In Jimmy Corrigan, The World’s Columbian Exhibition serves as an impressive backdrop for a depressing story about Jimmy’s granddad who was left by his dad during a Fair visit. The World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Chicago in 1893, 10 years after the American economy has transitioned from an agriculturally based to an industrialized one. In this period of the American history progress, technology and consumption were increasingly emphasized in the society. The ideology of the World’s Columbian Fair was to diminish the fear of change that existed in the nation by promoting a sense of unity and a sense of pride for great American accomplishments, and promising a better tomorrow. In Chris Ware’s book, The Exhibition and its meaning is reevaluated with a 100 year distance. With this time distance we can see how much of “a better tomorrow” did we achieve and what the real goals of the World’s Columbian Fair were. The Exhibition’s goals of introducing technology into an everyday life and generating a society based on consumption certainly are reached. However, the idea was that this change would improve individual lives; we would lead richer and happier lives. Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. After a century since the World’s Columbian Exhibition, our society is controlled by corporations. Chris Ware emphasizes this by bordering the story about Jimmy’s granddad with images of famous McDonalds arches.
One of the most impressive features of the exhibition was the White City, specially built for this occasion. The White City, that was build at the Jackson Park, took two years to construct. The main buildings were in the Beaux-Arts style, which accentuates logic, harmony, and uniformity. However, all these building were just empty shells inside. Some of the most beautiful frames in Jimmy are drawings of white buildings of the World’s Faire. Nonetheless, Ware often reminds us that these buildings were not meant to last and he often depicts their internal emptiness. Just before he reveals to us that these neoclassical buildings were steel and iron constructions, Ware offers us a project of making a paper house to emphasize the fact that the White City was basically just like a paper house project only on a much larger scale. The buildings were not real and their beauty was an illusion. In reality they were just frameworks of steel and iron rails that were covered with “staff”(plaster-like material) and later painted white to look like marble. The promise of the World’s Fair was short-lived, similarly to the grand buildings of the exhibition that were breathtaking but never meant to last. In Jimmy we see a critique of values promoted during the World’s Columbian Exhibition, that in many ways influenced and determined the direction of society in twentieth century. Keeping all this in mind, the motives for organizing the World’s Exhibition should be reevaluated. Behind all the pride for American achievements, glorification of technology and progress, were “they” just trying to find ways to earn more money?
In the summer of 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exhibition with its White City opened, many factories and banks went out of business, and fear of economic instability was sweeping the nation. Only a year after the World’s Exhibition, the great railroad strike began and would eventually result “in the most destructive civil violence since the Civil War”.[i] However, the World’s Exhibition was not there to address social divide of the time, it was there, in the words of Chauncy M. Depew, “ to celebrate the evolution of man”. The White City was built to demonstrate how far America had come and what it became since its discovery 400 years ago. Its empty buildings displayed marvels of new technology, and thousands of exhibitions offered evidence of progress. They were there to offer hope and promise of a better tomorrow while at the same time encourage the American pride. “Pride in American goods and business, they felt, would be part of the overall plan of encouraging pride in America--and as we will see later, would inspire confidence in the new group of corporate leaders who would shape America in the twentieth century.“[ii]
“Leo Tolstoy, who didn't personally attend, but read about the Exposition in Russian papers, found that the "Chicago exhibition, like all exhibitions, is a striking example of imprudence and hypocrisy: everything is done for profit and amusement--from boredom--but noble aims of the people are ascribed to it. Orgies are better." (qtd. in Rydell, 8) Ironically, Edward Bellamy, the very well-respected man whose utopian ideas were gestured to in theWhite City, believed that the "underlying motive of the whole exhibition, under a sham pretense of patriotism is business, advertising with a view to individual money-making."[iii] For historian David Nasaw, the fairs “ were paeans to progress, concrete demonstrations of how order and organization, high culture and art, science and technology, commerce and industry, all brought under the wise administration of business and government, would lead inevitable to a brighter, more prosperous future.”
Who would not believe that a better future is around the corner when faced with the beauty of white “marble” illuminated with thousands of light bulbs? Can we imagine how an average worker from 1893 felt in a White City? Wouldn’t we feel pride for our nation’s achievements? America managed to reach the standards of Old World in just 400 years; it was no longer a little brother. America became an equal, if not better, and was ready to display its superiority at the World’s Exhibition.
For some, the Exhibition represented only the white part of the America. In a view of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, author, and statesman, the White City was “ a whited sepulcher.” In his opinion the difference between the Court of Honor, with its symmetrical plan and white buildings, and the Old World customs and folkways, with numerous people in their traditional costumes, among them the African-Americans, Asian, and Indian, served to “… shame of the Negro, the Dahomians are here to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage.” However, the civilization celebrated in the White City that was contrasted against the “ repulsive savage” was build by hard work of African-Americans. Nonetheless, they were excluded form the Exhibition. “American blacks stood beyond the gates, petitions for an exhibition, a building, or a separate department all rejected. They were denied participation in the Fair, in its administration, on the National Commission, even on the construction force and ground crews.”[iv] “The evolution of man” that was celebrated in the World’s Columbian Exhibition was only for the white Americans.
[i] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[iv] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America