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America's History in the Making

A Growing Global Power

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with David Cope.

David Cope is a retired social studies teacher from Titusville High School, where he taught the Columbian Exposition for the past twenty years. More recently, Cope served as historical advisor for World's Fair documentaries. He was interviewed on location at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

Q: What was the 1893 World's Fair?

Cope: First of all, it was a reaction to the Paris Exposition. The Paris Exposition had been a huge success; they'd built the Eiffel Tower for it. And the US wanted to do something magnificent like that. They knew that 1892 would be the four-hundredth anniversary of Columbus' landing. Congress then passed a bill to organize the Columbian Exposition. New York, Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago all vied for it. Chicago won, and the organizers started planning the Columbian Exposition. It was our debutante ball. We were going to show ourselves on the world stage for the very first time. Also, we were only forty-some years off of the American Civil War — and we wanted to show the world that we were reunited.

Q: Which was the more important goal at the time for the organizers of the fair: the idea that it was the anniversary of Columbus, or the idea that we were showing off American might?

Cope: The whole idea of Columbus was merely a background. The total action was in the manufacturers' buildings, where we were showing off our industrial might. The organizers created these magnificent buildings around what is called the "Court of Honor," all of them very well planned. Olmstead came in and designed all the landscaping. They wanted to show the world that the United States had class. We were not a frontier; we were not the Wild West any longer. We wanted to show that we were the equal of Germany, the equal of France, the equal of England. And this was a very difficult thing to do, because we had no indigenous architecture that would really show that cultural equality well. So, our architects revived the classical era: They show a lot of Greek temples, a lot of the Renaissance style in the main buildings.

Q: Given the organizers' motives, how accurate was their portrayal of America? How much of it was window-dressing?

Cope: What they were trying to portray was not America at that time. When the exposition built the main buildings, they were built out of steel that was covered with lathing and then staff—which was like papier-mâché—and that surface really gave a false impression of what the United States was like at the time. The interiors of the buildings portrayed America more accurately. People were really seeing the Industrial Revolution: electricity, machinery. That's what America was all about: not the exterior sort of nice, neo-classical appearance. But those exteriors are what everybody took back to their hometowns, and so our banks, our public buildings, began to look like the Columbian Exposition.

Q: What were some of the more prominent industrial and technological innovations on display?

Cope: In the electric building, you saw—for the very first time—the incandescent light bulb being used extensively. The exhibits were lit at night, which had never been done before. They had what were called the "electroliers," which we today would call chandeliers. There were the Otis elevators taking people up and down. Of course, the great invention that everybody marveled at was the Ferris wheel. People really didn't think it was going to work. They thought it would topple over. They had no way to relate to this marvelous, almost three-hundred-foot-high machinery. And its success proved that industrialization had taken hold.

Q: How did you develop this personal connection to the Columbian Exposition?

Cope: When I was teaching, I began to teach the Columbian Exposition to the junior honors class as an example of how the United States showed itself first to the world, and also as an economic factor. I became very involved with the topic and began to research it. And when I began to research, there happened to be a group called Inecom in Pittsburgh that was doing a documentary on the Columbian Exposition. They asked me if I would help with research. Since then, Expo has been a really big seller, and I am doing the follow-up to that. So, I'm constantly researching the Columbian Exposition.

Q: As a World's Fair historian, why do you come to the Field Museum?

Cope: In my research, I got a series of the original guidebooks that visitors would have used at the fair itself. And they talk about the anthropology museum. Now, the anthropology building at the fair itself was not very well catalogued, but the guidebooks did discuss the details of what was in the building. I went online, found the online exhibits, and then contacted the Field Museum to ask if it was possible for me to come and see what was actually there. And I was allowed to come and see the collection. The Field Museum is the largest storehouse of artifacts from the exposition. It holds over thirty thousand artifacts that were shown there. The museum staff is currently cataloging the artifacts and plans to eventually put them online. The information is very accessible here; the staff is knowledgeable; and they really put everything in the context of what you're looking for as a historian. Archaeology and anthropology were really new science at the time of the exposition. In fact, this was the first time they used the term "anthropology." And people were very confused about that terminology. So, to come and actually see these artifacts as a first-time visitor would have seen them really gives you a greater depth of understanding how those people felt.

Q: If the primary goal of the fair developers was to display America's industrial and military might, why did they even bother with something like anthropology at the fair?

Cope: It really wasn't the plan of the Fair Commission initially. What they had planned to do was stick all of the anthropology, archaeology, ethnology-related exhibits in the manufacturers' building as a sideshow. But Fredrick Ward Putnam had taken his role as a mission. He sent out thousands of people to collect all this information, all these artifacts, and suddenly they had too much stuff. So Putnam argued that a separate, large building would be needed to house these exhibits. There were external exhibits too. He wanted to exhibit living Indians. Putnam saw an opportunity to begin a whole new aspect of science in the United States and say, "This is important. Our history is important." And so, that's why we suddenly have this great anthropological site.

Q: What kinds of evidence do we have about the Americans' response to the fair?

Cope: A lot of the evidence that we have documenting the response lies in such things as journals and letters, newspaper articles: A lot of people were responding to the fair at the time. But I think probably the greatest response we have is that people went back to their hometowns and said, "Look, this is what we want: We want our public streets lighted; we want our buildings to look like this; we want art museums; we want historical museums; these are things that are important to us." They wanted all these innovations readily available to them, not just every so many years at a World's Fair.

Q: What kinds of evidence do we have about the world's response to the US experience?

Cope: The world responded really well to the US exhibits. Japanese Emperor Maigi sent his cousin, Prince Yorohito, over to the fair. Yorohito was on a worldwide tour, and Maigi said, "Stop at the World's Fair and look at what the United States is doing in relationship to their Navy." And Yorohito returned and said, "Chicago is the wonder of the world." We expected very adverse reactions from the world. But, shockingly, every article that came back—from England, from France, especially Germany—was pro-United States. This also gave our manufacturers a chance to get their fingers into the worldwide market.

Q: How were the Chinese represented at the fair in light of the Chinese Exclusion Act?

Cope: The Chinese government was extremely upset with the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act, so they literally boycotted the fair. What you had at the fair were artifacts and buildings that were created by the Chinese Americans already living here. They were trying to build up a basis of support for themselves, trying to get away from this very prejudiced attitude that was created by the Chinese Exclusion Act. So the Chinese here in the United States raised the money to buy the concession for the Midway Plaissance.

Q: Why did so many people come to the fair?

Cope: Well, one thing was an adventure. Most people at the time had not been too far away from home. They were going twenty, thirty miles from home at the farthest. There was no concept of vacation at the time; people didn't take off time from work. They worked year-round. And so, they saw this event as an opportunity to see something they had never seen before. The fair did a great job; they had a publicity department that was just pumping all sorts of articles out to the newspapers. The newspapers themselves were having all sorts of competitions to get people to come here, and people got engrossed in the idea of what they called the "White City." They wanted to see this marvelous fair. They knew there were things they had never seen before, things they may not ever see again—and they had to get here to see it for themselves.

Q: How would you compare something like the World's Fair to the Field Museum itself?

Cope: A World's Fair at that time was what a museum is to us today. People really didn't have access to these great artifacts back in the 1890s. Maybe the museum is not as broad, but it certainly focuses in on some topics that people can see maybe for the first time in their lives. This morning I was standing outside, and one little girl was coming into the Field Museum; and she said, "I'm scared; it's so big." And her mother said, "But it's great. Wait 'til you get inside and see the great dinosaurs; wait 'til you see the elephants; wait 'til you see the columns from the Indians." And so I think the museum acts the same way as the fair did then. It brings people into a culture and makes them want to know more about it.

Q: There are so many other things that could have excited you as a historian or as a scholar, why the World's Fair?

Cope: The World's Fair was a turning point. It was an interesting way to segue from the 1800s into the 1900s. It was our country saying, "This is what we have now, and this is what we're going to have in the near future." It was an excellent teaching opportunity to show my students how the World's Fair pushed the United States into the twentieth century.

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