The Victorian Society in America Summer School in Chicago, Pt. 1: Columbian Metropolis

This is the first of two blog posts reflecting on my experience at the 2017 Victorian Society in America’s Chicago Summer School.

All I Really Want to Know

Witness above my state of mind halfway into the VSA Chicago Summer School. You know– just typical, casual vacation thoughts.

I set out for this highly-anticipated educational adventure on June 14th. A hellacious, weather-delayed 23 hour journey to Chicago allowed me, at the very least, to finally read William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. In my sleepy delirium I may have taken too much from it, but I think it provided a nice amount of beautifully-written backstory for me to feel vaguely acquainted with a city that I’d never visited before. In it, Cronon argues that the intertwined nature of “city” and “country” are well-illustrated within Chicagoland history. One could not exist without the other, and it is therefore misleading to think of them as disparate entities.

Particularly resonant was the book’s structure recalling childhood journeys into the city; I can relate to that, and it got me thinking. Like Cronon, as a child, I had very distinct ideas about what defined a city: Fire-belching smokestacks, panhandlers, police sirens, unfamiliar smells, and huge buildings. Whenever I entered this space, seemingly so different from my suburban stomping-grounds, I found it sensorily overpowering and existentially confusing.

The very same things that I found overwhelming as a child now fascinate me. As I’ve mentioned before, I love cities. It doesn’t bother me that they’re fast-paced and smelly and loud: to me, they feel alive. Cities are made of thousands of moving parts, most important of which are the people.

Reflections of/on/for a city. Photo my own.

At this point in the Summer School, we hadn’t heard very much about the people that populated this city, made it grow at a magnificent rate, toiled and drank and dreamt and died here. Those stories are my favorite stories. To tie in with Cronon, lots of those people came from the “country,” which provided not only raw goods and resources like lumber and wheat, but skills, sweat, votes, and tax dollars. The resulting crowded jumbled mass of rich and poor made social inequality starkly visible, and unavoidably so.

So where does the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition fit into this dynamic? The Fair represented Chicago’s resurrection as a world-class city, literally risen from the ashes of The Great Fire of 1871 and its unfortunate cousin of 1874. Following the upheaval of the previous few decades, which included such devastating events as The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Haymarket Affair and trial of 1886, and a major typhoid epidemic in 1892, it was also supposed to symbolize the tripartite triumphs of science, “order,” and capitalism.

To this end, the Columbian Exposition was built as an engineering marvel. As we would later learn in a lecture by Dr. Diane Dillon of the Newberry Library, it was majestic and awe-inspiring and architecturally important. It was also illusory. The monumental buildings were constructed of plaster and hemp, not built to last. And following the deconstruction of the fairgrounds, dubbed “The White City”, the city’s repressed disorder reemerged in the form of the 1894 Pullman Strike. Famed architect Solon S. Beman designed several buildings at the World’s Columbian Exposition as well as the town of Pullman. Only a few years later he would find himself designing George Pullman’s burial monument, wherein the polarizing industrialist was interred encased in concrete, secure from any desecration at the hands of labor activists or disgruntled employees.

George Pullman burial monument in Graceland Cemetery
George Pullman burial monument at Graceland Cemetery. Photo my own.

Because social discontent was so clearly lurking beneath the surface throughout 1893, how did that impact the experience of the Fair? How did people interact with these sham buildings, with the overtly nationalistic tones of the exhibits, and with each other?

I recently learned about Ellen RichardsRumford Kitchen, an exhibit in the Department of Hygiene and Sanitation at the Fair. There, at a highly popular functional restaurant, thousands of patrons were served “wholesome” meals alongside a great deal of erroneous nutritional information and, as Charlotte Biltekoff argues, presumptive ties between a given person’s food consumption and their moral fiber. This was a bold statement to make in a city where income inequality necessitated consumption of cheap chalk-adulterated milk and mystery meat from meatpacking plants so disgusting they would inspire the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act a few years later, in 1906. So how readily did people accept this message at the Fair? Could working people afford to attend at all? And so we return to my original question- where would those thousands of people relieve themselves, whether they gulped down Pabst Blue Ribbon or medicinal spring water? This inquiring mind wants to know.

Continue to Pt. 2: Innovation, Courage, and a Radical Pop-Up Museum of 1905

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