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World’s Fairs and Urban Idealism

The 1909 Plan of Chicago predicted that “Chicago… will become a greater city than any existing at the present time.” This zealous optimism reflected the boundless boosterism of 19th century Midwestern and Western cities generally, and received encouragement from the experience of planning and executing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago’s Jackson Park. As the 20th century progressed, other cities sought out a world’s fair for both booster and pragmatic reasons, like encouraging economic development or funding urban renewal efforts. Most importantly, world’s fairs offered host cities the opportunity to define and market themselves to a global audience, in the process offering ideas on what cities at their best should and might be.

Chicago hosted not only the 1893 exposition but another in 1933-34. Each fair advanced a distinct vision of Chicago’s prominence within American and global culture. At the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Burnham fashioned visions of “The White City” that espoused early ideals of the City Beautiful movement. The 1933-34 Century of Progress International Exhibition celebrated both the centennial of Chicago’s incorporation as well as contemporary advancements in science and technology. Cities like San Diego, New York, and Seattle also organized world’s fairs that celebrated their particular place within American and global culture. World’s fairs thus provided a stage for urban place-making, idealism, and planning that generated and drew upon a rich archive of urban imagery.



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