The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was the last world’s fair of the 19th century and one which featured inventions and innovations that illuminated the real beginning of the modern age. This fair is the setting for many of the flashback sequences found in Chris Ware’s graphic novel, “Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth,” which is comprised of sequences that tell the story of Jimmy Corrigan’s eponymous grandfather. By understanding the breadth and scope of the 1893 exposition, readers can better understand both the story of Jimmy’s grandfather and the ways in which that story influences and enriches the present-day sequences. This enormous event was recognition of the ways in which the Western world was going through significant changes, and it is therefore an intriguing backdrop and important metaphor for the changes happening within the Corrigan household. One of the new novelties introduced at the exposition was experimental psychology; knowing this can provide deeper insight into the older Jimmy’s parental conflicts and sense of alienation and the legacy of the Corrigan family.
When the World’s Columbian Exposition opened on May 1, 1893, the city that sponsored it was just 60 years old. Incorporated in 1833 as the “Town of Chicago,” it started with just 300 residents. But Chicago was in the right place at the right time. Immigrants from everywhere were drawn to the “golden funnel” by the Illinois and Michigan canal and “the city’s early simultaneous investments in railroads”; by the late 1800s, Chicago’s population was over one million, and it was the second-largest city in the country (McNulty 5).
As plans began for a world’s fair to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World, Chicago won out over proposals from New York City, Washington, DC, and St. Louis for the privilege of hosting. Julie K. Rose calls it
“the last and the greatest of the nineteenth century's World's Fairs, . . . a reflection and celebration of American culture and society--for fun, edification, and profit--and a blueprint for life in modern and postmodern America” (Welcome page).
The planners enlisted premier American architect Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York City’s Central Park, to lay out the overall design of the exposition grounds. Architects for the individual buildings included Henry Ives Cobb, Richard Morris Hunt, Charles McKim, George B. Post, and Louis Sullivan, who helped design the exposition's buildings in a Beaux Arts style under the supervision of Daniel H. Burnham. Sophie Hayden, the first woman to receive a degree in architecture from MIT, designed the Woman's Building. James Gilbert observes that this famous and influential project allowed the architects to create, “bridges between utopian planning and notions of the perfected city and the actual plans of urban architects, road-builders and transportation designers” (256).
The fair was an enormous undertaking. Most of it was contained within a 630 parcel of reclaimed swampland, bordering Lake Michigan. It was bounded by the Palace of the Fine Arts at the northern end and the stock exhibit and pavilion at the south. The map shows major structures that included buildings devoted to leather, machinery, forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and liberal arts, electricity, mines and mining, transportation, horticulture, and fish and fisheries. The grounds featured a Colonnade with an obelisk near the Administration Building and a “Paris-style” arch that formed a water gate from Lake Michigan into a formal basin. In addition to the Woman’s Building and the Music Hall, the fair included buildings devoted to many of the world’s nations, including the U.S. Government Building (and one highlighting the state of Illinois), as well as the Streets of Cairo, a Turkish Village, a Moorish Palace, a Dutch settlement, an American Indian village, and villages featuring Germany Austria, Algeria, and other nations. Norway sailed a 10th century Viking longboat across the ocean and through the international waterways to join the fair.
The grounds included a pier style, two ponds, and a large lagoon, with a wooded island in its center. The exposition even had the novelty of a moving sidewalk. The exposition was built over the railroad terminal, an appropriate location considering the major role the railroad had in building Chicago itself into a great metropolis.
Most of the buildings were constructed of composite materials, often a mixture of hemp and plaster, and the majority of these temporary structures were lost in a fire after the exposition closed. However, the structure of the Palace of Fine Arts was made more permanent and became the first home of the Field Museum; it is now part of the Museum of Science and Industry complex. The Parliament of Religions Building was constructed outside the Jackson Park site and was planned from the beginning to become the new home of the Art Institute of Chicago after the fair closed.
But even the most temporary structures were designed to help visitors envision the coming century, the bright future of technology and new ideas that was on the horizon, as well as the best traditions that future could draw upon. Gilbert observes:
The Chicago Fair linked the utopian speculations of the late nineteenth century, particularly as expressed by Edward Bellamy and William Dean Howells, to the City Beautiful movement of the first decade of the twentieth century which redesigned cities following the inspiration of the layout of the Fair (256).
The architectural choices were praised by many but condemned by some critics, including one of the designers involved; Louis Sullivan later predicted, “the damage wrought by the World's Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer” (Chicago Historical Society). The exhibition’s designs laid the groundwork for the subsequent “House Beautiful” movement in American architecture.
Altogether, 46 nations presented 250,000 displays, including the first-ever Ferris wheel. It stood 250 feet tall and rotated 36 cars, each able to hold up to 60 people. Philip Jenkins notes:
Arts and Crafts products were much in evidence . . . which were presented as belonging to a kindred tradition, to societies that did not acknowledge any artificial demarcations between art and life, secular and spiritual. Native displays included some of the finest products of the Northwest Coast cultures, including model Haida and Kwakiutl villages. Indian crafts had a special appeal for women's groups, since these represented a distinctly feminine achievement (72-73).
The Chicago Historical Society describes other exhibits as:
curiosities rather than serious displays of technology and progress. They included an eleven-ton cheese and a 1,500 pound chocolate Venus de Milo in the Hall of Agriculture and a seventy-foot-high tower of light bulbs in the Electricity Building (1).
The range of items on display, ideas illuminated, and innovations presented were mind-boggling. Jack Schendler observes that the fair “boosted the morale of Americans during a deep economic depression” (142).
One of the most striking displays was the introduction to the general public of a new science, one that had been gaining a foothold in Europe but which was still relatively unknown in the United States. It was introduced by Hugo Münsterberg, a German physician who later became a pioneer in establishing the fields of Industrial, Experimental, and Clinical Psychology. Münsterberg, Margaret P. Munger writes, “created quite a sensation . . . when he introduced the American public to the new science of experimental psychology with a display of the shiny brass and polished mahogany instruments used in Germany to measure the mind” (Munger 288). The concept of being able to systematically study human psychology, to understand the powerful influences of family, biology, and circumstance in creating personality, was astonishing and to some fair visitors fantastical.
While some scholars have focused on the numerous mechanical inventions unveiled at the exposition, inventions that presaged a new age of technology, the arrival of psychology may have been even more important in thrusting the world into the future. Certainly, in terms of Jimmy Corrigan, it provides ways for contemporary readers to understand the lonely isolation of both grandfather and grandson and to see the psychological connections between the generations.
Selecting the World’s Columbian Exposition as the backdrop for the grandfather’s story allows Ware to introduce subtle irony on many levels. The exposition promised a brave new world, filled with gadgets to ease the drudgery of life and optimism to enjoy the bright future. The Corrigans had little of either. Modern day Jimmy does have a tape recorder, but he plays with it with the same lackluster apathy with which he approaches everything. It does not bring him any closer to his new-found father than his own ancestor was to his.
The fact that this same exposition introduced the tools for self-examination is another subtle irony, since neither Jimmy from the 1890s nor his grandson seems remotely interested in self-examination either. They both miss out on what Münsterberg argues to be the process of self-discovery that made psychology such an exciting new science:
Everybody noticed early whether his memory worked well or badly, how his attention sometimes failed him, how he was able or unable to think out a problem, how fear or hope, and joy or anger, arose in him. He may have been startled by the wonders of his dreams or by the play of his imagination; he may have thought about the limits of his personal talents or about the special gifts of his mind; he may have felt conflicts between his resolutions and his will. In short, the naïve curiosity which turned first to toys and tools, to stones and plants, later turned to memory ideas and fancies of the imagination, to feelings and excitements, to acts of desire and of volition, to talent and intelligence (1).
This actually describes the kind of life both Jimmys live, but only in the physical outlines. Jimmy Corrigan (either present-day or grandfather) may be “the smartest kid on earth,” but he seems supremely uninterested in using his intelligence to find happiness or at least to understand why happiness is so far from his grasp.
Were either to apply the most useful tool introduced at the exposition, both might start by looking long and hard at their relationships with their distant fathers. Yet both exhibit more than a little of what Münsterberg describes as “a certain unwillingness to link theoretical psychology with the practical needs of the community. “Some have the feeling that psychology loses its dignity when it becomes a handmaid of routine life (341)”. Both Jimmy Corrigans have very real practical needs that applied psychology could help meet, yet both avoid looking inward. Perhaps it is part of the Corrigan legacy.
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was an exciting six months of discovery, wonder, and possibility. It happened on the brink of a new millennium, as the world stood poised to step into the unknown. A century later, technology and science have changed that world in ways the exposition’s planners could not have dreamed. Yet grasping the available opportunities requires initiative and curiosity. It is probably not a mistake that the world inhabited by the younger Jimmy Corrigan looks very much like the world of his grandfather. Even their parental figures behave in the same distant way, and neither Corrigan has found a way to move on.
Chicago Historical Society. “The World’s Columbian Exposition.” Retrieved on November 25, 2008, at
Gilbert, James. “Social Utopias in Modern America.” Visions of the Future in Germany and America. Norbert Finzsch and Hermann Wellenreuther, eds. New York: Berg, 2001. 251-273.
Jenkins, Philip. Dream Catchers: How Mainstream America Discovered Native Spirituality. New York: Oxford U P, 2004.
McNulty, Elizabeth. Chicago Then and Now. San Diego: Thunder Bay P, 2000.
Munger, Margaret P. The History of Psychology: Fundamental Questions. New York: Oxford U P, 2003.
Münsterberg, Hugo. Psychology, General and Applied. New York: Appleton, 1914.
Rose, Julie K. “The World’s Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath.” Retrieved on November 25, 2008 from
Schnedler, Jack. Chicago. NY: Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2001.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.