocated space for a woman's building.  Upon becoming president of the Ladies' Board, one of the earliest decisions Bertha Palmer made was to insist that the architect of the woman’s building be the winner of a competition open to women only.  She overcame Daniel Burnham’s objections by assuring him that the women entrants would be trained architects.  The winner, Sophia Hayden, had recently graduated from MIT with a degree in architecture but had not yet begun to practice.  This was her first commission and as it turned out, her last.  She had entered the contest at the urging of her friend, another architect with somewhat more experience than she had, but did not hope to win.  She submitted a design based on her thesis project for a fine arts museum in an Italian Renaissance style.  Her design for the fair building included balconies and loggias and was perceived as “light and gay,” in the words of one of the judges, qualities deemed appropriate for a festive event.

Unfortunately, the story goes downhill after that: compelled to reduce the scale of her details because of the size of the building, forced to make changes on short notice and with little time, and operating in the glare of more attention than a new architectural graduate may have wanted, her building was both positively and negatively reviewed by architectural journals for the same reason: it was made by a woman.  Whatever its problems may have been, in comparison with the last-minute, rickety wooden construction which housed the women's pavilion at the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition, this was a far more substantial commitment and building for the display of women's achievements than any fair had previously made.

Woman at the Fair

We might begin by noting that the female visitor to the fair had to contend with walking on muddy paths in her uncomfortable shoes with her dress dragging in the mud.  We might also want to keep in mind the fact that a woman strolling down a city street by herself was likely to be thought a prostitute or loose woman.   Chicago, however, was not entirely similar to other cities at this time.  Because there was a large migrant population, and many of these migrants were women who lived alone in boarding houses, it was far more likely to see women alone on the streets of Chicago than in other cities.  There was even a name for this phenomenon: the "woman adrift."  This was a mixed status: she had a type of independence that was unusual for the time, but she was an easy prey and potential victim, and as such, she threatened the appearance of social order.  But she was visible enough to be a recognized part of Chicago life and the main character in a new type of narrative: the narrative of the woman adrift.
The fair, in many respects, was a grander and more heavenly version of the city shopping district, if one stayed in the center court.  But this was not a shopping district where you bought things; this was a place where you went to look at beautiful views.  A white city, with lights creating dazzling effects at night, and a moving sidewalk, one had only to look and be amazed.  And having entered this otherworldly spectacle, if one continued to wander in this frame of mind, the rest of the fair was a picturesque and atmospheric fantasy.  This may, in fact, have been a viable alternative to the urban experience which women were, for the most part, denied in the city, and as such, it may have made up for the fact that any woman venturing to walk down the more exotic streets of the fair would have faced a multitude of signs advertising the display of exotic sexual women.

Inside the Women's Building

In addition to displays of fine art and crafts, the building hosted a large conference, attended by over 200,000 women.  The most popular session was devoted to clothing and dress reform, although speakers such as Lucy Stone had already given up on the new split skirts.  Speakers weren’t the only people giving mixed messages about women: the entire fair might be seen as a mixed message.  Although the New Woman was beginning to assert her right to a career and to a place in the public eye, the emphasis of the displays in the Women’s Building was on domestic and maternal roles and activities.

How they dressed and how they might have dressed:

high fashion in the 1890s healthy fashion? the American costume

What they saw outside:  Allegorical, classical ideals of womanhood (the "type" of Republican matriarch and the "type" of the virgin explorer of new lands)

Daniel Chester French: statue of the Republic, front view, 1893 F. MacMonnies: The Barge of State (also called the Columbia Fountain)

The Statue of the Republic resembles the Statue of Liberty although the Republic statue lacks the grace of Liberty.  Slightly smaller than Liberty, she was an extremely large statue and an impassive, commanding figure, countered in her imposing majesty by the Barge of State (also called the Columbia Fountain) which was facing her.  Columbia sits on top of a throne, balanced on a barge which is steered by Father Time and rowed by eight female figures representing the arts and the sciences.  Putting them together, we have a myth about the virgin wilderness, the growth of culture, and eventually, the nurturing Republic.

Although the murals inside the Women's building also suggesting an evolution from "primitive" to modern, it was an evolution of very different sort--one which centralized the education of women and one which re-made the allegory in modern fashion.  We will continue with the Fair's allegorical murals of women in the next unit.